Lifestyle

This Iconic Hollywood Restaurant Lets You Travel Back in Time

Sixty-four years after this half of the Musso & Frank Grill first opened, it’s still referred to as the ‘New Room.’
Sixty-four years after this half of the Musso & Frank Grill first opened, it’s still referred to as the ‘New Room.’ Photo: Jessica Sample for The Wall Street Journal
Then

LONG BEFORE Hollywood Boulevard had its Walk of Fame, it had the Musso & Frank Grill. Or, as it was originally called, “Frank’s Café”—the brainchild of entrepreneur Frank Toulet. He opened the joint in 1919, just as Hollywood was completing its metamorphosis from rural backwater to the movie capital of the world. With the nearest eateries still miles away, Toulet figured film workers might appreciate a convenient place to dine.

By the early ’20s, when Toulet joined with restaurateur Joseph Musso and renamed the place “Musso & Frank’s Grill,” it was already the center of the Tinseltown universe. (The apostrophe ‘s’ vanished sometime later.) Charlie Chaplin was a regular. Soon, the owners upscaled the décor to what became the dominant style for the first generation of Hollywood power-lunch spots: all dark wood and deep leather banquettes. Movie deals were made over the “Continental cuisine” of French-born chef Jean Rue—from lobster Newberg to the perennial Thursday special, chicken pot pie.

Later, Musso & Frank became a favorite haunt of novelists like Faulkner and Fitzgerald. “The Screen Writers Guild was right across the street,” said present-day proprietor Mark Echeverria. “After their scripts were hacked apart by studio executives, they’d go to the Guild and complain…then cross the street to Musso’s and get drunk.”

It was a fine place to do so. Orson Welles once described the vibe at Musso & Frank as “like being in the womb.”

Now

THIS ICON’S current home, established incrementally between 1934 and 1955, occupies two large rooms in the building next to the original space. But the “new” venue is as dark, quiet and womblike as the old. Everything from the wallpaper to the coat racks hails from the restaurant’s midcentury heyday. Chefs still sear chops on the original “exhibition grill” behind the lunch counter, the mahogany bar is the same one at which Raymond Chandler allegedly sat and wrote a chapter or two of “The Big Sleep.” Even the wait staff, in their red jackets and black ties, seem timeless. Some have worked here for decades.

The clientele is perhaps a little motlier than before—business brokers, dressed-up couples, casual drinkers in jeans. Otherwise, the main nod to modernity: a much-needed infusion of technology. “When I started in 2009,” recalled Mr. Echeverria, “our bookkeeper had this huge leather book. Every morning she would creak this enormous thing open, and start writing in it in calligraphy.” The book’s been replaced with 21st-century software. Meanwhile, so as not to alarm the regulars, front-of-house changes have been stealthier. Like the faux-vintage wooden speaker cabinets, fabricated by a studio prop master, which camouflage the dining room’s modern sound system. Equally subtle: chef J.P. Amateau’s small tweaks to Jean Rue’s blander, decades-old recipes. The new secret ingredient in the updated Grenadine of Beef? “Well…,” admitted Mr. Echeverria, “it’s pretty simple: salt.”


The Musso & Frank Grill At 100

Still serving one of the best martinis in town

Bartender Ron Sheriff with one of Musso & Frank’s prize offerings, a dry martini, stirred.
Jessica Sample for The Wall Street Journal

POWER HUNGRY / Musso & Frank Has Been Feeding and Watering the Movie-Studio Set Since the Silent-Film Era

1919: Frank Toulet opens Frank’s Café at 6669 Hollywood Boulevard. The Hollywood sign hasn’t been built yet.

Circa 1922: Toulet teams up with restaurateur Joseph Musso, renaming the joint “Musso & Frank’s Grill.” Jean Rue comes aboard as head chef.

1927: Two Italian immigrants buy the restaurant from Toulet and Musso. Their names are Joseph Carissimi and—amusingly—John Mosso. Mosso’s descendants run the restaurant to this day.

Musso & Frank’s exterior in 1928.
Musso & Frank’s exterior in 1928. Photo: Musso and Frank Grill

1930s: The Stanley Rose bookstore opens next door. Then the Screen Writers Guild opens its headquarters across the street. Both attract literati like Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. When they need a drink, which is often, they hit Musso’s.

1934: Part of Musso’s original space becomes a bar nicknamed “The Back Room.” The main dining room moves next door, to 6667 Hollywood Boulevard.

1955: The Back Room closes. Its mahogany bar finds a new home next door.

1967: Ruben Rueda starts working behind the bar. He remains on the payroll today, as Musso and Frank’s longest-serving bartender.

1976: After 54 years, chef Jean Rue decides to take some time off from work. He dies two weeks later. Musso & Frank has had just three head chefs in 100 years.

2009: For the first time, Musso & Frank installs a sound system.

2018: “The Kominsky Method” Netflix series debuts. In it, an aging Hollywood actor and his even older agent meet regularly to ruminate on life and showbiz. Their lunch spot of choice: Musso & Frank.

Keeping Tabs

The classic cuisine that fueled Hollywood’s Golden Age is still on offer at Musso & Frank, like time machines on a plate—or in a cocktail glass.

Grenadine of Beef and a dry martini, both menu staples for the past several decades.
Grenadine of Beef and a dry martini, both menu staples for the past several decades. Photo: Jessica Sample for The Wall Street Journal
Grenadine of Beef

Medallions of filet mignon sauteed in oil and butter, served atop gravy and—just in case it wasn’t rich enough—drizzled with béarnaise sauce.

1939: $1; 2019: $36

Welsh Rarebit

A stainless steel gratin dish laden with tangy cheese fondue. Dip the supplied toast points deep into the cheese to unearth hidden treasure: strips of bacon.

1954: $1.50; 2019: $16

Dry Martini

For many customers, really the only necessary item on the menu. Always stirred, and always served with a ‘sidecar’ refill in a tiny carafe on ice, for maximum elegance.

1953: 55 cents; 2019: $13

More in Off Duty Travel

Previous ArticleNext Article

Send this to a friend