Food, carnival rides, craft booths, 100s of classic cars, the world famous James Dean look-alike contest, live music, the big dance contest, Garfield the Cat pet parade, and so much more… The homemade chicken and noodle dinner from the ladies of The Eastern Star…rushing to The James Dean Gallery to see David’s latest acquisitions and grabbing up the newest James Dean t-shirts, while they still have your size… carefully scouring the Rebel Rebel store in search of amazing vintage treasures…strolling through all the eye candy at the car show…and stuffing your belly with all that festival food that you only get once a year. The last vestiges of summer, before the leaves start to change and the air turns crisp.
This posting, is one that I’ve been trying to do for the past couple of years…but ONE missing ingredient delayed my intent. No longer! A friend that travels back and forth from the UK, to her second home here on Zakynthos, graciously brought me that one illusive provision–ONE CAN OF LYCHEE FRUIT! (Actually, she brought me 2! Thanks Shelly!) Then somehow, the summer just flew by…and I’m just now finally getting to post about The Formosa Cafe’s Formosa Sour cocktail!
It’s a summertime cocktail, taking full advantage of the flavors of fresh Honeydew melon. For those of you in the States or the UK, where any kind of produce is accessible at any time of year, this isn’t an issue. Here in Greece, melon season comes mid-spring and lasts through the summer. Non-seasonal produce, just isn’t available…so I just snuck in under the wire with this one.
Don’t miss the NEW VIDEO at the end of this posting!
But, I’ve decided, summer is just a “state of mind.” THIS COCKTAIL, with all it’s flavors of sun-kissed Honeydews, tart, citrus-y lime, and exotic background notes of orange blossoms and lychee fruit, is delicious at ANYTIME! This vibrant green libation, topped with a frothy white cap and vivid red cherry, might be the PERFECT choice for your upcoming holiday party…or maybe just a weekend gathering of friends, enjoying the wonderful outdoor weather…pretending that summer’s still here, pretending that you don’t have to cart the kids off to school on Monday morning, and that every fast food place isn’t advertising pumpkin spice this and that, or that the stores are selling Christmas decor when we haven’t even celebrated Halloween yet! The FORMOSA SOUR will keep you in that “summer state of mind!”
The Formosa Cafe has been a Hollywood Hot Spot since 1925, when former Golden Gloves boxer Jimmy Bernstein acquired a tiny, one-room, breakfast/luncheonette located on the corner of Santa Monica Blvd and Formosa Ave (now in West Hollywood), directly across from the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio. (Yes, Mary Pickford! …the silent film star! …along with her husband Douglas Fairbanks. It was unprecedented in that period, that a woman not only owned a business…highly unusual…but who also became the studio head!) Charlie Chaplin merged his studio with Pickford-Fairbanks, and together they became United Artists. A few years later, the studio location would be sold to Samuel Goldwyn (the G in MGM) and became Samuel Goldwyn Studios. Down the line, the property was purchased in 1980 by Warner Brothers… when they later expanded their Burbank studios, they no longer needed that extra space… it is currently leased out to several production companies, and called simply, The Lot. But all that’s getting ahead of the story…back to Jimmy Bernstein and the run down, one-room luncheonette…
Jimmy knew he needed more seating for his tiny, red-painted, brick restaurant called The Red Spot Cafe. He purchased a decommissioned, electric, red trolley car, and parked it along side the existing building. It was renamed The Formosa Cafe.
Jimmy had a penchant for young, beautiful, Asian women and was a frequent visitor to LA’s Chinatown area. It was there that he met Lem Quon, a chef who learned to cook during his military service in the war. They partnered in the business, Lem running the kitchen and Jimmy running the front of the house. Lem developed a Cantonese menu and the Formosa Cafe soon became the popular, unofficial studio commissary for just about every Golden Age Hollywood A-Lister you can name.
