Hippo
Party time at Hippo // Photos by Anise Lew and Emely Cubias

The RundownLos Angeles

At Highland Park’s Hippo, It’s Like a Dinner Party Every Night

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Hippo

4.8 · Italian · $$

Highland Park

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Before you go to a restaurant, what do you need to know most? In our series The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about Resy restaurants — new, old, and soon-to-be favorites.

This time, we’re throwing a spotlight on Hippo, the perennially buzzing spot that’s kept Highland Park well-fed before and through the pandemic. With an L.A. dream team behind it, including James Beard Award-winning chef Matt Molina, Silverlake Wine’s Randy and April Langford, and Joe Capella — they’re all also partners at Everson Royce Bar, by the way — it’s easy to see why there’s rarely an empty seat in the house. Read on for everything you need to know.

 

1. The goal: Throw ‘the best dinner party in L.A.’ every night.

When Hippo opened in 2018, the partners wanted to bring several businesses that the neighborhood might want together all in one place. 

In the front along the sidewalk they opened Triple Beam with slabs of puffy, Roman-style pizza you buy by weight; in the back, Highland Park Wine, sister to Silverlake Wine, with shelves filled with natural and biodynamic wines. An outpost of Go Get ‘Em Tiger joined the party with a caffeine jolt next door. 

The restaurant was the crown jewel. Tucked between the pizza shop and wine store, the massive space has a high arched ceiling, exposed wood bones, an Eric Junker floral mural covering one wall, and an open kitchen that’s full of energy. Stripped down in design, it was never meant to be fussy or stuffy, but it was destined to be the focal point around which everything else buzzed.

“When Randy showed me the brand new building, there were definitely people out and walking around,” Molina says. “It was a different beat on Figueroa than, say, the streets in West Hollywood, Venice or DTLA. It had its own character. It took us a bit to get it where it is now.”

After working in more formal restaurants like Osteria Mozza, Molina said they wanted to open the kind of place where everyone pushed dishes in the middle of the table, sipped cocktails, shared bottles of wine, and enjoyed themselves. “Every night we want to put on the best dinner party in L.A.,” he adds. “It’s just how people are eating right now. It made sense for Highland Park.”

To Capella, Hippo was simply offering the best neighborhood restaurant it could be. “Ultimately, we wanted to serve the community,” he says. “If that meant that most people who come here are from a close radius, great. But some come from further afield, too.”

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Hippo
Hippo

2. Everything’s (mostly) the same.

Keeping things simple worked in Hippo’s favor. As with most restaurants trying to open in a certain timeframe, delays and budget constraints often dictate the final result. In this case, it meant fewer windows and walls, i.e. one that hides the kitchen and the hard-working crew. 

“With Triple Beam, it almost feels like an atelier, where you can see the work getting done, you can see all the action. Kind of like a fishbowl from the sidewalk,” Molina says. “At the time, we couldn’t pull the trigger on certain [design elements] with Hippo and just said, let’s let everyone see everything. We wanted to get rid of all the pomp and circumstance. It’s endearing when guests watch the cooks, almost like sushi chefs. It’s a very honest, trusting environment.”

The place always felt a little cavernous, and when full, it’s bustling and, sure, maybe a bit loud. But that’s what made Hippo what it is today. Now that indoor dining is offered again, the only real difference is having more space between tables and a bigger footprint outside, with an expanded patio. 

Capella says they simply want to be safe and responsible for everyone during this unprecedented time. He adds that a new HVAC system was also added for more filtration for everyone, and menus and payment are made via QR codes; no cash is accepted.

“I’m exhausted, so I know people know we’re here,” Molina says. “We haven’t been this busy ever. It has a lot to do with the neighborhood, everyone who has been supporting our specials, every time we had to pivot.”

Hippo
Hippo

3. How to tell when seasons change? Look at the menu.

Off the bat, Molina created a menu template for Hippo — plates of vegetables, fresh salads, charcuterie and cheeses, raw fish, bowls of pasta, and meat and fish from the wood-burning grill. But it’s what fills those categories that makes all the difference. 

He pared things down when it was takeout-only — the restaurant never closed, just pivoted, during the early days of the pandemic — and there were some great family meals offered. But everything is back to full force. The favorites are all there: marinated bean salad, shaved brussels sprouts with toasted almonds and a blizzard of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, hamachi crudo, tagliolini with duck ragu, and meaty pork ribs. There’s still butterscotch budino, a la Mozza, but also a Basque-style burnt cheesecake (of course).

Any differences are subtle: maybe the sweet corn cappellacci suddenly becomes butternut squash for fall; or lentils with sofrito replaces the green goddess-dressed summer succotash served with the cedar-smoked ocean trout. 

“We haven’t made one big menu change since we opened,” Molina adds. “If anything, we’ve just kept doing what we’re doing, trying to stay as consistent as possible. That in itself is really difficult to do.”

Hippo
Hippo

4. Naming the drinks is almost as fun as drinking them. Plus, wine!

Birth of Cool. Vesperado. Mariachi on the Beach. It’s hard to know if the cocktail names have anything to do with what’s in the glass, but they bring a smile to your face — whether you’re in on the joke or not. 

Bar director Carlos Huisar changes the menu regularly, but one of the partners, Randy Clement, is pretty instrumental in naming the drinks, says Capella. The Sabato Picante, for instance, made with mezcal, ancho chile liqueur, and falernum, is named for the long-running Spanish-language television program Sabado Gigante. “Well the show is a little spicy,” Capella says. “[Our menu] is just supposed to be fun and not super-serious. Like every night is Saturday.”

As for the wines, April Langford handles the list, which has evolved with people’s tastes, says Capella. “Organic, skin-contact, orange, biodynamic wines were prominent when we opened, but even more so now,” he adds. “The list has moved more in that direction.”

5. P.S. find the hippo.

The name Hippo is an homage to the Highland Park Post Office (HPPO) nearby. “We just added an ‘i’ to individualize it,” Capella says. But it turns out the wild beast makes a great logo, which you’ll see around the restaurant. There’s one hidden in the Eric Junker mural, too. 

On the surface, the fun, funky floral piece is a great focal point that adds color and energy to the big space. But it also offers a little dinnertime entertainment.

“There’s a little Easter egg where one of the flowers is a hippo,” Cappella says. “See if you can find it.”

 

Lesley Balla has written regularly about restaurants, travel, and wine for publications including Los Angeles magazine, Angeleno, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Seattle Times. In a previous life she was the L.A. editor for Zagat and Eater. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.

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