Steven Arroyo of Cobras & Matadors has a knack for creating restaurants that are moderately priced and fun, which in the L.A. restaurantscape are about as rare as a pair of Manolos for next to nothing. He's got a good eye and can turn the most unpromising space into something interesting.
Every time I drive by Cobras & Matadors on Beverly Boulevard, a crowd is spilling out the door and around the trio of sidewalk tables. This casual spot, where you can eat--and eat--for less than $20, is a bona fide hit with the neighborhood.
Still, not every hipster is enamored of Spanish tapas. That's why he recently opened Hillmont in Los Feliz. It's on Hollywood Boulevard between Hillhurst and Vermont, hence the name. The menu is zealously anti-exotic, pretty much steak and more steak and other cuts of meat at what the French would call "interesting" prices. Every main course comes with watercress salad and a choice of one side, and they're all less than $20.
Forget about cozying up to your honey at a romantic table for two, though. Hillmont takes the refectory route with long communal tables set out in rows. Walk in, find an empty spot and set your own table. Don't wait for the waiter: About all he or she does is hand you the menu and inform you of the occasional special or non-show on the menu.
Once you've decided, you order at the counter and go back to your seat. (To note: Reservations are taken only for parties of six or more.) Then, with your order pinned to the clotheslines that run overhead, you take in the convivial scene and the industrial chic room until a server brings your dinner.
On a slow weekday night, when I'm not even sure the chef is in house, the food is just OK. Maybe it's an off night, I don't know, but at these prices, it's not a tragedy. There's a nice chicken, rice and mint soup, an oily spinach salad adorned with bacon and egg, and fresh asparagus paired with pecorino cheese. You can order platters for the table, too--an assortment of charcuterie, a mixed grill, or shellfish selection, along with steamed mussels or clams.
Hillmont is basically a budget steakhouse looking to break the tradition wide open. Skirt steak is $15, filet and dry-aged New York strip, $21. (The latter is the tastiest piece of beef on offer.) No obfuscation here: The menu lists the weight of each of the steaks on offer.
Those who don't eat red meat can go with a very roasted chicken or fish of the day. Sides, which range from French green beans and mashed red-skinned potatoes to "Mac and cheese," are enjoyable. Desserts are real kid stuff--fudge brownies, French toast, cookies.
Hey, it's the perfect place to go with friends from the neighborhood at prices that won't make anyone's wallet wince. The format can be a surprise, though. It's funny to watch newcomers do a double take: The communal table thing doesn't come naturally. But then, who knows, you might get to talking.... Oh, and until the new bar is finished in a couple of weeks, Hillmont is strictly BYOB (wine or beer) for a $5 service fee.
Hillmont, 4655 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz; (323) 669-3922. Appetizers, $5-$10; main courses, $15-$21. Open Tuesdays-Sundays for dinner only; kitchen stays open till midnight on weekends; reservations not required for parties of fewer than six. Lot parking.