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National Salad Week & the Brown Derby's Culinary Input

Posted by Whitmore, July 27, 2009 08:23pm | Post a Comment

July 25 to 31 is National Salad Week. And don’t forget the salad dressing. According to a recent consumer survey conducted by Synovate, 95 percent of Americans consume salads, or at least lettuce, at least three times per week. Not only do most Americans eat salads regularly, but they perceive other salad eaters as healthier, happier and, according to the Atlanta-based Association for Dressings and Sauces (ADS, a national trade association representing the manufacturers of salad dressings and condiment sauces), salad lovers are thought to be sexier. In other words, if you want to impress, eat a salad, though you might want to avoid the onions...
 
One of the most popular salad concoctions was invented here in Los Angeles, just around the corner from Amoeba, in glamorous old Hollywood at 1628 North Vine Street; the former location of the Hollywood Brown Derby. That delicious meal in a bowl would be none other then the Cobb Salad.
 
But first: The Brown Derby was a chain of four restaurants in Los Angeles. The first and the most iconic of these was located at 3427 Wilshire Boulevard. Shaped like a man's derby hat, its diameter was 28 ft and it stood was just under 18 feet tall. The restaurant was started by Bob Cobb, eventual owner of the Hollywood Stars baseball team of the Pacific Coast League and Herbert Somborn, the former husband of the screen siren Gloria Swanson. Opened in 1926, the building was moved to 3347 Wilshire Boulevard in 1937 and after being sold and renovated in 1975, it was quickly euthanized in 1980 by a strip mall known as the Brown Derby Plaza. The doomed domed structure was incorporated into the third floor of the building where there is supposed to be a cafe, but to be perfectly honest, its dignity and splendor is long gone.
 
Designed to catch the eye of passing motorists, the architectural inspiration, according to one story, was the hat worn by New York governor and the perennial Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, who was a good friend of Somborn’s. Another version has Somborn playing with the idea that a great restauranteur could serve food anywhere, even out of a hat, and still be successful.
 
The second Brown Derby opened on Vine Street on Valentine's Day in 1929. Close to the studios like Paramount and RKO, it was here that the Derby legend was made; the Hollywood elite would wine and dine, wheel and deal, meet to compete. It didn’t hurt that legendary gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper plied their trade and rivalries at the Vine Street location, setting up shop to play their wicked little games. Unfortunately most of the building was destroyed by a fire in 1987. A small portion of the restaurant's original facade remains and is being incorporated into the new W Hotel and Condo development, project completion is set for the fall of this year.
 
The third Brown Derby was built in 1931 near Rodeo drive at 9537 Wilshire Blvd in Beverly Hills; it resembled the Hollywood branch in its Spanish Mission style. It was closed down and demolished in 1983. The fourth location at 4500 Los Feliz Blvd is the last remaining original Derby standing. Cecil B. De Mille, legendary director and producer and a part owner of the Wilshire Blvd restaurant, bought at auction a restaurant named Willard's, converting it into a Brown Derby in 1940. Willard's was a country inn serving "Far Famed Chicken Steak Dinners," and its dome shaped roof design actually had a function. Water was pumped to the top of the dome and then run down the sides into a trough, creating one of the first "air conditioned" buildings in Los Angeles. Willard's also kept live poultry in cages on the grounds; they had the slogan: "chickens whose feet never touch the ground.” Sounds yummy ... and humane! The Los Feliz Brown Derby became one of the first restaurants to combine both high class upscale food and a 24 hour drive-in, perfect for the burgeoning So-Cal car culture. The restaurant closed its doors in 1960 and became Michaels of Los Feliz. In 1992 the building was transformed once again, this time into a nightclub, The Derby, and a restaurant; Louisa’s Trattoria. But in 2004, the Los Feliz property was purchased by Hillhurst/Los Feliz LLC with an idea to raze the structure and build a condominium/retail complex. An independent coalition called "Save the Derby" fought to prevent its demolition, and on May 19, 2006, the Los Angeles City Counsel voted unanimously to designate the structure as an official Historic Cultural Monument.
 
But I digress, back to the whole point of today’s blog: Salad Week.
 
According to Hollywood myth it was a dark and stormy night ... actually, it was in 1936 or ’37, owner Bob Cobb hastily concocted a midnight snack for the famished and very powerful theatre owner Sid Grauman, owner of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Cobb grabbed a few leftovers and whatever he could find in the refrigerator; a head of lettuce, avocado, tomato, some cold chicken, a hard-boiled egg or two, a little bacon, and Roquefort cheese -- different versions of the story list different ingredients. He chopped everything into a fine dice, fancied it up a bit with some leafy lettuce, laying out each ingredient on top in a clean, straight row, added some French dressing. Viola! The next time Sid Grauman came in he asked for the salad; the Cobb salad was born and soon became the signature menu item. Bob Cobb may have passed away in 1970, but his name lives on in restaurants across the land.
 
But as I dug deeper, trying to separate fact from fiction, another version of the story emerged. This account claims the salad came about because Bob Cobb had had dental surgery and since the pain wouldn’t allow him to open his mouth very wide, his chef fixed him a salad, dicing each item into small bits. Sounds plausible, but personally I like the Sid Grauman story better. It’s more Hollywood-like; I see an unlikely hero and an unlikely, yet inevitable, happy ending. As the writer James Warner Bellah asserts in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ''When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.''
 
Anyway, I’m heading out to dinner ... though I’m more in the mood for pizza.

Relevant Tags

History (52), Food (26), National Salad Week (1), Brown Derby (1), Hollywood (78), Cobb Salad (1)