Issue: Spring 2019
100 Years of Musso & Frank
By Michael Darling
According to Gore Vidal, “Walking into Musso & Frank is like walking into a warm bath.” Now celebrating its 100th anniversary, the restaurant has long served as a comfortable oasis on Hollywood Boulevard.
Here, the famous and infamous eat in peace next to tourists; servers and customers are part of the same family, and old Hollywood lives forever.
When Musso & Frank first opened on September 27th, 1919, Hollywood Boulevard was still a dirt road. The restaurant was first opened as Frank’s Café by French immigrant Firmin “Frank” Toulet. Shortly thereafter, restauranteur Joseph Musso bought into the restaurant and it was rechristened as Musso & Frank’s Grill. Chef Jean Rue’s cooking made the restaurant a hit with the filmmakers who had started to live and work around Hollywood.
In 1927, Musso and Toulet sold the restaurant to two Italian immigrants, Joseph Carissimi and John Mosso. The two families continued to run the restaurant together until 2009 when Carissimi’s heirs sold their stake in the restaurant to Mosso’s heirs. Musso & Frank remains in the family and John Mosso’s great-grandson Mark Echeverria now runs the business.
Musso & Franks owners and staff raise a toast to 100 years
Echeverria grew up at the restaurant and has many fond memories of Musso & Frank. His earliest memory of the family business was in 1984, when he was just four years old. “We all ordered Shirley Temples and the bartenders served them to us in Martini glasses, so I felt so sophisticated,” says Echeverria.
The staff feels like part of the family. This loyalty between staff and management has helped keep the restaurant consistent over the generations. Although Echeverria had worked in other service industries, when he became manager in 2009, he spent 16 hours a day at the restaurant and looked to the staff for guidance to make sure he got it right. “They were very instrumental in guiding me as far as what fine dining hospitality was like. I had the business experience, but they taught me the front end of it.”
Many of the restaurant’s employees have worked there for years. Sergio Gonzalez has worked at Musso & Frank since 1974, and though he technically retired in 2015, he still works two to three lunch shifts a week. “Sergio watched me grow up, basically,” says Echeverria. Gonzalez started working at the restaurant when he was just 20 years old and never left. How big a role has Musso & Frank played in Gonzalez’ life? His daughter’s husband used to wait tables at the restaurant.
Of course, Musso & Frank is known for the celebrities that have passed through its doors. Gonzalez usually isn’t too phased by the celebrity customers, saying people often ask if he excited that “takes care of all those famous people,” to which he usually says, “Not really, I’ve taken care of lots of people over the years.” However, Gonzalez has a few notable customers. When the Rolling Stones are in town, they specifically request that Gonzalez serve as their waiter. “I think he and Keith [Richards, the Stones’ guitarist] have been buddies for 44 years now,” says Echeverria.
Celebrities like John Travolta, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino still drop by the restaurant because it remains a quiet place where stars can have a drink or a meal without worrying about being bothered. “There’s no autograph hounds; they give their celebrity clientele their privacy. It’s probably the only place where a celebrity can go eat dinner without being bothered,” says longtime customer Jimmy Pappas. Over the course of his 30 years coming to Musso & Frank, Pappas has become dining pals with stars like Mickey Rooney and Ernest Borgnine and close friends with the staff. “They came to my kids’ baptism; I’ve been to their kids’ quinceañeras. It’s like we’re family,” says Pappas.
There have also been some more notorious figures who have frequented Musso & Frank. When he started at the restaurant, Gonzalez had an older customer who always came in with bodyguards. “I used to say ‘Hi papa, how you doing?’ and give him a kiss on the forehead and hot towels for his knees.” Gonzalez didn’t know who the old man was, but did know he was a generous tipper. It wasn’t until Gonzalez saw the man’s obituary that everything clicked; Gonzalez’ frequent customer was former mob boss Mickey Cohen.
Sneaking a peek at celebrity clientele isn’t the only reason to stop by Musso & Frank; the restaurant’s delicious menu is living Hollywood history. Many of the menu items have remained unchanged from Jean Rue’s day, while others have been gently reworked. Current executive chef J.P. Amateau is only the third executive chef in the restaurant’s history. Amateau has his own history with the restaurant. He started going to Musso & Frank as a child with his father Rod, a writer and director who moonlighted as Humphry Bogart’s stunt double.
As the restaurant’s menu is heavily old school, there are some dishes you probably won’t find anywhere else like diplomat pudding, filet of sanddabs and Echeverria’s favorite, grenadine of beef. Echeverria, Amateau and the staff are reluctant to remove dishes because everything is someone’s favorite. “We sell maybe five smoked tongue sandwiches a month, but you gotta keep it on the menu,” says Echeverria. There might be only one regular who orders a particular item, but if they removed it from the menu “I’d hear from him for a whole month,” laughs Echeverria.
It’s not just the menu that’s an example of living Hollywood history, the restaurant has been maintained and refurbished but never remodeled. Each piece of furniture has a history, whether it’s a bar stool frequented by Humphry Bogart or a table that was always reserved for Frank Sinatra. According to Pappas, Mickey Rooney once told him, “That wallpaper still has our cigar smoke in it.” There’s also the famous Charlie Chaplin booth, the only booth in the restaurant with a window. For a time, Chaplin would ride his horse from his studio at La Brea and Sunset to Musso & Frank. When he got there, he’d hitch the horse up outside and keep an eye on it from the window side seat.
While the Musso & Frank team are still figuring out the exact plans for the centennial celebration, they have a few events planned. There will be a private party just for current and former staff, another “family” celebration to which longtime regulars will be invited and then hopefully a big street festival on Hollywood Boulevard in September.
One hundred years after it first opened, Musso & Frank remains a vital part of Hollywood. As the neighborhood continues to change, the restaurant is one of the few links to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Mickey Rooney probably said it best about how important Musso & Frank is. According to Pappas, one evening at the restaurant the screen star was reminiscing about his life and said, “The best thing about Hollywood is Musso & Frank, it’s part of Old Hollywood.”