(Since this column was published in 2015, the lunch club has lost two of its founding members. Longtime friend and writer extraordinaire Josh Greenfeld died of a long illness in May 2018. Arnie Wishnick, a fixture for many years as the Executive Director of the Palisades Chamber of Commerce, died earlier this year of pancreatic cancer on April 27th. We republish this story with more than a twinge of sadness and with respectful nods to two great friends of our community.—Bob Vickrey)
By BOB VICKREY
When our group arrived through the traditional back-door entrance of Musso & Frank’s Grill and surveyed the dining room, we all breathed a sigh of relief that there had been no major changes in the appearance of the legendary restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard.
We had called for reservations the previous day, and were told the place had just reopened after a week of renovations. I’m happy to report the vintage Hollywood grill has still maintained the same atmosphere of its 1919 origins.
When Elizabeth Taylor was once asked her greatest Hollywood fear, she revealed her recurring nightmare was that Musso & Frank’s had changed its outdated wallpaper. Rest easy, Ms. Taylor; all is well at everyone’s favorite Hollywood grill and watering hole.
The floral wallpaper and red vinyl booths are indeed still in tact. (In fact, we even wondered if several of the grey-haired waiters there had been working since the grand opening.)
Musso & Frank’s was the third stop for our newly-formed monthly luncheon group where our goal was to dine in many of the oldest and most famous restaurants in Los Angeles.
But it had all started when our longtime writer-friend Josh Greenfeld said he’d like to go back and visit Langer’s Deli in downtown LA. It had been years since any of us had eaten at the old 1940’s delicatessen, so we set a date to take a road trip and leave the friendly confines of our beach community of Pacific Palisades.
Local photographer Barry Stein, the only native Angelino among us, volunteered to handle the driving and navigating chores. Arnie Wishnick and I were invited to join the “Langer’s Express” and were duly instructed for pick-up outside the Chamber of Commerce office, where Arnie had served for many years as Executive Director.
We piled into Barry’s SUV like teenagers escaping the clutches of our parents’ supervision and exhibited boyhood excitement as we embarked on this modest venture. We gazed upon city landmarks on our way through the Westside and Hollywood, and traded stories each time we spotted a place that brought back a fond memory.
The following month we visited Canter’s Deli, but on the way home, Barry suddenly declared, “Enough of Jewish deli’s for awhile.” So, I seized that opportunity to pitch a trip to Musso & Frank’s as our next month’s destination.
Musso & Frank’s Grill represented many happy memories for me after arriving in town in the late 1970’s. As a publisher’s representative, I often visited Pickwick Books on Hollywood Boulevard to meet with Nick Clemente, a legendary figure in the book business who was in charge of advertising. Nick frequently invited me to join him for lunch at the nearby famous grill, where he was a regular and often treated as a celebrity.
Nick was a rather colorful character and well known in Hollywood circles. I recognized many television and movie stars that often stopped by his back booth to say hello. In fact, he regaled me with stories about the considerable literary roots of the restaurant’s early days, and pointed out the booth where William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dorothy Parker met for drinks in the late afternoons. Raymond Chandler was said to have written much of “The Big Sleep” there. Nick pointed out the pay phone near the back door where many movie deals had been finalized.
Musso’s symbolized so much of vintage Hollywood history that we were truly excited about our return visit. Instead of choosing the back-entry side that featured the famous red vinyl booths, we opted to be seated in the big room with the ornate mahogany bar where people-watching was an important element of any lunch there. The restaurant traditionally won the annual award for L.A.’s best martini which was served by celebrated bartender Rueben Rueda.
We studied the huge menu that almost required an Evelyn Wood reading course to navigate the wide variety of entrees. We had chosen the wrong day to order their Thursday special—the chicken pot pie, which I remembered was large enough to feed a family of five. But choices were no problem here.
We were like kids in a candy store as we shared what our favorite dishes were. We pointed out unusual items ranging from flannel cakes to “Chicken ‘a la King” and “Cottage Fried Potatoes.” They even offered a salad that was nothing more than a large wedge of iceberg lettuce with bleu cheese dressing, smoked bacon, chives and tomato.
We finished our extended lunch and topped it off with Musso’s signature Key Lime pie, and then decided to walk the old familiar streets along Hollywood Boulevard and pose as tourists for a few moments. Hardly anything had changed on the street from our earliest memories. Hundreds of tourists still lined the sidewalks posing for pictures just as they had done for decades along the same boulevard. We struggled in our search to find the sidewalk star of former Palisades Honorary Mayor Peter Graves, until we realized that Barry had been accidentally standing on top of it. It didn’t require too much time to take in everything the badly fading boulevard had to offer, so we called it a day and headed home.
Ideas were bandied about for next month’s get-together, and we agreed that lunching at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel was our most intriguing option. We might have to take out a second mortgage on the house to pay the lunch tab there, but the experience seemed worth the sacrifice.
During the ride home, I also suggested a return visit to Musso & Frank’s on its 100th anniversary in 2019 to join the celebration of one of our city’s great treasures. Arnie asked if we should call ahead right away for reservations four years in advance. You can probably sense that our group is rather big on planning ahead.
Bob Vickrey is a longtime Palisadian whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. You can find more of his columns on his website: http://bobvickrey.net/