As I explore Southern California, I’m slowly realizing how many iconic dishes originated in this influential area. The lineup of L.A. area originals includes such classics as the hot fudge sundae, the French Dip sandwich, the cheeseburger (invented in Pasadena), the oyster cocktail, and the Orange Julius. Add to that illustrious list, the Cobb Salad. This beloved, protein-heavy salad was invented at the legendary Brown Derby, in Hollywood. While the restaurant shuttered back in the 1980s, it left an indelible mark on American food culture, thanks largely to its landmark salad. Here’s how it all started.
A Restaurant for the Ages
Founded as a small cafe in the 1920s – I can just imagine stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Clara Bow sipping coffee here before heading into the studio – the Brown Derby quickly became one of Hollywood’s most popular restaurants. It probably didn’t hurt that the restaurant was so hard to miss: true to its name, it was shaped like a giant brown derby. The original Brown Derby spawned a national chain of restaurants, which helped the Cobb Salad become a household name. But the origins of the salad itself can be traced back to one fateful late-night snack.
A Hasty Meal
If you’ve read some of my other food origin stories (I’m looking at you Buffalo Wings), you may have noticed a pattern: so many of our country’s favorite dishes were thrown together for a hungry customer who wanted a meal in a hurry, usually late at night. They say “haste makes waste,” but it can also make some pretty amazing dishes, it turns out. In this case, the customer was none other than famed showman Sid Grauman.
According to legend, Grauman had stopped in the Brown Derby late one night in 1937. After rummaging through the fridge, co-owner Bob Cobb whipped up a salad of lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, avocado (this is California, after all), chives, bacon, and hard-boiled eggs. Grauman quickly fell in love with the filling salad and came back the next day to order what he named the ‘Cobb Salad.” Given Grauman’s knack for backing a winner (he built the iconic Chinese and Egyptian theaters, which are still major tourist attractions), it’s not surprising that the dish quickly became the talk of the town.
Variations on a Theme
I’ve already listed the ingredients for Bob Cobb’s original namesake salad, but as with any great dish, this salad is quite adaptable. “Southwestern-style” Cobb Salad mixes it up with black beans and shredded cheese. I’ve seen recipes that call for walnuts, for a little added sweetness, as well as Cobb Salad wraps. And if you’re wondering What Bob Cobb would think about these variations on his classic salad, keep in mind that the Brown Derby itself tinkered with the salad’s ingredients, eventually adding chicken, watercress, and Roquefort cheese.
As for the dressing, a vinaigrette with a little kick from mustard and lemon is usually the way to go. And yes, this salad can be “veganized”! I like to make mine with tempeh bacon and chickpeas, giving the salad the protein boost it’s known for. Unfortunately, I’ll never be able to travel to Old Hollywood, but throwing on a classic movie and whipping up an equally classic Hollywood salad might be the next best thing.
GTA: Gjelina Take Away
Just south of Santa Monica, you’ll find Venice, a beach neighborhood known for its quirky characters. The avocado toast at GTA – the takeout counter for the neighboring Gjelina restaurant – is no exception. An otherwise standard avocado toast gets a welcome touch of uniqueness from pistachio-hazelnut duqqa: a Middle Eastern spice blend that I fell in love with in Egypt. To me, an avocado toast with global fusion flavors is the most California thing ever. And I’m all for it.
If you enjoyed this article or have suggestions on how we can improve it, please leave us a comment below. Also, make sure to check out other dishes I’ve created or stories I’ve written about food culture – here.