The Brown Derby was the name of a chain of restaurants in Los Angeles, California. The first and most famous of these was shaped like a man's derby hat, an iconic image that became synonymous with the Golden Age of Hollywood. A chain of Brown Derby restaurants in Ohio are still in business today.
The chain was started by Robert H. Cobb and Herbert Somborn (a former husband of film star Gloria Swanson). It is often incorrectly thought that the Brown Derby was a single restaurant, and the Wilshire Boulevard and Hollywood branches are frequently confused. Gus Girves started the Brown Derby chain in Ohio as Girves Brown Derby in 1941.
The Brown Derby began its licensing program in 1987 with an agreement with Walt Disney Company for a replica of the original Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant at the new Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida. In 1990, Walt Disney Company entered into three additional agreements for Euro-Disney, Tokyo Disney and Disneyland in Anaheim, California. In 1996, a ten-year agreement was entered into with MGM Grand Las Vegas Las Vegas, Nevada; in 1998, the MGM Grand Detroit, Michigan temporary facility was added.
Wilshire Boulevard Brown Derby 
Opened in 1926, the original restaurant at 3427 Wilshire Boulevard remains the most famous due to its distinctive shape. Whimsical architecture was popular at the time, and the restaurant was designed to catch the eye of passing motorists. It is said that the shape of the hat worn by New York governor and 1928 Democratic Party presidential candidate Al Smith, a personal friend of Somborn, was an inspiration. Another theory claims that Somborn was told that a good restaurateur could serve food out of a hat and still make a success of it.
The building was moved in 1937 to 3377 Wilshire Boulevard at the northeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Alexandria Avenue, about a block from its previous location (and about a block north of the Ambassador Hotel). After being sold in 1975 and renovated, it was finally replaced in 1980 by a shopping center known as the Brown Derby Plaza. The domed structure was incorporated into the third floor of the building and accommodates a cafe (see photo at right with brown dome in recessed corner). A Korean mini-mall occupies the site today.
Hollywood Brown Derby 
Despite its less distinctive Spanish Mission style facade, the second Brown Derby, which opened on Valentine's Day 1929 at 1628 North Vine Street in Hollywood, was the branch that played the greater part in Hollywood history. Due to its proximity to movie studios, it became the place to do deals and be seen. Clark Gable is said to have proposed to Carole Lombard there. Rival gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper are recorded as regular patrons.
In "Hollywood at Last," the first of the Hollywood episodes of I Love Lucy, Lucy (Lucille Ball), Ethel (Vivian Vance), and Fred (William Frawley) have lunch at the Brown Derby. During the misadventure, the trio dines in a booth with Eve Arden on one side and William Holden on the other. This leads to the famous disaster scene in which Lucy inadvertently causes a waiter to hit Holden in the face with a pie.
In 1947's Fun and Fancy Free component "Mickey and the Beanstalk", the cartoon ends with Willie the Giant stomping through Hollywood looking for Mickey Mouse. Before the scene closes, Willie notices The Brown Derby restaurant and picks up the restaurant looking for Mickey. Willie notices the restaurant looks like a hat, places it on his head, and stomps off with the HOLLYWOOD lights blinking in the background.
Like its Wilshire Boulevard counterpart, it was the home of hundreds of caricatures of celebrities. Many of these caricatures were drawn by Jack Lane between 1947 and 1985. Lane had written a book, A Gallery of Stars: The Story of the Hollywood Brown Derby Wall of Fame, describing his many years as the resident caricaturist there.
It also claimed that the Hollywood Brown Derby was the birthplace of the Cobb Salad, which was said to have been hastily arranged from leftovers by owner Bob Cobb for showman and theater owner Sid Grauman. It was chopped fine because Grauman had just had dental work done, and couldn't chew well.
In the I Love Lucy episode featuring William Holden at the Brown Derby, Holden orders a Cobb Salad.
After the Hollywood Brown Derby was largely destroyed by fire in 1987, the restaurant was closed. Only a small fragment of its facade remained after a renovation in the early 1990s. The building then was home to a restaurant and bar called Premieres of Hollywood, which catered to the revitalization of Hollywood Boulevard and the style of "Old Hollywood"; it offered an eclectic mix of American cuisine along with the original Cobb Salad (the recipe for which was found in the kitchen during the renovation). Premieres of Hollywood was destroyed during the L.A. riots in 1992. A few hand-painted wall tiles from the original Hollywood Brown Derby are held by the Jurus family, who started Premieres of Hollywood.
The land is now a parking lot.
Beverly Hills Brown Derby 
The third Brown Derby, built in 1931 at 9537 Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills, greatly resembled the Hollywood branch. It was closed in the early 1980s and demolished in 1983.
Los Feliz Brown Derby 
The Los Feliz Brown Derby at 4500 Los Feliz Blvd. is the last remaining branch of the chain still in operation as a restaurant. Film mogul Cecil B. De Mille, a part owner of the Wilshire Blvd. restaurant, bought the building, a former chicken restaurant named Willard's, and converted it into a Brown Derby in 1940. It uniquely combined a formal restaurant with a dramatic domed ceiling with a more casual drive-in cafe outside.
In 1960 it was purchased by actor Michael St. Angel (aka Steve Flagg) and became Michaels of Los Feliz, and in 1992 was transformed into a nightclub known as The Derby. In the late 1990s, it became one of the centers of the resurgence of swing dancing, also launching the careers of modern swing bands such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Johnny Crawford. Oregon rock/swing/ska band the Cherry Poppin' Daddies recorded a song titled "Brown Derby Jump" on their album Zoot Suit Riot.
In June 2004, The Derby and adjacent lots were purchased by Hillhurst/Los Feliz LLC with a view to demolition and replacement by a condominium complex. The planned redevelopment became a cause celebre for historic preservation activists. An independent coalition called "Save The Derby" fought to prevent the demolition, and, on May 19, 2006, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to designate the entire structure an official Historic Cultural Monument of the City of Los Angeles.
In January 2009, the nightclub closed its doors. The current landlord chose not to renew the lease, not long after a shooting inside the club. The Los Feliz Brown Derby space is now occupied by the "hipster gastropub" Mess Hall Kitchen.
Girves Brown Derby (Brown Derby restaurants in Ohio still operating today) 
In 1941, Gus Girves opened the first Ohio Brown Derby restaurant, across from the Goodyear tire plant on East Market Street in Akron. Its great success led Girves to open a second Ohio Brown Derby restaurant in 1957, and several more followed. The Girves family was able to build the successful business by being innovative, staying current with business practices, and recognizing that the demands and tastes of their customers changed with time. In the mid-1990s, the Brown Derby restaurants were changed to Brown Derby Roadhouses. Many of the restaurants are still operating under that name, while some are known as the Original Girves Brown Derby restaurants.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Brown Derby|
- Website of Girves Brown Derby which serves 5 Girves Brown Derby restaurants and 5 Brown Derby Roadhouse restaurants in Ohio
- Website of The Original Hollywood Brown Derby – an affiliate of the original Hollywood location.
- Website outlining the history of the Los Feliz Brown Derby and the campaign to save it from demolition.
- A visual history of Yonge and Dundas