How THE BROWN DERBY got its name has as many versions as its menu had items, but it's believed to be derived from the head gear that several well known gentlemen wore at the time.
The year was 1926, when the first restaurant opened its doors on Wilshire Blvd. It was an immediate hit with all the glamorous celebrities in Hollywood. Everything in the restaurant was of the highest caliber -- from the finishing touches on the hamburgers, to the hiring of "good lookers" for waitresses (even some ex-Ziegfeld Follies girls).
The place seated a hundred, and for all its reputation, the interior was described as almost "plain". Booths hugged the walls, and in the center, a counter encircled a service area.
On any given night, one could find such stars as Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, or John Barrymore.
The BROWN DERBY was a huge success, and since it was open until 4 A.M., people congregated there after their evening's activities. It was said that everyone in Hollywood, with the exception of Greta Garbo, set foot in the BROWN DERBY.
The BROWN DERBY started showing up in films and fan magazines. The waitresses' hoopskirts, starched to resemble derbies, became as famous as the stucco building known for its corned beef hash, stew, pot roast, and pie.
On Valentine's Day in 1929, a second location opened its doors, this time in the heart of Hollywood -- on Vine, a half-block south of Hollywood Boulevard. The caricatures painted on the walls were missing in the early Hollywood BROWN DERBY but soon artist Eddie Vitch was cranking out walls full of the Derby's most prominent customers. The booths were the favored spots for stars to eat. The perpetual vigil of autograph hounds at the front door of the restaurant was a testament to a good job by the BROWN DERBY's publicist.
The war years at "THE DERBY" brought about patriotic menus and a new Los Feliz branch in 1941. The BROWN DERBY still remained a preferred spot for Hollywood royalty of the 1940's.
There were a total of 5 BROWN DERBY restaurants. But by 1960 the glamour was gone and so was the BROWN DERBY.
Until the 90s, when THE DERBY was brought back to life by entrepreneurs Tammi and Tony Gower. On January 1, 1993, THE DERBY and LOUISE'S TRATTORIA (The Derby shares the same building and menu with Louise's) started construction to open at one of the very same legendary locations where THE BROWN DERBY once flourished.
The building was restored in a way that evokes a lush 1920s and '30s Hollywood ambiance and brings it into the '90s.
The mood of old Hollywood is recreated at THE DERBY in its 100 x 35 foot room lined on one wall with six private booths hung with burgundy velvet curtains. Sitting in a booth, is like going back in time to a period where celebrities adorned the room. The center piece in this, the main room, is an ornate oval bar that saw service in the 1945 film "MILDRED PIERCE." This is the drama in which Joan Crawford said the immortal line "People have to drink somewhere. Why not here?"
SO, IS THE DERBY like THE BROWN DERBY? Yes, in many ways it is. It is a world-renowned club that's bringing glamour back to Hollywood. In fact the club has been a location for a number of new Hollywood films and TV shows.
But in addition to offering a dinner menu, perhaps the most popular menu is the "live" swing music performed nightly by various bands from around the country -- and the exuberant energy of the dancers who frequent the club.
Whereas Ava Gardner, may have sat in a booth with an impecably powdered face - the Gardners of today (like Cybill Shepherd) are working up a sweat on the dance floor!
written by SONIA A.
Today's "The Derby" is located at one of the original Brown Derby sites.