“You know you’re sitting in Steve McQueen’s seat,” a polite, older gentleman told me.
“Yes, he sat there for most of the seventies.”
“That would make sense. I’ve been sitting here for 28 years now.”
“You don’t look like you’re thirty, though.”
“Yeah. As far as I’ve known, this is my seat. But I’ll share it with McQueen any day.”
To claim ownership of any seat at Musso and Frank’s Grill is as hopeless as owning a spot on a beach. While you may visit this one area hundreds or thousands of times, it’s also been someone else’s spot. And hundreds of people before, and after you, will claim that spot as theirs as well.
It is almost as hopeless to write about a place that has been written about and written in for almost a hundred years. But someone has to do it.
The oldest restaurant in Hollywood, Musso and Frank Grill might be the most haunted place in the whole damn city. And I don’t mean by ghosts – I mean the feeling that people have been here before and will never leave. Opening in 1919 as Frank Cafe, it provided the only French meal on Hollywood Boulevard. Frank was the nickname for its first owner, Firmin Toulet, a Frenchman who emigrated from Le Havre. In 1923 he partnered up with Joseph Musso, owner of several opulent Italian restaurants in the area, to start Musso and Frank’s. The year before, legendary chef Jean Rue joined Frank and remained the head chef for over 53 years. The various renevations and moving of rooms are a story in its own right, but it is generally accepted that the “New Room,” added in 1955, contains the same bar that was so popular in the 1920s and 30s. The “Old Room,” with a woodfire grill and a long counter surrounding it, remains unchanged.
This is a place where everyone has eaten. To say it is a “writers haunt” is like saying Disneyland is for kids. Almost everyone who is involved in the entertainment businesshas dined here. Writers and actors are the easiest to identify. From John Fante to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin to Charlton Heston, John Barrymore to Johnny Depp, the list is no joke. Stepping into the Old Room constantly demands the question “If these walls could talk…” The old stories would be worth their weight in gold.
But we are here to write new stories, live as bon vivants. While the past is much lauded and celebrated, the dining experience that has drawn thousands of visitors over the past ninety years is still exceptional. It is one of the few places where the term “unique,” which is so often butchered, is the only term that can apply. The menu and service here are unique to LA and possibly the whole nation. The menu contains French and Italian continental classics and reflects its roaring Twenties/depression Thirties upbringing. This is a place where you can order the strange and wonderful forgotten meals that, well, weren’t so foreign seventy years ago. The classic cocktails that have been made for decades now suddenly feel in fashion with the current retro-cocktail phase. You can get a Gin Fizz, a Duboret, or a King Alphonse if you really want to.
But the drink to get is the martini. It’s one of the best martinis in the world. Don’t be an idiot and get it dirty or even ask for vodka. In six of the seven continents, you won’t find a better martini (and I’m not giving away the name of the place that equals this one, that’s for sure). The bartenders have won countless awards for this drink – each award is more than deserved.
The traditional dishes are venerated and, at times, the most gratifying thing you can possibly eat. They offer hot and cold sandwiches, all sorts of breakfast, at least ten different Italian entrees and over fifteen types of steak and beef dishes. You can get things country fried, with Bernaise sauce, Creole sauce, Bordelaise, Muneire, you name it. Order whatever you want whenever you want. Flannel cakes and a bloody mary is a great idea any time of the day. I’ve ordered a crab louie, a ginn fizz and an eclair for lunch.
I can’t possibly describe all the menu in detail, so I will simply share my favorites, accumulated over twenty years of ambitious and tried and true orders.
You cannot go wrong with the Appetizer Frank. A tomato sliced in half, anchovies draped over each half a sphere, with chopped hardboiled eggs and dressing of your choice, this is the ultimate compliment to a martini. I loathe sharing this dish and often make people order their own after a taste. The sourdough bread that comes with every meal is so addictive and fantastic that you might fill up before your entree.
The fish is excellent and always cooked to perfection. These are tried and true recipes that satisfy to no end. The sand dabs are perfectly fileted and sauted Meuneire. The grilled halibut – done of the same legendary grill as everything else – retains a charred flavor but burst with each juicy bite.
And the chops are exquisite as always. Indolfo, the grill master, never makes a mistake. The manhattan cut is a smaller New York yet retains all the flavor. The saturday special of braised shortribs are magnificent, an authentic and indulgent version of the dish.
Later that same evening I was told about McQueen, as I was finishing my meal with a healthy portion of diplomat pudding (a bread pudding covered in a strawberry sauce, one of my favorite things to eat ever), a man sat down by our corner of the bar. He had a look in his eye like he knew something I didn’t.
“You know that’s Ryan Goslings seat?” He asked me.
“Well it is.”
“Has he been coming here for 28 years?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then it’s my seat.”
And I paid my bill and walked onto Hollywood Boulevard, like so many before me, satisfied to be a part of the past and the future all at once.