By Jennifer Richmond
Los Angeles, Tinseltown– the place where dreams come true. Dreams have been coming true in this town for decades. Actors’ dreams, directors’ dreams, even the dreams of developers. Lots turn over in this town by the dozen. A cute little bungalow becomes a McMansion. A classic building turns into a condominium. Even a refinery can become a huge mall. While most of these changes aren’t for the better, there is a group that’s doing their best to keep classic Los Angeles alive and well. The Los Angeles that all us vintage lovers cling to: The 1933 Group.
If you love tales of yesteryear and vintage, 1933 should sound familiar to you, it’s the year Prohibition ended. So, it’s no surprise a company that specializes in finding and refurbishing classic bars and restaurants would don the name of the year where drinking became legal again.
Started by three young men in their 20s, the 1933 group has become synonymous with vintage Los Angeles. If there’s a classic building that’s about to go on the market, Bobby Green, Dimitri Komarov and Dmitry Liberman are the men to call. They’re the men behind 1933 Group, such great eateries as the Idle Hour, the Formosa Café and Highland Park Bowl. While it’s true these eateries have been around since the 1920s, 30s and 40s, recently they’ve fallen into disrepair, so much so that there was fear they’d be torn down and lost forever. But luckily, 1933 Group was there to rehabilitate them.
Green started his career by opening up a small coffee shop in West Los Angeles: Cacao. It was the kind of place college kids and people in their 20s would go for a cup of joe, some conversation, and a little chess. It was successful, and when combined with his love for L.A.’s social scene, it gave Green the bug to move forward on another eatery. A place that would be comfortable. A place with a real Twin Peaks vibe, a show Green happened to adore. He called it the Big Foot Lodge, and after three years and an inspiration book, a friend connected Green with two clothing entrepreneurs who were looking to invest in something new. Two men named Dimitri, who are “dedicated, hard working, good people.” They 3 men met in 1998 and opened Big Foot a year later in June of ’99.
Big Foot was an instant success – packed every night for several years. After that, the three agreed they needed to do it all again. So, they did. According to Green they went on a roll and opened up a new place every year and a half.
In the beginning Green, Komarov, and Liberman would simply open places where their friends lived but lacked a local hang out. According to Green, Atwater village, where Idle Hour is located, was “nowhere”. Highland Park Bowl in Echo Park “was scary and now it’s the hippest part of town. We had a reputation as trailblazers of neighborhoods. It was hugely flattering.”
While 1933 started with Big Foot, it’s Idle Hour that means the most to Green. He went to junior high near north Hollywood and frequently drove past this “run down, oddly shaped building.” He was always fascinated with it and for good reason, it’s got an interesting history.
Idle Hour originally opened in 1941 as part of the Programmatic architecture that was popular at the time. Shaped as a whiskey barrel, Idle Hour was meant to lure thirsty patrons at the end of their busy day. Then Dolores Flores, a flamenco dancer, bought it in 1975 and turned it into a restaurant and Flamenco show for 10 years until she was hit by a car and couldn’t dance anymore. She closed the doors and continued living there, never paying one cent in taxes. Then, one day Green got a call from Chris Nichols, a big preservationist who got Idle Hour landmarked as a historic building in 2010, telling him that it was up for probate auction. Green jumped at the chance to purchase it. Green and his partners won the auction. They refurbished the place, and even recreated another Programmatic fixture, the pipe-smoking Bull Dog from 1928’s Bulldog Café, to “guard” the back patio.
Dreams have been coming true in this town for decades. Actors’ dreams, directors’ dreams, even the dreams of developers. Lots turn over in this town by the dozen…While most of these changes aren’t for the better, there is a group that’s doing their best to keep classic Los Angeles alive and well.
After Idle Hour, 1933 got notoriety and was suddenly on people’s radar. These were the guys you called when classic locales came up for sale. That’s how Highland Park Bowl came about. The new owner called and wanted them to do for the bowling alley what they did for Idle Hour. Green was once again invested since he frequented the alley back when it was Mr. T’s Bowl.
Highland Park Bowl fits perfectly into 1933’s resume as it’s the oldest bowling alley in Los Angeles. Established in 1927, Highland Park Bowl was part bowling alley and part doctor’s offices. That may sound like a weird combination, but when the only “legal” way to get liquor during Prohibition was to obtain doctor’s notes for medicinal whiskey, it made perfect sense. See, thanks to the historian 1933 hired, Green and his partners discovered that during Prohibition patrons would head upstairs to see the doctor for whatever was ailing them. The doctor would give them a prescription which they would then take downstairs to the “pharmacy” to fill. And while they were waiting, they’d simply bowl a string or two. Once Prohibition was overturned in 1933, the music store upstairs acquired a live music permit and bands started playing. Then in 1966 Joseph “Mr. T” Teresa purchased the building and renamed it Mr. T’s Bowl. Mr. T covered the walls with paint and walled up the doctor’s offices. While bowling was still available, the place became more and more about the bands. Thankfully, the place was bought again and 1933 were called in to bring Highland Bowl back to its beautiful, glorious heyday.
