Classic Hollywood: Musso & Frank

The last surviving restaurant from cinema’s golden age, The Musso & Frank Grill celebrates a century of iconic dishes, vintage cocktails and A-list regulars

WORDS Derrik J. Lang
July / August 2019
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A veteran server at Hollywood’s Musso & Frank Grill received a visceral reaction one day from a regular regarding a dish she’d had dozens of times over the years: the signature ooey-gooey Welsh rarebit, a savory snack of toast points with a golden sauce of cheese, bacon and ale. When it arrived, the usually friendly lady looked disappointedly down at the plate.

“The chef had recently changed the presentation, and I forgot to warn her,” recalled Sergio Gonzalez, who spoke to us before his death in June. He had been serving such classic dishes as grenadine of beef, lobster thermidor and calf’s liver for 47 years at the iconic Los Angeles restaurant. The ingredients were the same, but the woman knew something was different. Gonzalez politely walked the plate back to the kitchen and had it remade the way she remembered.

At The Musso & Frank Grill, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in September, change is rarely welcome. “Our customers have a sense of ownership,” says proprietor Mark Echeverria, the great-grandson of John Mosso, who bought the restaurant with Joseph Carissimi from founders Frank Toulet and Joseph Musso in 1927. “We have to make the right decisions. Otherwise, they will let us know.”

The restaurant debuted at the dawn of Tinseltown as Frank’s Cafe in 1919. The brainchild of entrepreneur Toulet, it started as a place where actors and crews could grab a bite to eat when few options were nearby. After Toulet teamed up with restaurateur Musso, the pair rechristened it The Musso & Frank Grill and began introducing elements that would go on to solidify it as a legendary haunt for the likes of Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The restaurant added a second dining room in 1955.

Over the decades, there have been only incremental updates to the decor and the intercontinental menu originally conceived by French-born executive chef Jean Rue. (One of the additions is a chicken potpie, which has been served as a special on Thursdays for about 80 years.) The deep red leather banquettes, mahogany booths, brass coat racks and “exhibition grill” behind the original lunch counter have been meticulously maintained—and the colder-than-cold martinis are always stirred and served with a sidecar on ice.

While other legendary eateries such as Chasen’s and The Brown Derby have been turned into strip malls, parking garages or grocery stores, Musso & Frank is the last remaining restaurant from Hollywood’s golden age. Echeverria chalks up its longevity to its relationship with the community and welcoming atmosphere. “We treat regulars like celebrities,” he says, “and celebrities like regulars.” There are no photos of famous patrons on the wall, and Echeverria has resisted the urge to open a gift shop or other locations. “Believe me,” he says. “We’ve had every kind of offer you can imagine.”

Instead of novelties, there are stories—lots of stories, like the one about Charlie Chaplin racing Douglas Fairbanks on horseback to the restaurant with the loser buying lunch, or how Fairbanks and Mary Pickford brought chef Alfredo di Lelio’s recipe for fettuccine Alfredo back to the kitchen from Italy.

Today, the restaurant shows no sign of slowing down. After appearing in dozens of films, Musso & Frank has perhaps its biggest role yet this summer. The establishment and a few staff members, including Gonzalez, are appearing in filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s 1969-set caper, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, starring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. “I told Quentin that I’m not an actor,” said Gonzalez. “He said, ‘Good. That’s why I want you. Now, take that bread over to that table.’ ”

Despite a reverence for the past, one change is coming to The Musso & Frank Grill: Because of continued customer demand, Echeverria is creating the restaurant’s first private dining room. He’s optimistic that the new space will have a better reception than that updated Welsh rarebit did. 

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