The films Some Like it Hot (1959), West Side Story (1961), Wuthering Heights (1939), Guys and Dolls (1955), The Great Escape (1963), Basic Instinct (1992), The Green Mile (1999), Miss Congeniality 2 (2005), The Majestic (2001), and many more where filmed at The Lot. It was (and still is) the studio for many favorite TV productions (The Love Boat [1977-86], The Fugitive [1963-67], Dynasty [1981-89], and more recently True Blood [2008-14]). The cast of The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71) would often stroll over in full makeup and wardrobe for lunch. Other famous regulars of The Formosa Cafe include Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Marlon Brando, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Gary Cooper, Tony Curtis, James Dean, Michael Douglas, Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, Grace Kelly, Dean Martin, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, John Wayne, and WAY too many more to mention…
The Formosa Cafe, being such an iconic fixture on the Hollywood landscape, has played itself in several movies like L.A. Confidential (1997), Swingers (1996), and The Majestic (2001), La La Land (2016) amongst others…
The food was reasonable and inexpensive. The drinks were stiff. The celluloid celebrities signed 8×10 glossies for Jimmy and Lem, who in turn used them to decorate their walls. There are about 250 on display, with 1000s more in storage.
Stories abound about the goings-ons at the famous Formosa…like one about John Wayne getting so drunk, he passed out in a booth. The staff were unable to wake or move him, so they locked up and went home. The next morning Jimmy arrived to open up, finding “The Duke” in the kitchen fixing breakfast, and casually asking, “How do you like your eggs?”
Real life gangster Johnny Stompanato and his glamour gal girlfriend, Lana Turner, were a fixture there too. Stompanato’s boss’, Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen had a “secret back room,” complete with a hidden safe built into the floor to hold all of their gambling earnings. The safe is still there (but the loot, was long gone).
Elizabeth Short, then Hollywood hopeful but soon-to-be famous murder victim, The Black Dahlia, was a regular. Her one and only film role was recorded just across the street.
Several employees had a long term relationship with the establishment, contributing their parts to The Formasa’s comfortable, welcoming feel…bartender Lindy Bremerton poured drinks there for over 50 years (there’s a very brief clip of of him behind the bar, in the video below), waitress Cass Marples served the stars for over 25. 40 year veteran waitress Mary Kay Moore quipped, “I’ve stepped on all the most famous legs in the world. I’ve stepped on people like Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and Buddy Ebsen because they would lean back and stretch their legs out. We’ve had lots of lovely, long-legged gentlemen in here, and I managed to step on them all.”
James Dean was a frequent patron. His first visit might just have been when photographer Phil Stern took Jim to the set of Guys and Dolls (1955) starring Marlon Brando and being filmed at, the then, Samuel Goldwyn Studios directly across the street.
Bernstein and Quon remained partners until Bernstein’s death in 1976. Lem became the sole owner, working all the way up until his death in 1993. His grandson, Vince Jung took over business operations, up until the present time.
The Formosa Cafe underwent several makeovers throughout the years…updating and upscaling their menu several times to reflect the changing times. The building was almost lost in 1991, when Warner Brothers decided to demolish the historic eatery, to make way for a parking structure across from the studio. Preservationists and fans rallied, eventually getting the structure designated as “a Cultural and Historic Landmark” by the city of West Hollywood. The iconic restaurant survived, but a shopping mall, anchored by megastores Best Buy and a 2-story tall Target, sprung up to engulf the famous watering hole in 2004, all but swallowing it.
Although the exterior, red-painted, brick building and green neon sign were now protected, the interior (much to the surprise of many) was not. In 2015, the original 1940s Chinese red with black interior was gutted and reimagined into a contemporary “sports bar,” complete with gray walls and flat screen TVs mounted in every nook and cranny. The “update” was unanimously hated. After more than 80 years of continuous service, The Formosa’s doors were suddenly and quietly shuttered in December of 2016.
But Wait!…This story’s not over yet… The LA rumor mill is whispering that the “interior improvements” are being un-done. Vince Jung has been shopping for a “non-chain” tenant to come and reopen the business…and the word on the street, suggests it might be reopening sometime before the end of 2017.
Although several reference books portray James Dean as a teetotaler, drinking only beer, maybe an occasional whiskey on the rocks, or a glass of wine with his spaghetti and meatballs at The Villa Capri, there ARE of couple of first hand accounts of his indulgence with fruity, tropical drinks like those served at The Formosa Cafe. Rare occasions, it seems, when Jimmie cut loose…
The Formosa in Jimmie’s day, was known for cheap eats and stiff drinks. It was a place for the “see and be seen” crowd, but also a place where everyone was made to feel at home.
I love the following story from Joan Collins’ autobiography, which mentions Jim having perhaps one too many Zombie cocktails at Don the Beachcomber’s tiki bar. The Zombie recipe (and Navy Grog recipe) may have to wait until next summer though…a “proper” Zombie is very complicated, with even MORE exotic and hard-to-get components than today’s Formosa Sour. The Zombie was such a strong drink, Don purportedly never served a customer more than 2.
