Photo by Joe Byrne/Unsplash
Photo by Maxim Shapovalov; courtesy of the Formosa Cafe
John Wayne allegedly once slept the night in a booth at the Formosa Café.
These old-school Hollywood haunts remain great places to eat, drink, and—of course—people-watch. Plus, they’re steeped in motion picture history.
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Beaches and juice bars aside, there’s one main reason people visit Los Angeles: Hollywood. But while being fame-adjacent in the audience of Jimmy Kimmel Live! has its own thrill, visiting the city lets you step back in time, to be immersed in the glamour of the silver screen, to witness mythology come to life and imagine being poolside with Clark Gable or sipping cocktails with Jean Harlow. Both TCL Chinese Theater and the Egyptian Theater—the location of the first-ever film premiere—still show movies, so you can watch one while surrounded by movie history. And although Hollywood has evolved considerably since those golden days, old haunts remain that conjure up its memory. Here are more than a dozen spots that capture the heady allure of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In 1939, the owner of an existing restaurant attached it to a 1902 streetcar from the Pacific Electric line and dubbed the conjoined nightclub The Formosa Café. The Formosa’s sometimes notorious history includes having once been lost to a boxer in a poker game. It became famous as a hangout for bold-faced names, including mobsters like Bugsy Siegel as well as stars like Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, and Elvis Presley. (John Wayne was once discovered in the kitchen cooking eggs after sleeping off the previous night’s drinking in one of the café’s booths.) The Formosa closed in 2016, but reopened in June 2019 after a $2.4 million facelift. Everything in the renovated café—from light fixtures to napkins—was inspired by the Formosa’s glory days. Today, the train car portion of the café is a VIP room; the Chinese-American fare has been updated with a Taiwanese accent; and the drinks skew tiki. Diehard fans will still find charm in the black-and-white celebrity headshots on the walls.
Don’t be intimidated by Musso & Frank’s bow-tied waiters in red boleros. Embrace them when they nonjudgmentally serve you an 11 a.m. martini—one of the best in L.A.—along with bread and a menu featuring consommé and classic alfredo sauce. That is, the original recipe for alfredo sauce, created in Rome by Alfredo di Lelio and brought overseas to the restaurant by silent movie stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Hollywood’s oldest restaurant is almost 100 years old, a charming throwback joint with red leather booths, coat racks, and a vintage telephone booth. Charlie Chaplin came so often he had his own section, William Faulkner liked to mix his mint juleps behind the bar, and among countless others, Joe DiMaggio, Orson Welles, and Janis Joplin came to, well, drink. Sidle up to the mahogany bar and let them inspire you.
Take some time from ogling the names on the Walk of Fame to pop into the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the oldest continually operating hotel in L.A. and the site of the first Academy Awards event in 1929. Fresh from a $25 million room renovation by Yabu Pushelberg, a plain facade belies the ornate Spanish revival interior. Since the hotel’s original opening in 1927, it’s been steeped in glitz and deemed a place to see and be seen. After marveling at the interior, step over to the palm tree–lined pool. David Hockney didn’t paint his famous swirls on the bottom until 1988, but celebrities have always been drawn to it: Marilyn Monroe kept a poolside cabana for nearly two years and had magazine photos taken beside it. Today you can capture her spirit with potent cocktails and an extensive all-day brunch at the 1960s-inspired Tropicana Pool Café. Spirit, here, works more ways than one: Monroe’s ghost is said to still roam the property.
Views of the stars
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For sprawling views of Los Angeles and the best vantage point for a photo of the Hollywood sign, head to the Griffith Observatory, up on Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park. Its sleek art deco lines and hilltop position make the planetarium a glamorous icon on its own. The Griffith Observatory is the most-visited public observatory in the world, famous for the stars both above and below. It’s frequently been used as the backdrop for films, most famously in Rebel Without a Cause and La La Land.
Although its fanciful neon sign promises grandeur, you’d be lucky if you can squeeze 30 people into the Frolic Room, Hollywood’s oldest bar (and it has no website). But what the cozy dive bar lacks in size it makes up for in location (6245 Hollywood Boulevard) and storied past. Next to the historic Pentages Theater, one wall of the bar is bedecked with photos of movie stars while another is covered by a full-color mural by Al Hirschfeld. That neon sign was added by former owner Howard Hughes, and both Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland have sipped a cocktail or two there. A dark space with a jukebox in the corner, it’s been used as a set in such noirish films as LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia—and it’s reputedly the last place Elizabeth Short, the real Black Dahlia, was seen alive. Because it’s a dive bar, you go for the shots or beer. But it also makes a mean martini. This is Hollywood, after all.
Plant your feet on Hollywood Boulevard and look up at the hills, and you’ll see a building that might strike you as a little out of place. Yamashiro, meaning “Mountain Palace” in Japanese, was completed in 1914 by German-born Asian art aficionados as a replica of a palace in the mountains of Yamashiro province near Kyoto, complete with courtyards and a 600-year-old pagoda. The ornate space has gone through several incarnations: In the 1920s it was “Japan” in numerous Hollywood films, then became home to the Hollywood A-list 400 Club, and later made appearances in movies from Memoirs of a Geisha to Gone in 60 Seconds. The restaurant opened in 1948, and in 2016, the new operators added a sushi bar, robata grill, teppanyaki grill and a new lounge, providing plenty of opportunities to dine in opulence, with a spectacular view.
