"It's a bull shot," said event planner Randall Hall as he sipped a half-inch of vodka-infused beef bouillon off his hearty amber-colored cocktail. "I ordered it because that's what Noel Coward served the Queen Mother." On this damp Monday night, a night when Musso & Frank Grill is usually closed, its long mahogany bar and red-leather banquettes echoed with conversations that began much like this: names of esoteric cocktails, tales of flamboyant playwrights, plots of forgotten novels -- all in the name of honoring the self-ascribed "Oldest Restaurant in Hollywood" and its role in local literary history.
As part of the first Los Angeles Visionaries Association Salon at Musso & Frank, about 100 of the culturally curious paid $100 a plate (not including drinks) to dine in the toile-wallpapered New Room. Most of the attendees were already well-versed in Musso's literary reputation; many were regulars who were on a first-name basis with the bartenders -- and knew which one to chat up for the best stories about a perpetually degenerate Charles Bukowski. Hall, the event planner with the bull shot, announced he was sitting at the Raymond Chandler booth, which he and his tablemates had requested (if you're standing at the bar, it's the first booth against the wall to your right). But tonight, everyone was here to discuss the legacy of John Fante, one of Los Angeles' great -- and underappreciated -- novelists.
For LAVA host Richard Schave, these journeys into L.A.'s literary past focused on "buildings and books" are as much about telling stories as they are about establishing the veracity of those stories. "To not only celebrate," he said. "To get straight." The geography of Musso's itself may require the most complex fact-checking of all, as Musso's fourth-generation proprietor Mark Echeverria attempted to map out the various spaces which the restaurant has occupied. In addition to the The Old Room (wood paneled, with the grill), the New Room (toile wallpaper, with the bar), there was the "Cocktail Room," an exclusive enclave tucked into the back of the then-Vogue Theater, nicknamed "The Back Room" or "Algonquin West," to nod to the writers like Dorothy Parker who relocated their boozy "Round Table" lunches from New York's Algonquin Hotel. When Musso's expanded in 1955, the contents of the Back Room--bar, chairs, fixtures, coat racks -- were all moved to the New Room. So you could indeed be sitting where F. Scott Fitzgerald sat. Kind of. (A new bar named The Writer's Room is now located next door to Musso's, in the very space where The Back Room was once located, and attempts to capitalize on its adjacency, although it is not related to Musso's.)
It was also mostly due to geography that Musso's became Los Angeles' literary epicenter. Starting in the 1920's, the intersection of Hollywood and Cherokee was home to the Writers' Guild and Stanley Rose's Bookshop, two institutions that became social nodes for authors and screenwriters. As the writers moved frequently between the other two establishments, rare book dealer Howard Prouty explained, Musso's evolved into both commissary and clubhouse. Dan Fante, son of John Fante, and author of Fante: A Family's Legacy of Writing, Drinking, and Surviving, picked up where Prouty left off, reading his poetry and remembrances of his father. These included stories of the elder Fante, Nathaniel West and William Faulkner meeting at Musso's, mostly to avoid writing scripts for a needy Hollywood. In fact, Musso's became an institution for the whole Fante family -- Dan said he'd been coming there with his parents since 1951.
As proprietors of LAVA as well as the bus-based excursion series Esotouric, Schave and his wife Kim Cooper offer adventures into the salacious and sometimes seamy undersides of Los Angeles culture, often with food as a central ingredient. The Blood & Dumpling tour winds through crime scenes in the San Gabriel Valley with a stop for dim sum at 101 Noodle. One of Esotouric's Noir-themed tours might conclude with a tasting at East Hollywood gelateria Scoops with era-appropriate flavors like nicotine.
At the Musso's salon, the food is more of the historical backdrop: The meals are meant to evoke what was served at the restaurant in the early days, but are not thematically coordinated. At last week's salon, the three-course, prix-fixe menu included classic offerings like filet of sandabs and the grandiosely named Diplomat Pudding, a cold molded custard oozing with ruby strawberries. If you want to know what to order, look to Echeverria's table: at last week's event he was seated with members of his family, who all ordered the Chicken Pot Pie, which was efficiently and dramatically de-potted tableside. In their hands were rosy Cosmopolitans, with Musso's signature martini sidecars lounging in ice on the table.
By the time our plates were ferried away by Musso's impeccable red-coated waiters, it was clear from the chatter in the room that the salon had served its purpose. "What made the Musso's salon work is that rare subspecies of Angeleno who lives here not just voluntarily, but happily, even obsessively. It's unusual to see this many of us in one place without having Angel's Flight reopen or something." said David Kipen, proprietor of Libros Schmibros, a bookstore and lending library in Boyle Heights, who will be leading the salon on F. Scott Fitzgerald in July. "My only reservation is I wanted to know who everybody was, not just the few I was lucky enough to meet. So long as Richard and Kim are going to go to the trouble of making L.A. feel like a small town, I want to know all my neighbors."
As I surveyed the golden-lit room, I, too, realized there were more stories in the room that I wanted to hear, more characters I wanted to meet. Part of the restaurant's allure comes from learning who was tippling martinis, tearing up scripts and running a tab at that booth in the corner. But part of finding out why Musso's remains such a hallowed room is discovering who's drinking at that table now.
[Photos by Hagop Kalaidjian]