Photo by Tina Whatcott Echeverria
Photo by Tina Whatcott Echeverria
On September 27, Los Angeles institution Musso’s celebrates its centennial.
Step inside this L.A. time machine and you’ll experience a meal in much the same way that Frank Sinatra, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Lauren Bacall did when the restaurant was their regular haunt. How has the restaurant survived for 100 years? Chalk it up to consistency and a heaping dose of nostalgia . . .
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You’d think a restaurant that’s been around for a century would lose its luster, or at least the majority of its clientele—after all, even a steadfast regular would, eventually, be bamboozled by death. And you’d be especially right to think this of a 100-year-old restaurant in Los Angeles, a city that’s partially responsible for entire gastronomic movements (à la California cuisine), that lauds both otherworldly experimentation and the evolution of tradition (think Jordan Kahn’s Vespertine and Brian Dunsmoor’s Hatchet Hall), and whose culinary offerings are so culturally diverse that publications as disparate as GQ and Zagat have called it the most exciting food city in America (don’t overlook Luv2Eat Thai Bistro, the Mariscos Jalisco food truck, or the David Chang–approved Korean café Spoon by H).
But the Musso & Frank Grill, an old-fashioned steak-and-potatoes joint that’s been in operation since 1919, has managed to defy all odds.
On September 27, Musso’s (everyone calls it Musso’s) will mark its 100th anniversary, a milestone that none of its local and now-shuttered white tablecloth contemporaries—not Chasen’s, not Scandia, not the Brown Derby (where the Cobb salad was invented)—managed to hit. Even more impressive is that year 100 is turning out to be the restaurant’s most fiscally successful to date, according to COO Mark Echeverria.
Nearly unchanged since first opening its doors, Musso’s oxblood-red leather banquettes, old school phone booth (it was the first public pay phone in Hollywood, although it’s just a prop these days), and curled hat racks make it one of the city’s last living, breathing relics of a bygone era. In a town so highly attuned to trends of all varieties, the fact that something like Musso’s has survived is nothing if not comforting. “Its ability to never change anchors you in a place that’s constantly changing,” says Lesley Suter, the travel editor for Eater and a longtime Angeleno. “And that is irreplaceable in a town like L.A.”
“It all comes back to being consistent,” Echeverria, 39, says. “We’ve been on a good road for so long. Why make a left turn?”
No matter how hard you try to write it off as Hollywood kitsch, there’s no escaping the tsunami of nostalgia that pummels you when you walk through the doors of Musso & Frank. This is not a new restaurant masquerading as an old restaurant. This is the original. Near the front is booth three, where Marilyn Monroe liked to hold court. The high-walled booth 224 is where Frank Sinatra preferred to enjoy a meal. Modern-day regulars, be they industry titans or otherwise, quibble over their favorite booth as if it were the Iron Throne. (When you play the Game of Banquettes, you either make a reservation, or you wait.)
It’s 6:20 p.m. on an inconsequential Tuesday in June, and there isn’t an empty seat in the house (and there are about 200 of them to fill). At one table, I see a couple celebrating their third wedding anniversary; at another, three generations are doing dinner, family-style. Period-appropriate jazz standards are piped through old-style speaker boxes (ambient music, like the restaurant’s electronic point-of-sale system, is one of a handful of approved “upgrades”—it’s only been around since 2010). The waiters, all in bright red tuxedo jackets and many of whom have worked at the restaurant for more than 30 years, take orders with a “yes, sir” and an “of course, ma’am.”
It feels a little like stepping onto a movie set, which isn’t totally inaccurate; so pristinely preserved are Musso’s interiors that it closes for business on Sundays and Mondays to accommodate myriad filming requests. (It has appeared in everything from Swingers and Ocean’s 11 to Mad Men and Scandal, and, more recently, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.)
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By all accounts, Musso’s has been a hit since the original owners, restaurateurs John Musso and Frank Toulet, first opened it in 1919 at its original location at 6669 Hollywood Boulevard—back when it was called Frank’s Café and patrons like Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, and Rudolph Valentino would ride up to the front door on horseback. Legend has it they would race down the boulevard, with the loser having to pony up for lunch.
In 1927, Musso and Toulet sold the restaurant to Joseph Carissimi and John Mosso—that’s Mosso with an “o”—who changed the name to Musso & Frank Grill (neither Mosso nor Carissimi wanted to mess with the name recognition, which is why neither rebranded it with their own name). The restaurant has stayed in the Mosso family ever since: Echeverria, who took over operations in 2009, is Mosso’s great-grandson.
In 1934, seven years into Mosso and Carissimi’s tenure, Musso’s outgrew its digs and moved into the larger space next door at 6667 Hollywood Boulevard. By 1955, the restaurant had to expand again, adding a second dining room. These rooms are lovingly referred to as the “old room” and the “new room,” although at this point, both of them qualify as old. The former boasts the original grill, wood paneling, and pastoral wallpaper from 1934. (“You know what I tell people when they ask why I haven’t replaced the wallpaper?” Echeverria asks. “I tell them, ‘Humphrey Bogart’s cigar smoke is up there. How could I possibly take down that paper?’”)
