What Keeps Hollywood’s Oldest Restaurant Running ~ The Atlantic

COURTESY OF TINA WHATCOTT ECHEVERRIA
LOS ANGELES—It is 8 p.m. on a soft spring Saturday and the oldest restaurant in Hollywood is packed to the gills. Tattooed hipsters in black jeans and miniskirts share the two bustling dining rooms with oldsters in cashmere V-necks, loafers, and Ferragamo pumps; jazzy standards pulse through the sound system at a volume neither too loud nor too soft; and the glow from the ancient wood-burning cast-iron grill suffuses the scene.

In this sprawling, polyglot culinary capital, where the cuisine ranges across the alphabet, from Armenian to Yemeni, the Musso & Frank Grill, which turns 100 years old in September, has not only endured but also prevailed, with a menuthat still features such antique dishes as Welsh rarebit, chicken pot pie, grilled lamb kidneys, and calf’s liver with onions, not to mention its spine-tingling, stirred-not-shaken martinis—55,272 of them served last year alone.

Los Angeles’s food scene has never been hotter. The Michelin Guide recently announced plans to resume reviewing restaurants here after a nine-year hiatus occasioned by the feeling that the city’s restaurants weren’t quite up to snuff? The Los Angeles Times has just relaunched a stand-alone food section to explore the city’s burgeoning restaurant culture each Thursday? The New York Times has dispatched its first-ever California food critic, Tejal Rao, to sample the region’s bounty?

Most of Musso’s contemporaries among the hot spots of old Los Angeles are long gone, including the Brown Derby (the inventor of the Cobb salad), Chasen’s (supposedly the birthplace of the Shirley Temple), and the Cock’n Bull (the cradle of the Moscow mule).

Yet Musso’s is thriving, and was recently featured favorably in one of Rao’s first reviews; she praised its “impossibly charming dining room,” and called the cocktails and steaks “unfailing” and the wedge salads “dignified.” By most accounts, the food—which was slipping a decade and more ago—is better than ever, and the restaurant has posted consistent double-digit revenue growth in recent years, according to Mark Echeverria, the chief operating officer in the fourth generation of family ownership.

Why? “I think Musso’s is in a time warp that appeals to our occasionally wanting to just strip away the new, the shiny, and the uncertain to simply eat and relax,” Barbara Fairchild, the former editor of Bon Appétit and a longtime Angeleno, wrote me in a recent email. “You don’t come to Musso’s to prove a point. You just come to enjoy yourself.”

As Fairchild also pointed out, “L.A. is an explosion of flavor right now, and our restaurant scene is booming, the best, most diverse in the country,” and diners have nearly infinite options. So Musso’s—a restaurant so old that its “new room,” the overflow dining area and bar, dates to 1955—may be trading on nostalgia in a city “that a lot of people stereotypically think of as the Capital of the Ephemeral,” she said.

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TINA WHATCOTT ECHEVERRIA

But the restaurant is trading on more than that, too. Its real secret is its constancy. It makes no nod to nouvelle cuisine or farm-to-table provenance (no waiter will ever tell you the name of your lamb or the farmer who raised it). But because Musso’s is in California, the avocados are always ripe, the tomatoes juicy, the lettuce fresh, and the vibe laid-back. The waiters—all men, in crisp, red waist-length jackets with black lapels—are professional and polished, and most of them have a tenure of many years, if not decades. Ruben Rueda, a legendary bartender who worked at the restaurant for 52 years beginning as a busboy and who used to drive Charles Bukowski home if the writer was drunk, died  just last month.

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