Raj Patel and a childhood friend from Iowa had been looking for a place to grab a late dinner on Thursday.
They settled on Horses. Patel, who moved to Los Angeles last summer, said he’d long noticed the boisterous scene at the Hollywood restaurant.
“Typical L.A. — draws your eye,” he said.
This week, however, Horses has been the recipient of a different sort of 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’s cats — accusations he strongly denies, according to the divorce filing. After The Times published the allegations Wednesday, the restaurant became the subject of scrutiny — and curiosity — in the Southland and beyond.
But Patel, 31, wasn’t among the interested parties. He hadn’t known about the scandal until a Times reporter explained it as they stood on the sidewalk outside Horses.
“Only in L.A.” he said.
Patel was one of only a few Horses patrons who said they’d been unaware of the controversy. The Times spoke with 15 diners there Thursday night. Twelve said they were aware of the situation and had decided to come to the Sunset Boulevard restaurant anyway. Most expressed support for its workers or had lighthearted takes.
“I assumed there was a direct correlation between the story and us being able to have an availability for this evening,” said Gili Abelson, 37, noting that she had been unable to book a reservation for her birthday in February.
The same-day reservations snagged by Abelson — and a Times reporter — may be fallout from the drama involving the owners and chefs, Elizabeth Johnson and Will Aghajanian.
In November, Johnson filed for a domestic violence restraining order against Aghajanian, who sought a divorce two months later. She had requested that Aghajanian be kept away from her out of fear that he might hurt her or someone else. She alleged that he had assaulted her on numerous occasions.
Aghajanian denied her claims in his court filings, calling them “false allegations.”
Johnson accused Aghajanian of killing at least two of their cats, saying she walked in on him last year “violently shaking” their kitten, which died the next day. Aghajanian denied the claims, saying he loves animals. He said in his legal response that Johnson was an animal abuser, citing text messages in which she referred to herself as one.
In their filings, both parties allege physical abuse by the other. Johnson claims that Aghajanian dragged her across the floor, while he says she burned him with kitchen utensils.
It was hard to square the allegations with the convivial mood in the crowded restaurant Thursday.
Runners spun through dining rooms, their forearms inked and weighed down with plates of spatchcocked Cornish game hen and endive Caesar salad dusted with breadcrumbs. Fela Kuti played on the speakers; Rick James too.
Crossing a room, the jacketed general manager paused to hold a wine glass up to a light, making sure it was clean. Later, he stopped by a table of guests eating dessert to extol the virtues of Horses’ pastry chef, whom he called a “prodigy.”
“She makes me nervous about my career,” he joked. “She’s in her mid-20s.”
The crowd included regulars, such as one man in a Fear of God hoodie who ate while scrolling on his mobile phone, its screen bathing his face in blue and highlighting his bleached blond hair.
The Times did not see Johnson, but the restaurant said in a statement Wednesday that she is at the helm, noting that “Will Aghajanian has been on a leave of absence from Horses as of November 2022, and since then he has not been involved in the day-to-day operations of the restaurant.”
Neither Johnson nor Aghajanian has responded to a request for comment, and Horses management has not commented beyond the statement.
Several customers were unfazed — if not unbothered — by the allegations of abuse in the divorce filings. A handful suggested, with dark humor, that the scandal seemed ripped from the pages of a Hollywood script.
“It’s crazier than any sort of screenplay that passes through” the restaurant, one customer said. “For some strange reason, it felt campy and part of the bit.”
Still, others offered messages of caution.
“You can’t believe everything that you hear,” said Ricardo Carrasco.
A chef from Mexico 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 eatery is one for “people who don’t f— with gluten” — said he had learned of the controversy from the valets on Sunset.
“If the quality of the establishment is there, everything else that is happening, it’s not affecting the dish,” he said. “It’s noise.”
A man waiting at the valet stand said he’d first heard about the scandal from his friends over dinner. He said he asked his waiter about the cats, and the response was “No comment.”
Food writers have taken to social media in recent days to express concern for the workers at Horses who rely on the restaurant to make a living. Indeed, scandals can lead to restaurant closures.
In 2017, Ken Friedman, a New York restaurateur and initial Horses investor, was accused by employees of sexual harassment, retaliation and other claims. He denied the allegations while apologizing for not fostering a better working environment at the 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 a scandal centered on infidelity unfurled on the reality TV show “Vanderpump Rules,” Vulture reported in April that a number of L.A. establishments owned by cast members were doing brisk business. Among them was the restaurant Tom Tom and the bar Schwartz & Sandy’s, both of which are co-owned by Tom Sandoval, who admitted on “Vanderpump Rules” to cheating on his longtime girlfriend, Ariana Madix, with another cast member.
Some people have felt compelled to visit the venues associated with “Vanderpump Rules” because of the drama.
“I feel embarrassed that I am following everything so religiously,” a guest at Schwartz & Sandy’s recently told The Times.
The allegations involving the Horses chefs are, of course, more serious than the “Vanderpump” troubles. Still, as Thursday night wore on, the mood at the restaurant seemed to lighten.
One patron in a Blondie T-shirt brought a friend who was visiting him from Washington, D.C. She’d read some of the court filings before deciding to honor the reservation. In any case, they were there to celebrate. After the Horses staff serenaded her with an exuberant rendition of “Happy Birthday,” the man — who said he would soon be starting an internship at Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand — offered neighboring diners a taste of their dessert.
The sheep’s milk cheesecake had come ensconced in a cloche made of spun sugar, a special touch the restaurant included as part of the birthday treat. Except it wasn’t actually the woman’s birthday. The minor deception — really just a fib — had secured the confection.
But following two days of rancor, it was an untruth that didn’t appear to matter. After all, it’d given the singing workers a chance to cut loose. A least for a little while.