Musso and Frank Grill Is Better Than Anything In Hollywood

At Musso and Frank Grill, the martinis are dry, the steak is perfectly charred, and the history is pervasive. It's the best restaurant in Hollywood because it's so un-Hollywood. No wonder <i>Mad Men</i> loves it.

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Apr 25 2014, 4:39pm

Illustration by James Braithwaite

There is a Venn diagram in an important science text somewhere where "food" is one circle and "television" is in another, and the heart-shaped intersection of the two is called FAT TV. This is a love collaboration between me and illustrator James Braithwaite to dissect the relationship of food on the small screen. When the doyenne of MUNCHIES, Helen Hollyman, greenlighted this idea, she must have had no idea that I don't actually own a TV. Looking forward to squirting new installments of text-thought and scribbles your way twice a month.

Everybody hates Los Angeles and nobody in Los Angeles cares. Simply reporting.

I'm from LA, and I've caught flak for it my whole life. Still, outsiders can usually be placated quickly by whatever us Angelenos can offer in the way of tabloid details about Hollywood. OK, here's one: I know where famous people eat. All of them. They've been eating there for a hundred years. It's called the Musso & Frank Grill.

While you may not be able to conjure Musso's in your mind's eye—its long aisles of raised red leather booths, its dark-stained mahogany walls and dimly lit sconces—you may well have seen it in films and on TV. On Mad Men, for example, Musso's stands in for a few iconic mid-century Manhattan eateries, including the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Sardi's.

But Musso's isn't just a location stand-in. It's the oldest, most important restaurant in Hollywood. And for me, it's also the best.

"Everything in Los Angeles is too large, too loud and usually banal in concept… The plastic asshole of the world."— William Faulkner

As a location, Musso's is ideal for Mad Men: an aesthetic romp through mid-century Manhattan that's filmed in LA. Now that the show's story has moved west for its final season, I'm hoping Musso's will turn up one more time—this time as Musso's. It seems possible, as we've already met the Fairfax district deli Canter's (another Hollywood haunt), which makes a cameo in the season's first episode, when Pete Campbell meets Don Draper there for a sandwich on Don's first day visiting the coast.

In the Canter's scene, Pete tells Don about discovering the deli, soon after moving to LA from New York, in a "homesick moment" that turned "divine" in the presence of heaping plates of sour dills and the whiff of corned beef. The pair order Brooklyn Avenues, a pastrami "with the coleslaw right on the sandwich." (As it happens, my go-to Canter's order.) There's this tired anti-LA barb from Pete: "The bagels are terrible."

Pete, who despite all his Manhattan bona fides remains the ultimate WASP, orders an iced tea instead of a cream soda. With classic nonplussed-ness, Don doesn't seem to get the joke the show is making. Don looks a little out of his element at Canter's. Maybe he is. But you can be sure Don Draper would fit right in at Musso & Frank with his prodigious drinking, fatted wallet, and Tinseltown good looks. Even today, I doubt I'd look twice if I saw him sidling up to the bar for an old fashioned, rubbing elbows with Hollywood's elite and the LA hoi polloi alike.

Now we're talking about Musso's as Musso's.

Founded in 1919, Musso's is the oldest restaurant in Hollywood. Known as chophouse with old-time charm, Musso's is also the longest-standing institution in a town that tends to burn its institutions to the ground—a wedge salad at the still point of the ever-turning world of Hollywood.

Musso's has deep meaning for many LA natives, particularly those who work in the industry. Charlie Chaplin had a favorite booth here, as did Orson Welles, who said being at Musso's "is like being in the womb." Faulkner drank here during his Hollywood chapter. To this day, the ritualistic ingestion of stiff martinis (served in the old-style smaller glasses, with a sidecar on ice), house salads with julienned vegetables and beautiful Thousand Island dressing (mixed tableside by red jacket and bow tie-clad waiters), oysters on the half shell, and New York steaks (charred, medium-rare) is a Hollywood rite for anybody working in pictures.

I know these things because I have eaten at Musso's my entire life. I know Manny, Musso's most-beloved bartender, who used to do magic tricks for me at the seated bar. I know that the chicken pot pie (which is delicious) is only served on Thursday nights. I know the difference between the "old room" (the original restaurant space from 1919) and the "new room" (a 50s vintage with fewer booths, a standing bar, and slightly less forgiving light during the dinner hour). And I know the names of many of the waiters and the maître d's—although for the most part, they don't know mine. They do know the name of my father, who has been eating at Musso's for more than fifty years.

