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Musso's--a Hollywood Time Warp

January 25, 1987|BILL STEIGERWALD

A hard and heavy rain was drowning Tinsel Town. But all the dark and wind and wet outside only made it seem cozier and warmer in Musso & Frank Grill, Hollywood's oldest and most immutable restaurant/time warp.

Musso's--whose 1919 origins make it L.A. primeval--is as much a part of Hollywood lore as the hand prints in the cement in front of Mann's Chinese Theater up the Boulevard. It's where Faulkner and Hemingway and their writer cronies hung out during their screenwriting days. Where guys like Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann and John O'Hara ate flannel cakes for breakfast or homemade chicken pot pie every Thursday, just like you can today.

It seems no matter how long you've been away, Musso's is always the same. The wood paneling is dark and old and worn and rounded. What little lighting exists in the old grill room is yellow-weak and leaves lots of shadows, especially up in the high corners where the faded wallpaper of an English hunting scene is bubbling and peeling.

Even the staff seems immune to time. Jesse Chavez, the maitre d' who'd started his career at Musso's as a busboy in 1927, the year Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, and who now owns 25% of the place, is still on patrol inside the front doors. At 80, he remains adamant in his renowned refusal to show any partiality to the rich or famous customer who seeks quicker access to a table.

Manny the waiter still works one end of Musso's long counter, which many consider perhaps the best place in the city to eat by yourself. And for 15 years now Nick the grill man has been tending his coals, adjusting the steaks and lamb chops, jabbering at the waiters as they pick up their orders or sneaking off to the back for a quick smoke.

On this gloomy Monday night, six lone diners sit at the counter in swiveling armchairs at places set with small white-linen tablecloths. They've selected from Musso's huge a la carte menu. Some are reading and some are just watching Nick or staring into the glow of his fireplace-warm grill.

It's quiet. Churchy quiet, with bits of conversation escaping from the wood-partitioned booths behind them where Madonna and Sean Penn or Merv Griffin may be enjoying one of the meals they regularly take at Musso's, just as Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennet and Edward G. Robinson did long ago.

Most of the action is happening around the corner in the "new" dining room--which has been open for almost 40 years. About 100 people are at tables or the red-vinyl booths along the wall. The room's not only much more brightly lighted than its sister room, it's a bit more polished and proper with a solid bar and glass cabinets. And though two large chandeliers hang from the gymnasium-high ceiling, and the hunting-scene wallpaper is fresh and untorn, the character of Musso's is unmistakable.

As far as anyone can remember, Musso's has always been Musso's. If you ask maitre d' Chavez if anything has changed during his 60 years of service, he answers in a low but friendly growl: "Nothing. It's all the same." What's the most memorable thing about all those years? "The work." A man of few words, Chavez nevertheless can explain perfectly why people like Musso's: "They know what we have and when they come in, they're going to get it."

That sums it up nicely, agrees Rose Mosso Keegel, now half-owner of Musso's and as animated and loquacious as Chavez is reserved and terse. The restaurant is virtually unchanged since her father, John Mosso, and Charles Carissimi bought Frank Toulet and Joseph Musso's place in 1926.

In the old days, Keegel says, Hollywood was a Mecca of good food and rich with great restaurants like Gotham's, which was an "excellent place to come to, and always full, too. But the sons of the owners all became lawyers and doctors and said, 'Dad, I don't want to run a restaurant,' and they all disappeared. Or they were sold and the new people didn't keep up the quality."

Maintaining the quality of the food has been a key to Musso's enduring success, Keegel says. "What comes out of that kitchen is really genuine and good. Almost everybody here is ancient. Our chef (Jean Rue), who started all of this, had been here 52 years before he died. And the man who took his place had been here 35 years already when he took over. The chef we have now--Michel Bourger--was trained by our original chef. He's French and very good, too. So are our cooks. I'm not going to say anything good about our waiters," she added, matter-of-factly. "I don't think they're good."

Wasn't she kidding? Her waiters aren't that bad, are they? "Well, they could be better," she qualified. "Everytime you read an article about us, it always says, 'If you get yourself a good waiter, it's a good place to eat.' They're not bad . Oh no. I'm just thinking back to the way it used to be. We had French, Italian, Serbian waiters trained by the huge ocean liners, and they were such wonderful waiters."

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