The Original-Recipe Cobb Salad and its Old Hollywood Heritage

An original recipe Cobb salad composed on a gray platter
(Photo by California News Press)

The Cobb salad is one of California’s most enduring culinary creations, one that’s always worth celebrating – and ordering. This salad is substantial enough to be a stand-alone meal, with a full array of flavors and textures that complement, rather than compete. You can feast on a huge bowl of Cobb salad without feeling stuffed. In its classic presentation, color-blocked rows of fresh ingredients over a pile of greens appear as a painter’s palette. Toss it all together and you have a masterpiece of a salad. 

The Cobb salad is popular enough to be ubiquitous on restaurant menus all over the United States. Because the salad features so many ingredients, there’s room for chefs to come up with endless variations on the original recipe without losing the core identity of the Cobb. 

The Cobb salad also works as a concept – go through your fridge and pantry, pull out anything salad-worthy and chop it all up. In fact, that’s exactly how the original Cobb salad was invented. This would be a fairly unremarkable story, but there’s a touch of Old Hollywood glamor to elevate the origins of the beloved Cobb salad.

Who invented the Cobb salad?

The official account of the Cobb salad’s creation features in the “Brown Derby Cookbook” published in 1949. An excerpt published along with the original Cobb salad recipe on The Food Timeline credits its creation to Robert H. Cobb, aka Bob Cobb, owner of the Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant. 

As told in the restaurant’s official cookbook, Cobb rustled up a salad of avocado, lettuce, tomatoes and bacon for his dinner one evening, and soon after improved upon it with chicken, chives, hard-boiled eggs, watercress and Roquefort cheese. Cobb loved his salad so much, he put it on the Brown Derby menu. It was an instant hit with restaurant patrons, a crowd that included many early Hollywood stars and star makers. The signature salad was almost instantly copied by other restaurants, who gave fair dues in keeping the name Cobb. 

Most accounts of Cobb salad’s origins say it was invented in 1937 or 1938. Many give a role in the story to the legendary Hollywood showman, Sid Grauman. Grauman, a friend of Bob Cobb, loved the salad and requested it repeatedly, which prompted its permanent inclusion on the Brown Derby’s menu. Some stories include the detail that Grauman was hungry but had a sore mouth after dental work, which is why all the Cobb salad’s ingredients are all chopped up so small. 

It has been suggested that one of the Brown Derby’s chefs or line cooks is the real inventor of the Cobb salad. Bob Cobb certainly wouldn’t be the first business owner to take credit for an employee’s work. But, it’s not improbable for a non-chef to concoct a delicious salad simply by assembling ingredients on hand. Cobb was also a savvy restaurateur, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and kudos, as the inventor of his namesake salad.

The roof of the replica Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant at Disney World with a hat-shaped sign
The replica Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida (Photo by Jason Ryan on Unsplash)

The Hollywood Brown Derby

The Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant opened on Valentine’s Day of 1929 at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. This was the second location for the Brown Derby restaurant chain, the first having opened in a derby hat-shaped building on Wilshire Boulevard in 1926. The heydays of both restaurants coincided with the golden age of Hollywood. Founders and financiers of the Brown Derby restaurants included Cecil B. DeMille, director and producer Herbert K. Somborn and Jack L. Warner of Warner Bros. 

With its proximity to movie studios, plus presumably star-quality food and service, the Hollywood Brown Derby always drew a celebrity crowd. Legendary gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons conducted interviews over the Brown Derby’s tables. Clark Gable proposed to Carole Lombard under the restaurant’s walls of caricatures. Groucho Marx was a regular, as was Shirley Temple whose namesake drink is possibly another Brown Derby invention. 

The Hollywood Brown Derby no longer exists. The restaurant closed in 1985 and its three-story, Spanish Revival structure was demolished in 1994, having been damaged by the Northridge Earthquake. The Cobb salad lives on as its legacy.

A Disney revival

Two years after the Hollywood Brown Derby closed its doors, the owners struck a licensing agreement with the Walt Disney Company. The result is a replica of the original Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant at the Hollywood Studios theme park in Florida. The restaurant’s menu features “Our Famous Cobb Salad,” with spit-roasted turkey as the most noticeable deviation from the original recipe, plus the option to add chicken or shrimp. The price, $25 to $35 at the time of publishing, would probably be more shocking to Robert H. Cobb. 

