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Your Table is Right This Way
For the assistant maître d’ at Spago, life was a game of thrones
There hasn’t been another restaurant like the original Spago. Wolfgang Puck’s haven “high above the stars on Sunset” was its own universe of power playing. Throughout the decade, the Hollywood hierarchy was defined by a single seating chart. During Jannis Swerman’s nine-year run as assistant maître d’, she maneuvered the VIPs with a keen eye and a perpetually greased palm. (“Only after the meal,” she says of the gratuities. “Wolfgang’s rules.”) A restaurant publicist today, Swerman guides us through the evening entertainment that was Spago’s floor show.
“Tables 1, 2, 3, and 5 were called ‘the ones.’ Those were coveted VIP spots and [head waiter] Philippe Pique always worked them. Michael Ovitz, the most powerful man in Hollywood at the time, would come in and say, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I want, Philippe. Just make me something!’ Philippe would go into the kitchen and make a chopped salad, which became a signature off-menu special.”
Table 5: “Table 5 was the ultimate table of honor. Michael Ovitz sat here all the time. One night it would be Sean Connery, then Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd.”
“This was right in the middle of the action, great if you wanted to be seen. I remember Meg Ryan sitting here when she was with Dennis Quaid—they liked to be at the public tables.”
“This area west of table 12 was less valuable real estate. It wasn’t Park Place, if you know what I mean. It was the only part of the dining room with carpet. People would say, ‘Oh, we never sit on the carpet!’”
Table 22: “Harry Dean Stanton came in with Sean Penn, who was at the start of his career. The agents all got up to talk to him. That was when you knew Sean was a big deal.”
Table 23: “The first time Madonna came in, she sat at table 23, but that was because she was barely known. It was in her ‘Like a Virgin’ days, with all the lace and raggy clothes.”
“Foodie friends all liked to sit right in front of the open kitchen. It was a high-traffic area, but this was the best place for visiting chefs like Jonathan Waxman, Michael McCarty, and Piero Selvaggio, who would always sit there.”
“The patio was ‘Siberia.’ One of the only people who liked it was Itzhak Perlman because the acoustics were so much better—inside, it was a cacophony. Actor Robert Wagner liked the patio, too.”
Photographs courtesy: Ovitz, Perlman, Madonna, Wagner: BEImages; Aykroyd, Murray, Quaid, Ryan, Stanton, Penn: Everett Collection