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94-Year-Old Formosa Cafe’s Hidden History Is Absolutely Wild

An intricate look at the past of one of LA’s most enduring restaurants

Formosa Cafe
Sue Hwang
Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

There’s still a lot to (re)discover about Formosa Cafe, the nearly 100-year-old traincar restaurant and bar on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. But what’s already coming up — thanks to the 1933 Group’s renovation and restoration efforts — is absolutely fascinating.

LAist has turned up a number of old articles, news pieces, photos, and rumors about Formosa Cafe, from its Old Hollywood legacy days to previous attempts at dismantling the building and turning the property into a parking lot. Here are a few:

There’s nothing like it any more. According to the piece, 1933 Group partner Bobby Green attempted to track down the only remaining train car created in the same style as the one used at Formosa Cafe. He believed they had a line on one sitting at a railway museum in Perris, CA, but the car had burned down just last year.

The accepted history is (probably) a lie. Never trust Wikipedia, which claims that the Formosa Cafe first came to life in 1925 thanks to a local boxer. But deep digging has found several divergent histories of the place, including evidence that the site was used as a restaurant called the Red Post Cafe as early as 1915.

The car isn’t original. Despite many assumptions to the contrary, the Formosa Cafe’s iconic train car wasn’t added until 1939, when a remodel of the restaurant took it from the Red Post Cafe to the Formosa Cafe, thanks to one entrepreneurial nightlife owner named Max Goldie.

Some dark stuff. While Green and the 1933 Group continue to sift through the details — they’re producing a book on the history of the place — more and more stories continue to surface. LAist says that one accepted history says that Goldie lost the restaurant in a poker game to boxer Jimmy Bernstein. Another, told in an autobiography by a former longtime bartender, said there were three partners (Goldie, a different Bernstein who was actually a bookie, and a man named Stan Marcus), and that eventually Goldie got out of the business only to eventually catch a bullet in the back, dying in a phone booth not far away.

Formosa Cafe almost closed in 1991
LA Times

Go read the whole LAist history piece on the Formosa Cafe, complete with old newspaper clippings and file photos backing up the various claims. It’s certainly worth a look for fans of LA’s old restaurant history, or anyone eager to see the restaurant come back to life next year.

The Formosa Cafe officially closed in January of last year following a poorly-done attempt to revitalize the property with new paint and menu items, an upstairs lounge complete with faux fire pits, and the removal of many of the building’s iconic bits of ephemera and classic Hollywood headshots. The 1933 Group, long fans of the building and known for their restoration work with places like the Highland Park Bowl, stepped in last summer to take the reins, and have been diligently working to extract old facts and rehab old fixtures in the process. The reborn restaurant and bar is likely to reopen sometime in the spring of next year.