Why you should care
What do you get when you combine morning sickness, cheesy pasta and silent film superstars? A timeless L.A. hangout.
The year was 1914, and Chef Alfredo di Lelio’s wife, Ines, was anything but well. She was pregnant and experiencing terrible morning sickness. Di Lelio, who ran a restaurant called Alfredo on the Via della Scrofa in Rome, resolved to whip her up a simple pasta dish that she could keep down with her nausea. He threw together some plain white pasta, butter and parmesan — and was so pleased with the result that he added what would later become known as fettuccine Alfredo to his menu.
While silent film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were dining out on their honeymoon in Rome in 1927, they were so enchanted by this dish that they asked di Lelio for the recipe. He said no. But after some persistent begging, he finally relented and the Hollywood couple brought it back with them to their hometown — to the popular bohemian restaurant, Musso & Frank Grill. They regularly frequented this spot, which had become something of a haunt for the biggest actors of the day. Fairbanks and Pickford even reportedly sent a gold fork and spoon to Alfredo and Ines in Rome, engraved with, “To Alfredo the King of the noodles.”
The noodles, however, were no longer solely Alfredo’s. For just shy of a century, Hollywood stars have breezed through the doors of Musso & Frank Grill — a history the restaurant takes care to play up. On the way to my table, the hostess points out where Marilyn Monroe used to sit. Charlie Chaplin also had a regular booth, and the menu still features his favorite dish, lamb kidney (a dish that could only survive on a menu in 2019 out of nostalgia).
With the Screen Writers Guild in the neighborhood, it’s no surprise that some of history’s most prolific American writers passed through Musso & Frank Grill — from Raymond Chandler to T.S. Eliot to Dorothy Parker. F. Scott Fitzgerald was supposedly fond of proofreading his novels in a booth, while it’s said that William Faulkner met his decades-long mistress there and knew the bartenders so well that he used to mix his own cocktails. The restaurant hosted some of Hollywood’s glitziest bashes, attracting stars like Elizabeth Taylor. And its reputation has hardly faded: When I mentioned the restaurant to a couple of different L.A. locals, each replied with something along the lines of, “Ah, Musso & Frank’s. Of course, it’s a classic.”
Almost a century later, the restaurant remains steeped in history. The place has preserved the “old Hollywood” aura that entertainment junkies love. Dim, gauzy lighting casts across the high-ceilinged dining room. Old-timey elevator music plays out over the muted hum of chatting diners and kitchen clatter. Semi-circle shaped booths, with red leather cushions and classic white tablecloths, line the dark-paneled wooden walls. Caramel-colored wallpaper, with faded patterns of trees and shrubbery, stretch above the panels to the ceiling. Waiters are clad in bright red or dark evergreen suits, complete with formal bow ties. The restaurant’s website showcases the waiters, emblazoning a photo of each with the year they started working there — 1957, 1967, 1989 — as if to say “Come back; we’re all still here.”
For some, the restaurant’s charm endures precisely because it has remained steadfastly true to its roots. Jean Pigozzi hadn’t been to the restaurant for 30 years but found the interior and the food exactly as he remembered them upon his return, he told me. “They haven’t even changed the music,” he says with a chuckle. Pigozzi, a native of Paris, finds a certain old-world European charm here. For customer Isabelle Bscher, the place evokes memories of the legendary Kronenhalle restaurant in Zurich — another nostalgic haunt, where original works by artists Chagall and Pablo Picasso line the walls.
In a world that’s changing faster by the minute, there’s an inexplicable sense of comfort in knowing that some beloved classics can be frozen in time and placed upon a pedestal, even if only to prove that authentic preservation is still possible. Whether it’s the imagination of the glamorous film culture of decades past or a creamy pasta dish that delighted Romans across the ocean, this little Hollywood hangout encapsulates a taste of what once was.
Oh, and Alfredo? He passed the family business down for generations, which evolved into a new restaurant called Il Vero Alfredo. And the initial restaurant on Via della Scrofa, like Musso & Frank’s, still serves what it bills as the “original” fettuccine alfredo.