Anyone who's ever purchased a new car knows that between the haggling, the credit checks and whatever else it is car dealers are doing with all that paperwork, the process can easily eat up an entire day. For that reason, a dealership in the San Fernando Valley has run a full-service restaurant for more than 50 years and although it was originally constructed as a place to kill time, it has become a sentimental staple of the neighborhood. Not only is it a place to get reliably great food, it's also a great lesson in the value of inspirational leadership.
The Horseless Carriage Restaurant was the brainchild of Galpin Motors owner Herbert "Bert" F. Boeckmann II, who wanted his customers to have a place to go while waiting out the arduous process of servicing or purchasing a car. Opened in 1966, the Horseless Carriage is part of the dealership's complex of properties and outside looks much as it did the day it opened. Inside, it looks only slightly more modern, having been renovated in an art deco style.
Since 2003, the restaurant has been helmed by executive chef Geovanni Euceda. Having come from the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he was a chef, Euceda said the transition from five-star Beverly Hills hotel to Van Nuys car dealership at first seemed daunting. It was an encounter with Boeckmann that convinced him he had made the right decision.
At a Galpin company meeting, a high-level manager asked Boeckmann to hold a VIP event for the company's top salespeople. Euceda smiles as he explains what happened next: "He [Boeckmann] stayed silent for a while, and then he made a comment that impressed me so much. He said, 'You know what? No. The reason why we're successful is because of the guys washing cars, our porters that are doing the background things.'" Instead of the VIP party, Boeckmann asked Euceda to create an event for the entire staff and their partners, to be held at the now-defunct the Highlands Hollywood club. Instead of a small, exclusive dinner, the guest list numbered in the thousands. "He's something else!" Euceda says, recalling Boeckmann's decision.
Whatever qualms Euceda may have originally had, the move to Van Nuys clearly paid off, not just for him but for the restaurant as well. The menu is sophisticated, inventive and surprisingly varied — there are over 400 specials on rotation. Many of the dishes here have a sort of layered feel to them, as if you've suddenly been given permission to eat some wonderfully exciting food combinations. Salmon potato-skin wrap, mango crab-stuffed chicken and lobster & eggs are among the more imaginative dishes, a result, no doubt, of Euceda's philosophy: "My passion is food. I love being creative. I'm always searching for what's new."
That doesn't mean there isn't plenty here for traditionalists. The restaurant's signature "Galpinburgers," (topped with onion marmalade) are hugely popular, as is the prime rib, which is always on the menu. You can even get filet mignon here. If you want to get a little snazzier, you can try the Asian sea bass or the penne salmon vodka." Of course, Los Angeles being Los Angeles, the menu has a "Lean and Luscious" section of healthier options, such as "guilt-free" tuna salad or buffalo chili made with real bison meat.
That this is a diner in a car dealership and not a restaurant, well, somewhere else, matters not to Boeckmann, who, the chef says, insists on the best possible ingredients. All meats are trimmed by hand here and all beef is 100 percent Angus. The sauces, dressings and reductions are all made from scratch, a detail Euceda says is not lost on his customers. In addition to being original, the food also happens to look great, an attribute the chef says is no accident: "Before they eat it, they have to eat it with their eyes."
Of course, for some, the food is secondary to the experience of coming here. At 52, the restaurant has been around long enough to feed generations of families. "We have people who came here all the time as kids. They're like, 'My dad used to bring me here!'" Euceda says there are also "a lot of regulars who come here. It's funny, but when they come in, the first thing, it's like, 'Is Chef here? Can I see him?'"
Of course, Euceda obliges, but given the number of people he and his "very solid crew" feed every day, it's astounding that he finds the time. In addition to the bustling restaurant — if you come on a Saturday, you might have to wait in line — the Horseless Carriage is also a popular area caterer, regularly handling the food for parties of 2,000 or more.
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While the food has to delight its patrons, it also has to pass the muster with an even tougher group: Galpin employees, a group for whom there is a second, private restaurant. With around 1,200 on staff, that's a lot of people to please, especially when you know you're going to see those people again tomorrow and the day after that. Euceda says just the employee restaurant alone serves 300 to 400 meals a day.
Galpin still offers food vouchers to customers buying cars, and on any given day you probably can catch a few employees standing at booths, chatting with diners. The place is spotless and the waitstaff is always ready to refill your coffee. In fact, the experience just doesn't seem like a wait at all.
The Horseless Carriage Restaurant, 15505 Roscoe Blvd., North Hills; (818) 778-2014. Mon.-Sat., 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-8 p.m.