Let’s call him Mario. He’s the bartender at this classic on Hollywood Boulevard, between Highland and Las Palmas. You’ve been there. The Maitre ‘d, Manuel, had ushered me into the empty bar around 11:45 AM, and while outside the sun blazed with mid-spring spring heat, inside seemed frozen in time.
Mario was setting up the bar and had bottles of wine, some opened, some uncorked, cork trays full of highball glasses, wine glasses, Pilsner glasses, tumblers, large jars of green olives, stainless steel containers of white onions—the little kind used in gimlets or martinis if you like them that way—slices of lemon peel, lime, candied cherries, all across the bar, so much that the waiter who came by shoved clear a corner so I could sit. Mario brought me a Heineken and a glass dripping with shaved ice. Billie Holliday singing ‘It Had To Be You’, notes hanging around the wallpaper of hunting scenes, geese and duck blinds high above the bar, surrounding the room. Mario said they were busy last week, every day, lunch time, dinner time. Good business last week. This week, only Tuesday, it’s coming up on noon and the bar room is empty, maybe a booth or two in the front with a couple. I flip my American Express card on the bar but Mario ignores it. The waiter comes by again and says Manuel will seat us whenever we’re ready. Jim is coming by for lunch. I’m texting and letting the world know I’m at the bar at the world famous Musso and Frank Grille, the legendary Hollywood restaurant and bar that, according to fact, has been in town since 1919. Jim slips in and orders a beer. The first thing I say is that although I’d heard the stories, the lore, the history, it’s my first time in the place. I’ve always wanted to come here, and Jim’s the perfect guy to hang with here. He’s been in before, used to work in the neighborhood, and appreciates the mythic qualities of the place.
A few wine bottles find their places on the shelves behind the bar, Mario carefully placing the bottles and supplies in their places like a set dresser, ready for the close up and the action. The wood is dark, the booths have the pale red Naughahyde and the faded red carpet has seen better days. The tile entry in the back has a steep set of steps coming in from the parking lot. But it’s Musso and Frank, one of the original Hollywood restaurants and when Manuel seats us he leaves a card that tells the story, and it leaves little, and everything, to the imagination.
I’ve never been a huge Billie Holliday fan, but before I slide off the bar stool and head for the table, I am. Her notes bend and hold, rise and fall, sweeten and roll into sorrow and blues. The menu is perfect. Our waiter never announces his name, says little, young and good looking and tall, but nothing he says gives anything away, nothing forced, no uneasy smiles or heart-to-hearts about daily specials. He’s there, takes our orders, and then he’s gone. It’s wonderful to know that in this legendary spot, one of the marquee names in town, I felt completely comfortable the moment I walked in the door. You’re made to feel welcome, but there’s nothing to show how they do it. It’s an old place and could use some re-touching here and there, a coat of varnish, some polish, some paint. Yet the drinks and the sourdough bread, the service, the beautifully simple menu printed on stock, it all fits like a pair of Levis yet has an elegant old school charm that’s irresistible.
The food is just what I expected, beautiful sautéed sand dabs with a coating of Meuniere, lemon butter and capers, and a huge serving of steamed broccoli. The sourdough is soft and moist and the cheesecake light and fluffy with a hint of that slight sour tang that makes cheesecake unique among desserts.
I tell Jim that a colleague used to take us to some of the famous Hollywood restaurants like Chasen’s, the original Spago up above Sunset Boulevard, Jimmy’s in Beverly Hills, Morton’s Steakhouse on La Cienega, and with the host on those evenings, I felt like I was crashing his party as he made sure the owner or the chef came by the table to greet him and make him feel famous and rich. He was rich. Musso and Frank has none of that pretension. It’s old, and it likes itself like that. The wooden walls will stand until they refinish them and probably grudgingly give up secrets as they strip away years of varnish and smoke and laughs.
The waiter brings the coffee service with dessert, a pot, cups, a creamer and pot of sugar. He pours our first cups and we mix our coffees and I don’t know about Jim but I’m thinking about Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, F. Scott. Fitzgerald, giants of American literature who are said to have been regulars. Chandler is rumored to have written ‘The Big Sleep’ in Musso and Frank’s back room. Charles Bukowski.
Nothing, and I repeat, nothing, is updated, nothing looks modernized. OK, maybe the carpet has been changed out a few times. Otherwise, it’s preserved. You walk back in time. The food is splendid, the service the way service is supposed to be. Outside, the heat is on and we walk around for a while, up the sidewalks of Hollywood, and we wonder what happened to the myth of the movies. It’s still there, maybe spread around now, up in the Valley, down in Culver City, the Indie studios and production houses. Trendy restaurants will show up on Melrose, Century City, Santa Monica, elsewhere. I’d be happy to eat at Musso and Frank forever. It’s timeless. Not stiff and formal like a museum set piece. Musso and Frank says ‘come on in, everyone’s welcome.’ Kind of like a ‘been there, done that’ attitude that works well for a restaurant. It works well for me.