It’s quite a pork chop, expertly grilled, with a seam of tender fat and a dusting of fennel pollen. Riding on a barge of white beans and finished with a gremolata of pickled plums and toasted pine nuts, it marries the robust with bright acidity, the extended notes of slow cooking and the immediacy brought by the lick of a flame. Bar food? Hardly, and yet here I am at a cocktail-centric spot run by a duo who’ve produced some of the city’s most inspired mixological arenas.
Thirty-six-year-old fraternal twins Jonnie and Mark Houston bought their first bar, the gritty Ski Room, at Sunset and Bronson less than a decade ago after getting their start selling pagers and cell phones from the back of a car; in the ensuing years they have built a mini empire of individual ventures that span eras but share a nostalgia for lighthearted transgression. They modeled Harvard & Stone on an American juke joint and La Descarga on a Cuban speakeasy, while their retro pad Good Times at Davey Wayne’s channels the party-hearty ’70s through a prism of velour sofas and shag carpet. At No Vacancy, the multiroom spread with courtyards and fireplaces they operate in Hollywood, a doe-eyed “madam” greets guests as she reclines on a mattress, which then splits in half to reveal descending stairs. The whole thing is hokey and mechanical enough to suggest an adults-only Disneyland, but at the same time you’re thinking, Damn, this exists.
The brothers (they do their own design work) invested Butchers & Barbers with the same exacting yet playful detail. Located by No Vacancy in the circa 1917 former Hillview Apartments (Clara Bow lived here), it sports hexagonal tiles on the floor and pressed tin on the ceiling, belt-driven fans spinning lazily overhead and bar stools with cast-iron pedestals. In his book McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, Joseph Mitchell famously wrote that bar space is measured by the elbow; in this place there’s room for about 20 elbows at the stained-wood counter, behind which barkeeps chip ice and dose bitters from cruets. The din of double-pumped shakers is typical Houston fare, but what isn’t is serving food. The pineapple slice riding the rim of your highball glass constitutes a nibble at La Descarga. Butchers & Barbers is their charter restaurant. Amid the clamor, manager Mark Bernardo is almost regal as he pours a superb au jus over the dry-aged rib eye served with browned shallots and chanterelles.
If the Houstons have finessed an atmosphere of destinations sans exclusivity—no tiresome bottle service for them—this is the food that matches it: gastronomy to which you can devote as much or as little thought as you wish. A Massachusetts native, chef Luke Reyes recently helmed Culver City’s the Corner Door, but he started out cooking in the kitchen of Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger in Boston. Moving to L.A., Reyes worked under Ilan Hall at the Gorbals and Casey Lane at the Tasting Kitchen, becoming adept at a big-flavored, whimsical style of cooking that lends itself to a measure of well-crafted booze. The Gorbals recently closed, but it’ll be hard to forget how its signature bacon-wrapped matzo balls offered a pinch of Yiddish impishness that was all the more demented when paired with a tumbler of arak and cognac.
At Butchers, Reyes has come into his own, cooking in that robust register but with great nuance. For him a heap of mussels is an opportunity to electrify white beer-and-crème fraîche broth with finely chopped habanero. While his kampachi with pluots and olives nudges too far in the other direction, tasting more of produce and olive oil than fish, he’s good at hitting the delicate notes as well. The simple addition of thyme oil and fried rosemary quills reframes a bowl of fresh popcorn. For a stellar vegetable appetizer, he creates the equivalent of a mini parfait, stacking thin slices of raw Bartlett pear between layers of ricotta atop a plinth of roasted half pear, a sesame vinaigrette splashed on top. He can be inventive, too. Granted, the lactic tang of the goat cheese ice cream Reyes serves with warm apple pie is almost disagreeable. But I like the way he uses burrata to link roasted Delicata squash, off-sweet Fuyu persimmons, and beads of trout roe or folds confit shiitakes into a risotto made with farro, the bore of the grain soaking up every drop of the flavor-saturated butter. Where everybody else is frying brussels sprouts to a crisp and salting them, Reyes nestles his in a cold orzo salad that’s nutty and light, with whole parsley leaves scattered about to add herbal zing.
