Tinhorn Flats Saloon and Grill was open on Tuesday, Feb. 23 — illegally — in light of a City Council decision the night before. But customers filed in all the same.
It wasn’t that they were unaware that the council had revoked the restaurant’s operational permit. Several mentioned it explicitly. Some seemed to see ordering a burger and beer as an act of rebellion against what they saw as government overreach: the issuance of restrictive health orders aimed to slow a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans.
One man sitting at a high table just a few feet from the “Recall Gavin Newsom” signs and talking with a fellow diner to his right wiped his face with a tissue.
“Are you allowed to blow your nose anymore?” he asked sardonically. Like most of the other patrons, he wasn’t wearing a face covering, though the workers were.
The sense of indignation was one shared by Lucas Lepejian, who co-manages the restaurant with his sister Talya. As he greeted each patron as they walked onto the outdoor patio, he often criticized the City Council’s decision. At times, he echoed his father, Baret, who owns the restaurant and has called the county’s former health order restricting outdoor dining “tyrannical.”
“It’s really sad what the council is doing,” Lucas Lepejian said in an interview with the Leader, arguing that outdoor dining is safer than multiple households gathering for a meal under one roof. “They’re a little confused, but I really hope they pull it together.”
Business at Tinhorn Flats had slowed since outdoor dining had resumed across California, Lucas Lepejian said. But even so, he was often interrupted by the ring of the restaurant’s phone he kept in his pocket.
He was walking around the patio when another call came in. He picked up. Someone, ostensibly a potential customer, asked a question. His answer came:
“Yes,” Lucas Lepejian said. “We’re open.”
About six hours later, the City Council voted unanimously to file a civil suit against Tinhorn Flats for operating without a permit.
COUNCIL REVOKES PERMIT
The city’s civil complaint against Tinhorn Flats and the Lepejians, filed this Monday, asks a judge to allow Burbank Water and Power to cut the electricity from the restaurant until the restaurant regains the necessary permits. The complaint, a copy of which was obtained by the Leader, also requests permission for the city to padlock the restaurant’s doors until those permits are recovered.
The complaint follows the City Council’s decision last week to revoke Tinhorn Flats’ conditional use permit and is just the latest rebuke for a restaurant that has flouted restrictions on outdoor dining.
The council unanimously agreed during a hearing last Monday, Feb. 22, that Tinhorn Flats “has operated in flagrant violation of the Health Officer Orders in a manner which endangers the public health, safety and welfare, and created a public nuisance.
“There’s a reason we have a conditional use permit,” said Mayor Bob Frutos. “They agreed to the rules. This wasn’t made up overnight.”
After Tinhorn Flats proclaimed on its social media page that it would remain open, City Attorney Amy Albano announced on Tuesday that the City Council had, in closed session, approved a civil suit against Tinhorn Flats, though one had not been filed as of this week.
Lepejian could also file suit against the city over the revocation of the permit, Albano said.
The council’s decisions came months after Baret Lepejian reopened the eatery’s outdoor patio on Dec. 12, defying a Los Angeles County health order — and later a similar state mandate — banning the practice due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Lepejian has downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, from which more than 50,000 California residents have died, frequently declaring that the restrictions imposed to curb its spread are about “fear and control.” He has also often raged against government entities that have pressured him to comply with regulations.
“The Burbank City Council are just a bunch of losers and I will not comply with anything they have to say,” he told the Leader in a phone interview.
The county has already filed a civil complaint against Lepejian, asking a judge to compel the owner to pay the thousands of dollars in fines he has been issued. According to a spokeswoman from the L.A. County public health department, Tinhorn Flats has been issued 39 citations, with fines totaling $25,500, as of last week.
Lepejian has repeatedly stated he will not pay any fines or close his restaurant.
RESIDENTS SPEAK DURING HEARING
Lepejian and his restaurant are controversial entities for Burbank residents. Supporters and opponents of Tinhorn Flats have flooded the city’s email inbox and phone lines, with more than 60 people calling during the public comment portion of Monday’s hearing.
Some residents urged the council to revoke Tinhorn Flats’ operational permit, saying they were concerned that the crowds that gathered there were contributing to the spread of the coronavirus. Several who said they work in the restaurant industry also pointed out they have abided by restrictions despite the burden they imposed on their workplaces.
“Without holding this restaurant accountable, in a way you are insulting the hard work, resolution, perseverance [and] ingenuity that our industry has had,” said Sean Fagan. “We really, really need you to do something to make all of our hard work justified.”
Other callers insisted that Tinhorn Flats was simply trying to survive, with many claiming gathering there didn’t pose a threat to public health and accusing the health orders of killing small businesses.
“I moved to Burbank for small businesses like Tinhorn,” said Megan Tayone. “There are no hard facts that Tinhorn has caused any sort of superspreading [of COVID-19.] … America is the land of the free because we allow freedom, and that means allowing people to take risks.”
CITY OUTLINES EVIDENCE
City staff members provided an extensive set of documents to the City Council, saying Tinhorn Flats has failed to comply with county, state and municipal orders. They argued that the restaurant also violated county law — and therefore local permit policy — by continuing to operate even after the county revoked its health permit on Jan. 27.
Alexandra Kazarian, an attorney from law firm Geragos & Geragos who represented Tinhorn Flats during the hearing, maintained that an appellate court has not yet handed down a decision regarding whether county officials must show evidence that dining restrictions are necessary.
Council members were unconvinced.
“It’s still the law until it isn’t. That’s where I come down on,” said Councilman Nick Schultz, who is also a state deputy attorney general.
The other council members agreed, though expressing sympathy for the plight of small businesses. But all held that Tinhorn Flats had violated the terms of its permit.
Kazarian also claimed that Tinhorn Flats has only offered delivery and takeout services in compliance with county regulations, though customers are allowed to eat on the patio. But many residents, as well as the council and city staff members, quickly pointed out that inspectors’ reports and social media posts showed crowds of diners sitting at the restaurant’s patio, sometimes with food in plates and beverages in open glasses.
Lepejian admitted in an interview with the Leader that Tinhorn Flats initially held dine-in services, but said he later changed the policy per his attorney’s advice.
COUNTY SAYS PATRONS INTIMIDATED INSPECTORS
The L.A. County public health department has also alleged that customers and managers — including Lepejian’s daughter — of Tinhorn Flats have sometimes been hostile to inspectors.
In a letter to Lepejian explaining its decision to revoke Tinhorn Flats’ health permit, a county representative said patrons became “disruptive” and “confrontational” during some of the inspections in mid-December, with some tearing the posted sign ordering the restaurant to close and following inspectors to their vehicle.
During one inspection, according to the letter, a patron yelled, “I am surprised one of your health inspectors hasn’t been murdered yet!” Talya Lepejian, Baret’s daughter, then allegedly said, “Yeah, why hasn’t one of you been killed yet?”
As an inspector was leaving the restaurant, the letter continues, one patron approached him and asked, “Do you have a daughter?”
Lepejian said he wasn’t sure whether the allegations were true; his children have denied them. He did say, however, that the inspectors “can go [screw] themselves.”
“It’s both ways, but they’re the ones coming in and starting a problem, and we’re not going to take it,” he said.
But for Frutos and his fellow council members, the county’s report — as well as several others — clearly showed the fault on one side: Tinhorn Flats’.
“There’s … documentation in my report that we all got regarding the violations of the county health orders against the owner of Tinhorn Flats,” Frutos said shortly before voting to revoke the restaurant’s permit. “Period. Black and white. It’s there.”