The last time I was in Musso & Frank, about a month ago, Sergio Gonzalez waited on me. Or, to be more precise, he told me what I would be eating. The waiters at the Musso & Frank Grill are like that — bossy and a trifle intimidating, softened by those fire-engine-red bolero jackets and all of those courtly manners.
This year the restaurant marks its 100th year in business, which is an astonishing achievement anywhere, but truly astonishing on Hollywood Boulevard. All of the waiters at “Musso’s,” with their fussy, genial, bordering-on-theatrical service and romantic foreign accents, are a little famous, mainly because they’ve all probably been there since before you were born and because it’s that kind of place. Sergio was among the most famous, perhaps because it was clear he didn’t take it all so seriously. There was an impishness about him. He waited on some of the most famous people to ever rotate through Hollywood — and waited on you as if you were one of them.
He came to L.A. at the age of 19 in 1972, when he visited his grandmother during a break from his studies at the naval academy in his native Mexico. His uncle was a busboy at Musso’s and said they needed a little help: Could Sergio pitch in? He never went back to Mexico. (“But I kept the sword,” he told me years later.) In 1973, owner John Mosso made him a waiter. Sergio would bring Mosso a bowl of a soup and a beer, always served at the long Musso’s counter in the “old room.”
As with all veteran waiters in Hollywood, Sergio had stories. I was lucky, because a few years ago a magazine hired me to write a profile of Musso’s, and so I got to sit with Sergio in the “new room” one afternoon as he recited his tales. Or at least his greatest hits. He told me that people come to Musso’s for two reasons: “To experience the restaurant — and the martinis.”
He was right on both counts. Dining at Musso’s is magical, because you get to dine with the ghosts of the greatest legends of Hollywood. And the martinis, smooth and stirred (never shaken), will knock you on your ass. But the heart of the place is the waiters, and the heart of the waiters was Sergio. His roster of regulars included everyone from Jack Webb, Jack Lord and Barbara Sinatra to Johnny Depp, Keifer Sutherland, Francis Ford Coppola and, most famously, The Rolling Stones, who once flew him on their private jet to a concert in Mexico. He considered it a personal triumph that he eventually got Keith Richards to eat something other than liver and onions.
“The best part of all of this is meeting all of these people,” he told me. “We treat people like our own family.”
He died suddenly on June 4, of a heart attack at the age of 66, just six weeks after the restaurant lost its equally legendary bartender, Ruben Rueda. Both Sergio’s son-in-law and Ruben’s son work at Musso’s. That’s nice to think about, that kind of continuity. And that we’ll have waiters like Sergio — and a restaurant like Musso’s — for another hundred years.
Michael Callahan’s book The Musso & Frank Grill, a biography of the famed restaurant, will be published in September by Story Farm Books.