Welcome back to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
The Musso & Frank Grill is known as the oldest restaurant in Hollywood, but it is—fundamentally speaking—a drinking establishment. It’s one of the most beautiful places you could imagine to get drunk in: a palace of red leather booths and dark wood siding where bow tie-clad waiters race about with trays of wedge salads, Welsh rarebit, and porterhouse steaks. This type of dining experience requires stiff cocktails. And the person who has made these cocktails for the past half century is Ruben Rueda.
Musso’s is Ruben’s house. He has been behind the bar here since 1967, which makes him the longest-standing bartender at the restaurant, a place well-loved by locals, tourists, and celebrities alike. Ruben has made the signature Musso’s martini for Keith Richards (who now only drinks water), Charles Bukowski (he’d ferry the writer home on the nights he’d get too drunk), and Steve McQueen (whom he once had to 86). We sat down with Ruben to find out what makes a good drunk, what it takes to get kicked out of Musso’s, and of course, the secret to a perfect dry martini.
MUNCHIES: Describe the ideal customer; the person you want to serve drinks to at this bar.
Ruben Rueda: Well, I always like a happy drunk. I don’t like people who have problems. We used to have a lot of old people like that. Now we have a lot of young guys who are around 35 to 40. Young guys are more easy-to-please and less demanding. Especially guys from New York. Through the years I’ve served all kinds of people. Mostly everybody is nice, but once in a while, you have to deal with a drunk.
Some guys, they come in and they’re already bitter. I served Steve McQueen when he was married to Ali MacGraw. He got drunk and he started yelling at her. “Eat, eat, you son of a bitch!” So I had to kick him out.
Were you the one who physically removed Steve McQueen?
No, no, no. I told him to leave. He paid his check and left.
In this bar I’ve never been afraid of anybody. The last person I kicked out was maybe three or four years ago. That Irish actor. I don’t remember his name. He starts yelling. I tell him, “Be quiet, or you’re going to be out of here.” He says, “Do you know who I am? I’m a movie star. I can get your ass kicked.” I say, “I know who you are. Now shut up.” He keeps yelling. So I tell his friend, “You better take your friend home.” The friend says, “I cannot control this son of a bitch, he’s all yours,” and gets up and leaves. The actor looks at me like he’s going to kill me. Then he leaves.
You can’t be starstruck.
No. Everybody gets the same treatment. I’ve served the Rolling Stones; Johnny Depp. Keith Richards doesn’t drink anymore. He comes in and drinks water. I say, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” “No!” he says. “Give me water!” He’s old—very old. I don’t care who you are. If you’ve got money, you’ve got money. Just pay the check and that’s it.
Tell me about a good customer.
Bukowski was like a brother. I served him for many years. I used to give him rides home when he was drunk. I would take him to his apartment on Carlton Way. I knew him when he was very poor. He used to drive a Ford 200. Then he got a Volkswagen. Then one day he comes in and says, “You know what, I just bought me a car.” I said, “What?” He said, “It’s a BMW.” I said, “Oh, good for you!” I knew him with no money, with little money, and then, with big money. He met his wife here.
Mostly I like to talk to people. And I make people happy. That’s my job. But I don’t work here because I want to work in a bar. I work here because I like these people. Because I know these people. That’s why when I used to drink, I would only go to bars where I knew the bartender. Matter of fact—in one of his books, Bukowski wrote something like, “This goes out to the bartenders who knew me.” It’s the same for the bartenders who knew me.
Are you a drinker yourself?
I used to drink good! I remember when Absolut Vodka came out, they gave me fifteen cases: “for you.” So I drank it, and I started buying it by the case. And I became fat. I ate a lot. I ate everything at Musso’s. I used to like the prime rib, rare. I was a meat eater. But not anymore, for years now. Now I’m a rabbit. I eat all kinds of vegetables. No meat. No smoking. No drinking. I stopped.
What would you say is the secret to a Musso’s Martini?
I have no idea. Because I try to make them at home. I use the same ingredients. It doesn’t come out the same. I think it’s the environment. It’s this place. Martinis are my specialty. I can make people happy with two drinks.
It takes two?
Yeah, I think so. One, and the second one. That’s it. Three or four and you might get sick. But I try to make everybody happy.
I think I would love to try one of your martinis.
Sure, let’s make a martini. I get the ice. I get a little splash of dry vermouth. Sometimes I throw away the ice so I just get the glass coated with vermouth. More ice. And then vodka. I stir it. When you shake it, you get a lot of water in the drink. These guys shake it because they’re new. The old bartenders always stir it.
So James Bond was wrong.
I have to tell you something: James Bond doesn’t drink martinis. I served him a couple times. He drinks Crown Royal, rocks.
No. Sean Connery.
Any plans to retire?
No. I work in the greatest place on Earth. This is home. I see these guys more than my wife. I’m almost 64. I’ve been working here how many years—forty-seven years. All my life. I just got a heart operation about five months ago so I’m semi-retired. I work only two days a week. But I just don’t want to give up. I’m a happy guy. And this place is here to stay.