Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown
Musso & Frank Grill: Hollywood Institution
In 2021, when Musso & Frank Grill announced that they were reopening in time for Mother’s Day celebrations, having originally opened up just as the Spanish Flu pandemic was finally petering out in 1919, it seemed hugely appropriate that this venerable and much loved institution should have been one of the first to reopen as the pandemic eased up, just over a hundred years later. So, what better moment is there to look back at the life and times of this Hollywood studio canteen to the stars?
The Legend Begins
The restaurant, originally named Francois, opened in 1919, with the feel of a New York cafe and was an immediate hit with the East Coast movie crowd, who nicknamed it Frank’s. When owner Frank Toulet teamed with restaurateur Joseph Musso in the early 1920’s it then became Musso and Frank’s Grill.
Back in those days, Charles Chaplin would arrive on horseback, galloping down Hollywood Boulevard in a race with Douglas Fairbanks like they were making a Western movie – and whoever came last would pick up the tab! Legend has it that the famous comedian beat Fairbanks, who was renowned for his athletic prowess (he created the action-comedy genre, as well as the superhero archetype, with The Mark of Zorro and Robin Hood, in the 1920’s). Chaplin was inside and ordering by the time the King of Hollywood arrived, watching gleefully from the only table with a window view. It’s still known as ‘the Chaplin booth’ and is, so I’ve been told, by far the most requested table at the restaurant.
Chaplin and Fairbanks probably had just been making a Western movie, since that was a staple of the early industry, when nearly half of all movies were technically Westerns. Horses and horse-drawn transport were still a common sight on what would become the Walk of Fame at the time.
Musso and Frank’s was sold to Italian immigrants Joseph Carissimi and John Mosso in 1927 and has been a Hollywood fixture ever since. Today Mosso’s three granddaughters and their children still run the restaurant. And it’s still going strong, expanding in 2022, with new private dining rooms taking over the property next door.
Musso & Frank Grill’s Place in Hollywood
Its cultural role in the life of Los Angeles blossomed when, in 1935, Stanley Rose moved his famous bookstore, a hangout for many screenwriters and novelists, from Vine Street to a shop neighboring Musso and Frank Grill. The fusion of these two institutions created an unofficial club for the Hollywood set. As one historian wrote:
The bookshop and the bar (at Musso & Frank’s) operated together with superb synergy, creating a welcoming sense of community for screenwriters suffering from an understandable sense of displacement.Kevin Starr
These writer-friendly environments inspired the title of Edmund Wilson‘s 1940 monograph, The Boys in the Back Room: Notes on California Novelists, with one of the boys being a twenty-five-year-old Orson Welles, who was writing Citizen Kane in one of the booths at the time (a brass plaque marks the spot). The movie opened the following year at the El Capitan Theatre, just two blocks away at Hollywood and Highland.
The Birth of the Dream Factory
When Musso’s opened the neighborhood was a Bohemian enclave, seven miles from the political, financial and commercial center of Los Angeles, which at that time was downtown. Yet barely ten years before that Hollywood had been a township of its own, dusty and dry (alcohol was banned and there wasn’t a single theatre), in what was then known as the Cahuenga Valley.
It was a time of huge change to the neighborhood, as throughout the 1910’s movie production companies had been opening studio lots there, as well as shooting numerous movies on its streets. By the 1920’s Paramount, Warner Brothers, Columbia, RKO, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford all had movie studios in the area, meaning a potentially huge clientele. In those days the studios were employing up to 10,000 people on their enormous lots, which is why Hollywood began to be referred to as ‘the Dream Factory’.
Also during the 1920’s numerous theaters opened along Hollywood Boulevard, including the Egyptian Theatre, the Chinese Theatre, the Pantages and the Hollywood Playhouse, just to mention the best known. Again, this meant a nightly crowd of hungry theatergoers descending on the immediate area.
Many of the stars in those days lived in the streets leading north into the hills off the Boulevard, so it was an easy trip in for the Hollywood elite, who could network and talk business with each other over dinner at Musso’s. ‘The Industry’ (as it’s always referred to here in LA) was much smaller then, meaning many of these diners would already know each other, at least slightly, making for a fun, convivial atmosphere.
Musso and Frank’s became known as ‘the Genesis of Hollywood’ and itself had an impact on the immediate locality, with the Screen Writers Guild finding its home in the lovely Art Deco building directly opposite, along with many other bookstores, including Larry Edmunds, which opened in 1937 and has survived to this day.
Musso & Frank Grill Today
Musso and Frank’s has changed little in its first hundred years of business, inside the Hollywood history is almost palpable. The menu and cocktails are exactly how you would want them to be, timeless classics, and the clientele continue to include the movers and shakers of the entertainment industry.
In a town that doesn’t always hold fast to its history, Musso & Frank Grill remains one of the strongest connections we have to the spirit of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when the creative community required physical spaces to find like minds, to co-create and do business. Everyone from Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart, to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Bukowski, has breathed, laughed, eaten and drank here – and so it continues today, discreetly, with the restaurant’s current celebrity clientele.
As a movie location, Musso and Frank Grill has featured in several notable films including Ed Wood (1994), Chaplin (1992), Oceans Eleven (2001) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). It’s also featured on TV shows like The Kaminsky Method and Bosch. It’s fitting of course that it would be such a fixture of the film industry, particularly as it sits across from the legendary Egyptian Theatre.
Visit over the next few months and celebrate the return of this wonderful Hollywood institution. Either reserve a table (be sure to ask for the Chaplin Booth if there are four of you) or sit at the central bar, sip a cocktail and just inhale the Hollywood history (while maybe even seeing one of today’s stars).
On our Hollywood Speakeasy Bar tour we’re often able pay respects to the much-loved Hollywood icon, while having a drink at the central bar (a martini if you want to make like a movie star). It’s always a highlight of the tour for our guests.
If you have any feedback on Musso & Frank Grill: Hollywood Institution please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.