Americans love a remake. We devour reincarnations of movies, television, music, even bars—especially if those bars are proximate to movies, television and music. So when the fabled Hollywood hangout, The Formosa Café, reopened in late June after a fraught few years between owners, management and neighborhood groups petitioning for its protection, Los Angeles was ready to eat it up. Here was a slice of West Hollywood that hadn’t yet been plastered over, bulldozed or gutted. Here was some living history, a place whose booths and bar stools had cradled the rarified bottoms of Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Elvis, Brad Pitt and the Beastie Boys. Here was something that had not only been saved from the scythe of American progress, but lovingly restored.
The Formosa’s new interior, renovated by the 1933 Group (which also rebuilt the 1941 barrel-shaped Idle Hour and the Prohibition-era Highland Park Bowl), is nothing short of stunning. Red brocade walls, tasseled Chinese lanterns, the meticulously renovated early 20th-century 800 series train car, a 1937 movie prop bar that was repurposed first by old school Chinatown restaurant Yee Mee Loo—every detail of the $2.4 million restoration is thoughtful and marvelous. But physical restoration cannot stand in for spiritual restoration. At least not when the mantle of an icon looms as large as The Formosa’s.
On a recent summer evening, the main room and roof bar began to fill just as the sun dipped beyond the Hollywood Hills. Wontons in chile-garlic sauce and miniature Martinis were ordered—part of the “two Martini lunch” special, which can be requested “Jack Lemmon style,” i.e. one large martini. A threesome dressed for the occasion in old-fashioned hats and embroidered smoking jackets sat in Marilyn Monroe’s booth. Mai Tais and blue Yee Mee Loos were served along the stretch of copper-wrapped counter, staffed by two bartenders who seemed to bear the weight of the hallowed rail rather lightly—or at least aloofly. A customer who claimed to be a regular way-back-when kept pointing to the dozens of headshots lining the walls, chiding employees with the refrain, “Do you know who _____ was?” Over the course of 30 minutes, he filled in that blank with everyone from Harry Dean Stanton to Charles Bukowski. His audience recognized not a one.
The risk of a remake is that it may never feel quite as alive as its predecessor. At The Formosa, the lack of animation is palpable, an irony brought into sharper relief—perhaps created in part—by the sheen of such faithful resurrection. The food, drinks and service are unremarkable, but they were never the point. The point was a feeling of possibility—the delicious prospect that a bartender might tell you a story, the slim chance that a rarified bottom might plop down in the seat next to you—that seems to have faded.