This post is Part One of a series of posts I will be doing regarding Clark Gable’s favorite restaurant in Hollywood, The Brown Derby.
The Brown Derby Restaurant was a Hollywood standard. In its heyday, it was as famous and as symbolic of Hollywood as as the Hollywood sign or Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I don’t think I have read a single book on a Hollywood star yet in which the Brown Derby wasn’t mentioned, even in passing. A 1932 article described it as such:
The Brown Derby is more than a Hollywood institution. It is not only a place to meet and talk over contracts and plan divorces and further romance under the bronze derby-hatted lights, it is also a place to eat. It is famous both as the spot where Jim Tully battled Jack Gilbert and the spot where you can get Special Hamburger brought sizzling to the table, in copper frying pans. It is a place where the stars gather at lunch time and after premieres to be seen–and to relish some caviar.
There were actually four Brown Derby restaurants in Los Angeles–sadly, all are now demolished. The original was located on Wilshire Boulevard. Opened in 1926, it was known for its dome shape and for its proximity to the extremely popular Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel. There was also one in Los Feliz and one in Beverly Hills.
The location on Vine Street near Hollywood Boulevard, the second one built, was the one that figured most prominently in the golden age of Hollywood. Opened on Valentine’s Day 1929, it was the place to see and be seen in Hollywood. It wasn’t a fancy restaurant by any stretch, serving basic fare at decent prices. But the stars flocked there in droves. It can be said that the Vine Street Brown Derby was at least partially responsible for making the intersection of Hollywood and Vine the heartbeat of filmdom. Located among radio studios, theaters and just a short drive from studios, it was the prime location for stars to have lunch and a quick meeting.
From an article titled “Star Grazing,” June 1939:
Stop by [the Vine Street Brown Derby] at noon or at dinner time and you’ll see Tyrone Power, for example, eating his favorite boiled brisket of beef with horseradish sauce and a glass of milk. Janet Gaynor will be ordering Turkey Derby, a creamed speciality. You’ll see Eddie Cantor demolishing hamburger steak, dry, no onions, Al Jolson bolting chicken chow mein and American tea, Claudette Colbert going in a big way for chicken hash Somborn. Claudette never has to diet.
Or perhaps you’ll find Jack Benny and Mary Livingston enjoying a snack between radio rehearsals. Both will probably be ordering ham, but his must be Westphalia and hers must be Virginia. Numbered among the Derbys’s best customers, they collect a lot of “gags” around the place. They even write radio scripts there!
It sounds almost like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Like you would just walk in and see all these beloved classic stars any time of day! The restaurant was certainly more than just a place to eat…it was a place to see and be seen.
Jon Hall was signed for The Hurricane by Sam Goldwyn right there in a Derby booth. Marie Wilson and George Raft were both discovered there. Lupe Velez and Johnny Weissmuller had a regular Friday night date at the Derby. John Payne wooed Ann Shirley there. A famous episode of I Love Lucy was filmed there, with Lucy stalking William Holden. And oh yes, Clark Gable proposed to Carole Lombard in a Derby booth.
Bob Cobb, part owner of the restaurant and husband of actress Gail Patrick (Carole’s sister in My Man Godfrey, among other roles), invented the Cobb Salad at the Brown Derby after hastily throwing leftovers onto a plate late at night in the kitchen. It became a menu staple and now is common everywhere.
Also famous on the menu: their grapefruit cake, pot roast, Spaghetti Derby, chicken a la king, chili, onion soup, paprika chicken, and chiffon cake. Norma Shearer’s favorite was the lamb chops, George Raft liked steak with lots of ketchup, Bob Montgomery ate his weight in cheesecake, Adolph Menjou favored pate de foie gras, Gloria Swanson munched on creamed chicken hash, arlene Dietrich was partial to the beef stew, Boris Karloff would often order only milk and several pastries, Eleanor Powell loved the Turkey Derby, John Barrymore favored pancakes with sausages, and Charlie Chaplin would usually order a steak but only eat four bites. Steamed clams were immensely popular, counting Wallace Beery, John Boles, Victor McLaglen, Bill Boyd and George Bancroft among the fans.
While these stars were chowing down, they had quite the ambiance. The walls of the Brown Derby were famously covered in caricatures of famous people. In 1929, a young man named “Vitch” started sketching whomever walked in the door in exchange for some hot soup and coffee. Soon, he was famous for his work and the walls were covered with every big name in Hollywood. As the years went on, so did the tradition and Vitch had many successors. You weren’t somebody until you were immoritalized on the wall at the Derby!
In 1939, Bob Cobb commented,”Clark Gable has to have his coffee just right and Alice Faye’s boiled eggs can’t be left on too long. Gary Cooper’s fried chicken must be dry rather than greasy. And that’s the way they get ’em. They get ’em that way even though we have to tear the kitchen apart.
“Stars are particular about their food because they know what good food is. Stars are used to having things the way they want them and that;s how we plan to have them. But if we didn’t the stars wouldn’t fuss. Most of them are the nicest folks on earth from a restaurant man’s point of view. No, they’d simply leave the food, exit smiling and not come back. Who’d blame them? Not me!”
For Clark’s fortieth birthday in 1941, Carole threw him a big surprise party at the ranch catered by the Brown Derby and featuring Clark’s favorite items on the menu: corned beef hash, pot roast, baked beans and orange chiffon cake.
Their second anniversary party that year was also catered by the Brown Derby, who delivered the food to the set of They Met in Bombay.
And on January 11, 1942, Carole’s final full day in Los Angeles, she and her mother ate lunch at the Brown Derby while out shopping for their trip.
What became of this beloved Vine Street staple? It was destroyed by a fire in 1989 and a W Hotel was built on the spot a few years ago. I took a picture of the location when I was in Hollywood:
In part two of my Brown Derby restaurant series, I’ll be cooking Clark’s favorites from the menu, thanks to The Brown Derby Cookbook!
See below for more pictures of stars grazing at the Derby: