When the first customer walked into Musso & Frank Grill on reopening night, Friday, June 26, general manager and wine manager Andrea Scuto nearly cried of joy. As he undid the gates to the parking lot at approximately 4:45 p.m., 15 minutes before opening, a regular attempted to rush the gates. “You’re open again? Thank God! Where’s the counter?” he exclaimed. His joy, however, was short-lived; five days later, on July 1, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all restaurants in Los Angeles County, as well as 18 other California counties, to close indoor dining operations for at least three weeks. Three weeks have passed, and indoor dining is still closed in Los Angeles County.
The closures impacted every restaurant, but especially LA’s oldest establishments, which sometimes act as a portal to what it was like to dine decades ago by retaining as much of the charm and character of their dining rooms, menus, and even staff. Thriving off a clientele that takes pleasure in consistency and old-school charm, restaurants like Musso’s and others have capitalized on an unchanging dining experience. But now, they must adapt to survive during an unprecedented pandemic. Some restaurants like Philippe the Original in Chinatown, Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood, and Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks are embracing new outdoor dining permits, while others are hunkering down, closing entirely or offering only takeout, hoping to ride things out.
In its 101 years of existence, Hollywood classic Musso & Frank has weathered nearly every major historical event of the 20th and 21st centuries. Through Prohibition, which began in 1920, the year after founder Frank Toulet first opened, and both world wars, the restaurant kept its doors open to Angelenos searching for grilled steaks and stirred martinis. What fourth-generation owner Mark Echeverria didn’t expect, however, was that the COVID-19 pandemic would force Musso & Frank to close for an unprecedented three months.
“In short, it has been the probably the most mentally exhausting experience of my professional career,” Echeverria said, a few days before the June 26 opening. Though Echeveria said then that a key part of the Musso experience was being in the restaurant, the July 1 indoor closure mandate from Newsom forced them to change course. The night before they were set to close, longtime Musso’s fan Eric Lynxwiler arrived for what would be the final service with his husband and a friend.
“I missed that experience so much – sitting indoors, being served by a waiter on china,” Lynxwiler wrote when reached via Instagram direct message. It was the first time he had been inside a restaurant since March. Although his husband “freaked out” hours before their reservation, trying to get them to stay home, Lyxnwiler eventually convinced him to relent. “I needed that extension of normalcy, and, yes, luxury, in that moment. It was worth the price.”
In retrospect, Lynxwiler says, it was still a great experience even with physical distancing measures and servers in PPE. When indoor dining is allowed again, he says he’ll be back. Though Lynxwiler has yet to order takeout from Musso’s, which the restaurant started offering for the first time in its history, he says he feels like he should, adding, “I never want Musso’s to close. Never.”
Meanwhile at Philippe’s in Downtown, which first opened in 1908, managing partner Andrew Binder said, “We’re trying to make lemonade,” referring to making due with just limited outdoor seating. The normally bustling deli initially reopened for dine-in on June 8, then reverted to outdoor dining only in their parking lot on July 3, a few days after the dining room closure mandate. “How many times do we have to try and make lemonade?” asked Binder.
In the face of a global medical emergency, safety has remained the guiding rationale, Binder said. When Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered the first closure of restaurant dining rooms and bars on March 15, Philippe’s kept its doors shut entirely for two full weeks as Binder and his team determined best practices to keep both employees and customers safe.
Philippe’s, the likely birthplace of the French dip sandwich, is also known for its bustling multi-line counter, 50 cent cups of coffee, and packed cafeteria-style tables before and after Dodger games. Initially, Binder and his team reconfigured Philippe’s somewhat disorganized ordering system of lining up in front of the counter, removed the bulk of the cafeteria tables, and added a wall with plexiglass dividers. With indoor dining again closed countywide, these safety enhancements are a moot point for now. Instead, patrons sit under a large tent in the parking lot, the asphalt covered in AstroTurf.
“We’re fully invested in alfresco dining,” Binder said. “We’re lucky to have the space, so we definitely wanted to take advantage of it.” It might be a far cry from Philippes’ familiar sawdust covered floors, but at least the hot mustard is spicy as ever.
Still, Philippe’s sales are still down 50 to 55 percent from pre-pandemic, and Binder says they’ve hardly broken even, citing rising beef prices, which briefly almost tripled due to the nationwide meat shortage as meatpacking workers contracted COVID-19. Binder says wholesale beef prices went over $7.50 a pound on average, up from $3 from before the pandemic, though they’ve since dropped to a more reasonable $4 to $5 range. Since the closure of indoor dining, Binder has been forced to furlough workers for a second time after bringing back those who wanted to return.
“It’s tough on morale, but our staff has been rolling with the punches,” Binder said, confirming that those who refused to return to work are still being kept on as employees but are on unpaid leave. The staff is unionized, Binder said, and they were encouraged to apply for unemployment if they weren’t scheduled to work hours.
Not every old-school restaurant in LA has been able to withstand the economic downturn of the pandemic. The typically 24-hour steakhouse Pacific Dining Car closed its Santa Monica location in June, calling it a “casualty of the coronavirus crisis.” Its original location in Westlake, which opened in 1921, has yet to reopen for dine-in, though fourth-generation family member Conlee Idol said in June they are working on plans to do so. Since then, however, they’ve remained closed, and Idol did not return a follow-up request for comment or updates on opening for outdoor dining.
