Every week, we tap into the deep recesses of the New York Public Library’s vast archive of old menus to take a look at the history of dining out. Click here for more Menus of the Week.
The Brown Derby was a Los Angeles-based mini-chain of restaurants that has attained more or less legendary status among those who are fans of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The first Brown Derby opened in 1926 on Wilshire Boulevard, and its distinctive shape — a rounded, brown dome resembling the hat it was named after — helped to make it incredibly successful. The second location, which opened in Hollywood in 1929, became the best remembered due to its reputation as a movie star hangout as well as the birthplace of the Cobb Salad; owner Bob Cobb reportedly hastily arranged the salad from leftovers for theater owner Sid Grauman, and chopped it well because he recently had dental work done and couldn’t chew well. In 1931 another opened in Beverly Hills, and in 1940 the last one opened, in Los Feliz. They’re all out of business; most have been torn down, and the Los Feliz one is the only one that remains a restaurant. Thankfully, we found a menu from the Wilshire Boulevard location dating from 1948 on the New York Public Library’s website that helps to give us an idea as to what was on offer then.
It’s a pretty classy menu, surprisingly high-end but still full of universal classics. In short, though, the offerings here are really all over the map. Appetizers range from matzo ball soup to chopped chicken livers to lobster cocktail to the Derby Cocktail, which came with crab legs, celery, avocado, and strained Thousand Island dressing.
Entrées include spaghetti with tomatoes, mushrooms, and meat sauce, corned beef hash, chicken enchiladas, "grenadine of filet beef" with béarnaise sauce, braised short ribs, fresh veal sweetbreads, a hamburger, trout amandine, and a whole broiled lobster. Desserts included cakes, pies, ice creams, and "coupe St. Jacques," sliced fruits topped with ice cream or sherbet.
Head to the back page of the menu, and you’ll find salads and “From the Broiler” options. Salads include the Derby Salad (which includes something you don’t often see nowadays, julienne of tongue), as well as the famous Cobb Salad, and broiled options include a nice selection of steaks along with broiled mushrooms with bacon on toast.
If a modern restaurant consultant were to take a look at this menu, they’d most likely tell the owner to focus it a bit more. But part of what made the Brown Derby so popular was its democratic approach to dining: if you just wanted a quick bowl of soup or a burger, so be it. But if you happened to be Clark Gable discussing a contract and in the mood for a lobster, they’d set you up with one of those as well.