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A new chapter for a legendary Hollywood restaurant

Anyone who knows Hollywood knows Musso & Frank, where the stars of the motion picture industry’s Golden Age often dined.

Everyone came to Musso’s: Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe.

Even as the world outside its doors changed with the times, Musso’s, which opened in 1919, embraced its old charms: steaks, chops and martinis served by waiters in red jackets to patrons in red leather booths. No one messed with the Musso mystique, because in a town where it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference, this was the real deal.

Now for the first time in decades, change has come to this Hollywood institution.

In October, Jordan M. Jones, 29, a fourth-generation descendant of one of the early owners, assumed full control of Musso & Frank Grill. He quickly put his stamp on the place.

The bar now stays open until 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. A place famous for martinis offers an expanded wine list, including special reserves, such as Napa Valley’s Opus One, which goes for $230 a bottle.

And, for the first time in Musso’s history, there is music. At 10 p.m., the lights dim and Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington can be heard over the newly installed sound system. Jones personally selected the music -- mostly from the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.

He took similar care with the speakers, hiring a Hollywood prop man to fashion them in the exact design of a ‘40s intercom found at the restaurant. He even touched up the fabric on the wooden boxes with spray paint to resemble smoking stains.

“I’m a young man, but an old soul. I think that’s why I’m suited for this,” said the enthusiastic and energetic host, who sports a goatee and seems to favor vests and suspenders.

Hollywood history buff Mike McCloud, 53, known to the staff as “Major Mike” because of his military background, has been a Musso’s patron for 13 years. He said he loves the restaurant the way it is, but he also wants it to stick around.

“I want what’s best for Musso’s,” he said. “Given the history of this place, I don’t want to see them make any missteps. I’m hoping Jordan gets it right.”

Outside on Hollywood Boulevard, hip new spots keep opening. But they are mostly geared to 20-somethings.

Jones acknowledges that Musso’s has felt the pinch of the bad economy and that he has had to scale back some employees’ hours. But there have been no layoffs, he says, and the restaurant remains in the black.

He also has faith that Musso’s future lies in its past.

“All over nowadays you see new places trying to re-create history,” Jones said, noting downtown L.A.'s popular Edison bar, built to evoke a 1920s speak-easy. “They try to make them look old because that’s something everybody appreciates and loves, even the younger generation. Vintage is cool. All these places are trying to re-create it, and we don’t have to. We have it right here.”

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After 1926, Musso & Frank could easily have been known as Mosso and Carissimi. That’s when original owners Joseph Musso and Frank Toulet sold the restaurant to John Mosso, Jones’ great-grandfather, and his partner, Joseph Carissimi. In 1934, the restaurant moved one door down to its current home at 6667 Hollywood Blvd.

The following year, Musso’s opened its famous “back room,” which quickly became a hit with such newly recruited screenwriters as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Nathanael West. It was so popular among the literati that they dubbed it the Algonquin West -- its round table an elegant mahogany bar.

“Everyone knew you could go to the back room at Musso’s and be surrounded by interesting people,” said Jones, whose great-grandfather had to hire a doorman to control traffic. “It wasn’t just the writers, but movie stars, producers and directors, people like Cecil B. De Mille and the Warner brothers.”

In 1955, the neighboring Vogue Theater, which owned the property where the back room was located, took its space back. All furnishings -- the bar, chairs, wall sconces, chandeliers and coat racks -- were moved into Musso’s “new room,” the present barroom. Only the tables are not the originals.

“They tried to duplicate the back room,” Jones said recently as he walked through the bar pointing out the original wood paneling and exposed beams. “They did a pretty damn good job of it. It’s very similar.”

Musso’s most treasured asset, though, may be its employees, who are as popular with the customers as the celebrities who still show up. Jones calculates that his 13 waiters have a combined 370 years experience on the job; his three bartenders, a mere century.

“Some of our employees have been here longer than I’ve been alive,” he said, noting that waiter Juan Ramos, 69, who arrived at Musso’s in 1972, used to serve Jones’ parents when they were first dating.

Jones, who is originally from Las Vegas, said it was in college that he first began thinking about getting involved in the family’s restaurant business. But after graduating in 2002 with a degree in communications, he was still undecided.

He spent the next two years doing volunteer work and traveling, mostly in Central and South America. When he returned in 2004, he was finally ready. He worked as a busboy at Musso’s for a few months before enrolling at the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena for management training.

After completing the program in 2006, Jones took a more active role in running the restaurant. Last fall, his family bought out the descendants of the Carissimi family and officially put him in charge.

Jones said he is planning more changes and asking customers for their suggestions on everything from the late-night menu to their favorite whiskeys and gins.

He says his main goal is to ensure Musso’s continued success by attracting new customers while keeping faith with the old ones. Gore Vidal, he proudly notes, used to drink with Faulkner in the back room in the 1940s and is still a regular patron.

“Gore says coming to Musso’s is like stepping into a warm bath,” Jones said.

So far, Ray Sprague, 89, and Frank Lysinger, 90, regulars at Musso’s for more than 50 years, say they like the changes and think they will appeal to the younger crowd. But they said the restaurant’s food and staff remain its best selling points.

“What I most like about the place is its friendly atmosphere,” Sprague said. “It’s like eating in your own home.”

Jones appreciates the sentiment.

“What my family has in this restaurant is so special, you can’t go wrong,” he said. “It’s not like I was handed some business that was broken and needed to be fixed. It’s an amazing restaurant. My job is to make sure it stays amazing.”

carlos.lozano@latimes.com


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