When Frank Toulet and Joseph Musso opened their little restaurant across the street from the Screen Writers Guild on Hollywood Boulevard  in 1919, it was never meant to be an L.A. cultural icon.

It was a place where novelists like F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Saroyan, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams and many others would come to commiserate with contemporaries in the secret back room of the smoky bar over the devastating hack jobs the studios were doing to change their narratives.

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Exterior of Musso & Frank 1928 (Courtesy of Musso and Frank)

The Musso & Frank Grill was a writer’s restaurant long before it became a celebrity hangout. Next door was the Stanley Rose bookshop, which had a secret gambling hall in the back. It was a good fit.

As Hollywood expanded, so did the restaurant, and in 1955 they shuttered the writer’s room and built a larger new room which was the exact replica of the back room.  They brought over all the original furniture and fixtures like some of the booths, the chandeliers and, most importantly, the bar.

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The iconic bar (Danny Liao)

Still an inspiration for today’s writers — like Quentin Tarantino, who has been a regular since he was a kid working in a video store, and recently featured it prominently in his 10th film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the Musso & Frank Grill will celebrate its 100th anniversary on September 27 with a week’s worth of events.

So, what’s the secret to a century of success with the same expansive menu that includes lamb kidneys and calf’s liver,  and the red leather booths, wood paneling and wallpaper that hasn’t been touched in reverence of Humphrey Bogart’s cigar smoke?

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Mark Echeverria in the new room. (Danny Liao)

“My great grandfather would tell my, grandmother who told us, if you’re on a good solid road — don’t make a left-hand turn,” Mark Echeverria, the restaurant’s COO/CFO/proprietor, and a fourth-generation family member tells L.A. Weekly over a lunch of welsh rarebit and one of the restaurant’s world-famous martinis (stirred, not shaken.)

“We’re still on that road. We’ve got such a rooted employee base team here, that as you start to teach the new people these lessons in how to become legends in their own right, they really embrace that and learn from the generations before them. They taught us integrity, respect and professionalism.  The historical integrity of what started this restaurant, is at the base of its success.”

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Musso’s new room in 1955. (Courtesy of Musso and Frank)

Legends have emerged from that employee base that have become as big a part of L.A. history as the famous customers they’ve served.

Ruben Rueda, who worked his magic as the bartender for 52 years, passed away last April at age 67. From his place behind the bar, Rueda crossed paths with many of the brightest luminaries of the literary, entertainment and music worlds of the last half-century. Johnny Depp, Rock Hudson, Orson Welles, John Lennon and Gore Vidal were among his regular customers. He once broke up a fight between Steve McQueen and Charles Bukowski and then drove them both home.

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Bartender Ruben Rueda (Courtesy of Musso and Frank)

“Mostly I like to talk to people, and I make people happy,” he once said. “I don’t work at Musso & Frank because I want to work in a bar — I work here because I like these people. I work in the greatest place on Earth. This is home. I see my customers more than I see my wife.”

Just one day after Rueda’s memorial service earlier this year,  Musso’s lost another Hollywood icon, longtime server Sergio Gonzalez who joined the team in 1972. He was so beloved by Tarantino that during the five days of shooting Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at the restaurant, the director insisted Gonzalez be part of the scene sporting his pressed red jacket that all staff members have been wearing since day one.

Sergio Gonzalez; Credit: Musso and Frank

Sergio Gonzalez (Courtesy of Musso and Frank)

“Keith Richards and Sergio were great friends for most of his 47 years here,” says Echeverria, while pointing out the Rolling Stones booth in the new room. “He was practically their personal server. They flew Sergio to Spain and all over the world to see the shows and treated him like a friend and family member of the Rolling Stones.”

Another fixture was classically-trained French chef Jean Rue, who developed the chop house menu and stayed for 54 years. The well-seasoned original grill from 1934 accommodates up to 80 steaks and chops a night.

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Musso’s Grenadine of Beef (Tina Whatcott-Echeverria)

“Chef Rue started putting ‘exotic’ things like shish kabab and Hungarian beef goulash on the menu, so that the many eastern Europeans in the small town of Hollywood had a place to go and get a little taste of their home,” says Echeverria. “It’s the perfect example of a chef not having the ego but being in tune with what the neighborhood needs instead of being the main attraction.”

Hollywood and Musso’s grew up together.

The most-requested seat in the house is the Chaplin booth in the old room, the only booth that has a window.

