Hollywood Boulevard is noisy, crowded and sun-drenched on a Saturday afternoon, the terrazzo sidewalk with its inset bronze stars crammed with people. You shoulder past Eastern European tourists wearing gold-printed fake-Armani tank-tops, bedraggled homeless people, and large pasty families with cameras, gawking at the costumed characters - Rambo, Darth Vader, Elvis, and Michael Jackson - as they dawdle past the tattoo and tee-shirt parlors. Harley motorcycles thunder past painted parked RVs that promote soft-drink challenge events.
When you step off the street into the dining room at Musso & Frank Grill, the first thing you notice is the hush. Especially on a weekend afternoon - after the matinee curtain has gone up a few blocks away at the Pantages, and before the dinner hour has begun. Unlike modern design restaurants, Musso's has no piped-in music, no hard surfaces designed to create an audible clatter. The lighting is soft, with wall sconces washing a mellow tone up the hand-painted wallpaper. Its padded, curved booths enclose diners intimately beneath high, beamed ceilings, so conversation can take place quietly, softly murmured contemplating the menu.
Musso & Frank Grill claims to be Hollywood's oldest restaurant. It opened in 1919, and 'became popular with Hollywood's establishment, along with its competition Chasen's, Ciro's, and the Brown Derby. Because the Writer's Guild office was located nearby on Cherokee, it became a hangout for authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, John O'Hara, John Fante and Raymond Chandler - many of them East Coast literary elite lured by the sure money of Hollywood screenwriting contracts.
Actors, too, hung out here - Bogart, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chapin, Bette Davis. Later, in the '60s and into the '70s the Rat Pack, television stars, rockers like Tom Waits and that old barfly Charles Bukowski ate, drank, and staggered home from Musso's.
Today, after all the other restaurants of its era are gone, it's still here.
A red-jacketed waiter old enough to be your father shows you to a seat. We chose a curved booth along the wall. If you're dining alone, you can opt for the curved counter in front of the grill - you can watch the steaks broil and talk with your neighbors.
First a cocktail. I ordered a gimlet.
In "The Long Goodbye," Raymond Chandler's hero Phillip Marlowe befriends Terry Lennox, a troubled man with a drinking problem and a rich wife. Lennox drinks gimlets, and is particular about them, telling Marlowe, "They don't know how to make them here. What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters. A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow."
Here at Musso's, the cocktails come with a small carafe on the side. The gimlet is vodka, and though it has Rose's Lime Juice, it's garnished with a maraschino cherry dyed a rather shockingly green - I wonder what Terry Lennox would have thought about that. [The Man I Love] ordered a gibson, a martini garnished with a pickled pearl onion instead of an olive.
The menu at Musso & Frank is the same as in its heyday - except for the prices, which have kept pace with modern times. Steaks, chops and fish. Daily specials like Chicken Pot Pie, Sauerbraten, Beef Stroganoff, and Corned Beef and Cabbage.
[The Man I Love] ordered a rib-eye steak with a baked potato and a side of creamed spinach. It came garnished with fresh watercress.
I ordered the special sauted liver and onions - I swear I haven't had liver and onions for over thirty years, but something about that environment made me crave it.
The food was served on old-fashioned red-and-white transferware crockery. My dish came with a scoop of mashed potatoes and green beans and carrots - the way they were cut they had to be frozen, but they were cooked fine, retained their color and flavor. The food is nothing to get excited about - it's a culinary throw-back to another era of unadventurous Americana. But everything was well-cooked, delicious and comforting.
As we ate, the waiters quietly and expertly passed, topping up water glasses and taking orders from the handful of patrons enjoying a late afternoon meal. The dining room was quiet, the only sound a low scraping and clinking as the grill-man cleaned and stoked the coals in preparation for the dinner rush.
Although we're not much for sweets, something about the setting made us decide to order dessert and coffee. The menu offered classics like rice pudding, black forest cake, and pies. We chose something called a "diplomat pudding" that turned out to be a scoop of egg custard studded with raisins, and drizzled with stewed strawberries.
As we sipped our coffee, a trio came in from the boulevard - a couple escorting an older man, his steps halting as they moved toward the back of the room. though short and frail, the older man was clearly in charge. He wore sunglasses and a straw trilby hat, his pale jacket flung casually over his shoulders. Bits of conversation floated in the air, something about a Maserati he gave away to a some woman. Some eccentric Hollywood royal, no doubt, from an earlier era.
I've learned a few things about Musso & Frank Grill since we went - first, it's "Musso & Frank" not "Frank's". Using the possessive with "Frank" immediately brands you as a tourist. If you really want to sound like you're in the know, you can call it "Musso's" - Raymond Chandler did - but never "Musso and Frank's."
And regulars enter from the rear parking lot. The parking lot attendant looked oddly at us when we turned down his direction to the green awning covered door, and said we wanted to enter off the boulevard.
Now I long to go back - on a Thursday, to try the daily special Chicken Pot Pie. Or in the evening, when the east room bar is hopping. Or early, when the famous flannel cakes are being served.
Musso & Frank Grill. A bit of historic Hollywood.