This is the location of the iconic Beverly Hills Brown Derby Restaurant that opened its doors in 1937 and was a place where local residents, tourists, and Hollywood icons dined together. Herbert K. Somborn designed the Brown Derby restaurant to win a bet that he could sell food out of a hat. The restaurant opened in 1926 and immediately became popular with celebrities. As a result, the restaurant was soon frequented by the press and the news soon made the restaurant a must-see for tourists. Three other Brown Derby locations opened from 1929 to 1940 in Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and the Los Feliz District. All four restaurants closed by the late 1980s. In 1937, the original Brown Derby moved to this location at 3377 Wilshire Boulevard.
Screenwriter Wilson Mizner bet his friend Herbert K. Somborn, the husband of actress Gloria Swanson, that if he knew anything about food, he could sell it out of a hat. Somborn took on the wager, and the idea for the Brown Derby was born. It came to fruition as a derby-hat-shaped building on Wilshire Boulevard in 1926. The restaurant was located across from the chic Ambassador Hotel, making it easy access to the rich and famous who stayed there. Somborn went on to build two other Brown Derby restaurants during his life, one in Beverly Hills and one in Hollywood. The Hollywood Brown Derby was located near radio stations and some studios and was frequented by the celebrities who worked there. On its opening night in 1929, a young artist simply called “Vitch” came in and offered to draw caricatures of that evening’s guests in exchange for a meal. Caricatures then became a staple for each of the Brown Derby restaurants, the tradition was continued by other artists such as Zel, Pancho, Lane, Bunn, and Woodruff.
Somborn died in 1934 after handpicking his successor, Robert Howard Cobb. Cobb had experience doing everything from waiting tables to bookkeeping and managed the chain. Cobb is best known to most today as the creator of the Cobb salad, a late-night meal he made for some famished friends. Cobb also made the papers in 1933 when he refused to seat the actress Marlene Dietrich because she was wearing slacks. Comics Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey left the restaurant after the incident only to return wearing skirts themselves.
It was the hopes of seeing celebrity hi-jinx like that that kept tourists and the press piling into the Brown Derby in droves. Gossip columnnists Hedda Hopper and Louis Parsons were regular fixtures there. The show This is Your Life, which involved taking some unexpecting celebrity down memory lane, often began by surprising some actor or actress out for lunch at the Brown Derby. Other films and television shows, such as a famous episode of I Love Lucy, featured a restaurant in the likeness of the Brown Derby, cementing the restaurant’s icon status in the eyes of many.
In 1937, the original Brown Derby moved a couple of blocks away to this location at 3377 Wilshire Boulevard. Three years later, another Brown Derby was built in the Los Feliz District of Los Angeles. None of these California restaurants are operating today, although the restaurants did inspire a chain of Brown Derbys in Ohio, five of which are still open. The original Brown Derby and the ones located in Beverly Hills and Hollywood managed to last until the 1980s. Customers even hosted a “funeral” for the Hollywood Brown Derby when it closed, wearing brown derby hats and red roses to say goodbye. The Los Feliz Brown Derby was sold in 1960, but became a nightclub in 1992 called “The Derby” as a nod to its past. In 2006, The Derby was named a City Historical Cultural Monument of Los Angeles. But, after a shooting and other incidents, the club closed in 2009, leaving the building susceptible to destruction. Today, the closest one can get to seeing the Brown Derbys as they were is eating at an officially licensed Brown Derby, such as those at some Walt Disney resorts. Visitors to Wilshire Boulevard can also see the Brown Derby structure atop a shopping center.