The sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard are still studded with stars, but the street scene is, as the saying goes, something else. But although the area has changed and deteriorated in the last fifteen years, the Boulevard between Highland and Vine harbors the largest concentration of serious bookstores in southern California and its only genuine literary restaurant. Musso & Frank Grill, at 6667 Hollywood Boulevard, has been in business since 1919, making it the oldest restaurant in Hollywood; and its high-ceilinged, booth-lined interior has a patina and dignity that decorators strive for but only age can bestow. In the thirties and forties this beloved institution was the haunt of the writers and musicians of Hollywood’s golden era, and it is awesome to think of the genius regularly gathered then at its tables. The talent is still there, with different names and somewhat different communications mediums, for people in the arts seek out special virtues in a restaurant, things that have to do with comfort and simplicity. Musso & Frank has these, but most important, it endures unchanged.
The present owners, Rose Keegel (daughter of Joseph Musso, a founder), Edith Carissimi (whose husband and father-in-law also owned the restaurant at one time), and Jesse Chavez, who is the maitre d’hôtel as well, have no intention of tampering with a good thing. Changes, when they do occur, come slowly and almost imperceptibly. Soon they must replace the fading, peeling wallpaper in the “old room,” an evocative North Woods scene. They hope no one will notice, as no one did when they changed the old wood paneling a few years ago. Recently Jean Rue, their chef of fifty-three years, retired, but the “new” chef, John Hellman, required no breaking-in period. He worked under Jean Rue for thirty years. Many of the waiters have made Musso & Frank their life; for the people who work there it is a family.
Most durable of all is Jean Rue’s menu, with daily changes. It lists old-fashioned, comforting dishes that hardly anyone makes these days but that many people, myself included, hunger for. On Thursdays customers come just for the chicken potpie, the quintessence of integrity. Large chunks of mostly white meat, peas, small white onions, potatoes, and carrots are combined with lightly thickened chicken stock and topped with a flaky crust. When the waiter spoons it out onto the plate, a heavenly aroma is released that, for me, brings back memories: Chicken pie was the ritual Sunday dinner of my childhood. Fridays are observed by a bouillabaisse with no pretenses, just a good tomato-enriched broth with two or three varieties of fish and chunks of lobster, clams, and shrimp. Braised short ribs and rack of lamb (Saturdays) and lamb fricassee and corned beef and cabbage (Tuesdays) have their steady followings. I don’t remember what the day was for braised oxtails, the first dish I ever ate at Musso & Frank several years ago, but I know it was eminently satisfying.
Among the broiled meats the French lamb chops ordered recently were overly streaked with fat but meaty and cooked medium-rare as requested, and a squab wrapped in bacon arrived with a charred skin covering highly flavored, succulent meat. Typical of old-time establishments, the seafood selection is extensive and, in my experience, reliable. Musso & Frank’s oyster stew carries a charge of $6, but it is made with a generous number of oysters and no intrusive seasonings. Sautéed sand dabs, fried Columbia River smelts on a mound of matchstick potatoes, and broiled corbina, a Mexican fish infrequently encountered north of the border, have the virtue of simple things well done. Between 11 A.M. and 3 P.M. only, the kitchen will make its famous flannel cakes, very thin pan. cakes so large they barely fit on the plate. With melted butter and maple syrup, they make an occasion of a late breakfast or a light lunch.
There are small excellences that matter: Mashed potatoes are fluffy, buttery, genuine; sourdough French bread is so crusty and tangy that customers assume it comes from San Francisco (it is actually baked for the restaurant in Santa Barbara). However, Musso & Frank is not a dessert house, and if one is inclined toward a pastry I’d advise against it. Once I received a quizzical look upon ordering bread-and-butter pudding, a cold and soggy mixture of custard, bread, and raisins. The diplomat pudding is the identical dessert dressed up with crushed strawberries, and the Musso & Frank “torten” sandwiches consist of layers of not-very flaky pastry with jam and whipped cream.
Musso & Frank serves continuously from 11 A.M. until 11 P.M. every day but Sunday, when it is closed. Most entrées range from $4 to $6, with meats from the grill priced several dollars higher. There are two large dining areas, the previously mentioned “old room” lined with high-sided wooden booths and a grill and another more formal room with tables in the center, maroon banquettes against the wall, and pastoral wallpaper. The counter lining the grill is one of the pleasantest places to sit, particularly if one is dining alone, with each place set formally with napkin and silver. The wine list is minimal, but there is a full bar. For reservations (which are necessary only during prime dining time), one may telephone 467-7788.