Spago Toasts 30 Years with an Upgrade
by jen jones donatelli
In 2001 the Los Angeles Times dubbed Spago “an earthquake that reconfigured the dining landscape,” and a little more than a decade later, Wolfgang Puck is still shaking things up. After shutting down for about six weeks this summer, Puck unveiled the third incarnation of his legendary Beverly Hills restaurant to rabid curiosity in October. The result? A total transformation from the top down—replete with dramatic design makeover, an entirely new menu, and the addition of a new cocktail program and massive wine cellar. It’s a whole new feel for Spago, and that’s exactly what Puck had in mind.
“As the dining culture changes, you have to change,” says Puck. “We have to evolve, like the fashion world; Armani still does two new collections twice a year. I could sail into the sunset—or we could choose to stay relevant.”
Puck spared no expense in his restaurant’s bid for relevance, sinking $4 million into its renovation and reopening. He enlisted LA designer Waldo Fernandez (Soho House West Hollywood, Mezze) to spearhead the redesign, completely reimagining original designer and former wife Barbara Lazaroff’s colorful take with a more sophisticated feel. The tables showcase custom china by celebrated designer Martin Kastner, and contemporary works by artists like Ed Ruscha dot the walls.
Also remarkable is the shift from generous portions to smaller plates, designed to encourage sharing. Gone are favorites like Puck’s famed smoked salmon pizza, in favor of eclectic fusion dishes such as bacon-wrapped monkfish and veal filet mignon tartar with smoked mascarpone. “I don’t want to fall into the trap where people come for just one dish,” says Puck, who plans on switching up the menu at least twice weekly. “I want them to come for an adventure.”
Of course, if die-hard regulars have special requests, Puck is more than happy to acquiesce. “If Joan Collins asks me to make the wild mushroom chicken she’s eaten for the last 20 years, I’ll say, ‘Sure.’” After all, it’s a hefty change for the longtime patrons who’ve been clamoring for seats at Spago since its 1982 debut on the Sunset Strip (and followed it to its current Canon Drive location in 1997); in earlier years, seven phone lines were needed to meet the relentless demand for reservations. But Puck assures that Spago will retain the fun, friendly spirit that has made it so popular for 30 years with regulars like Sir Sean Connery, Dolly Parton, and Jack Nicholson (one of Puck’s personal pals). He’s confident that it will continue to draw the old guard as well as new faces.
“We have a good mixture of young and older people now—everyone from Jessica Alba and Christina Aguilera to Sidney Poitier and Sherry Lansing,” says Puck. “They all love it.”
For many, the draw is Spago’s marriage of a casual, welcoming atmosphere with all the trappings of high-end dining. Greg Firlotte, marketing director for Phyllis Morris, says he’s been frequenting Spago since the late-1990s for its spirited approach to food and service. “Other restaurants have come and gone, but no one can outshine the je ne sais quoi that only Spago has,” says Firlotte. “They were the first and their longevity says it all.”
Attribute the fun in large part to pastry chef Sherry Yard, who delivers with an array of new desserts such as Rock, Pebble, Chocolate (warm and cool truffles, almond cream, and bon bons) and Black Bowl (decadent layers of chocolate crumble parfait, cardamom glace, espresso air, and a chocolate brûlée cookie). Spontaneity is par for the course for Yard, who is often asked to make everything from mini-wedding cakes to Italian granitas at a moment’s notice. “That’s Spago’s mission statement,” says Yard. “The difficult? Immediately. The impossible? Give us a minute.”
Looking ahead, Yard points to the restaurant’s name as an embodiment of its continued success. (Composer Giorgio Moroder suggested the name to Puck in the early ‘80s, as it loosely translates to “string with no end” in Italian.) “The definition of ‘Spago’ is no end and no beginning,” says Yard. “It perpetuates itself; as a group, we evolve.” And no doubt—with Spago’s latest evolution, Puck certainly has the world on a string.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JESSICA SAMPLE; photography by eamonn mccormack/wireimage/getty images (collins); amy sussman/getty images for self magazine (alba)
Cover shoot: September 2014 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.