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January 30, 2024
Horses Wakes Up From a Very Bad Dream

Checking in on the controversial restaurant darling of Sunset Boulevard and wondering why the sunset never came.

Horses, a Los Angeles shooting star of a restaurant quietly tucked away on a strip of Sunset Boulevard where Hollywood meets West Hollywood, had a tumultuous 2023. It saw its managing partners publicly feud, accusing each other of unspeakably ghastly acts like hiding inside dumpsters or, worse, taking money from Ken Friedman. If you’ve made it this far, I don’t need to tell you about the rumors purring around town, but speaking of the Town, we all know there are three sides to every story: your version, my version, and the A24 version. 

People, from strangers to my wife, always ask me about the wheres and whys of LA dining. “Where can we eat in LA that’s like New York’s THE GRILL, Monkey Bar, or Minetta Tavern?” “I need a sexy little room to get spicy skinny margs and protein-style burgs with my girls and gays.” “My boyfriend’s parents are visiting from Connecticut, and I can’t let them see Highland Park.” “I want a room that hums like Musso and Frank’s but with a menu penned after World War I.” Sometimes one simply needs dark wood paneling and a clean bathroom to powder one’s nose, where the staff is sooner to wink than to narc. When one considers everything, and I mean everything, Horses may not have been the best restaurant in Los Angeles last year, but I couldn’t name a better one for a specific swath of Los Angeles diners.

For one summer, it was the toughest table in town. Being able to message their maître d’ on Instagram (maître DM) for a reservation made you more powerful than Mark Wahlberg or anyone with a Live Nation email address. It was a hot room, refreshingly void of those who didn’t belong.

We all know there are three sides to every story: your version, my version, and the A24 version.

Their reservationists peppered the room with both artists and civilians who all knew equally how to act. The room policed itself, quickly becoming a late-night hang for post-shift drinkers and gamay-decanting wine whales alike. Los Angeles finally had a Keith McNally restaurant of its own, the kind residents have been craving for years—the kind of place, karmically, that LA doesn’t get to have. I’ll stop speaking posthumously about a restaurant that never closed, because coming back from their holiday break (chic) in early 2024 feels more like a rebirth for their team, one that weathered a storm that many—myself included—assumed would shut their doors for good.

I say all of this because Los Angeles dining is currently in a state of compromise, and the food itself is becoming more inconsequential in favor of ambiance, crowd, and dependable, professional service. People don’t care if the food at the Chateau sucks—the fries are good enough, and Leo just walked in with a big glass of Josh; I’ll eat when I get home. Menus are regressing toward the mean, profit margins are dwindling, and food costs are rising at double-digit percentages. Who has the glands to put plainly plated sweetbreads on their menu when the average customer would be happier with some tendies?

I returned to 7617 Sunset Boulevard in early January for a 5:45 p.m. dinner reservation because that was the only time I could get. Maybe eating dinner at 8 p.m. is returning? (It’s not.) I had never been to Horses that early—so early that I had to park in the back because their valet hadn’t set up yet due to rush-hour traffic restrictions. I was greeted by the same friendly faces, refreshed after a holiday break to Ojai or back east to grandma’s, and ready to start hospitalitizing again. The menu hadn’t changed a single note. The lavash chips were still loxed, and the burger was still lettuce-wrappable. But the staff had a heightened sense of urgency to perform at their best; it was charming to see a (for lack of a better word) hipster restaurant metamorphosing into the makings of a legitimate, professional institution.

A quick update on the team: on this early January visit, the kitchen was being run by executive chef Brittany Ha and chef de cuisine Robin Kloess. Liz Johnson, who previously ran the kitchen, was back in New York opening Frog Club, a semi-mysterious new venture in the former Chumley’s space at 86 Bedford Street in the West Village. Horses PR and Johnson each confirmed this. There is no confirmed participation of former Horses chef Will Aghajanian for either restaurant.   

Horses doesn’t skimp. Things are considered and consistent, from the weight of their steak knife and the butter temperature to the glowing red exit sign reinterpreted tastefully in Old English and the Crayola-brand crayons provided to practice my tagging on the white paper tablecloth.

Of course, they play music; sometimes it’s Balearic disco or a Fleetwood Mac B-side, but it feels like they’ve been playing that Fleetwood song since the ’70s. The volume level is quieter than a Jon & Vinny’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard brunch, but it’s still cranked loud enough so the DeuxMoi anons can’t make out who you’re gossiping about. 

Order the bread, a simple toasted baguette with Horses’ signature butter pad, molded in great detail to resemble a Pepperidge Farm Chessmen butter cookie—with the bust of a handsome horse, naturally. We’re approaching the end of American salad’s Caesar period, but theirs is unique enough to order. A heavy pile of endive, and only endive, is liberally tossed in a Caesar dressing so powerfully flavored it would suck the soul out of a romaine leaf. I’ve never met a Caesar that I wanted to share, but this one will satisfy three.