A pile of finely shredded romaine lettuce on a chopping board
(Photo by California News Press)

The original Cobb salad recipe

The original Brown Derby Cobb salad recipe, as printed in the 1949 “Brown Derby Cookbook,” is as follows: 

  • 1/2 head lettuce
  • 1/2 bunch watercress
  • 1 small bunch chicory
  • 1/2 head romaine
  • 2 medium-sized tomatoes, peeled
  • 2 breasts of boiled roasting chicken
  • 6 strips crisp bacon
  • 1 avocado
  • 2 hard-cooked eggs
  • 2 tbsp chopped chives
  • 1/2 cup fine grated imported Roquefort cheese
  • 1 cup Brown Derby old-fashioned French dressing

The leafy greens are to be finely shredded, and everything else diced and arranged over the top. Mix thoroughly with French dressing just before serving. This recipe serves four to six. 

The original Cobb salad dressing recipe

The original recipe for Brown Derby old-fashioned French dressing is:

  • 1 cup water (optional, to taste)
  • 1 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 2 1/2 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp English mustard
  • 1 head garlic, chopped
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 2 cups salad oil

The Cobb salad dressing recipe makes a lot, but it keeps well. This dressing was so popular that the Brown Derby sold it in bottles for customers to take home. 

How to modernize the original Cobb salad recipe

The original Cobb salad and dressing recipes have aged well, and could definitely be followed precisely in contemporary kitchens with excellent results. A few tips to simplify things, in fitting with modern short attention spans and tighter schedules, include:

  • Instead of the four different leafy greens, just use romaine or another crunchy lettuce, or buy a bag of mixed greens. 
  • Don’t bother peeling the tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes are the best choice outside of peak tomato season.
  • Buy a rotisserie chicken or use any kind of cooked chicken you like. 
  • Substitute any kind of blue cheese, such as packaged blue cheese crumbles.
  • Buy a bottle of red wine vinaigrette, or use whatever dressing you have on hand.

Cobb salad variations

The original Cobb salad recipe is endlessly adaptable, and it seems safe to say Bob Cobb wouldn’t mind at all if you tinkered with his invention. Substitute some of the ingredients, or add even more, either as a deliberate culinary choice or the convenience of using whatever is in your fridge. 

Many restaurant versions of a Cobb salad include some onion, and thin slivers of red onion or scallions work well. Cucumber, shredded carrot and croutons are common additions, too. Some switch the blue cheese for feta or shredded cheddar or Jack cheese. Substitute plain chicken breast with a more flavorful version, such as BBQ or blackened chicken. Chop up some crispy chicken strips or deli-counter chicken lunch meat. Or, replace the chicken with an alternative meat or seafood. Ham is an adequate (but slightly sad) substitution for the bacon in a Cobb salad.

Strips of crispy bacon, small tomatoes and romaine lettuce on a platter
(Photo by California News Press)

Turkey Cobb

Disney switched the original chicken for turkey in its copycat Brown Derby Cobb salad. A deli near me lists “poultry” in its Cobb salad. This terminology has a hint of mystery meat about it, but it’s really a sensible approach to using whatever the kitchen has the most of that day. Smoked turkey would be an excellent choice. 

Seafood Cobb

Replacing the classic chicken with seafood gives a Cobb salad a delicious twist. It works so well, the seafood Cobb is a restaurant menu staple. Fancier versions use fresh fish and seafood such as salmon, poached shrimp, or lobster tail. At home, you could just flake a can of tuna over the salad for an inexpensive and convenient seafood Cobb. 

Add more veg

Additional finely diced or shredded vegetables are quite at home in a Cobb salad. A few good choices include cucumber, carrot, corn, bell pepper and blanched green beans. 

Vegetarian Cobb salads

Make a meat-free Cobb by leaving out the chicken and bacon, and you’re still left with a decent dinner salad. Vegans are left with lettuce, avocado and tomato as a base. In the spirit of the original, Cobb, add some vegetarian- or vegan-friendly ingredients to replace the proteins. Consider cooked beans or chickpeas, croutons, more vegetables and a handful of toasted nuts.

Make it a grain or pasta Cobb salad

A traditional Cobb salad is substantial, but you can add even more bulk with some cooked grains or bite-sized pasta. Skip or reduce the crunchy lettuce component to make room for the starches, or substitute the romaine or iceberg with softer greens like spinach and arugula, which will meld in nicely. 

Cobb salad dressing options

It’s hard to think of a salad dressing that wouldn’t work with a Cobb salad. Restaurants often offer ranch or green goddess with a Cobb salad. Both add a decadent creaminess that complements the maximalist culinary creation. Any vinaigrette is similar enough to the original Cobb salad dressing to be a traditional choice. The blue cheese in a Cobb salad would make most think twice about Asian-inspired dressings, but without the cheese, everything else is deliciously compatible with a sesame, ginger or miso salad dressing.

Still thinking about food? Read The Story of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company

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