Saturday, February 27, 2010

Jim's L.A. - Musso & Frank Grill

James Scott Bell

[I'm jumping in early for Mr. Miller, who will take my regular slot tomorrow]

Fellow thriller writer Brett Battles wrote a post this week at Murderati, on the use of actual locations in fiction. I am all for it. Since I grew up, and still live in, the greatest noir city on earth, I'd like to offer you from time to time a bit of my city. Take you to some of my favorite spots and tell you what they mean to me as a writer.

I'll start with with Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood.

As classic writers' hangouts go, you can't do much better than Musso's. Walk inside and history overtakes you.

It's the oldest eatery in Hollywood. Since 1919 the big green sign says. In fact, most of the waiters look like they were original hires. That's part of the appeal: red coated, old school waiters with accents and attitude. Don't expect perky twenty-somethings with fake smiles and flair.

And please don't call the place "Musso & Frank's" with the apostrophe S. While the S was sometimes on the end of Frank in early menus, it was decidedly dropped. Angelenos call it "Musso's" for short.

Probably every L.A. writer who ever lived has had a martini at Musso's, or at least seen them poured. Many a writer has had too many. Jim Thompson, the perennially struggling scribe of hardboiled novels in the 50's, often had to be helped home after a night at the bar. Likewise the notorious drunk Charles Bukowski, who references Musso's, and his drinking therein, in his novel Hollywood.

Of course, actors love the place too, and have since Valentino and Chaplin used to nosh there, most of the time at Booth #1 by the front window. Come at night and you'll walk by somebody in the movie biz, even if you don't know who they are. There's always a lot of "Let's take a meeting" talk over drinks and dinner.

You can find the history and some of the stories here.

I like to drop by Musso's when I'm in Hollywood, mainly to get my favorite dish (see below). In fact, I mention Musso's in all three of my Buchanan books. In Try Darkness, Ty Buchanan, lawyer, is staking out Musso's with an unlikely helper, the nun Sister Mary Veritas.

I had Sister Mary park at the curb. "Looks like a little early dinner at Musso's," I said. "Ever been there?"

"No."

"Want to go in? Have a martini?"

"Mr. Buchanan—"

"Ty, please."

"—don't mess with me."

"Not messing. They're famous for their martis. One of those and you'll be so theological you'll—"

"Thank you, no."

"A milkshake?"

"Some other time."

And in Try Fear, Buchanan has my favorite dish:

I checked my watch. Almost eleven-thirty. I was in Hollywood, so I drove down the boulevard to Musso & Frank. I found a meter in front, fed it, went in, and sat at the counter. And ordered liver and onions.

That’s what I said.

My mom used to make liver and onions, and I always liked it. With ketchup. The old waiter—there is no other kind at Musso’s—gave me a plate of sourdough bread and a dish with butter pats. He asked if I needed anything else.

“Ketchup,” I said. “For the liver.”

He leaned over, and with a slight Hungarian accent said, “Don’t tell the chef.” Then added, conspiratorially, “I like it that way, too.”

If you're ever out this way, doing the L.A. visit thing, and you get tired of the tourist spots and the faux stars posing in front of the Kodak Theater—and if you want a taste of authentic old Hollywood—come to Musso's. It looks pretty much the way Cary Grant and Sterling Hayden and Raymond Chandler saw it. Step inside, go back in time, enjoy. Just be aware that the prices are not the same as they were in 1950. But the portions are generous.

So what about you? Do you have a favorite hangout in your hometown?

And if you're coming to the Left Coast Crime convention next month, be sure to check out my walking tour of classic noir L.A., "From Angels Flight to Darkest Night" on March 12 starting at 11 a.m.

15 comments:

  1. I've been in LA maybe eight times, and I've eaten at Musso's three of those. Best chopped salad I've ever eaten. I love the place. It's always a start to see familiar faces from stage and screen at a nearby table, but that isn't its appeal.

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  2. John, I had you pegged as a Musso's kind of guy. Glad you like the place.

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  3. In DC, the Town and Country Bar in the Mayflower Hotel is one place to see and be seen with politicians and journalists, but Old Ebbit Grill is probably the highest percentage hunting groung for classic DC politician hangouts. Problem is, I don't like most politicians. I do like spies, however, and one on the great (rumored) hangouts for spooky people to meet to discuss spooky stuff is the Vienna Inn in Vienna, VA, just 6 miles down the road from CIA HQ. Ain't nothin' classy about the place, but my lord do they sell great food! No martinis, though.