The restaurant hasn’t changed much since those days: In addition to its interiors, its green-painted wood accents and cream-colored stucco are still intact, and the menu has barely been tweaked since Jean Rue, the first in a line of only three chefs in the restaurant’s history, conceived of it in 1922. Musso’s is probably the only restaurant in L.A. (maybe the universe) that’s still making a killing off dishes like calf’s liver, grenadine of beef, and Welsh rarebit.
“The food is from a time when avocados were considered an exotic fruit and the waiter asked if you want your lamb kidneys grilled or sautéed,” says Garrett Snyder, former food editor of Los Angeles magazine. Suter agrees. “Who eats that now? Nobody,” she says. “If you want to know the food that your grandparents or great-grandparents went out for on a hot date, that’s the food they were eating. I love that. To me, it’s culinary time travel in a real way.”
If you go to Musso’s, sit in the new room, and sit at the bar. Do this for two reasons: First, that bar is the very same slab of mahogany where literary leviathans—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Charles Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner—would drink and write and drink some more alongside acting royalty like Lauren Bacall and Clark Gable. And that’s some good company to keep, even if it’s decades too late.
Second, while Musso’s is famous for a lot of things, it’s perhaps most famous for its martinis. (Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times reported that the restaurant had served 55,272 martinis in 2018.) Before having dinner there—for what it’s worth, the roast lamb didn’t disappoint—I could count on one hand the number of times I’d heard someone order a martini in real life as opposed to in a James Bond movie. While I dined there, that number tripled. Within two hours, a pair of barmen served 14 patrons (many of whom the two knew by name) the restaurant’s signature drink: vodka or gin with a splash of vermouth. Stirred, not shaken.
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But martinis aren’t the only specialty. Snyder is a fan of the Gibson cocktail. Tarantino is a whiskey sour kind of guy. The fellow on my right, a lawyer enjoying a very fine meal ahead of a Grateful Dead concert at the Hollywood Bowl, swears that Musso’s has the best White Russian in town. This is because at Musso’s, it’s less about the alcohol and more about the men serving it; like the waitstaff, the bartenders have been employed for decades and groomed for excellence.
You can’t find bartenders like this anymore. You can’t find food like this anymore. You can’t find ambience, ceremony, or history like this anymore. “It's surpassed a restaurant at this point,” Suter says. “It is a cultural landmark. You’re going to eat and you’re going to drink, but what you're really doing is experiencing Musso’s. That's the draw. You’re there to sit in history.” Put simply: “It’s magic,” says bartender Graham Miller.
Musso’s is happily frozen in amber, but Hollywood Boulevard has transformed into something neither Chaplin nor his contemporaries would recognize. The restaurant sits on the Walk of Fame and is located within a stone’s throw of tourist attractions like the Hollywood Wax Museum and Hologram USA (a theater that uses hologram technology to resurrect stars like Billie Holiday and Buddy Holly for virtual performances). But even as the studios that provided the restaurant’s early clientele abandoned Hollywood for cheaper land, the place maintained its reputation as the preferred haunt for A-list celebrities.
“Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood are good people,” 66-year-old server Sergio Gonzalez said of the Rolling Stones frontmen and Musso’s regulars. (Gonzalez, who had been a waiter at Musso & Frank for 47 years, died suddenly of a heart attack in June.) Richards even brought Gonzalez and his friends backstage at a recent concert in Mexico City. “His wife said, ‘Sergio, I’m going to leave you and your friends with my husband for half an hour,’” Gonzalez recalled. “He was taking pictures and videos with us, and that was very nice. And my friends couldn’t believe it. I mean, nobody does that.”
There’s a laundry list of other celebrities who, like the Stones, consider Musso’s their personal Cheers—Johnny Depp, John Travolta, and David Lynch have all gushed about it in the press. (When he was still young, broke, and landline-less, Depp gave out the number of the restaurant’s phone booth to agents. He’d sit in Musso’s all day, drink coffee, and wait for the line to ring.) But don’t ask Echeverria to dish about stars who haven’t talked about Musso’s on the record. “We’re very discreet with what we talk about as far as our current clientele,” he says. The coveted promise of privacy is exactly why they all keep going back (the restaurant has a strict no-photo policy).
That Musso’s has lived to see its centennial is impressive, especially for a restaurant that doesn’t advertise. But it’s also indicative of a keen business acumen, particularly when it comes to how much the place has (or has not) adapted to a gustatory landscape that’s constantly in flux. “There’s a narrative that you notice with these older restaurants,” Suter says. “Either the next generation can’t maintain it and it gets sold, it gets changed, or it gets bulldozed. Businesses have this burden: How do you survive when so much of your appeal is based on the idea of not changing even when there are certain things that need to change? Musso’s has found, I think, a pretty good balance of that in a way that not all restaurants have.”
With 100 years in its rearview, the restaurant has earned the right to a big birthday blowout. In the week leading up to the September 27th milestone, it’ll be throwing a launch party for The Musso & Frank Grill, a biography of the restaurant by Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Callahan, followed by invite-only patron dinners and a charity foundation event. “We’re not going to change,” Echeverria says. “And we’re just getting started.” We’ll raise a martini to that—and to the next 100 years.
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