The history and revival of Southern California’s most famous vintage cakes

By Maura Wall Hernandez

Iconic Hollywood hotspots may have been as famous for their clientele as for their culinary offerings, but some of those historic restaurants have a bit of life beyond just memories, as the dishes served there have become part of the region’s popular culture. A number of those specialties—especially the desserts—have outlived the famous faces that kept the respective hotspots open through the years, and some can still be enjoyed around the area.

Although most of these historic eateries closed their doors for the final time years ago, SoCal residents can experience the glory of some of the past eras’ most famous vintage cakes—coveted by movie stars and other Hollywood elites—thanks to Valerie Confections: a beloved mom-and-pop bakery run by Valerie Gordon and Stan Weightman, Jr. Valerie Confections opened in Los Angeles in 2004 and now has three locations where guests can find re-creations of classic cakes to pay homage to bygone bakeries and eras.

Cakes from Valerie's Confections
Photo by Maura Wall Hernandez

Here are a few highlights from Valerie’s menu:

Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake

Blum’s, a soda fountain/bakery/restaurant with a turn-of-the-century pink, white and gold signature decor, originally opened in San Francisco and later Los Angeles, but closed its last location in the 1970s. The Beverly Hills restaurant on Camden Drive, that so many here loved and remember today, opened in 1959.

The coffee crunch cake, one of the bakery’s most popular desserts, includes two layers of light sponge cake (flavored with a hint of lemon and vanilla) enrobed in a delicate coffee-flavored whipped cream frosting. Broken shards of sponge candy, a kind of light and crunchy toffee made with sugar, corn syrup and baking soda dot the outside of the cake to give it a spongy look and airy texture.

Among the cake’s most famous fans: late author, screenwriter-producer-director and Beverly Hills-native Nora Ephron. Ephron was reportedly such a huge fan of Blum’s coffee crunch cake, that she procured the recipe and was known to keep a secret that she was willing to trade for other classic recipes.

Imitation recipes for Blum’s coffee crunch cake have appeared in newspapers and online over the years, and even Martha Stewart has re-created this beloved cake for fans to make at home.

The popularity of coffee crunch cake here in Southern California experienced a resurgence after a re-creation of it ran in a 2009 Los Angeles Times feature about wedding cakes. After that, Valerie’s added it to their permanent menu. You can try it by the slice at the bakery’s downtown LA Grand Central Market location, or order a whole cake to take home.

The Brown Derby’s Grapefruit Cake

First opened in 1926 on Wilshire Boulevard, the Brown Derby was a smashing success with Hollywood royalty, but it was the restaurant’s location at Hollywood and Vine (opened in 1929) near the radio and movie studios that made the business over-the-top famous. Staying open later in the evening to entice movie stars after a long day of filming, the restaurant became one of Hollywood’s most important hangouts.

The famous Brown Derby grapefruit cake is a layer cake with a cream cheese frosting, slices of fresh grapefruit and bits of candied grapefruit as well.

The Brown Derby’s original location was constructed in the shape of a derby hat, fashioned after New York Gov. Al Smith’s signature brown derby. While the governor was visiting Los Angeles in the mid-1920s, his hat became the inspiration for the name of the coffee shop that would eventually become a historic Hollywood landmark restaurant.

As for how the grapefruit cake came to be, the story goes that powerful Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons, who worked for William Randolph Hearst, complained to the Brown Derby co-founder Robert H. Cobb that all the desserts on the restaurant’s menu were too fattening. So, Cobb told the chef to put fresh grapefruit on a dessert because conventional wisdom at the time suggested grapefruit was slimming—even though the cream cheese frosting was anything but healthy.

The restaurant received a substantial surge in interest from tourists after it appeared in an episode of I Love Lucy featuring William Holden in 1955.

Caricatures of all the restaurant’s famous patrons lined the walls of the Brown Derby, and due to the number of Hollywood elite and entertainment industry executives who were regulars, the restaurant began offering telephones at their tables so “working lunches” could accommodate their busy schedules. Famous faces who frequented the Brown Derby included Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Jack Warner, Lucille Ball, and other A-listers of the time.

The original Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard was shuttered in 1985 and was enveloped by a Korean mini-mall. The Hollywood and Vine location’s building was demolished in 2001. Another location was also razed.

The 14,000 square-foot Los Feliz Boulevard location of the restaurant—in what’s now part of Koreatown—was originally constructed in 1928, financed by Cecil B. DeMille for another restaurant space. The Brown Derby location there closed in 1960. The building received landmark protection status from the City of Los Angeles in 2006 after it narrowly avoided demolition (thanks to a group that lobbied for the historic status). The property was put on the market for $10.6 million and sold in 2011. It’s the only remaining Brown Derby building.

Fun fact: Restaurant co-founder Bob Cobb is also credited with creating the cobb salad with a kitchen-sink ingredient approach in 1934 while hosting Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre for lunch.

Although long gone, the legacy of the Brown Derby is well-documented in photographs. Today, Disney World hosts The Hollywood Brown Derby, an authentic replica of the original restaurant, licensed as part of Disney’s Hollywood Studios at the Florida theme park—and as you might guess the menu also reflects plenty of dishes from the original, right down to the most popular items: Cobb salad and grapefruit cake for dessert.

You can try your hand at making the famous Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake at home with the recipe from the Disney food blog, or save the time and energy and order one from Valerie Confections.

Chasen’s Banana Shortcake

This delectable, old-school dessert may not be gorgeous like the offerings at today’s top LA bakeries, but it remains one of the most-loved vintage cakes that hails from Southern California. Chasen’s classic cake is simple and timeless: a rum-laced shortcake base, filled with bananas and fresh whipped cream, topped with banana sauce and chocolate sauce. Many still remember the dessert, which can be special ordered at Valerie Confections.

Originally opened in 1936—near the corner of Doheny Drive and Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood—as a barbecue restaurant known for its incredible chili, Chasen’s became a Los Angeles institution and one of the hottest places to both dine, and see and be seen.

The restaurant’s adjacency to Beverly Hills guaranteed regular, wealthy clientele, and for decades was the “it” place for Hollywood’s finest to dine in style. Iconic figures such as Frank Sinatra, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and Jimmy Stewart were among Chasen’s most loyal guests. Former MGM casting executive Bill Grady, who often closed deals while dining at Chasen’s, was such a fan and regular that he had his own custom booth built to always ensure he’d have a table available when he visited.

As regular customers, golden age actors Cary Grant, Leslie Howard and Ronald Colman also had their own tables. And other famous folks, such as Clark Gable, Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Milton Berle, Katherine Hepburn, James Cagney, Veronica Lake, Jack Benny, William Powell, Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory Peck, Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, Orson Welles, Howard Hughes and many other A-listers were also loyal diners at the restaurant.

Fun facts: Chasen’s was the birthplace of the Shirley Temple mocktail. While the young actress dined with her family, she wanted a drink like the ones her parents were having, so the bartender mixed up two parts ginger ale, one part orange juice, a splash of grenadine and a maraschino cherry garnish to create a drink just for her. Disco legend Donna Summer is said to also have written She Works Hard For The Money about a hardworking Chasen’s waitress who worked two jobs and had fallen asleep in the restroom.

The restaurant closed its doors in April 1995 after a storied run as one of Hollywood’s favorite hangouts. It was used for private parties and as a film location until the late 1990s when the building was demolished and a Bristol Farms grocery store was built over the spot—it still exists today.