West Hollywood red sauce restaurant Dan Tana’s, which opened in 1964, expanded its outdoor patio seating in a bid to assuage the worries of its diners, who are slowly trickling back. Though the patio feels like a decent facsimile of the restaurant’s iconic dining room, nothing will ever replace its raucous, celebrity-filled atmosphere. The experience will never be the same after the tragic loss of beloved bartender Mike Gotovac, who died in May due to complications from COVID-19 after working at Dan Tana’s for over 50 years.
“This isn’t just a restaurant trying to recover from the repercussions of a national shutdown, it’s a group of people still mourning the loss of one of their family members,” wrote The Infatuation’s Brant Cox about returning to Dan Tana’s. In a review of his experience, Keating says dinner at Dan Tana’s still feels the same — despite servers in masks and face shields, the experience was “safe and comfortable” and spent “largely not thinking about COVID-19.”
As of writing, the novel coronavirus has led to 4,263 deaths in LA County and over 147,000 deaths nationwide. It’s even more difficult to consider the ways in which the virus’s societal impact has laid bare racial and socioeconomic inequalities. The city’s hastily imposed curfews amid uprising and civil unrest in early June complicated Binder’s plans for reopening Philippe’s, for example. Storefronts alongside Hollywood Boulevard on Musso & Frank’s reopening night are still scattered with BLM slogans and posters, a reminder of the area’s recent All Black Lives Matter Pride march attended by tens of thousands on June 14.
At South LA Creole restaurant Harold and Belle’s, which opened its doors in 1969, management decided to play safe even though the county gave permission to reopen dining rooms in late May. “The African American and Mexican American populations have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus,” said Andrew Alvarado, director of operations. “We’re trying to do our best to have a very safe dine-in experience to make sure people can come back for years and years to come.”
Though Alvarado initially said they were hoping to eventually resume some kind of dine-in service by mid-July, Alvarado now says management has walked that back. He also says that takeout orders have actually increased in the past few months, a likely result of the public searching for ways to support and uplift the Black community. Their biggest concern, according to Alvarado, is doing things the safest possible way. “The worst possible thing we would have to do is reopen and then close again, like a lot of places have had to do,” he said.
At Valley Mexican staple Casa Vega, run by second-generation Mexican American owner Christy Vega, management has decided that adding a new outdoor patio area is enough to promote both customer and employee safety. Casa Vega’s roots date back to 1956, when Vega’s father, Ray Vega, opened the restaurant after being inspired by his parents, who ran Cafe Caliente on Downtown’s historic Olvera Street in the ’40s and ’50s. Since the restaurant reopened for dine-in on June 19, sales have been up slightly, but on average are still 20 percent less than pre-pandemic numbers. “Restaurants are a massive ship to run, but we’ll be fine to get through to January,” Vega said. “A roll of the dice.”
Though the restaurant adopted safety measures even more stringent that what LA County Department of Public Health requires, Vega admits change was hard on the staff. From walking further to tables to doffing and donning face shields and masks, which the restaurant provides, employees — some who have been there for decades — had to get used to new workplace safety protocols. But for some, the new measures still weren’t enough to address their health safety concerns.
In response, Vega says she’s offering options for modified contactless work, like folding takeout menus, to some employees. For the workers who didn’t feel safe working at all, she’s kept them on payroll, with no plans to terminate their employment, but has not offered any additional pay. “It’s more of an extended leave. [As for unemployment,] that’s between them and the EDD,” she said.
These classic LA restaurants, the majority of which are still family-run, are struggling as much as any other part of the hospitality industry to stay afloat amid an economic downturn that may close many businesses for good. A recent Yelp report found that nearly 24,000 restaurants in the U.S. had closed temporarily or permanently since March 1.
Unlike newer restaurants and bars, many of these businesses have employees who have worked there for years, making the furloughing and unemployment especially hard. “Talking about being like a family at Musso’s may sound cheesy, but in reality it is like that,” said Musso’s general manager, Andrea Scuto. Some of Musso’s staff have been there for decades, like 36 year veteran grill cook Indolfo Rodriguez, whom Andy Wang profiled in Food & Wine along with his son, Nolo Rodriguez, who operated barbecue spot Black Sugar Rib Company at Smorgasburg on Sundays.
Until June 6, Musso & Frank Grill was able to pay all of its employees in full, including expected tips, with the help of a PPP loan; they’ve since been forced to cut back hours and furlough a few staff members. With dine-in now closed again, it’s not a stretch to imagine that further furloughing is likely, even with Musso’s new takeout menu. “It is what it is,” said Scuto. “We are actively trying to make it work.”
Classic restaurants’ decisions on whether or not to reopen for dine-in, then, aren’t just about giving diners a taste of life before March. Andrew Binder of Philippe’s stressed the employees’ need to make a living and the overarching goal of staying afloat. Wondering what a shortened, spectator-less Dodgers season would mean for Philippe’s, Binder said, “As for normal, normal, you can pretty much write this year off.”