What’s Happening Inside Horses, the Buzzy LA Restaurant Now Shrouded in Drama?

On the afternoon of Thursday May 18, Fiona Deane-Grundman, 23, and her three friends did the impossible: made a same-day dinner reservation at Horses, a Los Angeles restaurant that has become a celebrity-packed destination since opening in fall 2021.  

Usually, getting a prime reservation with no notice at Horses is a near-impossibility for anyone other than, say, a Kardashian. This, though, was no ordinary Thursday night. The crew had heard the rumors that set the internet aflame in the last week—including some so lewd and gruesome that they sounded straight out of a (very disturbing) movie. The restaurant’s two co-owners, who are currently going through what has become a very public divorce, levied multiple accusations of abuse and domestic violence against each another, the most shocking—and publicized—of which involves the abuse or murder of up to 14 of their own pets. One of Deane-Grudman’s dining mates, Ben Leaños, 26, said they were concerned that this might be their last chance to eat at Horses. 

“We felt kind of gauche going,” said Deane-Grudman. “But they never have reservations.” 

Even before the rumors, Horses was one of those restaurants whose reputation precedes it. Since opening, it has garnered critical praise for its vibey atmosphere and well-executed California bistro fare and become a magnet for celebrities like Kendall Jenner, Jay-Z, and Will Ferrell. Last summer, Eater’s reporting on the disgraced restaurateur Ken Friedman’s involvement in the early days of the restaurant did little to minimize its popularity or ease the challenge of snagging a table. 

But the recent gossip has been darker. After several days of social media buzz and group chat speculation, the Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday, May 17, that chef Liz Johnson was granted a restraining order against her husband and partner in the restaurant, Will Aghajanian, in November of 2022 after having accused him of multiple forms of abuse, including killing more than one of their cats. In response, Aghajanian disputed the allegations, accused his wife of animal abuse as well, and said that she was attempting to take control of the restaurant by assuming his legal stake. 

Though the drama was largely in regard to the pair’s divorce, it seems that it has occasionally spilled into the restaurant. One employee allegedly threatened to quit because of the intense and violent tenor between the two, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Since news of the domestic and animal abuse allegations became public, staff who manage the restaurant’s email and Instagram have allegedly received death threats, according to one Horses employee. 

On the evening of Wednesday, May 17, Horses posted a statement on Instagram claiming that Aghajanian has not been involved in the day-to-day operations of the restaurant for the past six months. 

When I went to Horses that same night, the restaurant was as packed and buzzing as ever, without much indication of the drama. Several people were celebrating their birthdays, and Tyler, the Creator was dining in the front barroom. It felt like maybe the restaurant was too hyped up to fail. But when I returned Saturday for another pulse check, the space was uncharacteristically empty. Though as of publication reservations are still completely booked online, it seems that one of LA’s celebrity darlings is going to be decidedly less in demand until the drama blows over—or until there is more clarity surrounding the more gruesome details of the owners’ actions.

Many of the diners who showed up on Saturday said they wanted to support both Johnson and Horses’ 70-person staff. One regular, a burly man named Ben, who has frequented the restaurant almost daily since it was a pub called The Pikey (prior to the opening of Horses), was perched at his usual barstool. Another diner, George Heller, said it was his 15th time at the restaurant—though it was his date’s first—and that he thought the allegations, although appalling, amounted to a private issue between Johnson and Aghajanian. The drama, he said, didn’t change how he felt about the restaurant. After his dinner on Saturday, which included hand-cut steak tartare and a cheeseburger, he said the food is still some of the best in town. 

Still, Heller noted that on Saturday night, the dining room was the emptiest he’d ever seen it. Ben the Regular was back, but the restaurant was at about half its capacity around 7:45 p.m. Many bar seats and tables in all three of the restaurant’s rooms were unoccupied, despite there being no available reservations on Resy earlier that day. It’s unclear if there was a mass of cancellations, if the restaurant has limited its availability on the reservation app, or if people just didn’t show. I mentioned this over text to a friend of mine, an LA-based chef who frequents the restaurant. “That’s not normal,” he replied. “I’ve never seen an empty spot at the bar.” 

Meanwhile, Spencer Kent, who was there celebrating his 37th birthday with friends, had considered canceling the reservation he made months prior but ultimately decided that one man’s alleged wrongdoing shouldn’t affect 70 people’s livelihoods. As he was waiting for valet to bring his car around, Kent admitted that there was still no better place to ring in another year. One woman in Kent’s party had her own rationale: “There’s no cat on the menu.” 

The staff seemed understandably on edge, particularly on Wednesday night, when a local news organization briefly filmed outside of the restaurant. But they were as polished as usual: Hosts were all smiles, waiters made recommendations to parties hesitating over what to order, and they all converged to sing happy birthday around Horses’ signature slice of cake enclosed in a dome made of spun sugar. Several members of staff would not speak on the record about how the scandal was affecting morale or business. 

The diners, though, were ready to gab. Kent called Aghajanian’s purported actions “abysmal,” and said he hopes to see him removed from the restaurant entirely. He compared the situation to how Mario Batali—who was accused on numerous occasions of sexual assault—was “edged out” of the restaurants he co-owned with his former business partner, Nancy Silverton, including the ever-popular Mozza.

Jonnie Davis was there with his 21-year-old son, part of a tradition they’ve kept up since Horses opened. (Usually, they come on the weekends when the traffic from their house in the Palisades is not so bad.) To them, tonight was not so different: They ordered off-menu rigatoni with spicy nduja, the côte de porc with haricots verts, a bottle of red wine, and espresso martinis. Davis had heard about the scandal, but it didn’t deter him from coming. 

By Monday, May 22, news of allegations outlined in the divorce had hit Eater LAThe New York TimesThe Washington Post, The Hollywood Reporter, the Daily BeastVanity Fair, and The Guardian. Horses had turned off the commenting feature on all its Instagram posts. Yelp had thrown an “unusual activity alert” on Horses’ page, after a series of one-star reviews that nod to the allegations (“The ambiance was terrible because there are literally dead animals haunting it,” said one.). 

Though Leaños had heard a rumor that the restaurant may shutter amid financial fallout, a spokesperson for the restaurant told Bon Appétit on Monday that reservations are still fully booked and the murmurs aren’t true: “There is no chance of Horses closing.” 

Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit