Luster Fades, Fondness Lingers at Formosa Café
Now in its 76th year, this much-loved, occasionally ridiculed museum of old Hollywood has careened from glamor to self-parody and back again so many times, it's impossible for anyone--employees and patrons alike--to gauge whether the drinks are ironic or genuine. That said, this is one of the few places in town you can order a Singapore Sling with a straight face. Most of Formosa's signature cocktails derive their inspiration from the tropics: Mai Tais, daiquiris, rum drinks and syrupy martinis in myriad variations. Those looking to call their Scotch should probably find a different barstool, and beer and wine options are lean. The pours, however, are always generous and the happy hour menu ($3 beer; $6 mixed drinks; most appetizers $5 from 4-7 p.m.) offers an astonishing value.
Formosa Café's menu of pan-Asian specialties is so familiar it may as well have been mandated by the city: wasabi fries, lobster mac n' cheese, Kobe beef sliders, chicken satay. Formosa was never a destination for authentic Chinese (or dinner in general, strictly speaking), but as the locus of Hollywood nightlife has shifted a few blocks north to the over-cologned bottle service clubs mythologized by TMZ, the kitchen has abandoned many of its "traditional" Cantonese-American dishes in favor of the mundane fusion cuisine that is one of the few drawbacks of L.A.'s fevered food culture. If you're in the mood for something to absorb your lemon drop martini, you'll do just fine; but then, you can find a vodka lemon drop and spicy crab cake virtually anywhere in town.
The evolving menu hints at the melancholic object lesson in gentrification that is Formosa Café. In 1991, a citizen uprising compelled the city to designate the building a historic landmark, thus securing a permanent escape from the bulldozer. Now the modest single-story building hunches incongruously on a street dominated by the floodlit West Hollywood Gateway shopping plaza. A small courtyard separates the fabled watering hole, which once counted Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra as regulars, from shoppers hoarding one-cent wine at BevMo. Inside, one can't help but be charmed by Formosa Café's worn speakeasy chic despite, or perhaps because of, the acres of yellowing 8X10s and tinseltown kitsch. If it weren't for the moussed Asian bar boys and indie rock thumping on the radio, Bette Davis' ghost might still be lingering over her drink.
Formosa Café: 7156 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood; (323) 850-9050.