- Historic Sites
The Taste Of Time
All across America there are restaurants that serve up the spirit and conviviality of eras long past
April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
A stubborn debate in the restaurant world of the nineteenth century was between two ways of serving and selling meals: table d’hôte versus à la carte. The American way was the former, by which you paid for your seat and could thereon eat anything that was brought within reach. However, sophisticated Europeans preferred to pay for their meals morsel by morsel. It was indeed more sophisticated to dine àla carte, since that allowed customers to construct meals according to their own predilections. Antoine’s was a leader in that movement and carries it through even today, to the extent that one chooses a meat entrée at some certain price and then consults the list of sauces, priced sep
arately, to complete the dish.
The Krebs, on the other hand, makes just as good a case for table d’hôte. It is a white clapboard house set in a residential neighborhood, with a porch on the front and along one side. The entry is a front parlor; all the rooms around it were cleared out long ago to make room for tables. Dinner, at thirty-six dollars, is a seven-course affair. Many people don’t eat that way anymore, of course. They are on diets. So the Krebs offers a lighter dinner . . . six courses at thirty-four dollars. Either way, the food never stops arriving—shrimp, stew, salad, relishes, bread (all of it homemade), lobster Newburg—and then the waitresses line up at the table, one behind the other, holding platters of the main dishes and vegetables and sauces. Dessert.
Despite the fact that extra helpings are available, the bounty of table d’hôte lies not in the quantity of the food but in its variety, in having small tastes of all kinds of courses. People rarely eat like that now because àla carte has been instituted in America with each course so large that you really can’t have more than a couple of them. In Italy, for example, it is still the way to make a meal of many small courses, and so the tide apparently has turned since 1899. The Krebs, so homey and American, is also sophisticated and European.
In 1916 prohibition against liquor became the law in Oregon, and a restaurateur named Joseph Musso fled as though from a plague. Prohibition was to grow into an even wider plague against the thriving restaurant business, but at the time Musso thought that he had found someplace to hide from it: Hollywood Boulevard, in the then half-empty town of Hollywood, California. He joined with two partners, one of whom had the first name of Frank, to start another restaurant, the Musso & Frank Grill. Most of the menu was developed by a long-time chef who retired in the 1970s. Today the restaurant stands as a veritable safe house in the midst of trendy California cuisine. There is nary a poppy seed in sight, or a blade of lemongrass. Instead there is beef stroganoff. There are also veal scaloppine, liver and onions, Welsh rarebit, and other dishes long past mere trends. In the 1920s and 1930s Musso & Frank became a favorite of movie stars with its dark dining room and its high, private booths. Charlie Chaplin had a booth reserved every single day at lunchtime. Equally impressive: Greta Garbo was once seen at Musso’s. The restaurant was even more popular among writers during Hollywood’s noontide. Nathanael West and William Faulkner frequented the place, and a separate room in the back eventually became an unofficial club for literary types who felt themselves stranded in the movie world. In that sense Musso’s probably seems like a West Coast version of the Algonquin, in New York. To me, though, Musso & Frank’s was made not by its clientele but by its resolve. It has the same extra dose of earthly gravity as the place called the Knife & Fork in Atlantic City. Both manage to remain steady while all else swirls around them.
Musso’s is the last of a slew of restaurants—Romanoff’s, the Brown Derby—that Hollywood made nationally famous.
Like the town of Hollywood, Atlantic City in this century has enjoyed soaring high points along with some shocking lows. At the end of a long line of casino hotels and sideshows on the Boardwalk, the Knife & Fork occupies a rambling stucco building with leaded-glass windows and a chimney or two. When it opened in 1912, Atlantic City was a swank beach resort, where people went just to relax quietly and maybe have some fresh seafood, and that is still the way at the Knife & Fork. Against the backdrop of Atlantic City, it reminds me of some silent-screen routine, in which a dowdy gentleman sits in his easy chair as his house falls apart around him and is rebuilt, time and again, without affecting him in the least. The Knife & Fork will survive anything, and I hope that Musso’s will too, because it is the last of a slew of restaurants, such as Romanoff’s and the Brown Derby, that Hollywood made nationally famous.