This Hollywood story has a familiar arc: newcomer makes powerful friends and rises to the top. The kicker: he’s still there 30 years later. In a city known for flash-in-the-pan eateries, Spago’s longevity is remarkable, and chef-owner Wolfgang Puck’s status as go-to caterer for major industry events is unprecedented.
Puck got his start in Europe, but it was at the restaurant Ma Maison in the late 1970s that he connected with such industry bold-faced names as Orson Welles, Billy Wilder and literary agent Swifty Lazar, who remained his friends and loyal customers for decades. They followed him to Spago where a combination of comfort food executed with refined French technique, ambience, the in-crowd and Puck’s dynamic and gracious hospitality, defined the eatery — located above the Sunset Strip at Sunset and Holloway Drive — from day one.
“Spago had a magic to it,” recalls Oscar- and Grammy-winning songwriter Carole Bayer Sager of the original location’s glory days and party-like atmosphere. From her vantage point at a window table, she recalls, “There were people wall-to-wall: you could see the people you knew, wished you knew or would one day know.”
“I wanted to have a restaurant where I would want to go to eat and have fun, laugh and have a good time with food that I like: simple and not overly prepared,” Puck recalls. Or, as Academy CEO Dawn Hudson says about Spago’s current incarnation in Beverly Hills: “He’s the host who’s inviting you to his home and he wants you to be as comfortable and satisfied as possible. If my mom were a gourmet chef, that’s what it would feel like.”
Although Spago was not the first to serve pizzas topped with unusual and high-end ingredients (smoked salmon topping creme fraiche), it was the restaurant’s forward thinking mix of high and low that energized L.A.’s fine dining scene. Puck’s attitude toward customer service was defining and in some ways explains his staying power. “At Ma Maison especially at the beginning, I was totally inflexible,” he says. If a customer ordered a dish without sauce, he wouldn’t alter the preparation. One night publicist Warren Cowan wanted a baked potato; Puck advised him to go down La Cienega Boulevard to get one at Lawry’s. Cowan did just that. “I aggravated myself, then I realized the most important thing was for the guest to go home happy,” says Puck.
His ability to change and assimilate new trends plus appeal to multiple generations of showbiz power players means that Spago has earned a place in the pantheon of famed Hollywood eateries. Romanoff’s, Chasen’s and Perino’s were once as fabled as Spago but are now long gone. “They did not change and life goes on,” says Puck of the restaurant that remained formal, as spots that were more in tune with the times like Matsuhisa, Spago and Campanile, opened. Campanile though has now announced its closure.
While Spago had the blessings of Hollywood’s old guard, it also attracted the younger crowd. Regulars included Joan Collins, Donald Sutherland, Neil Diamond and Kiss’ Gene Simmons (Puck sent him a guitar-shaped pizza the rocker has never forgotten). Swifty Lazar’s fabled, long-running Oscar-night viewing party (1985-93) consisted of a fabulous blend of entertainment who’s who (Michael Jackson, Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor on one night).
However, it was the Beverly Hills Spago that became the power lunch spot. For years (former Fox Studio owner) Marvin Davis was a daily diner in his signature booth; Mike Ovitz was a familiar face as well, and helped Puck land a crucial appearance on “Good Morning America” that helped launch his first cookbook.
He’s also adept at showbiz affairs: from catering HBO’s Emmy afterparty to the Academy’s Governors Ball, for which he’s been the official chef since 1995. “That announcement was a big deal for the Academy,” recalls Hudson. “It suddenly put the Governors Ball in a different light. It was like, ‘whoa, if Wolfgang Puck is catering this is going to be really fun!’ “
Puck acknowledges the industry for helping jump-start his career. However, his sights are always pointed forward. “We can learn from the past,” he muses, “but today and tomorrow are the most important part.”