Formosa Cafe: Dining Review

THR-Formosa Cafe-Food inset-Photographed by Victoria Wall Harris-H 2019
Victoria Wall Harris
This classic has been satisfyingly restored.

The Hollywood Reporter reviews the reopened chinoiserie legend that lured stars James Dean, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Humphrey Bogart and offers Taiwanese-cuisine hits and great drinks.

Resurrecting a classic restaurant is tricky business. Too much fealty to the past may result in tone-deaf earnestness; too much irreverence risks alienating nostalgists. West Hollywood's now-80-year-old Formosa Cafe, born as an arch confection, had been betrayed by a previous renovation and management cycle. Now the preservation-minded hospitality group led by Bobby Green (Idle Hour, Highland Park Bowl, the upcoming Tail o' the Pup relaunch) has completed a two-year, $2.4 million recovery effort to commendable effect. While some of Green's non-historic projects, like Sassafras Saloon on Vine, require an exceptional tolerance for twee, at the Formosa a nuanced sense of vintage and contemporary kitsch reigns.

The rehabilitation doesn't just hit all the right chinoiserie pleasure points. This early exemplar of thematic dining — which lured Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart, Lana Turner and James Dean — attempts to atone for having long peddled an oblivious Oriental minstrelsy of Dragon Ladies and Fu Manchu beards. For its far more multicultural 2019 demo, there's a new headshot gallery (curated by Oscar-nominated filmmaker and preservationist Arthur Dong) of Golden Age Chinese-American entertainers, a rejoinder to the extant rows of white stars' framed mugs that have long resided there. Meanwhile, the soundtrack features selections like a Mandarin cover of the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."

David Kuo of Santa Monica's Little Fatty has been brought in to rethink the Formosa's Chinese American food through a modern Taiwanese lens. It's astute; the place's name, after all, references the island state, not the mainland. Once upon a less-worldly time, the Formosa advertised “Cantonese dishes for the gourmet” and “American dishes for the particular.”

Kuo has created a trio of not-to-be-missed hits: the walnut shrimp (addictively crunchy amid shaved radishes; $20), the braised pork belly (dissolve-on-the-tongue delicate; $20) and the orange chicken (a house sauce conjures a deep, rich burnt citrus flavor; $15). Then there's the rest of the menu — a precipitous drop-off, from the mediocre vegetarian egg rolls (all credit due, they're piping hot and super crisp) to the forgettable XO fried rice.

It's stolid fare best utilized as stomach-lining for the top-notch tiki drinks, including confident renditions of a Singapore Sling, a Mai Tai and a Yee Mee Loo. (The latter namesake electric-blue cocktail got its name from the legendary, long-gone Chinatown establishment whose ornamented bar Green has repurposed on-site.) So what if, say, the scallion pancakes are nothing but grease traps with little discernible sense of the minced onions? The cooking is arguably as good as it needs to be when the goal is to sate yourself on the intense glamour of the atmosphere. At times, the customers are so inspired, they dress for the occasion in qipao. An enjoyable night dining out isn't only about the food.

7156 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; 323-850-1009. Full bar, daily, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Recommended: Pork belly
Best Table: The chinoiserie booths with views of the newly installed vintage Red Line trolley.

This review is based on multiple visits. Reservations are made under another name. Meals are covered by The Hollywood Reporter.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.