And that’s how it went. A vintage Los Angeles locale would come on the market and Green, Komarov, and Liberman were notified. Sometimes there was a bidding war and sometimes they were the sole purveyors. But each and every time, they were the winners. It happened with Oldfield’s in Culver City, Harlowe in West Hollywood, Thirsty Crow in East Hollywood and most recently Formosa Café. Formosa was the most cherished and of course the hardest of them all.
Green, Komarov, and Liberman knew the Formosa was in trouble. There were problems from the management issues to straight up neglect. As the months went on, the three men watched as the Café fell further and further into disrepair. Then the moment they were waiting for happened: it closed. As soon as the partners heard about it, the three of them took to the phones. They made call after call and soon discovered the management company that owned the mall next door also owned the Formosa. There was talk about tearing it down to make room for mall parking, but once wind of that got out, the picketers came out in force. Protest after protest screamed to save the classic café. A café that’s been around since 1939. A café where the likes of Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner could be found sipping on a cocktail or enjoying an egg roll. With a pedigree like that (and a constant stream of protesters), the owners knew they couldn’t tear it down. They knew it had to stay. So, the vetting process began.
The owners knew the best thing was to get someone who wouldn’t change it. There were three or four months of talk. Then the breakthrough came. 1933’s partners gave the Formosa owners a tour of Idle Hour and Highland Park Bowl. Those tours, plus plenty of people writing letters on 1933’s behalf, got the job done. They were awarded the Formosa. “We wanted to restore the original parts and refurbish the redone part.” And restore they did. They cleaned it up and brought back all that classic Formosa charm, complete with the black and white actor photos and the original red trolley car from 1904.
But since the Formosa was a Chinese restaurant, the group wanted to honor that heritage as well. “Because one of the most prominent décor themes in the Formosa is the old black and white headshots, we wanted to give the newer areas of the Formosa a part to play, too: to tell a storied history of Chinese Americans in Old Hollywood.” The team behind recreating the Formosa met with the original family and local historians to procure all the original photos. The Yee Mee Loo bar, a new addition to the Formosa, allowed them to show the influence of Chinese Americans in early Hollywood. Working with Arthur Dong, Oscar-nominated filmmaker and award-winning author of the book Hollywood Chinese, they were able to obtain “photos, lobby cards and headshots to curate a showcase of Chinese American talent and milestones from Hollywood’s golden age.” They recreated a beautiful piece of Los Angeles history. The Formosa opened and was a huge success. Then March, 2020 came and the whole world changed.
“Formosa never got to see it’s full stride,” said Green. All their bars were “forced to close for a year and a half.” But according to Green “response has been great over the past month. We didn’t lose any of our establishments, but we’re in a large amount of debt that we’re trying to climb out of.” People have started coming back and they’re just as excited to eat and drink at 1933’s locales as they were before.
While the past couple years have been hard on 1933, the group hasn’t stopped working. Right before the pandemic hit Green and his partners were looking for their next venture. And they found it in a cute little hot dog stand. No, I’m not talking about Pinks. I’m talking about that other famous hot dog stand: Tail o’ the Pup.
According to Green, Tail o’ the Pup “is the cutest, it’s the funnest, it’s the quirkiest. It had so much influence on pop culture, way more than any of the other places. It’s soooo cute and so silly. It’s the most remembered… So, to me it’s the most exciting comeback.” 1933 has had Tail o’ the Pup for three years, but they had to find the right location. That’s why it’s taken so long to bring this establishment back. They wanted it to be as close to its original location as possible. But trying to find a free piece of land, even a small piece, in Los Angeles isn’t as easy as it sounds. This is the one time the pandemic helped, it caused a lot of restaurants and businesses to close, which meant a lot of properties became available. One such property was a restaurant. But the “really cool part about it was that it was the Doors recording studio.” Green says there was even a photo of Jim Morrison eating a hot dog. That photo will be front and center in the new location. 1933 will add the original plaster hot dog stand to the front of the current restaurant. And it’ll be located near La Cienega and Santa Monica boulevards.
That location may seem like a bit of a concern considering another famous hot dog stand is located right down the street on La Brea. But Green and his team aren’t concerned in the least. “Before 2005 when Tail o’ the Pup closed, you were either a Pink’s person or a Tail o’ the Pup person. Pink’s really took off after Pup closed. I don’t think that reclaiming that crown is going to be too difficult.”
Unlike the original Pup, this reincarnation will have a beer garden in the back. Once the Pup officially opens this spring, there will be hot dogs, hamburgers, fries and soft serve, just like the original. But now there will also be a beer and wine menu. And to keep up with current trends, Green promises there will be veggie and gluten-free options. Even with the updates to keep up with current demands, though, Green swears they won’t stray from what people fondly remember about Pup, “but our quality may be better than it was in 1995,” he adds with a chuckle. If it’s anything like 1933’s other locales, that’s pretty much a guarantee.
Learn more about the 1933 Group and their locations here
Jennifer Richmond has been cooking ever since she could hold a wooden spoon. Her food blog, Kitchy Cooking, appeared in 2009 when she realized she could combine her love of vintage life with cooking and writing. While she enjoys creating twists on classic savory and sweet recipes, she especially loves learning about the history and recreating vintage cocktails. You can follow her blog at kitchycooking.com and on Instagram and twitter at @kitchycooker.