The last time I dined on a train of any kind, my meal consisted of an egg salad sandwich and the faint smell of cigarette smoke coming from the smoking car next door. Where was Gardner Junction when I needed it? Planted at the corner of Gardner Street and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, the restaurant’s Art Deco design is modeled after transcontinental train travel (the name references a former street car station that ran from 1911 to 1950). Somehow, all kitsch (and all egg salad sandwiches) has been miraculously avoided; instead, there are heavy sliding cabin doors that separate the dining room from the patio, comfortable leather booths and black subway tiles. The silverware, heavy in your hand, rests on a thick metal screw by your plate. The bathrooms are beautiful. It is quite possible to be wooed by this place before you’ve even taken a bite.
Executive chef Steve Brown is quite skilled at wooing you with his food, too. “Farm-to-table” has become a rote phrase at this point, but Brown restored our faith in the claim with dishes that put vegetables front and center. The farmers plate is a semicircle of pureed squash, candied beets, micro greens and whole pearl onions, all of which are meant to be scooped into one bite, a veritable garden in your mouth. A bowl of potatoes is sprinkled with provencal powder and dollops of crème fraîche—a rustic, hearty composition that conjures up images of turkey legs and goblets around a medieval table. Not medieval: the scallop ceviche, divided into thin slivers and separated by alternative cuts of avocado, radish, Rao Ram (a Vietnamese, cilantro-like herb) and tortilla, looking very much like a food-themed color wheel. Everything tastes fresh, clean and straight from the garden, which is even more believable when you can see Brown’s vertical garden of herbs in the backyard (he also shops at the Hollywood and Santa Monica farmers’ markets).
Three narrow strips of fried chicken arrive lightly breaded and accented by dime-size squirts of smoked heirloom jam. The dish is fantastic, but it’s hard not to notice how small the plates are here, how expensive they are and how the recommended “two- to three-plates per person” rule will have most spending their weekly paycheck. I wish the sea bass, tender and swimming in the most luxurious cream of mushrooms and truffle butter, had been more than two small, albeit dreamy, squares of fish. Despite our retro surroundings, the price tag—and the small plates ethos—was very much 21st century Los Angeles. Drown your monetary woes in a peanut butter bar for dessert: also small, but so dense with chocolate, peanut butter, marshmallow and a scoop of salted peanut ice cream that a few bites is all you’ll really need.
What to Eat: The potatoes with crème fraiche ($10). The scallop ceviche ($13). The fried chicken ($17). The sea bass ($24).
What to Drink: Gardner Junction’s patio is built for drinking, with an angled bar that lets you survey both the foot traffic on Sunset Boulevard as well as other patrons. The cocktail list is short, around five to six options—a favorite is the Silvia, made with vodka, rosé, lemon and a spritz of rose water that lingers on the nose. There is plenty of California beer and wine, too, and I tried a fantastic glass of Gewürztraminer from the Russian River Winery Virginia Marie Lambix. With a subtle hint of floral and a finish that's light and clean, it’s an excellent accompaniment to Brown’s garden-based dishes.
Where to Sit: For dinner, reserve a spot inside, where you can soak in the meticulously detailed interior—brass fixtures, Carrara marble, mahogany trim. The acoustics are not the best, but the design porn is. For drinks, sit outside at the bar. And for those interested in brunch, consider the Runyon Brunch Club: chef Brown will lead a group to hike Runyon Canyon on Sunday morning, followed by early brunch access at 15% off.