I Love Lucy, The Cobb Salad, and The Golden Age of Hollywood, What do they all have in common? The Brown Derby.

The Origin of The Brown Derby

The Brown Derby was a Los Angeles, California-based Restaurant Chain that launched in 1926. They wanted to create good and authentic food at a good price. The restaurant quickly became well known by its elite Hollywood customers and peculiar architectural shape. Anyone who was anyone would be heard muttering the words “Meet me at The Derby.” Its primary location was in Wilshire, California but later spread out to different spots such as Rodeo Drives in Beverly Hills and Los Feliz Boulevard. The Derby creator, Herbert Somborn, was a film director at the time. He was married to legendary actress Gloria Swanson. Somborn created the famous restaurant over a bet with screenwriter and friend Wilson Mizner, who challenged saying: “If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat.”

Screenwriter Wilson Mizner was the one who originally named the restaurant “The Brown Derby.” He teamed up with Herbert Somborn and Jack Warner, President of Warner Brothers, who financed the operation. The architectural choice of making The Brown Derby shaped into a hat was to attract people passing by walking or by car. They continued by opening more locations and welcoming more stars. 

Exterior: The Brown Derby Hollywood

Who was spotted at The Brown Derby?

The second location opened on Valentine’s Day in 1929 on the corner of Hollywood. This location quickly became the hot spot for stars since it was so close to movie studios. Herbert Somborn had a rival who was a cook at a burger stand on Wilshire and La Brea. His name was Robert Cobb. Somborn was impressed by Robert Cobb’s knowledge of the restaurant business so he decided to hire him to manage the Brown Derby. Cobb was good at catering to the strange tastes of Hollywood stars. He made a grapefruit cake for gossip columnist Louella Parsons. Also, he made a caviar and shortbread cake for Harpo Marx. Cobb even said once, “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!” 

The Brown Derby a setting for accounts of celebrities’ escapades in the LA times gossip columns such as “Tattletale” and “Around and About in Hollywood.” They made sure to showcase the celebrities that would dine in by having caricatures of the stars on the inside of the restaurant. Each piece featured the Best Actor or Best Actress from the years 1928-1961. They all came to eat some of their favorite meals and mingle with other people of elite status. It’s been said that Clark Gable’s favorite items on the menu were corned beef hash and pot roast. Norma Shearer enjoyed lamb chops. John Barrymore came for breakfast and would eat pancakes and sausage. Boris Karloff would typically have a glass of milk and a pastry. Charlie Chaplin would order a steak but only eat four bites. This is also what drew more people to the restaurant, the excitement of maybe meeting their favorite celebrity. For example, The Brown Derby was featured in the 1955 episode of I Love Lucy, “LA at last.” Lucy is seen with Fred, Ethel, Eve Arden, and William Holden. 

“I Love Lucy” L.A. at last! 1955 episode filmed at The Brown Derby

The Rise of Salads

Americans did not have a diverse food palette. They had little interest in green salads or any other salad before the Civil War. German Immigrants brought to America the hot potato salad, which was usually made with bacon, onion, and vinegar. Even so, medical establishments considered raw fruits and vegetables unhealthy and the cause of many illnesses. It was in the 19th century when they started considering salads, fruits, and vegetables as healthy. During the 1880s, salads became a staple in American menus. In The Salad Book by Maximilian De Loup written in 1899, he described that Americans preferred salads to have “heavy and bulky materials” and that green salads were the wave of the future. 

At the beginning of the late 19th Century, salads were promoted by manufacturers of salad dressings. They flourished where raw ingredients were easily available, such as California and Florida. California was considered the land of salads and salad dressings. They had such a big influence on food that through recipes such as the Cobb Salad created by Robert Cobb, the salad became a meal in itself throughout the United States.