This is careful cooking, unconcerned with representing any one style and—with Musso & Frank only two blocks away—wise to avoid being retro. Instead of creamed spinach, there’s charred sprouting broccoli mixed in with juicy segments of Cara Cara oranges, their pink hue peeking through a scattering of bread crumbs. Jerusalem artichokes get steamed and then quickly fried to order. Finished with flakes of Maldon sea salt and a thick, walnut-based salsa verde, the mounds of gnarled tuber seem completely of the moment.
We’ve strayed far from any easy culinary classification here. I don’t know what school of cooking the browned half head of cauliflower comes from. But seared in a cast-iron pot, then brushed with miso butter and browned under a broiler, it certainly enlightened me about pairing food with a cocktail—at least, that was the case with the Ol’ Grandad, a wickedly seductive blend of scotch, cinnamon-infused vermouth, and a dash of maple syrup lapping at an oversize ice cube.
I say this as a wine lover who is wary not of the potency but of the high sugar content of mixed drinks that, in the wrong hands, can leave you feeling as if you’re wandering Fremont Street, sucking on a bucket of bottom-shelf piña colada. Of course that’s precisely what the word mixology is supposed to be a reaction against, signaling a version of bartending that homes in on the interplay between sweet and astringent, generous and austere, aged and fresh. The short and mainly French wine list and the choice of draft beers represent a beachhead of alternatives. The bite of hops in the Lagunitas pilsner sails through the creamy richness of Reyes’s pork rillettes spread over warm country bread.
Still, hooch just seems a natural in a vintage room where you’d be comfortable wearing a trilby and spats. (Jared Leto opted for a Peruvian boiled wool hat when he posed, smiling, with a group of young ladies.) One night a glass of old-vine pinot auxerrois from Maurice Schoech in France’s Alsace region gave a nice towel snap of acidity to a platter of Misty Point oysters, but so did—critic’s prerogative—my friend’s Lillian Gish; the hint of lime and manzanilla, the driest of all sherries, lurking in the applejack just did it in a different way. With both I tasted the subtleties of using serrano chile rather than cracked black pepper in the vinegar-and-shallot mignonette sauce. Reyes is skilled at that kind of discreet showmanship. He usually works in the tight space between the stove and the pass-through, where finished dishes leave the kitchen. On a Saturday night, with the room jumping, you might see him, head shaved, step away from the tiny kitchen to hand a server a saucer of crisped, salted fennel and wax beans over yogurt tahini laced with strands of opal basil.
He’s not a meat-only cook by any means, but he’s particularly artful at making animal protein shine. The skin on a salmon fillet crackles beneath a bed of parsnip puree and a drizzle of aillade, a minutely minced paste of hazelnuts, fennel, celery leaves, and lemon zest. The grilled hanger steak with a compound butter of Point Reyes blue melting on the seared meat and charred onions draped over a handful of La Ratte potatoes is the opposite of one of those marked-up à la carte filets with an entourage of expensive side dishes. It’s a steak option at an accessible level and manages to say a lot about the realm the Houstons have created.
When they launch a venue in Koreatown’s Line Hotel (rumor is, it’ll have an ’80s theme) later this year, it will represent a homecoming of sorts for them. The brothers grew up at New Hampshire and 1st, the children of a Thai mom and an Anglo pool shark dad, whose name and reputation are immortalized on a plaque a few blocks away from the Line at the HMS Bounty. There’s talk of the pair going deeper into hotels in the future, too. They may even buy the ornate apartment building that rises above Butchers & Barbers. The building is barely older than Hollywood itself, that moment when Daeida Wilcox saw the promise of something between the mountains and the orange trees. That was then, though. With the Houstons, even the past is very now.
6531 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 323-461-1464
Best Dishes: Oysters with serrano mignonette, crudités with yogurt tahini, farro risotto with shiitakes, salmon with parsnip puree, bone-in pork chop with beans and chicories
Drinks: Exceptional cocktail program; short, mainly French wine list
Noise level: Not so loud that you can’t have a conversation
Kid friendly?: The terrace tables might be best
Price range: $4 (popcorn with thyme oil) to $120 (44-ounce rib eye)
Hours: Tue.-Sun., 6 p.m.-2 a.m.
Parking: Valet ($8-$10) or street
Reservations: Recommended—or be nice to the doorman
Credit cards: All major