The men at the table next to mine are having a hard time with the everything-is-meant-to-be-shared mantra that the waiter's pushing. “I understand how you'd share a charcuterie plate,” one of them says, “but how do you share a burger? Cut it in half? How do you share a pork chop?”
He may be the only member of the Los Angeles dining public left who has yet to capitulate to the tyranny of “everything comes out when it's ready,” or maybe it's just that businessmen and tourists are less likely to have strayed from more classic forms of dining. Butchers & Barbers, the Hollywood restaurant where this exchange took place, likely will introduce more than just our friends here to the joys and frustrations of modern culinary trends. There's not a lot else like it in these parts.
“These parts” are the blocks of Hollywood Boulevard littered with pavement stars, the part of town that attracts throngs of tourists, teenagers looking for piercing salons, college kids on the hunt for multicolored liquor shots and anyone seeking skull-shaped bongs or bright red polyester lingerie. Outside of Musso & Frank, the old Hollywood holdout, dining options here tend toward cheap and crappy or expensive and crappy.
Among this cacophony of shlock are a few interesting bastions of fun. One of those is No Vacancy, the bar (“bar” seems unworthy of the immensity and scope of this place) in a 3,400-square-foot, 113-year-old Victorian house, which is hidden away on the back side of a block that fronts Hollywood Boulevard. Owned by Jonnie and Mark Houston, who are behind many of L.A.'s most impressive bars (La Descarga, Pour Vous, Harvard & Stone), No Vacancy offers the type of Hollywood nightlife one might imagine if one had never actually been to Hollywood. That is, more of the class, less of the grunge, yet still as over-the-top as the location calls for.
When a former barber shop on Hollywood Boulevard that backs into No Vacancy became available, the Houston brothers decided to try their hand at restaurant ownership. Butchers & Barbers is definitely a bar, but it's also a restaurant, and a fairly serious one at that. The decor is pure vintage fantasy with a barber-shop theme — there's a barber chair when you walk in, framed vintage men's dopp kits adorn the walls, and filament bulbs hang from meat hooks. The dark wood and stained-glass accents give the place a turn-of-the-century vibe (not this past turn, the one before that). You half expect the bartender to call his customers “guv'na.”
Far smaller and less ostentatious than the Houston brothers' other properties, Butchers & Barbers is nonetheless ambitious. The aim is perhaps to teach the tourists of L.A. how to share pork chops or, conversely, to attract the rest of the city's diners to a location that many of us studiously avoid.
Toward that aim, they hired a delightfully enthusiastic service staff and brought on chef Luke Reyes. Reyes got his training under chef Ming Tsai in Boston, and in Los Angeles he previously cooked at the Gorbals and the Tasting Kitchen.
Butchers & Barbers' American bistro menu ranges from bar food — ultra thin fries with crisped sage, a killer burger that is as straightforward as it is delicious — to dishes that are downright artistic. A smoked trout comes over a smooth hummus made of celery root and is topped with flowerlike rounds of slivered radish and lush soft-boiled egg. It's the kind of dish that wouldn't be out of place at a restaurant far fancier than this, due to both its looks and its subtle pleasures.
In between the fussed-over seafood and the big steaks (there are a couple to choose from) are a number of clever vegetable dishes, including asparagus with burrata and anchovy butter, and lovable, addictive, smashed fingerling potatoes with house-made hot sauce and tonnato. Reyes is a dude who knows how to pair vegetables with slightly stinky fish products, to great effect.
The controversial pork chop is epic in proportion, almost as tall as it is wide, sitting atop a stew of white beans and adorned with a pine nut and plum gremolata. While the chop would be impossible to eat on one's own for the sheer reason of size, it's nonetheless difficult to share — you have to take turns sawing hunks off the thing, and the whole exercise is awkward and somehow defeats the majesty of a huge slab of meat. It just isn't the same when portioned off and moved to a share plate. The same is true for a lovely crisped piece of king salmon served over parsnip puree with hazelnut aillade, a thick sauce made with nuts and garlic. It's an entree, pure and simple, and sharing is a pain.
Even more than at other places that insist on sharing, Butchers & Barbers seems to play this particular game to avoid the hassle of pacing dishes in the kitchen. If everyone is to share and everything is to come out as it's ready, then there's no way I can complain when, say, my burger comes out 10 minutes before my fries, or my mammoth pork chop arrives before the couscous with feta and blood orange that I ordered with an appetizer in mind. This kind of dining speeds things up and makes life easier on the kitchen and the waiters. I'm not so sure it makes anything better for customers, though.
Given the bar-centric ownership, drinks are unsurprisingly a major focus. While the wine list is merely passable, the cocktails make up for it. There's a freshness at play in drinks such as Sailors Beware, which puts fig-infused cognac in a coupe with Earl Grey–infused rum and then lightens everything up with lemon. Such fun.
The truth about Butchers & Barbers is that, were it not for its location, its importance would be negligible. It's a very good restaurant serving fun, astutely made cocktails and the kind of booze-friendly New American cuisine you'll find just about anywhere these days. The team here plays this drinks-and-dinner game better than most, and certainly better than anyone else in a few-block radius.
My great hope for the endeavor is that Butchers & Barbers does not give in to its surroundings over the next year or so as the newness wears off — that it doesn't become yet another bar with food. Imagine if instead the neighborhood learned something from this new kid on the block.
After all, even tourists and businessmen deserve a great place to eat.
BUTCHERS & BARBERS | Two stars | 6531 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood | (323) 461-1464 | butchersandbarbers.com | Tue.-Sun., 6 p.m.-2 a.m. | Plates, $4-$36 | Full bar | Valet and street parking
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