“A group of us had dinner one night at Don the Beachcomber’s, a Polynesian restaurant in Hollywood noted for it’s incredibly strong rum-based drinks. After 3 or 4 Navy Grogs I was feeling daring, so when Jimmy asked who would like a drive in his brand new silver Porsche, I cheerfully volunteered. Arthur, who usually indulged most of my whims with good grace, pulled me aside and told me not to drive with Jimmy. ‘He drives like a maniac,’ he said earnestly. ‘And after 4 of those Zombies, or whatever the hell we’ve been drinking, it’s too dangerous.’ “Oh don’t be such a stick in the mud,’ I giggled, ‘Come on Jimmy, let’s race them to Oscar’s house.’ We jumped into his shiny,new Porsche. the interior was cramped and it smelled of new leather, but it was indeed a beauty. Jimmy threw the shift into first gear and with the gearbox protesting violently, we screeched into the Hollywood Boulevard traffic. During the 10 minutes it took us to get to Beverly Hills, I sobered up rapidly. He certainly did drive fast, even recklessly, but with the summer wind blowing through the open windows and the radio blaring, it was exhilarating. “Don’t you think we should slow down?’ I said nervously, as we sped down The Strip at about 70mph, dodging in and out of after-dinner traffic. He gave me one of those mischievous brooding looks. ‘Chicken?’ he asked. “What me? Oh no, I’d just like to live to be 21.’ I gulped nervously, hoping a cop car would miraculously appear. ‘The thing about these cars is that they’re fail-safe,’ he said, expertly overtaking a bleached blond in a Cadillac and sliding in just a car’s length behind a slow moving Ford. ‘These cars are made like tanks. They have the best engine and the best transmission, they’re totally safe.’ “He talked on the merits of his baby until we screeched to a stop in front of the Levants’. ‘Well, thanks a lot Jimmy,’ I said descending on trembling legs. ‘If I ever need a quick ride to the airport, I’ll call on you.’ ‘Do that.’ He lit up a cigarette and smiled at me sleepily, amused at my timorousness. ‘Let’s go see Oscar.’ I followed him into the house, making a mental note never to get in a moving vehicle with him again.”Joan Collins
The Formosa Sour is a classier version of the Midori Sour. More complex in the subtleties and freshness of it’s flavors. Midori, originally manufactured by Suntory in Japan (now produced in Japan, France, Mexico, and the US), was first introduced to the US market in 1978, at an event at New York’s famous Studio 54…but melon liqueurs have been around much longer. Making your own is easy, satisfying, and actually sort of fun!
The cocktail classification of “Sours” drinks (Whiskey Sour, Amaretto Sour, etc…) dates back to the very first cocktail, around 250 years ago. The first Whiskey Sour recipe appeared in a bartending guide from 1862. 100 years before that, Vice Admiral Edward Vernon of England instructed his ship’s cook to mix citrus juice (usually lemon or orange) with booze for the sailors. The citrus juice provided Vitamin-C (as we know now), helping to keep the men from developing scurvy during long, extended sea voyages. The juice of the sour lemon had the added benefit of disguising the flavor of cheap, poor quality, bad tasting alcohol on board the ships. Hence the first cocktail was born.
The Formosa Sour is a far cry from that original cocktail. Refined, elegant, refreshingly fruity, and not overly sweet. The honey flavors of the melon are counterbalanced with the tartness of the lime. The orange blossom water and Mandarin flavors entice the nose with thoughts of “something a little bit exotic is in this glass.”
The melon liqueur can be made days ahead and keeps for a very long time in the refrigerator.
It’s ALWAYS a good idea to serve food with cocktails! The Formosa Cafe served Cantonese-style food. Any Asian-inspired appetizer would be a good accompaniment to the flavors of the Formosa Sour.
I’m making this cocktail at a gathering in a couple of weeks, and planning on serving it with homemade crab rangoon and maybe an assortment of sushi…finger foods. (Yes, I know region-wise and culinary-wise this combo doesn’t make sense…but flavor-wise and visually, I think it’s gonna be a hit.) Fresh spring rolls or mini egg rolls would be yummy too…and a bowl of shrimp crackers on the table…we’ll see as the date gets closer. (…but of course, The Formosa Cafe Sticky Ribs recipe in my Recipes for Rebels cookbook would be the PERFECT appetizer to accompany this PERFECTLY WONDERFUL drink!)