Everybody in LA seems to be placing bets on Horses, a new Sunset Boulevard restaurant committed to a deeper nostalgia than mere prepandemic festivity, harking back to the city’s golden age. Any given night, locals pack the bar and booths in the tavern, dubbed The Drinkery. Food industry folks converge under the skylight in the Sunshine Room, featuring bright yellow banquettes and a sight line to the open kitchen. And, if a recent drop-in by Will Ferrell is any indication, celebrities beeline to Kacper’s Room in the back, adorned with equestrian paintings by artist Kacper Abolik, whose portrait subjects have included A$AP Rocky and Madonna. Egged on by ashtrays, customers reclaiming their joie de vivre might even bum a cigarette out front; the host has been known to facilitate introductions.
The restaurant, which opened last fall, may be in a school of retro–flavored newcomers (including Gigi’s and Mother Wolf nearby), but Horses had a head start. For more than 70 years, 7617 Sunset Boulevard was home to Ye Coach & Horses, a British pub that counted Richard Burton and Alfred Hitchcock as patrons. Quentin Tarantino and Tim Roth supposedly scribbled ideas for pulp Fiction on napkins there in the ’90s. The next resident hot spot, The Pikey, shuttered in 2020.
Co-chef and co-owner Liz Johnson, who runs Horses with her DC-born husband, Will Aghajanian, visited the vacated space in the fall of 2020, when “LA was in a very rough spot,” she says. The duo hadn’t planned to move to the city, but that first walk-through was all it took.
Johnson, 31, first won notice for her cooking in 2016, when the Schenectady, New York, native was running the kitchen at Mimi, a Manhattan bistro. “She’s got something any number of more experienced chefs don’t,” New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote at the time: “a clear and personal vision of French food as a celebration of appetite, an occasion to eat with joy and lust.” Johnson’s ascent continued at the Jewish American comfort food spot Freedman’s in Silver Lake and with a stint, alongside Aghajanian, at Nashville’s The Catbird Seat, where they served modernist 20-course tasting menus.
Horses, with nary a tweezed nasturtium in sight, marks a return to the joy and the lust. Tagliarini with clams, Cornish game hen, a very nice cheeseburger: The menu nods to a number of culinary traditions from the Bay Area to Venice, but think of the principle as Dan Tana’s with better food—just not too much better. “We’ll do a ridiculously creamy Caesar and we’ll give you french fries and ketchup,” says Johnson, who brought on Brittany Ha and Lee Pallerino as fellow executive chefs. “Milk in your bad coffee? We love it.” One of the first considerations was whether the entire staff could drop everything in the middle of a service to sing “Happy Birthday.” (They can, they do.) They researched the atmospheres at Spago and Mr Chow in Beverly Hills, and Michèle Lamy’s erstwhile Les Deux Cafés. A portrait of the Horses kitchen staff clad in chef’s whites channels an iconic class portrait at Michael’s Santa Monica, yet another wink positioning Horses among a lineage of laid-back California maximalism.
People are getting the message. “We just had somebody call to ask if they could bring their horses,” Johnson says. “I told them that we’d be happy to let the horses hang out in the courtyard next door and feed them carrots while their owners have dinner.”