The Origin of The Brown Derby
The Brown Derby was a Los Angeles, California-based restaurant chain that launched in 1926 with a specific goal in mind: creating good, authentic food that could be sold at a good price. Quickly after opening, the restaurant became well known by its elite Hollywood customers and peculiar architectural shape: one of a hat. Anyone who was anyone frequented the Brown Derby, and could often be heard muttering the words “Meet me at The Derby.”
Its primary location was in Wilshire, California, but later spread to different spots such as Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and Los Feliz Boulevard. The Derby creator, Herbert Somborn, was a film director at the time, and he was married to legendary actress Gloria Swanson. The origin of this restaurant was catalyzed in a bet that Somborn made with fellow screenwriter and friend Wilson Mizner, who challenged him by saying: “If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat.”
Mizner had a decent-sized role in the creation of the restaurant as well, not only from giving it the name of “The Brown Derby”, but from also joining Somborn and Jack Warner — the President of Warner Brothers — in financing the operation. And when people were successfully attracted by the strange architectural design, the famous costumers, and the affordable and tasty food, the Brown Derby started expanding, opening more locations and welcoming more stars.
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 — a burger stand on Wilshire and La Brea — by the name of Robert Cobb. Somborn, after becoming impressed by Robert Cobb’s knowledge of the restaurant business, later 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.
The Rise of Salads
Americans did not have a diverse food palette. Before the Civil War, American cuisine had little to no variation of salads dishes in particular, and even after, many medical establishments considered raw fruits and vegetables unhealthy and the cause of many illnesses. This started to change once the US became a major hotspot for immigration (for example, German immigrants brought to America the hot potato salad, which was usually made with bacon, onion, and vinegar). 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.
The Cobb Salad
The Golden Age of Hollywood was The Brown Derby had a courtyard and a large banquet room. They served food in courses now uniform in restaurants across the US: Appetizers, Entrees, Salads, Fish, Desserts, Cocktails, and Pastry Specials.
On the menu, there were classic foods such as Spaghetti, Corned Beef Hash, Shrimp Cocktail, Braised Shortrib and more. However, their most talked about dish was the Cobb Salad. This now well-known dish was created by Robert Cobb in 1937 at The Brown Derby, the recipe held to be created in a moment of spontaneity. The story follows that Cobb happened to be was late one night 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, but either way, when the Hollywood Brown Derby opened, the recipe appeared as an official menu item.
Immediately after its integration, 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 generally includes the ingredients of chicken, bacon, romaine lettuce, red wine vinaigrette, tomatoes, blue cheese, avocado, and hard boiled eggs. Each bite brought an amazing burst of texture and flavor.
The Cobb Salad became a staple salad recipe over time, gradually being included in many other restaurant menus across the country. In its spread brought an abundance of recipe variations as well, including one where turkey is swapped for the chicken and the vinaigrette is replaced with French dressing.
In it’s rise in popularity, the Cobb Salad showed that salads can be the main dish too.
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, but was later adapted at the Brown Derby, newly including: 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, with more and more establishments creating their own spin on the recipe. When the fast food industry entered the scene, it renown faded somewhat as the dish 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 Brown Derby kept expanding, opening 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, accompanied by the closure of many other establishments across the state. 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, a mark of the establishment’s time in the spotlight.
Written By: Valeria Santini
Originally Published: December 16th, 2021 || Last Updated: June 27th, 2022
A part of Doc Studio’s History of Food in America Collection
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- 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.
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- 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/.
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