The Golden Age of Hollywood is over. No longer can you flit from boozy watering hole to in-crowd restaurant and on to secret after-hours club, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Errol Flynn, Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant, or Bogie and Bacall. Ah, but you can still get a taste of what that fabled era was like at two legendary Hollywood hangouts that have managed to survive a hectic past century, each serving a fine array of cocktails, tasty edibles, and a touch of glamor. Let’s see what’s on the menu…
As the outer wall décor informs you, the Musso and Frank Grill (6667 Hollywood Blvd.) is the area’s oldest restaurant, having opened in 1919 (before the Hollywood sign was even built!). Don’t let the unprepossessing exterior fool you. Inside, it’s a timeless classic, with wood-paneled walls, white tablecloths, and waitstaff in red jackets. Charlie Chaplin loved the lamb kidneys (still on the menu). Orson Wells, Marilyn Monroe, and the Marx Brothers dropped by. Being across the street from the Screen Writers Guild offices made it a natural spot for writers — Dorothy Parker, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler among them — to stop in. As an entertainment biz hotspot, it was a natural setting for the opening scenes of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets with agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) while his buddy Cliff (Brad Pitt) waits at the bar.
The food menu has changed very little from yesteryear (steak and chops, fish and seafood, Italian entrees), while the full Wine and Spirit list runs to forty-four pages. The emphasis is on classic cocktails, and Musso and Frank’s is renowned for its martini — “stirred and NEVER shaken to preserve the texture of your liquor of choice.” It’s delectable with the likes of Tanqueray No. Ten (UK) or Nolet’s Silver Gin (Holland). But think twice (I did) about partaking of Sipsmith VJOP (UK) — it’s 120 proof. Maybe I’ll sample it next time. And take note of the specialty cocktails. The Ginger Gold Rush (Michter’s bourbon, Canton ginger liqueur, lemon juice) provides a perfect way to start a meal, with the warmth of the bourbon spiced up by the ginger and the pucker of lemon. The King Robb, a variation on the Rob Roy, substitutes St. Germain elderflower liqueur for vermouth, giving it a lighter flavor (King Robb’s other ingredients are Monkey Shoulder scotch, Aperol, and Angostura bitters). In a classy touch, the drinks arrive in a glass decanter that rests in a small container of crushed ice, keeping the drink cold. Pre-pandemic, you could stroll in most any time and easily get a table; now, reservations are recommended (try to get seated in a booth). The bar is first come, first served, and it’s usually SRO. Who knows, maybe you’ll meet the perfect producer for that screenplay you’ve been working on….
Not far away, tucked down a side street, you’ll find Boardner’s (1652 N. Cherokee Ave.), a part of the Cherokee Building, which opened in 1927. The first club on the site was Gene Austin’s My Blue Heaven (named after his hit song), after which the club changed hands and went through a variety of names, finally becoming Boardner’s in 1942. There’s an illicit side to the joint. It was a speakeasy during prohibition, and once booze became legal again, it was home to a thriving gambling den. Murder victim Elizabeth Short (aka the Black Dahlia) was said to have had a final drink at the club on the night of her death. Tommy Dorsey, Peggy Lee, and Robert Mitchum all passed through its doors, and you might have encountered cult film director Ed Wood sitting at the bar, sipping a scotch and water; fifteen years after his death, scenes from the Tim Burton-directed biopic about Wood’s life would be filmed at the same spot.
It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the low lighting when you step into Boardner’s from off the street, but don’t be intimidated. There’s a laidback, casual vibe; take a seat at the bar, and you’ll strike up a conversation with the person next to you in no time. Or opt for one of the cozy booths along the side. The staff is friendly and helpful; despite the “Order Here” sign hanging over the bar, I was waited on at my table, the bartender/server explaining, “It’s not too busy at the moment.” The menu is good, solid comfort food; sirloin burgers, fish and chips, mac and cheese, and more. I had a Cobb Salad, a meal in itself, created at the sadly long-gone Hollywood eatery, the Brown Derby.
The specialty cocktails are well worth exploring. How about the Redrum? A delightful blend of Barcardi rum, Campari, pineapple juice, fresh lime grenadine, and Angostura bitters, a well-balanced mix of sweet and tart that goes down smoothly. And why settle for a simple margarita when you can try an El Guapo (Cazadores Reposado tequila, Angostura bitters, agave nectar, fresh lime, topped with Malbec)? I was also fond of the Night Work, where Cointreau serves as the helpful bridge between Bulliet Rye on the one side and lemon and pineapple juice on the other. You can even take home a nip for later; there’s a stock of LiveWire canned cocktails on hand. There’s also a Spanish-style patio in back, with a bar, stage, and a Moroccan-tiled fountain that was emptied on occasion so patrons could play dice games; check it out, even if you’re parked in the main bar all evening. Boardner’s also runs the dance club next door, B52 (a variation on one of the club’s previous names). An outside mural describes Boardner’s as a place “Where rising stars come down to earth.” But since you’re also guaranteed “Stiff cocktails and the best jukebox in town,” at least you know it’ll be a happy landing!
Hollywood dreams never die. The days of running into the likes of Clark Gable or Rita Haywood at Musso and Frank or Boardner’s may be long gone, but you might cross paths with someone of more recent vintage. At the very least, as you sit and sip on a specialty cocktail (or two), you can smile in recognition of the fact that simply by being here now, you too are a small part of Hollywood history.