For my family, Musso's has been the locus of all important occasion meals, a final dinner together before one of the kids leaves for university, birthdays, and family reunions after time apart. I have wine-stained Musso's menus, flecked with the crust of signature sourdough bread and printed at the top with the date of these dinners, going back decades. I always know to bring small bills for Musso's because my father has to tip every bus boy, waiter, and bar back he comes in contact with, starting from the moment he sticks his head through the kitchen door near the back entrance, singing Mexican boleros at the top of his lungs, to the delight of the cooks.

Now that I'm a big-deal food writer and people ask for my opinion on where to eat in LA, I usually recommend tacos. I tell them to follow Jonathan Gold to the San Gabriel Valley for soup dumplings and to tack on a post-dinner foot massage across the street. But I make sure to recommend Musso's above anything else.

Because of the food? I don't know. I'm not sure where Musso's sources its watercress, and I don't really know what "imported Roquefort" means. The lunch gets pricy pretty quickly. And it's certainly not the only place in town where you can get a well-fired steak and Fanny Bay oysters on the half shell. These are the things people start to ask you about when they hear you are a "food writer." Truth be told, I get a little squeamish when I'm asked to be unequivocal when it comes to where others should eat dinner.

And yet, I feel I can be unequivocal when it comes to Musso's. In part because of the superior steaks and chops, and in part because of the feeling I get from sliding into a worn red leather booth under the Edisonian glow of the ancient wall sconces and, with the warmth of my first martini filling my cheeks, the sensation that I'm falling through time. The food is a piece—only a piece—of the entire Musso's experience, which, with the low light and vodka and waiters bustling about in their formal ruby-red raiment and bright white cloth napkins, can assume the aspect of a religious rite.

When I eat at Musso's these days, it is always with my father, a musician whose long show business career began with a stint as a child actor during the golden age of live television. We're talking the Mad Men, season one era—50s New York City—when my dad started guesting on TV shows like The Honeymooners. He doesn't have much to say about his work as a child actor except that it came easy to him; when he was asked to cry on command, all he had to do was think of his dead dog.

He ended up putting himself through high school hitting the boards on live TV, Broadway theatre, and films. He learned that Jackie Gleason liked to drink but hated to rehearse — so when it came time for the live broadcast he'd chance missing his mark in front of all of America. Alec Guinness sent him a gift each Christmas after they worked together. And he adored Grace Kelly, who took him to Musso's for the first time in 1955 when, at the age of 12, he came west to co-star with her in a film called The Swan.

Nothing much has changed at Musso's since then, my father has often remarked over a martini and a dozen perfectly shucked oysters, gesturing with his silverware toward the booth he once shared with the Princess of Monaco. I actually don't believe anything has ever changed at Musso's. It still looks the same it did a century ago. And I wouldn't be surprised if it still did another century from now, when next-generation Hollywood stars and studio execs will still be flagging down old men in red jackets and bow ties and asking them for another plate of sourdough along with a second round of pre-dinner drinks.

It doesn't matter that it's old-fashioned—only that it's familiar. Musso's has been so cherished by Hollywood for as long as it has precisely because it is so un-Hollywood. Like an old stone church it stands, amid the wreckage of Hollywood Boulevard's teeming tourist core, resistant to change and immune to the mercurial nature of show business, and the career arcs of its clientele.

For me, a very un-Hollywood guy who happens to be from Hollywood, Musso's will always be the best meal on planet Earth. And that has nothing to do with show business.

I was last at Musso's with my father on a recent Monday (a day the restaurant is usually closed) not for a meal, but to interview him for a documentary I'm making about his life. We set it up in the new room, though we've always preferred the old room. The daytime light spilling in from Hollywood Boulevard in the old room didn't feel as moody and timeless as "the womb" Orson Welles once referred to. And there at Musso's, I got a chance to ask my dad all the questions about his life that I've always wanted to.

Before we started, I had the idea to put half a loaf of sliced sourdough on the table between us for some extra Musso's texture, the same bread that comes out before every dinner here. During the interview, the sourdough kept getting moved around ever so slightly in the frame, and we'd have to reposition it. Soon jokes were being made about "sourdough continuity" as the crusty hunk scurried across the tabletop.

The bread seemed to be making some point to me. Maybe you'll watch the film and, if you don't know Musso's at all, you'll see a warmly lit, white tablecloth-laden room. Maybe if you do know Musso's you'll see it as Musso's — the oldest and most important restaurant in Hollywood. Or maybe, hopefully, you'll see Musso's as it is for people like me and my father — the setting for a much bigger story about something else.