Flashback Friday: A New Little Spot Called Spago

In 1984, pizza was controversial, dessert cost $4.50, and Wolfgang Puck had the city on a string

Every Friday, we are publishing some truly classic archival content in honor of our ’80s-themed July issue (on newsstands now!) Herewith, a our original review of the famed Spago by restaurant critic Bruce David Colen, three months after it opened in January of 1984. Worth noting: the word “bitchy,” the fact Colen admittedly doesn’t like pizza, an early rave for Nancy Silverton, and something we’re all still complaining about—the noise:

Dining Out

There is a new restaurant in town, where:

  • Not one French word appears on the menu, not even canard, although the chef became famous for his modified nouvelle cuisine.
  • None of the waiters say, “Bon appetit”; nor are guests subjected to an introductory recitation in blackboardese.
  • The selection of dishes is like no other menu in Southern California or effete points east.
  • Dining is festive without being formal; fun but not funky.
  • If you have to wait too long for your reservation, you receive a bottle of good champagne—on the house.
  • Two people can have a lovely, three-course dinner for around $50.


April fool?

No. Honestly, such a place actually exists in the foothills of West Hollywood, just a reefer toss from the heart of the Sunset Strip. The name of this dining-out miracle? Spago, which is Italian for “string” or “twine.” Make the word plural, spaghi, and you get the beginning of spaghetti and a hint of what can be found on the restaurant’s unique menu.

      The creator, principal owner (20 doctors, lawyers and gastronomic groupies put up nearly $600,000 in seed money) and chef of Spago is Wolfgang Puck, the same talented and genial gentleman who, for six years, pulled a few of Patrick Terrail’s coals out of the oven at the latter’s Ma Maison. At this writing, six weeks after Spago’s opening, Mr. Terrail had not yet visited his old companion’s new home. He did send a potted plant, however.

      To be fair (and not so bitchy), the 33-year-old Puck left Ma Maison for the same reasons he left his stepfather’s charcuterie in Austria and became an apprentice in the best kitchens of Paris: to be on his own to learn and do new things. In a manner similar to the way Hollywood typecasts its actors, the restaurant-going world limits the creativity of its chefs. Having grown accustomed to lemon chicken at their maison of choice, regular customers will bristle should the kitchen try mustard chicken for a change. Well, as they say in the television commercial, Puck doesn’t fit the mold—he’s broken it. And his personal declaration of independence is the Spago menu.

      Had I had the brains to put one and one together, I should have been able to guess what dishes Puck was going to offer. Back in 1978, when he discovered I was going to a wine fair in Vera, Italy, he said, “Be sure to try a tiny place across from the coliseum. I’ve forgotten the name, but they have the best pizza I’ve ever tasted.” I never did find the spot. Then, a year or so later, Puck advised, “Next time you’re in San Francisco, don’t miss the upstairs part of Chez Panisse, out in Berkeley. They serve wonderful calzone” (an enormous pastry envelope filled with melted cheese and the chef’s choice of meat and vegetables—really a pizza with a hat).

      So I should have been surprised that four kinds of pizza ($6.50 to $9.50) and two versions of calzone ($7.50 and $8) are at the heart of the Spago menu, just as a huge brick oven in which to bake them is the focal point of the restaurant itself. My favorites are the pizza with duck sausage, tomato, mozzarella and basil and the one containing tender Santa Barbara shrimp. As for the calzone, it’s a tossup between the one with prosciutto and the one made with eggplant and artichoke. You may have any of these with or without garlic. And you will get a lot of it if you do not speak up when ordering.

      This is as good—and bad—a time as any to make a confession: I am not really a great pizza fan. All that pastry padding, as delicious as Puck’s is, seems like a waste of sacred stomach space unless one is ravenously hungry and there is nothing else on the menu. So for those with similar feelings—or waistlines—I bear glad tidings. There are 20 other delicate, delectable entrees, appetizers and salads to choose from, and they all sound, look and taste so good that deciding on one is not an easy task. I know. Although I have dined at Spago five times in three weeks and, with the help of adventurous guests, sampled everything in the house with the exception of baby pork chops with cranberry sauce ($9)—it is going to be a difficult but lovely problem deciding what to choose on my sixth, nonworking visit. But no more stalling. The waiter is back for the third time and waiting to take my order. If he can cope with a few and/or decisions, here goes.

      Should I care to cleanse my senses of a bad day at the office, I would start with marinated fresh tuna with avocado and Maui onions ($6.50) or the blood-pink carpaccio (though one local food writer thought the name stood for a cocktail, it of course refers to tissue-thin raw beef) with slightly oiled enoki mushrooms ($8.50). But if I had had my fill at a late lunch and wanted to start the evening meal slowly and refreshingly, the order would be for one radicchio-and-arugula salad with goat cheese that has been roasted in a savory herb butter ($5). On the other hand, if you love pasta, you must order either the noodles with smoked salmon and golden caviar ($8.50) or the angel hair with broccoli and goat cheese ($7.50) as an appetizer. The combination of tastes, in both dishes, is a thing of joy.

