Menu
Brown Derby 1948 menu (click to enlarge).
The Brown Derby began as the brainchild of Herb Somborn (the husband of actress Gloria Swanson), Wilson Mizner (a well known screenwriter), and Sid Grauman (of Chinese Theater fame). One night in 1925, they were chatting with Abe Frank, the manager of the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel, and Somborn remarked, "You could open a restaurant in an alley and call it anything, or you could even build it in the shape of a hat, and if the food and service were good, the patrons would come flocking." (Mizner's version was that he said to Somborn: "If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat.")

No matter who thought of it first, they opened the first Brown Derby in 1926 on Wilshire Boulevard across from the Ambassador Hotel. Rumor had it that the original cash for the venture came from studio head Jack Warner, who remained a silent partner. The walls were covered with caricatures of famous stars -- and telephones were brought to the tables of stars who received calls while dining (there were telephone jacks at each booth).

It was the only one of the four Derby restaurants built in the shape of the famous hat. In 1931 the Beverly Hills Brown Derby opened at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive. The last of the Derbies opened in Los Feliz in 1941.

Bob Cobb
Bob Cobb at the Brown Derby.
But it was the Hollywood Brown Derby on Vine Street, just south of Hollywood Boulevard, that was the most famous. It opened on Valentine's Day 1929, and it soon became the place where the entertainment elite came to dine.

To achieve the standards set for this little Derby, Somborn selected a young friend who had been raised in the restaurant business. This was Robert H. Cobb, who was the combination food checker, steward, buyer, cashier, and occasional cook when the first Derby opened.

After the deaths of Mizner and Somborn, it was Cobb who took over the restaurants in 1934.

In 1939, Cobb explained,"Clark Gable has to have his coffee just right and Alice Faye's boiled eggs can't be left on too long. Gary Cooper's fried chicken must be dry rather than greasy. And that's the way they get 'em. They get 'em that way even though we have to tear the kitchen apart... Stars are particular about their food because they know what good food is. Stars are used to having things the way they want them and that's how we plan to have them. But if we didn't the stars wouldn't fuss. Most of them are the nicest folks on earth from a restaurant man's point of view. No, they'd simply leave the food, exit smiling and not come back. Who'd blame them? Not me!"

Clark Gable is said to have proposed to Carole Lombard in 'Booth No. 5' at the Brown Derby in Hollywood. The Hollywood Derby was in the perfect location to attract the Hollywood elite. The nearby movie studios had no commisaries yet, so actors often showed up in costume to eat on their lunch breaks. The only time it was a problem was in 1933, when Marlene Dietrich was refused service because she tried to dine there while wearing trousers (I guess some outfits are just too outrageous). Shirley Temple revealed that the non-alcoholic drink bearing her name was invented at the Brown Derby in the mid-1930s. Temple herself never liked the drink and noted her personality rights had been used without permission. But Cobb had no such complaints when a food item was named after him...


Bob Cobb, wife Gail Patrick, Marian Marsh and Howard Hughes at the Brown Derby.

The Original Cobb Salad

One night in 1937, Cobb was weary of the steady hot-dog-hamburger diet, and prowled hungrily in his restaurant's kitchen for a snack. Opening the huge refrigerator, he pulled out this and that: a head of lettuce, an avocado, some romaine, watercress, tomatoes, some cold breast of chicken, a hard-boiled egg, chives, cheese and some old-fashioned French dressing. He started chopping. Added some crisp bacon -- swiped from a busy chef.

Cobb's midnight invention was so tasty that Sid Grauman, who was with Cobb that midnight, asked the next day for a 'Cobb Salad.' It was put on the menu and became an overnight sensation with Derby customers -- people like movie mogul Jack Warner, who regularly dispatched his chauffeur to pick up a carton.

COBB SALAD
(serves 4-6)
1/2 head of iceberg lettuce
1/2 bunch watercress
1 small bunch chicory
1/2 head romaine lettuce
2 medium sized tomatoes, peeled
2 breasts of boiled roasting chicken, boned
6 strips crisp bacon
1 avocado
3 hard-cooked eggs
2 Tablespoons chopped chives
1/2 cup crumbled imported Roquefort cheese
1 cup Brown Derby Old-Fashioned French Dressing

Cut finely lettuce, watercress, chicory and romaine and arrange in salad bowl.  Cut tomatoes in half, remove seeds, dice finely and arrange in a strip across the salad.  Dice the breasts of chicken and arrange over top of chopped greens. Chop bacon finely and spread over the salad.  Cut avocado in small pieces and arrange around the edge of the salad.  Decorate the salad by sprinkling over the chopped eggs, chopped chives and grated cheese.  Just before serving mix the salad thoroughly with French Dressing.

BROWN DERBY OLD-FASHIONED FRENCH DRESSING
1/4 cup water (optional)
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon English mustard (dry)
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 cup olive oil

1 cups salad (vegetable) oil

Blend together all ingredients except oils.  Whip eggs vigorously until yolks turn pale yellow. Slowly incorporate oil to form an emulsion. Add remaining ingredients and season with salt and pepper. Chill.  Shake before serving.

A note from the Brown Derby: "The water is optional, depending upon the degree of oiliness desired in the dressing."

Among the variations of the recipe the most common are the substitution of breast of turkey for the chicken and blue cheese for the Roquefort. Often a waiter will ask if the patron desires the salad to be tossed in the kitchen. However, it is traditionally served with the dressing on the side, to be added when the salad is tossed at the table.

*RAW EGG WARNING

The American Egg Board states: "There have been warnings against consuming raw or lightly cooked eggs on the grounds that the egg may be contaminated with Salmonella, a bacteria responsible for a type of food poisoning....Healthy people need to remember that there is a very small risk and treat eggs and other raw animal foods accordingly. Use only properly refrigerated, clean, sound-shelled, fresh, grade AA or A eggs. Avoid mixing yolks and whites with the shell."

Yield: 12 servings
Recipe courtesy of The Brown Derby

Since 1937, more than 4 million Cobb salads have been sold at Brown Derby restaurants, according to the Brown Derby Restaurant Group, which, now that the two original Hollywood restaurants have closed, is what the company calls itself. It licenses the restaurant name for merchandise (including bottled Cobb salad dressing), as well as to Disney, which opened a reproduction of the original Brown Derby in Orlando, Florida, in 1989 and, in 1990. signed a 20-year agreement for Brown Derby restaurants in Tokyo, Paris and Anaheim, California.

The original landmark restaurant was eventually torn down; only the dome was saved, and now sits awkwardly atop the roof of a strip-mall built on the site.

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Written by Jeff Hause. Thanks to Vice President Mark Panatier of the A.F. Gilmore Company, for his assistance in the researching of this article.

Further Reading:

  • "The Brown Derby Restaurant: A Hollywood Legend" by Mark Willems, Sally Wright Cobb, Jane Wyman.
  • Screen Cuisine: A History of The Brown Derby & Robert Cobb's Salad, by Carley Hildebrand.

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