The Millennium Biltmore’s Hollywood bona fides are pure gold: Oscar was born here. The statuette’s origin story goes that MGM’s production designer Cedric Gibbons sketched the design for the statue on a cloth napkin in the ballroom at the Millennium Biltmore (then the Los Angeles Biltmore) during a 1927 gathering that resulted in the formation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. While the first awards weren’t held at the Biltmore—that honor goes to the Roosevelt Hotel—it eventually hosted eight Academy Awards ceremonies. It became an enduring epicenter of Hollywood glamour, with opulent frescoes, 24-carat accents, and marble carvings, where actors like Clark Gable and Mary Pickford socialized. The hotel has also played a role on big and small screens; it appeared in Chinatown, Ghostbusters, and Mad Men. (In a darkly cinematic turn of events, the Biltmore was one of the places Elizabeth Short spent her last hours in 1947, before she was murdered. The hotel’s Gallery Bar serves a Black Dahlia martini made with vodka, Kahlua, and Chambord.)
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Now indelibly linked to the “You’re so money” speech in the 1996 film, Swingers, The Dresden Room has been a landmark since it opened in the Los Feliz neighborhood in 1954. The high-backed white vinyl booths, moody lighting, strong drinks, and tuxedoed bartenders lend the place a quintessential Hollywood vibe. The chops and prime rib menu is decidedly kale free, and the cocktail menu has a few specialty drinks, but nothing overly precious: This is old-school Los Angeles. To experience the best of this legendary place, come for live music in the lounge. After 9 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays, Marty and Elayne, veritable cultural treasures for their years of service to the cocktail lounge arts, perform jazz standards and popular tunes, as they have since 1982.
Back when it opened in 1938, Lawry’s the Prime Rib offered just one entrée: prime rib, served tableside from a custom-designed domed stainless steel cart by a carver dressed in a starched chef’s outfit with a white toque. The single-minded menu proved a lucrative formula: The Beverly Hills restaurant spawned an international chain and pioneered industry standards like the doggie bag, valet parking, and serving green salad first (salad used to be served after the main course). Lawry’s even has its own brand of seasoned salt. The menu has evolved over the years to include more than beef; this year the iconic restaurant is renovating the dining room and adding nearly three dozen new dishes, many vegetable-centric, to appeal to today’s health-conscious Angelenos.No kilt required
If you didn’t already know that Tam O’Shanter was a favorite haunt of Walt Disney’s, you’d surely figure it out when you walk into the Atwater Village restaurant. In addition to the cartoonishly Scottish decor, there are a couple of pieces of Disney art framed on the walls (one by Walt himself), and his regular table is marked by a plaque. Disney was also said to doodle on cocktail napkins on the restaurant’s outdoor patio, which reopened in 2018 after 70 years. The picturesque 1922 building, designed by Hollywood set designer Harry Oliver, has always attracted stars from the nearby movie studios for its cozy British vibe and meat-and-potatoes fare.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the time James Dean jumped through a window to audition for Rebel Without a Cause. Or maybe that Led Zeppelin caused a ruckus riding their motorcycles through the lobby. The notorious bad behavior at the Chateau Marmont, perched high above Sunset Boulevard, is no accident. Shortly after the hotel opened in the 1930s, studio heads, sensing the need for their stars with pristine reputations to have somewhere secluded to shed responsibility, turned to the Chateau. Its thick walls and fortlike presence became a natural ally. Today if you dine in the hotel restaurant (with a surprisingly affordable menu; we recommend the fried chicken bites for $10) you’ll still be held to secrecy: The small print at the bottom of the menu prohibits taking any photographs. But it says nothing about people-watching, which is amazing and free.
Speakeasy by the beach
The colorful Georgian Hotel began life in 1933 as a breezy beachfront respite from oppressive heat and oppressive laws. In that final year of Prohibition, notable Angelenos like Bugsy Siegel and movie star Carole Lombard could be found carousing in the hotel’s subterranean speakeasy (now used for private parties). The eight-story California art deco dream destination was one of the first “skyscrapers” along Ocean Avenue and became a rendezvous spot for Hollywood moguls and celebrities. After a long life as an upscale apartment building, the Santa Monica landmark was modernized and reopened as a hotel in 1993. It’s still a darling of Hollywood: Guests have included Oliver Stone, Robert DeNiro, and, legend has it, ghosts of some former tenants.
An old tagline for Miceli’s Italian Restaurant says “famous for pizza,” but it’s also famous because Lucille Ball learned to toss pizza there before taping an episode of I Love Lucy in which the dough landed on the would-be pizza chef’s head. Opened in 1949, the family-owned “oldest Italian restaurant” in Hollywood (or so says its awning) has, through the years, attracted stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Marilyn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra allegedly inspired the restaurant’s singing waiters and waitresses. While the staff once crooned along with the jukebox, they now sing show tunes, arias, and standards as they serve (unremarkable) red-sauce Italian fare beneath dangling chianti bottles.
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