Crowds flock to Horses restaurant despite divorce drama

Raj Patel and a childhood friend from Iowa were looking for a place to have dinner late Thursday.

They settled on the horses. Patel, who moved to Los Angeles last summer, said he had long noticed the rowdy scene at the Hollywood restaurant.

“Typical LA – grabs your attention,” he said.

This week, however, Horses received different attention after details of an ugly divorce case involving a chef there and her husband and business partner became public. Among other things, she accused him of killing the family cats — charges he strongly denies, according to the divorce filing. After The Times published the allegations on Wednesday, the restaurant has come under scrutiny – and curiosity – in Southland and beyond.

But Patel, 31, was not among those interested. He was unaware of the scandal until a Times reporter explained it as they stood on the pavement outside Horses.

“Only in LA,” he said.

Patel was one of the few Horses clients who said they were unaware of the controversy. The Times spoke to 15 diners on Thursday evening. Twelve said they were aware of the situation and decided to come to the Sunset Boulevard restaurant anyway. Most expressed support for the workers there or had light-hearted rants.

“I assumed there was a direct correlation between the story and the fact that we might have availability for tonight,” Gili Abelson, 37, said, noting that she was unable to book any booking for her birthday in February.

The same-day bookings taken by Abelson – and a Times reporter – could be the fallout from the drama involving owners and chefs Elizabeth Johnson and Will Aghajanian.

Will Aghajanian has been on leave from Horses since November 2022, the restaurant says.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

In November, Johnson filed for a domestic violence restraining order against Aghajanian, who filed for divorce two months later. She had asked that Aghajanian be kept away from her lest he hurt her or someone else. She alleged that he repeatedly assaulted her.

Aghajanian denied his allegations in his court documents, calling them “false allegations”.

Johnson accused Aghajanian of killing at least two of their cats, saying she met him last year while “shaking violently” their kitten, who died the next day. Aghajanian denied the allegations, saying he loved animals. He said in his legal response that Johnson was an animal abuser, citing text messages in which she referred to herself.

In their documents, both parties allege physical abuse on the part of the other. Johnson claims Aghajanian dragged her across the floor, while he says she burned him with cooking utensils.

It was difficult to reconcile the allegations with the convivial atmosphere of the crowded restaurant on Thursday.

Runners sped through the dining rooms, their forearms inked and weighed down with plates of Cornish hen on a spatula and Caesar salad with endives sprinkled with breadcrumbs. Fela Kuti played on the loudspeakers; Also Rick James.

Crossing a room, the general manager in a jacket stopped to hold a glass of wine in front of a light, making sure it was clean. Later, he stopped in front of a table of guests eating dessert to extol the virtues of Horses’ pastry chef, whom he called a “wunderkind”.

“She makes me nervous about my career,” he joked. “She’s in her mid-twenties.”

The crowd included regulars, such as a man wearing a Fear of God hoodie who ate while scrolling through his cellphone, its screen bathing his face in blue and showcasing his bleached blonde hair.

Liz Johnson is one of the chefs at Horses restaurant on December 23, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

Johnson runs Horses, the restaurant said in a statement.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

The Times has not seen Johnson, but the restaurant said in a statement on Wednesday that she was at the helm, noting that “Will Aghajanian has been on leave from Horses since November 2022, and since then has not been involved in the daily operations of the restaurant.

Neither Johnson nor Aghajanian responded to a request for comment, and Horses management did not comment beyond the statement.

Several clients were unfazed — if not indifferent — by allegations of abuse in divorce filings. A handful suggested, with dark humor, that the scandal seemed to be plucked from the pages of a Hollywood script.

“It’s crazier than any type of scenario that crosses its mess halls,” said one customer. “For some weird reason it was campy and part of the bit.”

Still, others offered messages of caution.

“You can’t believe everything you hear,” said Ricardo Carrasco.

A Mexican chef who cooks at a vegan restaurant in North Carolina, Carrasco stood outside Horses after his meal and enjoyed a cigarette and a drink. Carrasco – who explained that his restaurant is for “gluten-free people” – said he learned of the controversy from the valets at Sunset.

“If the quality of the establishment is there, whatever else happens, it doesn’t affect the dish,” he said. “It’s noise.”

A man waiting at the valet parking service said he learned of the scandal after his friends told him over dinner. He said he asked his server about chats and the response was “No comment”.

Food writers have taken to social media in recent days to express concern for Horses workers who depend on the restaurant for a living. Indeed, scandals can lead to restaurant closures.

In 2017, Ken Friedman, a New York restaurateur and early Horses investor, was accused by employees of sexual harassment, retaliation and other allegations. He denied the allegations while apologizing for not fostering a better work environment at Spotted Pig, his West Village hot spot. In 2020, weeks after Friedman reached a financial settlement, the Spotted Pig closed, costing 78 people their jobs, The New York Times reported.

Controversy can also lead to a spike in business for a restaurant or bar. After an infidelity-centric scandal unfolded on reality TV show “Vanderpump Rules,” Vulture reported in April that a number of Los Angeles establishments owned by cast members did good business. Among them were Tom Tom restaurant and Schwartz & Sandy’s bar, both co-owned by Tom Sandoval, who admitted on “Vanderpump Rules” to cheating on his longtime girlfriend Ariana Madix with another cast member.

Some people felt compelled to visit places associated with “Vanderpump Rules” because of the drama.

“I feel embarrassed to follow everything so religiously,” a Schwartz & Sandy’s guest recently told The Times.

The allegations involving the Horses chiefs are, of course, more serious than the “Vanderpump” issues. Still, as Thursday night wore on, the mood at the restaurant seemed to lighten up.

A customer wearing a Blondie t-shirt brought in a friend from Washington, DC. She had read some of the court documents before deciding to honor the reservation. In any case, they were there to celebrate. After Horses staff serenaded him with an exuberant rendition of “Happy Birthday”, the man – who said he would soon start an internship at Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand Goop – offered neighboring diners a taste of their dessert.

The sheep’s milk cheesecake was set in a spun-sugar cloche, a special touch the restaurant included as part of the birthday present. Except it wasn’t really the wife’s birthday. The minor deception – really just a lie – had secured the confection.

But after two days of resentment, it was a lie that didn’t seem to matter. After all, it had given the singers a chance to stand out. At least for a little while.

Los Angeles Times

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