REDEFINING ‘DINE L.A.’ AND DISCOVERING FORGOTTEN CITY TREASURES

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August 1, 2015 · Posted in Commentary 

 

Dining Club- s- 2

The Dining Club- (left to rt) Arnie Wishnick, Bob Vickrey, Josh Greenfeld, Barry Stein

 

 By Bob Vickrey

 

When our group arrived through the traditional back door entrance of Musso & Frank’s Grill and surveyed the dining room, we all breathed a sigh of relief that there had been no major changes in the appearance of the legendary restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard.

When we had called for reservations the previous day, we were told the place had just reopened after a week of renovations. I’m happy to report the vintage Hollywood grill has still maintained the same atmosphere of its 1919 origins.

Elizabeth Taylor was once asked her greatest Hollywood fear and she revealed her recurring nightmare was that Musso & Frank’s had changed its outdated wallpaper. Rest easy, Ms. Taylor; all is well at everyone’s favorite Hollywood grill and watering hole. The floral wallpaper and red vinyl booths are all still in tact. (In fact, we wondered if several of the grey-haired waiters had been working there since the grand opening.)

Musso & Frank’s was the third stop for our newly-formed monthly luncheon group where our goal was to dine in many of the oldest restaurants of Los Angeles. But it had all started when our longtime writer-friend Josh Greenfeld said he’d like to go back and visit Langer’s Deli in downtown LA. It had been years since any of us had visited the old 1940’s delicatessen, so we set a date to take a road trip and leave the friendly confines of our beach community of Pacific Palisades.

Barry Stein, a local photographer, and the only native Angeleno among us, volunteered to handle the driving and navigating chores. Arnie Wishnick and I were invited to join the Langer’s express, and were instructed for pick-up outside the Chamber of Commerce office, where he has served for many years as Executive Director.

We piled into Barry’s SUV like teenagers escaping the clutches of our parents’ supervision, and exhibited boyhood excitement as we embarked on this modest venture. We gazed upon city landmarks on our way through the Westside and Hollywood, and traded stories each time we spotted a place that brought back a fond memory.

We found the booths at Langer’s to be a tight squeeze for the four of us, and questioned if the problem was our expanding girth, or whether smaller booths were simply the design of another era. We opted for the latter explanation.

Even before we arrived at Langer’s, Arnie had already decided that he planned to order the corned beef sandwich he had fondly remembered from earlier trips. When our rather somber waitress came to take our order, Arnie specified he’d like to have his corn beef “extra-lean,” and was subsequently told there would be an extra charge of $3.75. Everyone at the table agreed that we had never heard of an additional cost being tagged onto the bill for this simple request. After “Barbara” (that’s what it said on her nametag) left our table, we assumed that if one decided against ordering the extra-lean cut, that Langer’s standing policy must have been to serve the leftover scraps from the kitchen’s stash of corned beef. Suddenly, the $3.75 sounded like a fine idea.

We chuckled throughout our meal and reveled in our inspired choice of restaurants as Josh toyed with Barbara enough to eventually elicit an ever-so-slight smile from our previously indifferent waitress. Our bill arrived shortly afterward, which caused a few raised eyebrows around the table, until we realized that we had ordered several side dishes, extra drinks, and two pieces of chocolate cake that appeared to weigh the equivalent of a small bar-bell. We guessed that if eaten in one sitting, the enormous slice of cake would likely have the same after-effects of swallowing an anvil.

We probably over-stayed our welcome, but our new friend Barbara didn’t seem to care. I think I caught her winking in the general direction of Josh as we headed out the door. The group decided before reaching the parking lot that we should make this road trip luncheon a monthly ritual. And thus, began the planning for the following month’s excursion. It didn’t take long for us to settle upon Canter’s Deli on Fairfax for our June luncheon.

Canter's Deli Bakery Counter -2

Canter’s Deli Bakery Counter

 Canter’s Deli had originally opened in Boyle Heights in 1931, but after World War II, the Jewish population of that area moved en masse to the Fairfax district and West Hollywood, so the Canter family followed the influx of Jewish businesses there and opened a second location on Fairfax Avenue in 1946.

