After 50 Years At Musso & Frank's, Ruben Rueda Might Be L.A.'s Longest-Serving Bartender
“You look at the eyes.”
This is Ruben Rueda’s answer when I ask him how he remembers orders. Rueda’s a longtime bartender at Musso & Frank’s, the Hollywood institution. He’s just told me a story about how an Argentinian had recently sauntered up to the bar, and how he’d remembered her order, even though she hadn’t stepped inside Musso’s since 1989. This year marks Rueda's 50th anniversary at Musso’s.
“So you look at the eyes first to remember their face, and then you pair it with the order?” I say. “And that stays with you?”
“No. First, I look at the eyes to see if they’re drunk,” says Rueda. “I cut it off if they’re drunk.” And then, somehow, he remembers their drink. At least that's how I think it works.
After a half century at the venerable restaurant, the tricks of the trade are familiar to Rueda. It’s impressive enough that he’d stayed at the same restaurant for so long. What makes it even more improbable is that he’s held the same station for half a century; as Rueda tells it, he’d spent only a handful of months as a busboy before he was promoted to bartender.
Though, it’s also easy to see how he’s hung on to his role, as no one wants him to leave. There’s a party for Rueda on Monday at the restaurant—with a mini-documentary and everything—and people from as far out as New York will be in attendance. “There’s going to be about 65 of the regulars coming from all over the place,” said general manager Mark Echeverria (who’s also the great grandson of John Mosso, one of the restaurant’s first owners).
If you’ve never met Rueda, and you're going on anecdotes alone, you may have some conception of him as being boisterous, flashy—a personality whose gravity seems to draw everything in. In reality, Rueda is relaxed and self-possessed. There’s nothing too ostentatious. It’s perhaps this quality that’s led generations of patrons to talk and confide in him. He serves as a foil to characters like Charles Bukowski and Keith Richards (both regarded Rueda as a pal)— his calm complements their fevered obsessions.
Rueda, along with Echeverria, sat down with LAist to talk about how he’s stayed at Musso’s for so long, and what makes a good bartender (though, mostly, we talked about famous people and what they drank).
LAist: Obviously, 50 years is a long time. What’s helped you stay here for so much of your life?
Rueda: I came to this country without an education, you know. And when I got here, this was the place to work in the '60s. So I stayed. And they all treat you good—the management, the owners.
Where were you before Los Angeles?
Mexico. When I came here I was about 17.
You’ve served a lot of different people. Who are some of the old-timers you miss?
Rueda: Oh there’s Raymond Burr. Charles Bukowski. Gore Vidal.
What was Gore Vidal like?
Rueda: He was pretty quiet. He gave me a nickname but I forget what it was. I think it was “The Conquistador”, or something like that.
Echeverria: There’s kind of a neat story. Vidal would come in late, at maybe 10 at night, maybe 10:30, right before we start to close. And, later on, he would stay until midnight, or one in the morning. And Ruben and one of the servers, Sergio, would stay and talk with him a bit, because, you know, it’s Gore Vidal. And in his last couple years he was in a wheelchair. And at one point, maybe a couple years before he passed, he wanted to sit at Ruben’s bar one last time. Remember that, Ruben?
Rueda: I remember that.
Echeverria: And he had a full-time nurse taking care of him. So me, Sergio, and the nurse lifted Gore up so that he could sit on Ruben’s barstool for one last time. That was real touching for me, to see that camaraderie that had been there for so many years.
Did Vidal have a certain drink?
Rueda: It was Scotch—Black Label, double.
And going to another writer, I think you’ve said that Bukowski was one of your favorite patrons? You were friends?
Rueda: Oh yeah. He was friendly to me. Though, with other people he was not so friendly. People would approach him at the bar. They’d tried to talk to him, but most of the time he wouldn’t.
And did he have a specific order?
Rueda: No, he’d always change. One night he’d get a martini. Sometimes it’d be a Scotch. And sometimes it’d be a Seven and Seven.
Echeverria: Was he a big beer guy?
Rueda: Beer? No. But someone who was a big beer guy was Steve McQueen. He’d used to drink…what? It was Lowenbrau.
