There are certain restaurants that define a city, that are so much a part of its history and DNA, that you can't say you know these towns if you haven't experienced them. They are so idiosyncratic, so unique to each place, they couldn't exist anywhere else. They are the sounds, the smells, the tastes of these cities and whether you're a first timer or frequent visitor, you have to visit them at least once.
Let's start on the left coast in Lala Land.
9071 Santa Monica Blvd. West Hollywood, CA 90069 (310) 275-9444
Located on Santa Monica, a few steps from Beverly Hills, Dan Tana's is another West Hollywood haunt that has to be experienced. Whether early or late, weekday or weekend, it's always party time at Dan Tana's. This old-school, red sauce Italian, with its red leather booths, and checkered tablecloths is the ultimate Hollywood hangout and still one of the toughest tables in town.
Known for its steak, which comes in only one cut - New York strip - and is served with a dish of pasta as a side, Dan Tana's has not changed its menu since it opened in 1964, when salad meant iceberg and pasta was spaghetti.
Dan Tana's ought to be just another Rat Pack–themed tourist trap. But somehow, this local landmark serves impeccable food and remains one of a kind. A baby Drew Barrymore had her diaper changed in one of the booths. The Eagles wrote the lyrics to "Best of My Love" here. Phil Spector left a $500 tip the night he allegedly committed murder.
It's not uncommon to see stars like George Clooney, Matt Damon and Steven Spielberg bellying up to the bar of this unpretentious restaurant, as tuxedo-clad waiters navigate bottles of vino and plates of chicken parmesan and veal scaloppini through the restaurant. It can get crowded and noisy, but no one seems to mind.
Musso and Frank's Grill
6667 Hollywood Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90028 (323) 467-7788
A survey of Hollywood restaurants that leaves out Musso & Frank is like a study of Las Vegas singers that fails to mention Frank Sinatra. Musso & Frank is the paragon of Old Hollywood grill rooms.
The Musso and Frank Grill may be the best time machine in Los Angeles, Southern California or perhaps anywhere. Inside Hollywood's oldest restaurant, founded in 1919, the wood-and-lead-glass bar awaits. Drenched in soft amber light and staffed entirely by grizzled pros in red jackets, this famed establishment is the last bastion of the city's Golden Age. Dark mahogany booths with high sides keep conversations private. Unpretentious and old-fashioned, the sharp-tongued waiters know when they're wanted.
The stories of the early days of Musso and Frank have become the stuff of legend and myth. Rudolph Valentino ate at Musso's, where he could talk to the Italian waiters in their native language. There is the oft repeated, but unverified story of Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks racing each other on horseback down Hollywood Boulevard to Musso's.
Musso's martinis are in a class all their own. A bartender cascades an arc of the finest gin--vodka suits some--and a whisper of vermouth half into a pedestal glass, half into a tiny carafe. The menu promises steaks, chops and old-school sandwiches such as Welsh rarebit and corned beef. The menu is a la carte, so don't forget the sides, like broccoli with rich bearnaise sauce and 11 varieties of potato dishes. Regulars also flock in for Musso's trademark flannel cakes, crepe-thin pancakes flipped to order.
7156 Santa Monica Blvd. West Hollywood, CA 90046 (323) 850-9050
Since 1934 this West Hollywood landmark has been playing host to the movie world elite. Autographed photos of great stars, from Groucho and Elvis, to Marilyn and Gable, former patron's all, line the walls paying testament to the Formosa's storied history.
Just east of The Lot Studios, (formerly known as the Warner Hollywood Studios), the bar has been operated by the same family since its opening in the 30s. It is currently owned by the grandson of the original owner. The hip feel has made the Formosa the location for many films like LA Confidential and Swingers.
Legend has it that Frank Sinatra spent many nights at the Formosa in the 1950s, pining over lost love Ava Gardner. One morning the proprietor found John Wayne in the kitchen cooking his own breakfast. Seems like he fell asleep in one of the booths and no one could wake him, (or dared to).
The dinner menu offers a combination of Asian influences and American classics like the Formosa's “Landmark” Ribs and Shrimp Tempura. Also, do not miss the Chicken Shu Mai, or the Filet Mignon & Caramelized Onion “Sliders,” with chipotle mayo, blue cheese and balsamic vinegar served on a pretzel bun.
The food however is not the point at the Formosa; it's the vibe, the atmosphere, the crowd. Check it out.