In the tiny mountain town of Cornell, tucked away in the Santa Monica Mountains between Agoura Hills and Malibu, Morgan Runyon plays the busboy. He stacks glasses, piles up plates and then wipes down a table at the steakhouse his father operated for more than four decades, The Old Place. It’s 6:25 on Friday evening, which means it’s almost time for the second seating of the night. The staff scrambles for a moment as every table turns over at once, dishes clink together on their way to be washed, happy people file out, and the door swings open, letting in a blast of chilly mountain air along with a rush of new diners.
Once the tables are cleaned and the guests are seated, Runyon switches from busboy to restaurateur — he passes through the tiny wood-walled room, past black-and-white photos of the Santa Monica Mountains as they were 50 years ago, turns sideways to slide through the narrow space between the booths on one wall and the bar on the other. He greets regulars and new customers alike, pours a beer for a friend, shakes hands and even signs an autograph. For someone who didn’t intend to end up in the restaurant business, he’s a natural at hosting.
The younger Runyon inherited the Old Place in 2009 after the death of his father, Tom, a fiction writer and occasional Hollywood actor who transformed a historic, abandoned, small-town general store and post office into a rustic steakhouse. Morgan Runyon now sees himself as the keeper of the restaurant’s soul, maintaining the essential feeling of the place while making some small modernizations — updating the website, adding a modern point-of-sale system — and fending off the eager speculators looking to flip the space into some flashy new concept like a cowboy sushi bar.
Tom Runyon, scion of the family for whom Runyon Canyon is named, opened the restaurant in 1970 to some fanfare, including a warm reception from L.A.’s high society at the time (there is a picture on one wall of Jirayr Zorthian eating a boar that Tom himself shot in Big Sur). Before that the building was the store and the original post office for the unincorporated town of Cornell, built long before Agoura Hills’ expansion and before the 101 cut through the area just beyond the westernmost reaches of the San Fernando Valley.
In order to transform it into a workable restaurant, the elder Runyon made a few alterations, but the main dining room has much of its history intact, all wood with low ceilings. He put in partitions to make booths and added some columns to support those partitions, with just about everything added salvaged or somehow repurposed. The partitions were made from doors discarded by the Santa Barbara Mission, the columns were scrap collected from local front porches, and the decorative heads of the columns were fashioned from lampposts that the City of Los Angeles was throwing away. The Old Place lives up to its name, in every way.
As you might imagine with such a historic and largely handmade venue, the restaurant has its quirks. In addition to the bar, there are just five large booths and three small tables, each of which is almost always booked. To ease the reservation process, there are three seatings, at 5, 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., and you are absolutely required to be out of your booth by the following time slot. The bathrooms are outside, the wait times for bar seats are unpredictable, and you can’t wait for those seats inside due to the cramped quarters.
If you do have to wait, you can pop next door to Cornell Winery for a glass or two, or you can take a stroll across the street into the dry riverbed of Peter Strauss Ranch, which is now a park. A hawk shrieks overhead, and there is deer poop on the path. Animals rustle in the brush, and the air is cool and clean. It feels like you are more than 20 miles from Encino. When you make it to the top of the reservation list and are called into the restaurant, it’s a sharp change from the park. It is warm inside, and loud — the low ceilings and hard surfaces mean that there is always a racket, but it is a good racket, born of laughter and conversation and clinking cutlery. The light has a golden-orange glow, and then you smell the oak smoke. The air is heavy with it, earthy and welcoming, emanating not just from the kitchen but also from almost every plate on every table.
The grill in the kitchen is the heart of the restaurant, burning exclusively local oak from the surrounding mountains, which Runyon splits himself. Chef Nick Magnani cooks almost every dish over that fire. The restaurant doesn't have a freezer, so it’s not uncommon for it to run out of some of the most popular dishes. Guests are encouraged to have a backup option at the ready — which, Runyon will gladly remind you, is for a good reason: Everything is fresh, and Magnani sources carefully, largely from nearby Oxnard. When Tom Runyon was cooking in the back, there were only two regular menu items, steak and clams, but Runyon and Magnani have expanded just a bit. Now there is a salad, fish, chicken, pot pie and charcuterie, but the center of the menu is still the 12-ounce sirloin, big and tender and saturated with that beautiful charred-oak flavor.
The clams, the menu’s other holdover from Tom’s days, are similarly outstanding, plump and juicy in a flavorful broth begging to be sopped up with the restaurant’s own sourdough bread or even taken home and tossed with linguine the next day. The charcuterie board is large and interesting, with a wide selection of cheeses crusted with espresso or infused with fennel, along with salami and prosciutto and nuts and jam and several slices of grilled bread.
The Old Place is a steakhouse, and though it's not inexpensive it's anything but stuffy. It's the kind of spot where you see leather-jacketed bikers talking with the country club couple who cruised up in their Tesla, where it turns out that your excellent glass of wine was made by the cheerful bartender and his brothers, where you'll be sent home with a delicate perfume of oak on your skin and plenty of leftovers.
Before taking over at the Old Place, Runyon worked as an art director, mostly on commercials and music videos. Now he’s both the maintenance man — he describes bad days at the restaurant as “hand-in-the-toilet days” — and an artist-in-residence, sculpting decorative restaurant "gift cards" out of found objects. They feature horseshoes from a farrier friend, or animal horns, or rusted-out sawblades from Runyon's personal collection mounted on large blocks of local oak. Each bears a leather square with a value on it, somewhere between $125 and $500, and they must be returned to the restaurant in order to be redeemed for their value in food. But many of them go out and never come back.
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One evening as I sat at the bar talking with Runyon, a Japanese couple next to us finished their meal and polished off their bottle of wine (a red from a winery hidden somewhere in the Malibu hills) and began to look through the gift certificates. Runyon leaned over and told them the story behind one of the objects, a very old, weathered rifle that he had found in the nearby creek. They settled on one with a large, rust-coated horseshoe instead, for $150. They requested a signature from the artist, so Runyon fetched a Sharpie from the back. He signed it, and the couple headed out. They said they plan to return to Japan at the end of the month, but if they ever make it back to Los Angeles, they swear to return for dinner and cash in their token.
As he sat back down, Runyon explained that’s exactly what he intended with these gift card sculptures. Much like his storied restaurant, they represent something larger than their intrinsic function. They serve to remind you of that idyllic place up in the hills that exists a world apart from any other restaurant in Los Angeles, inviting you to return for something much more tangible: a big, delicious steak.
The Old Place, 29983 Mulholland Hwy., Agoura Hills; (818) 706-9001, oldplacecornell.com.