I heard you had to drive Bukowski home on a number of occasions.
Rueda: Yeah, I took him home many times. I’d take him in my car. I forget what he drove, but he had a big car and he’d leave that here, and I’d drive him back. And, one time, I was driving this van. He put his feet up on the dash. And when I stepped on the brakes, he broke the window.
He just kicked in the windshield?
Rueda: He had too much. And I said “Ok, now you’re going to pay me.” But I never got that money. He’d say “I’ll get you your money.” And I brought it up with him only once. But after that I never asked him about it.
Echeverria: Keith Richards is a friend, too.
Rueda: One funny story. One day Keith Richards comes in and sits at the bar, and I say "Hey Keith, if I buy a guitar will you sign it for me?" And he said, "Dont buy one! I'll get it for you!" And then a couple years went by, and I totally forgot about our discussion. But one day, after two years, he shows up with a guitar and says, "Here's your damn guitar!"
Does Keith still drop by sometime?
Rueda: Oh yeah, but he never sits at the bar anymore. I think he doesn't drink now. What we used to drink was, three shots of vodka and a shot of Campari. And he'd get, Jesus Christ, like five of those.
You've served a lot of drinks over the decades. Was there a particularly weird order?
Rueda: Of the big name people, no, not that I remember. But the strangest order I got, and I don’t remember the person’s name, but the person wanted a Bloody Mary with Kahlua. And the guy got four!
Echeverria: Four of them? [Laughs] So he’d wanted it with the Kahlua and vodka?
Rueda: No, no. The Kahlua replaced the vodka.
Of your normal, non-weird drinks, I think the Musso's martini is the signature, right?
Rueda: Right, the martini is the signature.
And how do you make it special here?
Rueda: I try to make it completely dry, almost. But you know, it's strange. I think it’s the environment here. I’ve tried to make it at home, and when I make it at home it doesn't taste like it does here.
Echeverria: You guys make them pretty strong, too.
It seems to me that, behind the bar, the focus is on a lot of mixology stuff these days. It gets pretty complicated. How do you feel about all that?
Rueda: You know, what I like is when people come to the bar to make contact with the bartender. Some places, they just put a drink in front of you and walk away. They're acting like zombies. But here we talk to the people. Sometimes it's great. Sometimes it's bad [laughs]. Like myself, if I see a guy's down, I may make a light joke. But it's hard to say. Sometimes a person is very down, and you just have to let them be. So it depends.
I was researching John Fante, and it seems like all these writers and screenwriters would be partying all day at Musso’s. I’m like "Where do they find the time to work?" I’m sure the environment’s a lot different today.
Rueda: Oh yeah. Back then, people would come in at 11 for lunch and then stay through the night. And after dinner there’d be a bottle of wine, and more after-dinner drinks. Now, they’ll drop in for just one or two drinks. Raymond Burr would be in, and he’d come up to the bar to drink something, and then he’d go back to the table for something to eat. So, whenever he came, he’d spend the whole day here.
Echeverria: The four-hour cocktail lunch isn't as prominent anymore.
I know you probably get this a lot. But does retirement ever cross your mind? Or are you going to work until—
Rueda: —until I drop?
I wasn't going to say that!
Rueda: I'm just kidding. I don't want to drop. I'm going to stay a couple years.
Echeverria: You have to at least stay for the 100th anniversary [the restaurant opened in 1919].
Rueda: I will stay as long as people will have me.
Echeverria: Oh Ruben, that's not even a question. We'll always have you.
I'm not sure if there's anyway to confirm this, but do you think you're the longest serving bartender in Los Angeles? Fifty years is pretty long. Has anyone served longer?
Echeverria: In L.A.? I don't know of any. Possibly the guy at Dan Tana's.
Rueda: Oh him? I think he's got maybe 40 years. But I don't know about 50.
Then it's a good educated guess to say that Ruben's the longest serving. At least top three.
Echeverria: Oh, I would think so.
Rueda: You know, I like this place. When I came here I found a home. And we had a lot of fun. And when it got busy...my god.