Local Landmarks: An Appreciation For Musso & Frank, a Time Machine Back to Old Hollywood

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While Musso & Frank still exudes the old school charm that made it both legendary and an in-demand shooting location for mid-century dramas about hard drinking men in gray flannel suits, patronizing the restaurant requires use of the tunnel vision I, like all Angelenos, have honed by walking down the bong shop and stripper shoe store-laden Boulevard. If I squint just right, I can see past the restaurant’s patrons—a combination of industry goons, wining and dining and circle jerking each other, and novelty t-shirt clad tourists who read about it in a Zagat guide and decided to make a pit stop on their way to Grauman’s Chinese Theater—and transport myself to a long-gone era.

When Musso & Frank first opened its doors, the stars that would fill said wax museums had yet to become household names. Hell, even Hollywood wasn’t a household name. It was, rather, an underdeveloped neighborhood where literary types, shipped out from the East Coast by burgeoning studios to write wrestling pictures that were beneath their intellectual acumen, would congregate to drunkenly rue their existence. Westlake’s Pacific Dining Car, located near Downtown’s political and financial hub, was, at that time, where LA’s nobility held court. What a change a century makes.

The New York-inspired menu hasn’t changed much since its opening—Musso & Frank has peddled flannel cakes, chicken pot pie, and Welsh Rarebit from go. The building housing these antiquated delicacies, however, has gone through some modifications over the decades.

In 1936, Musso & Frank’s fabled Back Room opened behind the restaurant’s adjacent Vogue Theater; this was achieved by cutting a door out of the west wall of the dining room and hiring a doorman to monitor all who entered and exited. The Back Room was not for average patrons—rather, it was intended exclusively to act as a playground for LA’s literary elite and their pals ‘n’ concubines. Nicknamed both the Cocktail Room and Algonquin West, it was eventually dismantled when the Vogue took back its space and the restaurant expanded in 1955; its fixtures were moved into what is still called the restaurant’s New Room, even though said room has now been in existence for 60 years.

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Image via IK’s World Trip

During the Back Room’s heyday, Dashiell Hammett, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Nathanael West (who made reference to the restaurant in his 1939 masterpiece Day of the Locust), amongst other luminaries, all tied one on back there—the urban legend that Raymond Chandler wrote The Big Sleep in the space is probably horseshit (he was a homebody, and didn’t much write out of doors), but ah, what delightful horseshit it is.

You come to Musso & Frank to be surrounded by such lore; you come to it to forget about the real-life Idiocracy unfurling outside its doors. Being in Musso & Frank makes you feel like the Twenty-First Century never began—never mind the fact that the speakers pumping in ’20s and ’30s music above you weren’t actually playing at the time, and were, rather, installed five years ago by the restaurant’s latest proprietor, a Millennial fourth-generation descendant of one of its original owners. Regardless of what is real and what is artifice, one thing is for certain—if you throw up in the ladies’ bathroom, you’re definitely throwing up in the same bathroom Dorothy Parker threw up in.

It is borderline impossible these days to order a stiff drink from a man sporting an unironic mustache—Musso & Frank, however, has these men (and drinks) in spades. The waitstaff seems as old as the scenery that surrounds them because they nearly are; many have worked there for half a decade, some longer still. If you want an artisanal cocktail served by a tattooed former bike courier, you go to The Edison. If you want real nostalgia, not the Disneyland version, you go to Musso & Frank.

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Faux speakeasies like The Edison have sprouted, like organic weeds, in the city over the past decade—one, called The Writer’s Room, up until recently inhabited the space that formerly housed the Back Room. (Let the record show it had nothing to do with Musso & Frank but did have something to do with James Franco, a former partner.) The Writer’s Room has since become an insufferable looking club called Golden Box (its Facebook page describes it as a “grungy disco inspired by downtown NYC in the 1980s.”).

Musso & Frank hasn’t always been Musso & Frank. The original owners, Joseph Musso and Frank Toulet, opened it as Francois (très chic, no?) in 1919, but changed the name to an amalgam of their own four years later. It was sold to new owners two years afterward, but retained the name. One gets the impression that the space’s next owners, whenever they take the reigns, will eliminate both the name and the history, deferring to either the gaucheness or the faux-nostalgic predilections of their surroundings. One can hope this won’t be the case, but the enemy of hope is “development.” Megan Koester

· Local Landmarks [Curbed LA]

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