The Martini Doctor Is In: Manny Aguirre | LA Life | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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The Martini Doctor Is In: Manny Aguirre 

Bartender icon, whose bar-side manner has soothed generations of Hollywood's elite at Musso and Frank and beyond, turns 75

Wednesday, Mar 4 2009
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People who visit Musso and Frank Grill for the first time make two pleasant discoveries: a restaurant/bar that forms a bridge to Hollywood’s golden past, and bartender Manny Aguirre, who provides a more personal link to that history. Manny, who’s been at Musso’s since 1989, is not the establishment’s longest-serving bartender currently working there, but he’s become its unofficial ambassador and an acknowledged black-belt martini master, a familiar figure in a red jacket and gold-rimmed glasses.

Manny can be tolerant and understanding with drunks and windbags, but knows when to draw the line. On one recent afternoon he was seen chasing — albeit in his trademark courtly style — a rather shabby-looking woman who seemed intent on walking out on the tab for her single Budweiser.

“Sometimes,” Manny charitably says with a faint Ecuadorian accent, “people will walk out — they’ll say, ‘I’m going to have a cigarette’ — and never come back. But we don’t have that kind of clientele.”

click to enlarge KEVIN SCANLON - Aguirre: Overseeing the evolution of the Hollywood cocktail.
  • Kevin Scanlon
  • Aguirre: Overseeing the evolution of the Hollywood cocktail.

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“Manny — I’m going out to have a cigarette!” pipes up a smart aleck at the end of the bar.

This year sees a triple milestone as Manny turns 75 soon and celebrates his 20th year at Musso and Frank — which itself turns 90.

Manny came to Los Angeles in 1953, when Fletcher Bowron was serving his last days as L.A.’s four-term mayor, Eugene Biscailuz was sheriff and Chavez Ravine still thrived as a semirural barrio. Manny had taken a banana boat from Ecuador’s Guayaquil to Tampa, and soon caught a westbound Greyhound from New Orleans.

“When I was young,” he recalls, “I saw everything through Hollywood.” The movies, he says, made everything in the city seem “so beautiful.” But the L.A. he saw upon arriving downtown was not the glamorous city he’d imagined.

“‘This is Los Angeles?’ I thought. To be honest,” he says, “a week later I wanted to go back to Ecuador. I was kinda disappointed.”

Manny’s first job was at El Poche Café, a fairly well-known Mexican restaurant in its time out in the wilds of San Gabriel.

“It was like Siberia in those days,” Manny says of the San Gabriel Valley, which he reached by taking a couple of buses from his shared apartment on 22nd Street and Normandie. But he was feeling exiled for other reasons, too. Despite having moved to a city with a huge Latino population, he remained isolated because most of the Mexican-Americans who dominated it back then refused to speak Spanish if they knew English.

“The pachucos and pochos didn’t want to,” he says. Manny tried to enlist to serve in the Korean War but, again, the language barrier blocked him. Even Mexican food was alien to him.

“I was very unhappy,” he says. “For breakfast at the restaurant we used to eat frijoles, beans, with eggs. I was kind of shocked — in Ecuador for breakfast you’d have a French roll with a piece of cheese, ham, and milk and coffee. The first time I ate tortillas was right here in the United States!”

Bit by bit, though, Manny was won over by his adopted town. The people on street cars were uncommonly friendly. He made a ritual of dining at Clifton’s cafeteria on Broadway and loved riding the electric Red Cars — even the Go and Stop arms that moved up and down on traffic signals grew on him.

Getting work in the restaurant business was easy — and it all led upward — from places like Tips, Dublin’s Food and Fun, Nickodell, Scandia and, finally, Musso and Frank. (Of these five, only Musso’s remains.)

In 1955 he bought his first Ford and was working downtown at the Statler Hotel, which was being used for a movie shoot one day. After the shoot, one of the actors, sitting alone in the middle of the hotel’s cavernous Pacific Ballroom, politely asked Manny if he could bring him a cup of coffee. One of Manny’s co-workers was the brother of Mexican tennis great Pancho Segura, and he took Manny aside.

“That guy’s James Dean!” he told Manny; he hadn’t recognized the young actor, who weeks later would die in a car accident.

