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Style / Restaurants : A Slice Of Nostalgia

February 11, 1996

The way to enter Hollywood's oldest restaurant, The Musso & Frank Grill, is through the back door. That's right, past the huge kitchen and its roaring stoves, past a room where red-jacketed waiters file by with their trays and a woman checks off each item one by one, down a hallway lined with portraits of the restaurant's founders and Jean Roux, its first chef. Joseph Musso and Frank Toulet opened the place in 1919; a few years later, it was bought by John Mosso and Joseph Carissimi, whose families still run the restaurant. Now that Chasen's is gone, Musso & Frank is one of the few old-timers in Los Angeles.

With its high-sided, burnished-mahogany booths, the restaurant reminds me of San Francisco's venerable Tadich and Jack's grills. The waiters' soothing attentions, the old guy at the next table with a napkin tucked under his chin, the two women in hats gossiping over matching crab Louie salads all induce a nostalgia for a simpler time. Where else can you find dishes such as cream of tomato soup, jellied consomme, stuffed celery, mushrooms on toast or Welsh rarebit, all dishes that would be candidates for a museum of old-fashioned food? Or the menu, printed daily in brown ink and a sensible typeface, which introduces Michel Bourger as "our chef from Paris, France" (so you know he's the real thing) and describes the dishes as "the finest of cuisine"?

My favorite meal here is breakfast. It doesn't start until 11 a.m., but with the exception of the famous flannel cakes, which are available only through 3 p.m., it can be ordered all day. I love to slip into a seat at the long counter and contemplate what I'm going to eat over a cup of coffee. The dented pans, red-and-white flowered stacked plates above the scarred old stove and the massive toaster are reassuringly familiar. And, of course, so is the cook, wearing his tall hat with aplomb. He ladles thick, ivory-colored batter directly onto the griddle, spreading it into precise circles for the flannel cakes. Moving quickly, he lays out four wide strips of bacon and flattens them with heavy iron presses. "Poached eggs on toast!" a waiter calls out, setting the cook in motion again. He breaks eggs into a small bowl and slides them carefully into simmering water at the back of the stove. Two slices of white bread go into the ancient toaster. Then he jumps on the next order, folding a mountain of sauteed mushrooms into an enormous omelette.

Fortunately, the cook is as skilled as he is nimble: If you ask for soft-scrambled eggs, that's what they'll be. He might suggest a little of the fresh--and quite innocent--salsa to liven up the eggs. (It does.) The bacon is crisp all the way through; the floppy flannel cakes, a delicious cross between pancakes and crepes, are stacked three high. Jean Roux called them that because they were as thin as a piece of flannel. A little butter? the cookasks, ladling on just the right amount of the melted gold. Plus you get your own little pot of coffee the color of weak tea. Talk about a taste from the past. Espresso? No, they don't have one of those newfangled machines and probably don't want one either.

Musso & Frank is one of the few places where you never feel self-conscious dining alone. I doubt very much that if you walked in by yourself, you would ever be greeted with "Just one?" There's a code of civility--even kindness--here that extends from Hollywood hipsters and now-elderly regulars to tourists who have wandered in to get a look at the local institution. The waiters are gracious, ever solicitous, one inquiring of the woman at my left, who could very well have been coming here for 50 or 60 years: "Is that how you like it, Miss Dickinson?"

At the counter, it's impossible to feel lonely. Conversation? You can always chat with the amiable grill man as he tends the charcoal broiler. With tall French-cut lamb chops, New York steaks and juicy pork chops laid out on the grill, he expertly paces the cooking, turning the meat with his tongs. The liver is fabulous, an inch or more thick, rare and velvety, the best I've ever eaten. The same goes for the sweet onions, charred at the edges, that smother it.

As much as I love this restaurant, though, not every dish on the encyclopedic menu is worthy. But you can't miss with classics such as shrimp cocktail--firm, meaty shrimp that are a bit on the puny side but heaped generously into a dish and doused with a traditional sauce. The plainest salads are the best: hearts of lettuce--a quarter-head of chilled iceberg, with a bowl of chunky handmade Thousand Island dressing on the side, and, my favorite, the romaine salad--pale, ruffly leaves served with a dressing containing boulders of pungent imported Roquefort. The crab Louie and shrimp Louie are both fresh and excellent; even better is the combination Louie. And sometimes I can sit for an hour or two with a friend, eating our way through the cracked crab on ice.

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