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  4. Jim, you make me want to go to Musso's now!:) Sounds great. Different but original. If I am ever in that area I will def stop by.

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  5. I can see you now, Gilstrap, eavesdropping.

    Martha, it's definitely worth one visit.

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  6. A friend of mine lives on a beach in Malibu, and I love to walk that beach with my dog. We sometimes run into famous faces, and when we chat, I always have a startled moment, thinking, "Wow, is this really her? She seems so normal!" Thankfully we never run into paparazzi.

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  7. Kathryn, I at first thought you wrote, "I have a friend who lives on a BENCH in Malibu." We have that here, too! In fact, a quite interesting character begins to germinate within...

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  8. Did I mention the Welsh Rabbit? The waiters all look like they are auditioning for a Stephen King remake of The Shining. But they are top professionals, and they understand service. If you've never been there, I plead with you to go next time in LA. My other favorite is Lowry's Steak House in Chicago. Truly a surreal experience and the best Prime Rib around. Of course it is always an experience to share with friends. No restaurant is ever truly great or complete unless you share it with friends. Tavern on the Green is a first class experience when dining with The Gilstraps. Next time I'm in LA, I'll call Jim to join me.

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  9. Do that, John.

    I've long known of Lowry's, but have been in Chicago only once for any length of time (I don't count O'Hare layovers). Someday! Great prime rib is worth hunting down.

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  10. Thanks for running that piece, Jim. I especially liked the photo, since I've never seen it before, although I've read about the place in things like Jim Thompson's biography and elsewhere. I'll be at Left Coast Crime, so I'm going to try to make it to your walking tour.

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  11. That's great, Mike. The tour is going to be cool. It's amazing how much L.A. history there is within just blocks of the hotel. See you there.

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  12. Thanks for the great post. Love the excerpt!

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  13. Too cool! If there is anything I love it is an authentic restaurant.

    When I lived in Chicago, once a month I had to go to Springfield to represent our company at a meeting of political types. Utter waste of time except that I got out of the office for the day.

    On the way was "The Dixie Truckers Home," one of the last of the real deal truck stops.

    A mile of chrome and linoleum, waitress with big hair and quick wits, mile-high pies, phones in the booths, you name it. Hungry or not, I always stopped for a snack. A grilled cheese sandwich and ice tea came to $1.75. I always hung out as long as I could, just to watch and listen.

    Then, the Dixie was bought out by some chain that updated it and made it 'retro' instead of authentic. Fake tin oil company signs, too much dark wood and soft lighting, the wait staff too young, and the prices too high.

    I never went back, ever again. However, when I write and think of a truck stop, it is the old Dixie's that comes to mind.

    Add into that the dozens of true diners I've been in on my travels including the places that have cup racks with mugs that the locals fill themselves.

    A conversation I heard in one of these places in Arkansas:

    ::Two locals, each reading their own copy of the local paper::

    #1 - "Says here that the hunting lodge is running a special during the first weekend of deer season."

    #2 - "Does that mean the price goes down, or up?"

    ::Double guffaw::

    #1 - "Beans is down this week."

    #2 - "Ain't it the truth."

    Silence after that . . .

    Hmmm . . . the bistro in Paris where the waitress wrote my order on my placemat then ripped it in half and headed to the kitchen screeching "PAPA! PAPA!"

    Too many to count . . .

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  14. Terri, "real deal truck stops." I love those, too. Thanks for the good stories.

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  15. One of these days I need to do a cafe & restaurant tour of the world. So many cool places to eat and most so far from me.

    Here in Alaska there are a couple of recommended places I'd throw out for you:

    1. Jens Restaurant (pronounced Yens): amazingly delicious Alaskan & Danish cuisine and terrific wine bar. Fun fine dining. Dude sang for us on our anniversary. www.jensrestaurant.com

    2. Mooses Tooth Pub & Pizzeria: Best Pizza on earth IMHO... and a microbrewery that'll make you never want to leave. Try the Strawberry Wheat Ale...I'm a Stout guy, but dang that's good sissy beer.

    3. The Turtle Club: This place is almost literally in the middle of nowhere ten miles north of Fairbanks in the town of Fox. There are like twelve people who live in the town that aren't trappers or miners, and all twelve work at the Turtle club. Been eating there since I was a kid. Main item is Prime Rib (up to 24 oz), Prawns and Alaskan King Crab. Wowsers.

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