Every restaurant has a collection of crudos these days, all tasting the same and more often used as vessels for colorful droplets of oil and finger limes than for toe-curling flavor. But Horses’ amberjack in brown butter with capers and chives transforms virgin raw fish into a naughtier nighttime bite. It packs a wallop you might not expect from such a mild-mannered plate, but the umami hits you in a way only MSG can—and maybe it has some. It’s a tricky sensation, chewing raw, melty fish between your teeth but experiencing a flush in your cheeks that you can’t get from a dunk in a bowl of Kikkoman, like dipping your finger in a packet of onion dip mix or pouring a few glugs of Maggi in your mayo. 

A heavy pile of endive, and only endive, is liberally tossed in a Caesar dressing so powerfully flavored it would suck the soul out of a romaine leaf.

I mentioned sweetbreads earlier which appear on Horses’ menu as an appetizer: little fried nuggets with frisée and capers. They’re wonderful. Sweetbreads, while sometimes utilized by the best taqueros of the South Bay and in Texas, are also from the era of Anthony Bourdain stunt eating some offcuts and saying, “Oh yeah, that’s the stuff” into the camera like a badass. These veal sweetbreads could be fed to any of your children as a nugget replacement, and no one would bat an eye unless some frisée got stuck to it.

We ordered the chestnut gnocchi with chanterelles and truffle butter, a brown-on-brown autumnal offering that’s not something I’d typically yearn for. I’m reminded how we’ll often derogatorily call a dish “one-note,” but this made me think, what if that one note was really something? “Not a note, not yet a chord,” to quote Britney. The chanterelle was cut in a roughly similar size and texture to the nutty gnocchi, so in a dark dining room, much like a dark orgy room, you weren’t sure what you were chewing on; hopefully that’s the point. 

I admire how Horses pays homage to an era of cooking that was popular when many of the kitchen staff were likely in diapers, such as with the aforementioned veal sweetbreads or pork rillettes with cornichon and grain mustard. But not their Cornish hen, a dish I never reach for in restaurants, as I roast a weekly chicken myself. Mine is not better than their poultry playbook, but when I drop $250 on a Wednesday dinner, I want to eat things I don’t cook at home. 

It pains me to name-drop, but one of my earliest visits to Horses was a three-top with Bret Easton Ellis shortly after he appeared as a guest on our podcast. In addition to hand-scooping ice cubes into his martini glass in an effort to goon its cold sting, I saw Bret’s heart open a bit after seeing the Cornish hen, roasted to order, on their menu—an item that in 1998, when Bret was really eating good, was as ubiquitous as today’s whole branzino for $78. Here it was, the ghost of panzanella past, returning 25 years later, and only a five-minute Uber ride from his doorstep. He liked it so much that he took the leftovers home. Try that in Eagle Rock.

Their butcher’s steak (hangar), grilled over vine cuttings—grapevine, I assume—offers that punch of iron and a deep char flavor while still keeping it blue in the middle. A simple salad of cress and a briquette of not-too-naughty celeriac dauphinoise, and you’ve got your meat and two that’s more authentically French than anything you’d find at a restaurant with the word “trois” in its name—a balanced injection of anemic relief.

The only menu item I’m allergic to is their off-menu but on every table pasta alla Herman, a silver platterful of spicy-vodka-sauced shells, with a hit under the broiler to burn those edges like a Detroit pie. There is nothing wrong with the dish—everyone seems to love it—I’m just not a ’nduja man. And the Herman definitely not being on the menu offers relief for someone intimidated by unfamiliar offerings, like how I scan a wine list, timidly hunting for at least one word I’ve read before. I wonder if certain tables are offered it and certain tables aren’t, or if it’s simply off the menu because customers need to customize to feel a rush of superiority.

Sometimes, when a restaurant gets so popular, it needs a transgression or two to cull its customer base, like filing for bankruptcy when you’re making too much money. The line at Sqirl used to look like Costco on Black Friday before their moldy peaches hit Twitter. Now it’s just a very good and busy restaurant again, full of people who know and support the staff, who have sacrificed much of their lives for a seat at the table. Horses has proven they can continue without their founders and still provide an excellent product. Miramax released The Holdovers last year while Harvey was upstate, right? There’s still a Tesla in your carport.

Sometimes, when a restaurant gets so popular, it needs a transgression or two to cull its customer base, like filing for bankruptcy when you’re making too much money.

It’s happened hundreds of times: a restaurant explodes overnight, some guy’s bologna sandwich shop gets a Bon Ap cover, or Eric Wareheim puts a Wiccan congee pop-up on Stories, and the staff is just trying to hold on for dear life. “This is what we always dreamed of,” goes the line. When a place gets that busy, the original priorities and vibes shift, and compromises are made—you turn into Chris Farley in Tommy Boy on his first day at work, a punk kid with a real job.

The reason I eat at home most days is that you can’t just go to a great restaurant nowadays; you have to plan it weeks in advance, even as a micro-influencer. It’s fun looking forward to a big red heart drawn on the kitchen calendar, but it becomes exhausting, and it is truly easier to make my own congee at home. 

Now, after having survived a year that only P. Diddy could admire, Horses has returned to what it set out to be: a very busy, romantic brasserie where you can still find a stool at the bar and grab a cheeseburger that someone cooked with care as if Uncle Tony himself had ordered it. Every time.

Jason Stewart

Jason Stewart is a retired DJ living in Los Angeles. He currently does a podcast called How Long Gone.