      One of the most popular entrees at Spago is the boned chicken sprinkled with piquant herbs and garlic, then quickly grilled over a very hot fire to seal in all the juices ($9.50). But that is something I can and do have at home; so the harder-to-prepare marinated squab—the little birds roost in Auslese wine for several days—was more of a treat ($14). Another delicacy that those who cook at home rarely come upon is truly fresh fish. Puck gets his by making 7 a.m. visits to the Japanese markets in downtown L.A. His morning catch appears on the evening menu grilled, steamed or raw, as in the case of the marinated tuna and the Pigeon Point and Belon oysters, served as appetizers.

      Having gone to the trouble of securing the freshest fish, Puck refuses to turn around and fillet the flavor out of them, as happens in most local restaurants. The Pacific sole ($12) and the red snapper ($11), which is prepared with a lovely red-onion-and-butter sauce, are served whole and with their bones intact. (I’ll wager more people choke on the size of their dinner check in the places than from swallowing a piece of vertebra.) Any fish lover can immediately tell the difference. Looking for more palates to conquer, Puck plans to start roasting baby lamb and pig in those cavernous pizza ovens whenever he can get them young enough from farmers in Northern California. I hope he also tries roast kid one day, and that I am in the audience when he does so.

      A lot of has been made of the fact that a number of the employees at Spago were last seen working at many of our better-known restaurants—the implication being that Puck swapped his toque for a pirate’s hate and conducted a few manpower raids. I am not privy to all the details, but I do know that the waiters who transferred from Michael’s did so because that Santa Monica establishment put a 17 per cent “service charge” on each dinner bill. (Guests, incidentally, must pay tax on such enforced tips.) It sounds like a great deal for the waiters, but not quite. Management keeps the 17 per cent and pays the employee a straight hourly wage, which means that waiters go home with 20 to 25 per cent less than in the past.

      Spago’s sensational pastry chef, Nancy Silverton, also defected from Michael McCarty’s kitchen, but not for solely monetary reasons. Silverton, who studied under Paris’ great patissier Gaston Lenotre, was never the head dessert maker at Michael’s. Puck gave her that title and the responsibilities it entails, such as baking enough different tortes and tarts each day, seven days a week, to satisfy the yearnings of Spago’s 200-pus nightly guests. There are four fixed desserts (all $4.50), and each day Silverton fulfills her own creative yearnings by baking five or six others according to her mood.

      Judging by the results, it must always be a happy one. The piece de resistance is a small sugar pastry shell filled with Calvados-soaked apple, capped with a delicate lid of mille-feuille and then topped with fresh raspberry sauce and lots of beautiful raspberries. There is only one problem: The portion is teasingly small. I’m being serious, not greedy. I am sure patrons would gladly pay a premium for a few more bites.

      You’re on your own when it comes to picking an alternative to that masterful hot fruit tart. It is just a matter of which caloric way you wish to go. There is a torte so loaded with rich, rich chocolate, and so popular, that if I were a commodities broker I would sell cocoa long tomorrow morning. A personal favorite: the lemon-and-almond-paste cake, almost like a sponge, deceptively light and redolent with sharp, clean aromas.

      Want to make the break with Mother’s cooking once and for all? Wean yourself on Silverton’s apple pie covered with caramel ice cream. The rice-pudding confection is better than any doctor’s prescription for a nervous stomach. And finally, the young woman does show an ounce of two of piety for diurnal scale-watchers. I refer to her very light, fresh pear sorbet studded with giant scrumptious blueberries—not those shriveled, frozen pellets that so often pass for them.

      What’s wrong with Spago? I was waiting to be asked but I did not want to talk with food in my mouth. The battery of chefs working beside Puck in the dining room’s “open kitchen” seem far better organized than some of the waiters. The latter are all very pleasant and diligent but given to forgetting requests—which can result in their not bringing the wonderful oven-warmed loaf of bread to the table while guests are having cocktails or their initial glass of wine. That may appear to be crumb picking—and I wish the bus boys would do more of that—but having something to nibble on is very important at Spago, because each appetizer and entrée order is individually prepared and guests must wait for their opening dish.

      Although the selection of wines is broad and innovative, I find the prices excessive; but then I imagine Puck would argue that the excellent St.-Emiilion house red wine is fair at $12. But if he lowers the others, the food prices will have to go up. As it is, Puck estimates it will be three years before investors see a return on their money.

      Next, probably because of the Italian influence at Spago, I could not help remembering something told to me by the late, great Giuseppe Cipriani, the founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice: “Early in the evening, when the bar wasn’t crowded, I turned the radio up loud. That way the customers talked louder and there seemed to be more of them. But as the place filled up, I gradually lowered the music so people could talk. If you can’t have a conversation with friends, good food and wine is wasted.” Considering the instant success of Spago, the maître d’, Henri Labadie, should reach for the volume knob the moment he comes to work. (The next order of business should be straightening out his overcrowded reservations book; I hope nobody remembers the booking scandal at La Guillotine when he was there.)

      Moving from acoustics to aesthetics, while the mildly high-tech interior (an outdoor dining harden is about to open) of Puck’s new home is very simple and simpatico, the dreary entranceway from the street is most uninviting. On each visit I kept hoping to find some bright flowerpots in the area and that the dingy brown synthetic grass on the steps would have been shipped back to outer space. But this last criticism is really irrelevant, I suppose, because with Spago, Puck is not trying to build a monument to himself—only a sophisticated, live-in kitchen where he and those who love interesting, good food could have fun. He did it.