“Way back when Charlie had his studio on LaBrea, he used to race his horse to Musso’s for lunch, often with Rudolph Valentino,” says  Echeverria. “The loser would have to buy lunch.  They’d tie their horses up out front and would sit here so they could watch them from their seats.”

As  Hollywood and the boulevard fell into decline around the ’80s and ’90s, before the rejuvenation that included Hollywood and Highland, Musso’s also took a hit and almost closed in 2009.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Andrew Cooper)

The roof was leaking, the food quality slipped, and the grill became a cavernous ghost town. People came in and offered to buy the place, but the family said no. There were the 70 employees and their families they had to consider.

Echeverria took over operations and hunkered down with current executive chef J. P. Amateau to tweak the menu and bring recipes up to a modern-day palate without changing the original Musso’s concept and he’s looking forward to starting off on the next 100 years.

Alex Gallardo, Sergio’s son-in-law has been working at Musso’s for 15 years and plans to carry on the legacy and traditions that were handed down to him along with the restaurant’s signature red jacket.

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Leonard Rueda, Alex Gallardo, Mark Echeverria (Danny Liao)

“Sergio taught me a lot, like when I go to the table just forget about everything and smile, “ Gallardo tells L.A. Weekly at the counter of the old room where the original grill is still the main focal point.

“Be you and be yourself is what I learned from him. He always come to the table as a normal guy, not pretending to be something else.  He always said, be natural.  He would attack the table, make people laugh and treat everybody as a VIP with respect.”

Rueda’s son Leo has been a server at Mussos for eight years now and says one of the most valuable lessons his father taught him was to be loyal to those who treat you well.

“Mark’s family has been really good to my family for 50 years,” Rueda tells L.A. Weekly as he adjusts his shiny black bow tie before starting his shift.

“The only way I can repay that is to be loyal to them and the restaurant. My dad was very outgoing, and people respected him. He knew when to cut people off and they didn’t fight back. He’d tell them not to come back if they were going to get out of hand and the guys respected him. They were tough guys. He knew when to draw a line in the sand. You didn’t mess with Ruben.”

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The original grill in the old room. (Danny Liao)

Now for the first time since 1955,  there are plans for an expansion next door, with three private dining rooms brought on by popular demand from longtime customers.

Together with the Gensler design firm, meticulous detail has gone into continuing the restaurant’s historic feel into the new space which opens early 2020 and will include temperature-controlled wine vaults, custom wood paneling two-thirds of the way up, topped with a hand painted mural.

“The biggest dedication that we’re going to give is through the mural,” says the high-energy Echeverria.

“The old room is wallpapered with  an English countryside scene  and the dining room is a French countryside scene which came from the hometown Limoges of the original French who reigned from 1922 to 1976. For the new space, we are going to honor the history of the Italian founders’ family and have a muralist hand paint a Tuscan country scene. That carries through the European roots and style of what we do as far as service and cuisine. We stay with the integrity of the tradition, plus it’s more cost effective than wallpaper.”

“What we learn from the next generation standpoint is when they made that move they had such a level of care and carrying through the tradition that started in that old back room over. We learned that lesson and will treat our next move the same way. That kind of detail is necessary in this restaurant moving forward to keep it going.”

The week-long celebration kicks off on Monday, September 23, with a party to launch the Musso & Frank book that comes out in October featuring an intro written by  best selling crime fiction novelist and Musso regular Michael Connelly,  followed by a week’s worth of parties for families and friends.

On Friday, September 27, the exact 10th  anniversary of the restaurant’s opening, the Musso & Frank Grill will receive  a special “Award of Excellence” star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 11 a.m. during a special event which will be open to the public in front of the grill’s entrance.

Young writers still come in and absorb the living history as they proofread their novels  or write at the bar where Fitzgerald used to mix up his own mint juleps. Tarantino  regularly comes in, sits in the Orson Welles booth and scribbles. The bar’s whiskey sour has been immortalized in his latest film, with customers now coming in asking for a “Rick Dalton.”

Chuck Lorre wrote the scenes to fit the restaurant in his Emmy-winning series The Kominsky Method, starring Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, and nails the lunch experience at Musso’s perfectly.  Both Arkin and the Douglas dynasty are longtime customers.

“You feel a connection when you walk into this place and feel like the guest of honor,” Echeverria,  says looking forward. “We don’t ever want to lose that. It’s what we want to keep passing down to the future generations. We’re gonna be here for another 100 or 200 years and don’t plan on changing much of anything.”

Go behind the scenes of the Musso and Frank story with Mark Echeverria:

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