Since I missed out on Musso & Frank for years, I’ve been trying to catch up, stopping in every time I make the drive down to LA — I figure I won’t burn out, given that I only drop south once or twice a year. But its the kind of place where I wouldn’t object to being an habitué, staking a claim on a barstool or a booth. . . .
Craig Graham of Vagabond Books is the guy who sold me on the idea that I had to hit M&F next time I got to Chandlertown. I was hanging out in the Vagabond booth at the Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco, must have been in 2009, Craig was doing his raconteur thang and M&F came up — honest, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been aware of it. Old Hollywood, everyone went there, and it was a survivor, unlike The Brown Derby and other legends that lay by the wayside.
I would have met Craig for drinks during my first visit, but happenstance took me south on a weekend when Vagabond was holding down another booth in a book fair in Frisco. I wasn’t going to skip M&F, so Craig got a raincheck. Saturday February 6 2010 was the date — I snagged four or five hours sleep, pointed the machine in the direction of Hollywood and Vine, punched it through hour after hour of raging thunderstorms. En route called up my LA pal Leo Grin so he’d be ready to tag along with us on the initial exploratory.
So, we’re seated in a booth with a view of the bar (the vantage point Craig insisted on, for maximum effect). In a place once frequented by Hammett, Chandler, Faulkner — even Bukowski. Charlie Chaplin had a favorite booth. Tom Mix. Doug Fairbanks. Valentino. All the actors for decade after decade came in — Leo pulled out his smartphone and found a Yelp-like site where someone reported they came in on a busy Saturday night and were told they’d have to wait. Hey, they said, can’t we sit in that empty booth right there? No, we’re sorry, but that booth is reserved for Mr. Johnny Depp and his family. Right, they thought — sure. . . . Then after a few minutes Mr. Johnny Depp and his family came in and sat in the booth. Well. Okay.
We hit the scene between lunch and dinner hours, the place was pretty quiet — the next two times, later in the evening, it was packed. I wasn’t thinking we’d spot Johnny Depp. I wasn’t thinking I’d spot anyone I’d recognise. Then a guy in a hat walked from the front over to the bar.
“The guy in the hat,” I said, “who just went to sit at the end of the bar — he’s in tons of stuff.”
“What’s his name?” Leo asked.
My brain was hamstrung by too little sleep. I couldn’t bring the name up.
“You’ve seen him, he’s in tons of stuff. He’s in several movies with Charles Bronson. . . . Breakheart Pass, he’s in Breakheart Pass.”
Leo activated the smartphone. We knew he wasn’t Bronson.
“Yeah. That’s him. Ed Lauter.”
“That’s not Ed Lauter,” Leo said, cranning to see to the end of the bar.
“I’m pretty sure it’s Ed Lauter. You know, he’s in The Longest Yard. Born on the Fourth of July. True Romance. . . . ”
Later, Leo got a better look. “Hey, that is Ed Lauter!”
I didn’t want to bother Ed Lauter, but figured some kind of confirmation was in order. I asked the guy manning the front, “The guy in the hat, seated at the end of the bar — is he Ed Lauter?”
The host nodded, though I wasn’t sure he knew the name.
“He always plays the tough guy,” he said, “always the tough guy.”
Okay, then. Ed Lauter sighting confirmed. For my tastes, I couldn’t have had a better celebrity sighting. Musso & Frank, your rep is deserved.
Now I talk up M&F all the time, and thought to ask Dennis McMillan if he’d ever been there the last time I talked with him on the phone. He had. And more:
“Jim Thompson used to drink there at the bar every day. He only lived about three blocks away. Harlan Ellison wrote about talking to him there, he heard it was his hangout and found him — other people didn’t even know the guy at the bar was Jim Thompson.”
Hammett. Chandler. Bukowski. And Thompson. Hmmmm. . . .