Credit: Tina Whatcott

    Musso and Frank: Charlie Chaplin’s old Hollywood haunt

    22 January 2019

    This year, legendary Hollywood restaurant Musso & Frank Grill turns 100. When it opened in 1919, Hollywood Boulevard was a dirt road; Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks would race here on horseback, the loser picking up the dinner tab. What exactly kept the celebrities returning down the decades? Step this way to find out.

    Red booths, dark wood panelling, dim orange wall lamps and a Japanese-style geometric ceiling all help to create an eclectic, vintage glamour. Steaks are cooked on an open mesquite charcoal grill ‘grandfathered in’ so as to avoid smog-busting emissions laws (rib eye is the connoisseur’s pick, the higher fat content vaporising and infusing the meat with particular flavour). Meanwhile martinis are served in smaller-than-standard glasses with a ‘sidecar’ of the drink kept on ice so that you can enjoy them at leisure, cold.

    Chaplin’s booth was the one nearest the front door; Frank Sinatra required a booth hidden away and secure. The Rolling Stones ask for one of the corner tables, while Orson Welles preferred a booth for two that allowed him to jam the table into the seat opposite, so as to both accommodate his girth and dissuade opportunists from joining him in order to promote a script.

    Charlie Chaplin’s old booth (Credit: Tina Whatcott)

    Next door was the bookstore of literary agent and raconteur Stanley Rose; nearby too were the Screen Writers Guild and the studios. Musso & Frank became a haven for writers: Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Dashiell Hammett among others. During prohibition, the ‘writers’ room’ at the back served as a speakeasy. Raymond Chandler is believed to have written The Big Sleep here, although that goes uncorroborated. Chandler himself may not have known for sure, given his alcohol intake during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

    Writers and creative types still flock here. Michael Connelly is the author of the acclaimed, LA-based Harry Bosch detective novels. Scenes are set at the restaurant itself, in both the books and in the TV adaptation, Bosch. Connelly is fond of Chandler’s old booth. ‘The place has history and character, both things in short supply in L.A,’ he remarks. ‘That’s a draw, whether you’re writing stories or just looking for a great martini.’

    Over time, Hollywood Boulevard became tacky. T-shirt sellers now vie with vagrants and lurid Hollywood museums, although the neighbourhood may well be on the turn again as rents rise and new bars and hotels pop up. Musso & Frank remains unaffected. On one occasion, Steve McQueen had to be ejected for trying to get Ali MacGraw thrown out. The red-jacketed waiters are known for treating guests equally. More specifically, ‘We treat celebrities as regulars,’ says General Manager Andrea Scuto, ‘and regulars as celebrities.’

    View towards Hollywood Boulevard from Loews Hollywood (Credit: Nik Karlsson)

    Where to stay

    You won’t want to stagger far after the generous pours and portions. Five minutes walk away is Loews Hollywood Hotel, the default choice for attendees of the Oscars ceremonies staged in the neighbouring Dolby Theatre. You might recognise the hotel’s ballroom – it hosts the ‘post-win’ photos and interviews with those clutching gold statuettes.

    Uber in from the airport (or arrive on the hotel’s helipad); there is a Hertz office on the property if you must drive. There is also a mini grocery store and of course a pool with a view. Concierge can cater to your other needs, and it’s hard to imagine that, in this larger-than-life enclave, any request could surprise.

    Daniel Pembrey was a guest of Musso & Frank Grill  and Loews Hollywood (rooms from $259 a night)