Interior: The Brown Derby Restaurant

The Cobb Salad

The Golden Age of Hollywood was The Brown Derby had a courtyard and a large banquet room. They served Appetizers, Entrees, Salads, Fish, Desserts, Cocktails, and Pastry Specials. They made classic foods such as Spaghetti, Corned Beef Hash, Shrimp Cocktail, Braised Shortrib and etc. However, their most talked about dish was the Cobb Salad. It was created by Robert Cobb in 1937 at The Brown Derby in what was said to be a recipe he created at the moment. Cobb was late at night in the restaurant and decided to pull out what he had available. His friends Jack Warner, Sid Grauman, Wilson Mizner, and Gener Fowler dropped by the restaurant after he created this impromptu meal. His friend Sid Grauman of the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theatre after trying the salad himself thought it was delicious so he decided to go back to the Derby asking for the “Cobb Salad.” It is not known if the Cobb Salad was decided to be added to the menu by Cobb or the head chef Robert Kreis. However, when the Hollywood Brown Derby opened it appeared as an official menu item. 

The Brown Derby Menu 1948

Immediately after it was integrated into the menu, The Cobb Salad, became the town favorite. The salad was chopped and prepared in front of the customers at the moment. The spectacle was part of the appeal of the meal. It includes the ingredients, Chicken, Bacon, Romaine Lettuce, Red Wine Vinaigrette, Tomatoes, Blue Cheese, Avocado, and Hard Boiled Eggs. Each bite brought brings an amazing burst of texture and flavor. The Cobb Salad was then included in many other restaurant menus across the country. There are also many variations of it where one switches the greens, swap turkey for the chicken, and use French Dressing instead of the Vinaigrette. The Cobb Salad showed that salads can be the main dish too. 

The Cobb Salad

As I kept making more research on this culinary creation, I noticed that there are key factors on how to make the perfect salad. The salad was a spectacle so it was very important to showcase it the best way possible. The original recipe made by Robert Cobb which was later adapted for the restaurant included: chicken breast, iceberg lettuce, watercress, chicory, chopped chives, medium tomatoes, avocados, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, and Roquefort cheese. Moreover, one of the most important aspects of the salad was its old-fashioned french dressing. The ingredients of this were: egg yolks, olive oil, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, garlic, water, salt, and pepper to taste. The Cobb Salad continued to be a popular meal and more people kept making their own versions of the salad. It lost its popularity when it shifted from being a high-class meal into a fast food restaurant salad. However, you can enjoy the original Cobb Salad in the replica establishment of the Brown Derby in Walt Disney World. 

The End of an Era

The Hollywood Brown Derby: Walt Disney World

Moreover, The Brown Derby kept expanding. They opened their last location in Los Feliz in 1941. It is said that Cecil B. DeMille had bought the building since it was going to become a chicken joint. DeMille converted the space into The Brown Derby in 1940. A scene of Mildred Pierce featuring Joan Crawford was filmed in this location in 1945.  As the years went by, the Derby began to lose its wow factor. In 1960, the Los Feliz location had permanently closed its doors. In 1997, The Walt Disney Company came to an agreement with the owners of the Brown Derby brand. The replica of the Hollywood Brown Derby is now featured at Disney MGM Studios at Walt Disney World. The Brown Derby made its mark in Hollywood and it is a place to remember.

Notes:

  1. “Brown Derby – Los Angeles, California.” Atlas Obscura, https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/brown-derby.
  2. Kipen, David. “Hollywood.” California in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the Golden State, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2013, pp. 192–200, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt2jcbmd.26.
  3. Kafka, Molly. “The Brown Derby — Finding Lost Angeles.” Finding Lost Angeles, 13 September 2017, https://www.findinglostangeles.com/all-content/2017/9/13/the-brown-derby.
  4. McVay, Benjamin. “The Rise and Fall of the Brown Derby: A Pictorial Feature.” Cinema Scholars, 13 July 2021, https://cinemascholars.com/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-brown-derby-a-pictorial-feature/.
  5. “The Original Cobb Salad Recipe.” Food Network, https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/the-original-cobb-salad-1927592.
  6. Newsome, Kelly. “Rediscovering an American Classic — Cobb Salad.” Institute of Culinary Education, 3 July 2017, https://www.ice.edu/blog/rediscovering-american-classic-cobb-salad.
  7. Martinelli, Katherine. “Why Is It Called a Cobb Salad? See the Story Behind It — Eat This Not That.” Eat This, Not That, 18 December 2018, https://www.eatthis.com/cobb-salad-name-meaning/.
  8. “Salads.” Encyclopedia.com, https://www.encyclopedia.com/sports-and-everyday-life/food-and-drink/food-and-cooking/salads.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.