The Brown Derby is perhaps the most well known of all the iconic restaurants of old Hollywood. Partly due to Lucille Ball and the famous scene between her and the actor William Holden in the I Love Lucy television series of the 1950s.
So, naturally when I am in Panama presenting recipes from classic Hollywood restaurants to Boquete Gourmet I want to include a recipe from this restaurant. It should be fairly easy for me too, because I own the old cookbook from Marjorie Child Husted, The Brown Derby Cookbook. But in flipping through this book I can see one thing right off the bat. Our styles in eating have changed drastically since the era of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s hard to imagine Brad Pitt or Halle Berry sitting down to some of the dishes featured in this book. The food is both fussy and simplistic if that’s possible. I mean many of the dishes call for pastry cream and elaborately turned (but grossed overcooked) vegetables. But they are simple in the fact that they are not much more creative than some sort of meat and potatoes presentation with a cream sauce.
The book is interesting from a historical perspective but I don’t really want to cook anything from this book.
But like I said The Brown Derby was a massively glamorous dining destination and remained so for decades. It absolutely must be a part of my evening of small plates and tastes from some of the legendary haunts of Hollywood.
And legendary this place certainly was. One reason for its instant success may be as simple as it looked like a fun place to go. Los Angeles is well known for its whimsical architecture. We have a food-stand shaped like a hot dog and a donut shop with a huge three-dimensional donut towering in the sky above it. Giant coffee cups and teapots used to adorn our buildings and skyline.
What I am trying to say is, The Brown Derby looked like a giant hat! The original restaurant on Wilshire Blvd. had a circular counter, with derby-shaped lighting fixtures. The waitresses wore heavily starched skirts that also were derby-shaped!
The food was considered to be quite good which was an important factor in its success. But an added bonus was the fact that is served until 4am.
The second location opened 3 years after the first. It was at Hollywood and Vine and though it was not shaped like a derby it was even more popular with the elite of Hollywood. Actors and actresses were known to drop in there at lunch in full costume of whatever film they were working on at the nearby studios. It was open 24hrs a day 7 days a week. The booths surrounding the walls of the restaurant became the prime tables and were occupied by the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Joan Bennet, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, William Powell. Eventually caricatures of the famous folks were placed on the walls above the booths that each celebrity preferred. The room seems familiar to us even today because it was featured in 27 films.
So you see why I absolutely must find a recipe to include. There is a little story about The Brown Derby that may help me decide just how to proceed. It seems that the ubiquious Cobb Salad was invented at The Brown Derby by the owner as a midnight snack for a special patron. It has since been copied and adapted through the generations. It has morphed countless times and falls into the category of the chopped salad. It can feature pretty much any ingredient your mind can think of. It’s not the most culinarily challenging choice I could have made, but the great story makes up for this fact.
It seems back in 1937, Bob Cobb, then owner of The Brown Derby, was alerted that Sid Grauman had shown up at the restaurant looking to be seated. It was quite obvious that he was too drunk to be seated in the main dining room, but too important to be turned away. Bob pulled Sid into the kitchen to get the man fed. It was quite late and Bob knew the refrigerators were full of partially prepped ingredients from all the meals that had been served that night. Opening a huge refrigerator, he hurriedly pulled out whatever his hands first touched. A head of iceberg lettuce, an avocado, some romaine, watercress, tomatoes, some cold breast of chicken, hard-boiled eggs, chives, cheese, a bit of bacon and some of the restaurant’s own version of an old-fashioned French dressing. He started chopping perhaps to distract Sid, or perhaps he had a plan.
Whatever the case The Cobb Salad was born. The next day to repay his friend’s kindness Sid Grauman arrived at the restaurant for lunch and heartily asked to be served “The Cobb Salad”.
Cobb’s midnight invention became an overnight sensation with Derby customers, people like movie mogul Jack Warner, regularly dispatched his chauffeur to pick up a carton of this salad. If it’s good enough for Jack Warner, it’s good enough for me.
How true this story is I cannot say, but it has become part of the lore of Hollywood. Which makes this salad the perfect choice for my evening in Panama featuring legendary recipes from famed Hollywood restaurants. The version I have decided to present is very close to what Bob may have served Sid and has earned the moniker The Brown Derby Original Cobb Salad. serves 6
- 1/2 head iceberg lettuce
- 1/2 bn watercress
- 1 bn (small) chicory
- 1/2 head baby romaine lettuce
- 2 medium tomatoes
- 2 breasts of cooked chicken
- 8 sli crisp cooked bacon
- 1 ripe avocado
- 3 hard boiled eggs
- crumbled imported roquefort cheese
- 1 c old fashioned brown derby french dressing (see separate recipe)
Chop the lettuce, watercress, chicory and romaine and set them aside separately. Cut tomatoes in half, remove seeds, dice finely, Set them aside as well. Pull the breast meat it bite size strips, set aside. Chop the cooked bacon finely and set aside. Cut avocado in small pieces and set aside.
Carefully arrange all the set aside ingredients on a serving platter. You may toss them all together but its better to keep things laid out separately so each diner may arrange their own salad plate to suit themselves.
Decorate the platter with quartered hard-boiled eggs, chopped chives, and some crumbled blue cheese. Pass the Old fashioned French Dressing at the table for each diner to dress their own salad. A printable recipe for the dressing may be found here.
SERIOUS FUN FOOD