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Elbow Room

Around 3 o’ clock at Musso & Frank, with the counter mostly emptied of its flannel-cake stragglers, a busboy smooths out white linen napkins for the dinner crowd. An ashtray smell of cold, burnt wood comes off the grill behind the counter’s middle, and a man pokes among the dead ashes for a while before walking over.

“If you hear a little explosion,” he says, “don’t worry. I’m turning on the grill. If you hear a big explosion . . . run like heck.”

Within a couple of minutes, he coaxes the grill into crackling life. The warm scent of woodsmoke spreads across the room. A red-jacketed waiter comes over and pours a clear, cold martini, Hollywood’s best, from a pony into a tiny, frosted glass, then carefully spoons Welsh rarebit from a metal salver onto crustless toast. Other waiters bustle about the empty restaurant, preparing for the evening rush.

It seems very much a perfect gentleman’s lunch, here in these worn, wooden swivel chairs beneath the ancient hunt-scene wallpaper. The rarebit is rich, warm, a little grainy, not a platonic Fannie Farmer vision of the classic cheese dish but very good anyway, especially when cut through with the chill, bitter snap of the gin, and topped with salty bacon you crumble yourself. The service is solicitous, but mostly leaves you to your own thoughts.

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Musso’s, the oldest real restaurant in Los Angeles, is an easy place to be happy, and it seems a privilege to be able to come here every once in a while.

In a sense, it’s impossible to describe Musso & Frank as a restaurant, rather than one’s own relationship to Musso & Frank. Like the Griffith Park Observatory or Ramon Navarro’s star on Hollywood Boulevard, Musso’s just is , canned asparagus and crab Louie and all. Faulkner and Fitzgerald and M.F.K. Fisher drank here, and practically everybody has opinions of the place, none of which are wrong.

You might dislike the flannel cakes--thin, plate-size pancakes that taste something like rubbery fortune cookies--but almost everybody else adores them. You might subscribe to the conventional wisdom about the place (you’ll do all right if you stick to steaks, chops and martinis), but thousands of others can recite the unchanging list of daily specials by heart.

Curious about jellied consomme? Quivery brown stuff, sort of refreshing with a squeeze of lemon, mounded in a tiny, iced bowl. Combination Louie? Cooked, chilled shrimp, crab and lobster piled on a bed of lettuce, with little paper cups of horseradish-catsup sauce and spicy thousand island dressing on the side. Finnan haddie? A huge, naked haunch of smoked haddock, intimidating but sort of delicious really, served with good tartar sauce and boiled new potatoes. The sheer size of the menu, which doesn’t seem to have changed much since the restaurant opened in 1919, makes it possible to eat as Jay Gatsby may have, or Nora Charles, or Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.

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At the counter, all sorts of possibilities arise that probably wouldn’t occur to you in a booth. You can split a club steak or a Wednesday order of sauerbraten with a friend without feeling cheap. You can strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you, who might be a B-movie character actor, or the woman who arranges the music for “Twin Peaks,” or a seedy Brit who’s just had his car stolen and wants to borrow 20 bucks just till next week. (You watch close, to make sure he doesn’t stick you with the check.)

“What’s in a chicken pot pie?” asks a man at the end of the counter. “ Chicken , for crying out loud,” his friend says in disbelief.

If you’ve sat at the end closest to the door, you can watch a waiter croon Hank Williams songs or make silk hankerchiefs disappear. The waiter, Manny, also makes the best Caesar in the joint, garlicky and awash with pungent anchovies. (If you’re with a pretty girl who looks longingly enough at him when he’s tossing one, he might slip you a few leaves free of charge.) You can order coffee and a bread pudding, and peoplewatch for hours during the pre-theater rush. You can eavesdrop.

Taylor’s is where you go for a steak,” said the woman sitting next to me one evening. She reached over and stabbed a forkful of Caesar salad from my plate. “Musso’s is where you come for, well, a bowl of peas.” She ordered a hot turkey sandwich for herself and a hot chicken sandwich for her friend, and under the gobbets of brown gravy, one sandwich not only looked, but also tasted exactly like the other, mounds of bland comfort food on crustless white toast. I let her have a big piece of my steak.

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Musso & Frank Grill, 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 467-7788. Open Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Full bar. Validated parking in rear. American Express, Carte Blanche, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$40.


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