Spago — Wolfgang Puck’s then-revolutionary ode to mixing fine dining with a casual atmosphere — was not expected to last. Early on, “A customer came in and told a waiter, ‘You made the biggest mistake to leave your job to come and work here, because this place is going to close in three months,’ ” recalls Puck, who opened Spago, his first restaurant, in 1982.
“That’s what I was thinking,” he adds. “I used to say, ‘I hope I’m still here after three months.’ ”
It’s been 30 years, and Spago has more than lasted — it’s become the flagship for Puck’s mighty empire of 21 fine dining restaurants, a nationwide catering service, 80 fast-casual “express” operations and a clutch of consumer products. He’s feted for his Oscar parties, and, in a bigger sense, has changed the way chefs and foods are perceived by the masses. On Oct. 1, his Beverly Hills Spago will stage a “soft” re-opening, marking yet another phase in Puck’s ground-breaking career.
“Chefs used to be pretty far down on the food chain,” says 35-year chef Andy Bacigalupo, now a culinary instructor. “But he was in the right spot, and he made it seem sexy. He made our industry as respectable as doctors, lawyers, journalists.”
Back in 1982, most Americans didn’t know arugula from radicchio; sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese were considered exotic. But as senior managing partner for Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, Tom Kaplan, says: “It was fun to educate customers to share in (Puck’s) passion. Restaurants before were so austere and fancy, and Wolfgang was doing something dramatically different.”
He’s never rested on his laurels. Within the 10-year span after the first Spago opened, Puck had expanded into Santa Monica (Chinois on Main), San Francisco (Postrio) and put Spago in Japan and Las Vegas. Still, if Vegas had failed, Puck says he’d have had to take a step back: “Tokyo was so far away,” he says. “If I screw up in Tokyo, no one will know. But if I screw up in Vegas everyone would know.”
That big step was a challenge; in 1992, Las Vegas hadn’t transformed into the family-friendly amusement park it is today. David Robins, managing partner and director of operations in Las Vegas, says sashimi confused guests in town for a rodeo and who just wanted a steak.
“We lost a lot of sleep that first month when it was slow and we didn’t understand the town and its cyclical business,” Robins says. “But a month after we opened, one of the biggest conventions of the year started and we did a million-dollar month. That told us we were in demand, and in the right spot.”
Such adaptability has made it possible for the empire to expand, and over the years its reputation got a special burnish thanks to lots of celebrity love and those Oscar parties, which started in 1985. Those parties helped Puck build his catering business — which the Academy has embraced for its annual post-Oscar Governors Ball — which, unlike the restaurants, needed a bit of publicity.
“Wolfgang doesn’t like to talk about private parties we’re doing at someone’s home, so it helped when we did work in the entertainment industry with movie premieres, Oscars, the Grammys,” says Carl Schuster, CEO of Wolfgang Puck Catering. “With those parties, they want press.”
Catering now makes up approximately a third of Puck’s empire, says Schuster. But Puck has been savvy and sometimes revolutionary in other ways — always using farm-fresh food, shifting the menu depending on ingredient availability, in putting the kitchen in the dining area to entice customers, and investing heavily in his employees (in Las Vegas, management aspirants must complete Puck U. training). And he’s always wanted to offer a menu anyone could enjoy, regardless of income.
“We’ve never wanted people to say, ‘That was too expensive,’ ” Kaplan says. “We hear occasionally it was expensive, but that it was worth every dollar. Whatever your budget is, you can eat in our restaurants.”
So now, as Spago Beverly Hills is engaged in its re-launch, Puck is on the verge of another revolutionary reinvention. He brought in residential designer Waldo Fernandez for the redesign, a choice Kaplan says should make the revamped restaurant feel homey and warm. In it, simple and minimalist mid-century modern design will be paired with reclaimed wood floors; tables will be outfitted with pottery, and skylights will fill the room with natural lighting for an airy, bright feel. The banquet room has expanded to seat 150, and the wine room, which will be part of the dining room’s design, will now hold 5,000 bottles.
The menu is still “a work in progress,” says Kaplan, admitting they’ll be tinkering until they get it right.
“We wanted something that would be there until our 50th anniversary, and could work for a longer period of time,” he says. “I think our guests — old and new — will feel very comfortable and very much at home.”
Despite all his restaurant experience, Puck admits he’s still a bit “nervous” about the new presentation. “I hope people will be as excited as me about it,” he adds. But however it is received, this is the end of an era: Puck is preparing to hand over the torch.
“This is my last makeover of Spago’s,” he says. “My son wants to take over, but he’s 17. I’m going to send him to Cornell so he can study management, so in 10, 12, 15 years when he’s ready to take over, we’ll need the new blood.”
Puck still loves what he does, comparing food preparation to marrying music and lyrics, or a director and his movies, but he’s satisfied with his company’s continuing evolution. “When I was 35, I said to everyone, ‘If I am still doing this when I’m 60, I’m going to kill myself,’ ” says the now-63-year-old master chef. “You can’t go on forever.”
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Photo Gallery: Take a tour of the new Spago