Los Angeles Perfects the Cobb Salad
By Eric Rosen
The original Cobb salad from The Brown Derby, conceived by then-owner Robert Cobb in 1937.
Few dishes reach iconic all-American status—hot dogs, apple pie, the club sandwich… and the Cobb salad. Like most great all-American things, this one was the product of necessity, creativity… and a little bit of flair.
Legend has it that late one night back in 1937, Robert Cobb, the owner of the legendary Brown Derby restaurant on Wilshire, was roaming the kitchen looking for a snack for himself and a group of friends, including Sid Grauman, the owner of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, who had ended up at the restaurant after a night out on the town.
Reaching into the refrigerator, he pulled out everything he could find: lettuce, tomato, hard-boiled eggs, chives, cheddar cheese, cold chicken breast, avocado, and some fried bacon from an on-duty cook. With little idea how they would all go together, he simply chopped them up as small as he could, tossed the ingredients together, and dressed them with vinaigrette.
The impromptu invention was such a hit that Grauman came back to the restaurant to order the “Cobb” salad during normal hours, and the name caught on. Soon, most of Hollywood royalty was noshing on the dish, including famed studio head (and tyrant) Jack Warner, and film stars such as Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart.
In the 76 years since then, the Cobb salad has spread far beyond the now-demolished walls of the original Brown Derby. Not only can Angelenos find variations of the salad at restaurants all over town, but the humble (some might say accidental) Cobb salad has made its way on to menus all over the world. It has spawned countless imitators and remains a fave lunchtime staple of Hollywood’s A-listers and up-and-comers.
In fact, former Friends costar Courteney Cox famously told the Los Angeles Times that for the 10 years that she, Jennifer Aniston, and Lisa Kudrow worked on the show, they ate the same lunch together every day: Cobb salad. It’s also apparently a dish both Warren Beatty and Annette Bening order all the time at their go-to lunch spot, The Beverly Hills Hotel, although it is called the McCarthy salad there—taking its name from a Hollywood lawyer named Neil McCarthy.
Kaleo Adams, the 34-year-old executive chef at The BH Hotel attributes the Cobb salad’s popularity to the fact that “everyone loves salads, and this one is just so simple and easy to eat—if you break down its ingredients, most people eat these things every day.”
However, Adams is quick to point out several distinctions that set the hotel’s McCarthy salad apart from the Cobb. “We use two different types of lettuce—iceberg and romaine—which enhance the flavors of the greens. The chicken and eggs are free-range, and we roast the beets in advance, which adds a very subtle, smoky taste to the salad.”
It’s not just about the ingredients, though. “There’s also how we chop everything,” says Adams. “We chop the greens and egg whites very fine, while the chicken and avocado, which should be chunkier and heartier, are prepared that way—and, of course, [assembling] it table-side is unique.”
In many ways, the Cobb salad is the perfect dish to represent LA. It has a little bit of everything thrown in, but it is eminently customizable to suit the city’s notoriously picky eaters. Depending on what a person does or does not want in it, it can be made into literally thousands of permutations. Wolfgang Puck makes a Cobb with lobster instead of chicken for fancier tastes, while Tiara Cafe serves a Thai Cobb salad with green papaya and wonton slivers for those who insist on a more “mod” approach.
“I think it’s fair to say that half our guests want our McCarthy ‘their way,’” says Adams, “and they put their personal twist on it, which is great. Many love adding garbanzo beans, which are not in the salad but are often requested. When it comes to removing something, it’s usually the beets, and when it comes to adding something, it’s often more egg whites. I say, let them enjoy it the way they want!” So next time you are out and about town and deciding what to have for lunch, you can show your Angeleno pride by ordering the city’s hometown salad… and have it any way you like.
The ladies who lunch at this LA institution have included social lions like Nancy Reagan and Betsy Bloomingdale. It was they who made this particular Cobb salad famous by always asking for its ingredients—avocado, chopped egg, Point Reyes blue cheese, and smoked bacon—all to be chopped as finely as possible before being dressed with vinaigrette. 701 Stone Canyon Road, LA, 310-472-1211
The Farm of Beverly Hills
Whether it’s Beverly Hills doyennes sailing down from Trousdale for lunch, or power-hungry agents plotting their next exploit, every appetite is satisfied with the Farm Cobb salad. Made with grilled chicken, applewood-smoked bacon, hard-boiled egg, romaine, avocado, tomato, blue cheese, and sherry vinaigrette, it will fuel an afternoon of shopping—or deal making. 439 N. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-273-5578
The Polo Lounge
The Beverly Hills Hotel caters to a film industry heavy clientele, so rather than a simple Cobb salad, The Polo Lounge serves the McCarthy, named for a famed Hollywood lawyer. It contains romaine, grilled chicken, eggs, red beets, tomato, cheddar cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, avocado, and balsamic vinaigrette. Of course—all the ingredients are negotiable. 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310-887-2777
Restaurant at The Getty Center
Recharge after an art-filled afternoon with this museum resto’s much-lauded Cobb salad that contains a mélange of lettuce, apples, cranberries, blue cheese, herb-marinated chicken, applewood-smoked bacon, pecans, and a tangy apple cider vinaigrette. Now that’s a work of art. 1200 Getty Center Dr., LA, 310-440-6810
Fancy an international take on this West Coast staple? Head Downtown for Fred Eric’s Thai Cobb, replete with grilled chicken mixed with green papaya salad, bacon, spinach, egg, tomatoes, wonton slivers, and a refreshing Thai-inspired dressing. 127 E. 9th St., LA, 213-623-3663
photography by Howard Deshong/Getty images
Cover shoot: September 2014 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.