Dean would be among the first celebrities Manny would serve over the years, stars including Bette Davis (whiskey sour), Kirk Douglas, Harrison Ford (who talked to Manny’s grandsons on a cell phone), Drew Barrymore (champagne), Francis Ford Coppola, who wanted to know why Musso and Frank didn’t serve Coppola wine (the very next week, Musso’s did), and Keith Richards, who’s known to stop by Musso and Frank when he’s in town. And he never fails to laugh when recalling how the cast and crew of Happy Days would drink at Nickodell — except for the underage Ronny Howard, who had to make do with sodas.

During the long, lonely downtime of midafternoon, Manny can walk Musso’s floor like the curator of a natural-history museum and bring its empty booths to life.

“Raymond Burr would always sit at Table Number 38,” he nods to a banquette. “Never at the bar.”

“Elizabeth Taylor sat at Number 34,” he remembers. “Nancy Reagan always had Number 36, and Merv Griffin would be at 37. He’d have a glass of wine or vodka tonic. He already knew he was dying. The last time I saw him, he and a friend left and a few minutes later, he sent his friend back for a battery jump because he left the lights on his car.”

Although Al Pacino used to sit in corner table Number 28 — to keep an eye on who came in — some celebrities, like George Hamilton (“He’s a friend of Mrs. Marcos,” Manny whispers conspiratorially), simply prefer the bar.

As the faces and habits of entertainment stars have changed, so have their drinks, with Manny overseeing this evolutionary process. Contrary to popular belief, he says, drinks of yore did not take longer to make.

“They were mostly highballs,” Manny remembers. “Seven High, Screwdrivers, Moscow Mules — that’s with the ginger beer, but they don’t have that anymore. Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, Whiskey Sours — drinks that are now dead.”

Still, there is one drink that connects contemporary drinking habits to the past — that avatar of the American century, the martini. It is also the drink with which Manny has become most identified over the years, and over which he is often called in to referee bruising controversies about its proper making.

Die-hard, strict constructionists maintain the best martinis are made of gin, while their implacable foes pledge allegiance to vodka. (Imagine an epic arm-wrestling match between Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming.) Subtler heresies exist, however, especially among apostates favoring “dirty martinis” (which al Qaeda does not yet possess) and those who endlessly argue over how much vermouth is considered desirable.

“The old generation,” Manny notes, “used to say, ‘May I have a martini?’ That means with vermouth. Today they say, ‘Give me a martini with no vermouth.’ They demand it but I don’t care. What I do is stir it more times and I put a tiny bit of vermouth in.”

Manny, surprisingly, does not live in the past, although he’ll be the first one to tell you that his customers drank more in the 1950s and ’60s.

“People spent more time at the bar. In those days if the police stopped you they’d just take you home. They’d have one or two martinis and then go back to work. Now, it’s a soft drink only with lunch.”

“How are you doing, my friend?” Manny asks a customer.

“I’m doing good,” the man says.

Manny’s barside manner is deceptively simple. His radar senses when regulars and tourists alike want to be left alone and when they might want to share something that’s been nagging them since morning. And, even when a drinker might be lost in solitary thoughts or in deep conversation with friends, Manny knows just when to stealthily glide over to replace the man or woman’s napkin, or freshen a glass of water.

His understanding demeanor has been shaped not only by watching from behind a bar as people’s sobriety ebbs away, but from working at the Magic Castle for 33 years, as both a waiter and assistant maitre d’. Which is why his tipsier customers do not feel dissed when he calls a time-out.

“You never say, ‘Oh, you’re drunk!’ to a customer,” he says. “You say, ‘Excuse me, but you look as though you’ve had some drinks somewhere else before you came here.’” Most people pick up on the hint. If not, he’ll go a step further: “‘Please, go home, relax and come back.’”

When we think of Hollywood Boulevard characters past and present, Manny Aguirre may not come to mind in a roll call of outsized figures, but when he rings up his cash register for the last time, it’ll be a sound heard up and down the boulevard.

As another long, quiet afternoon at Musso’s slowly surrenders to the bustle of evening, a man who realizes he’s been at the bar too long gets up to leave, and Manny makes him feel at home before he’s even returned:

“Don’t take so long to come back, now!”

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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