We enjoyed a quiet, rather uneventful meal there, as we were seated in the adjoining room where there were few customers that day. We all decided we had preferred the energy of the crowd at Langer’s the previous month. In fact, when there was a lull in the conversation at our table, Josh said “See, I told you a monthly lunch was too often; we’ve already run out of subjects to talk about.” That silence was broken quickly after conversation shifted to the many treats at the famous Canter’s Bakery counter, which we planned to visit on our way out.

I had visited the bakery only a few times since living in LA, and as the designated token Gentile in the group, I was schooled that day by my peers in the traditional pastries offered at the Canter’s Bakery. Barry said “I want to break you in with the chocolate chip Danish, and then if you’re really daring, add some cream cheese.” Unfortunately, the Danish never made it home. I devoured the whole thing in the back seat on our trip back to the Palisades. He said he was preparing me for hamantaschen with his favorite poppy seed filling. “Maybe next trip,” he promised. (I decided I’d practice saying “hamantaschen” before that next visit.)

On the way home from Canter’s, Barry suddenly declared, “Enough of Jewish deli’s for awhile.” I chimed in with the suggestion of my favorite Los Angeles restaurant, Musso & Frank’s Grill, and it was quickly agreed that it would be our July destination.

Musso & Frank's mahogany bar

The Mahogany Bar at Musso & Frank’s Grill

Musso & Frank’s Grill represented many happy memories for me after arriving in town in the late 1970’s. As a publisher’s representative, I often visited Pickwick Books on Hollywood Boulevard to meet with Nick Clemente, a legendary figure in the book business who was in charge of advertising. Nick frequently invited me to join him for lunch at nearby Musso & Frank’s, where he was a regular and treated as a celebrity.

Nick was a rather colorful character and well known in Hollywood circles, and I recognized many television and movie stars that often stopped by his back booth to say hello. In fact, he regaled me with stories about the rather considerable literary roots of the restaurant’s early days, and pointed out the favorite booth where William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dorothy Parker met for drinks in the late afternoons. Raymond Chandler was said to have written much of The Big Sleep there. Nick pointed out the pay phone near the back door where many movie deals had been finalized.

Musso’s symbolized so much of vintage Hollywood history; you can imagine our relief to find the place unchanged since our last visit. Instead of choosing the back entry side that featured the famous red vinyl booths, we opted to be seated in the big room with the ornate mahogany bar. The restaurant traditionally won the yearly award for mixing LA’s best martini.

We studied the huge menu that almost required an Evelyn Wood reading course to navigate the variety of choices before our waiter arrived. We had chosen the wrong day to order their Thursday special—the chicken pot pie, which is large enough to feed a family of five. But choices were no problem here. We were like kids in a candy store as we shared what our favorite dishes were. We pointed out unusual choices ranging from Flannel cakes, Chicken ‘a la King, Cottage Fried Potatoes, and even a salad that is nothing more than a large wedge of Iceberg lettuce with Bleu Cheese dressing, smoked bacon, chives and tomato.

We finished our long lunch and topped it off with Musso’s signature Key Lime pie, and then decided to walk the old streets of Hollywood Boulevard and act like tourists for a few moments. Hardly anything had changed on the street from our earliest memories. Hundreds of tourists still lined the sidewalks posing for pictures just as they had done for decades along the same boulevard. We struggled in our search for the sidewalk star of former Honorary Mayor of the Palisades, Peter Graves, until we realized that Barry had been standing on it. It didn’t require too long to take in everything the badly fading boulevard had to offer, so we called it a day and headed home.

Ideas were bandied about for our upcoming August get-together, and we found the idea of lunching at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel an intriguing option. We might have to cash in our IRA’s to pay the lunch tab there, and spiff up our normally relaxed dress code a bit, but I was confident we could figure out a way to meet their required minimal standards of “smart, casual attire.”

But what about a name for our merry little group? Since Jerry Seinfeld now has an online show called “Comedians Riding in Cars with Coffee,” I thought maybe we should also have a title that properly captures the spirit of our new ritual. I’m thinking: “Three Jews and a Gentile Riding in Cars with Hamantaschen.” That moniker has a certain ring to it, and I can envision it catching on, but first, I’ll probably need to learn how to pronounce hamantaschen.

 

Bob Vickrey is a writer whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald and is a regular contributor to the Boryana Books website. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.

 

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