08 April 2013


Spago Beverly Hills, view of open kitchen from dining room. March 2013. Photo by author.
To pair with this month’s release of my book, SMART CASUAL: THE TRANSFORMATION OF GOURMET RESTAURANT STYLE IN AMERICA (University of Chicago Press), I reflect in a series of blog posts on “dining after SMART CASUAL.”  Recent encounters with new and notable restaurants in my home city of Los Angeles and media on food fads have got me thinking about how the trends I discuss in SMART CASUAL are faring….

Chef Wolfgang Puck’s original Spago on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles (1982-99) is one of the bedrock examples in my book of “smart-casual” dining. It represents every major transformation in gourmet restaurant style that I find paradigm changing.

Spago mixed elements of “fine” and “casual” dining and broke with the former’s Francophilia—upsetting the definition of fine dining. The original Spago had chairs that looked like they belonged outside on a deck, a provocation to formality. It dressed wait staff in pastel Oxford shirts and aprons, not suits. It put the kitchen proudly on display and spotlit the chefs, not hiding kitchen labor. Culinarily, Puck broke the mold by combining Italian, Chinese, and Japanese ingredients and techniques along with the expected French. In the early eighties, pastas and pizzas were highlights of the menu, and even these came with ingredients, such as smoked salmon and dill cream, not traditionally Italian. 

Tablescape with menu, prior to ordering. Photo by author.
Among the first of the Spagos built after the original Spago was Spago Beverly Hills. Opened in 1997, it was grander in scale and no longer stylistically provocative. But it stayed faithful, as did most of Puck’s subsequent ventures, to Spago’s originally edgy features. The open kitchen remained, albeit sonically buffered behind glass, and there continued to be multicultural touches on the menu, which eventually included dishes influenced by Puck’s Austrian childhood. Beyond that, the place didn’t see major changes for sixteen years.

So when Puck and company declared that Spago Beverly Hills would undergo a complete renovation in setting and menu, over three months starting July 2012, I considered the import. One thing was obvious: Puck and his dining group had assessed that Spago was losing relevance. Puck needed to salvage Spago’s reputation as one of America’s best restaurants and as a cornerstone of the Puck brand. He needed to look around, gauge Spago’s competition, and adapt or die.

What would the results show Puck and company thought needed updating? What would the changes say about Puck’s place in the field of top tables today? 

First course: "Chirashi Sushi": Blue Fin Tuna, Hamachi, Salmon Pearls, Sea Urchin. Photo by author.
The results I found when I dined at Spago this March were enlightening. A sign of their resilience over the last several decades, certain trends Spago helped foster in the first place were further advanced. Not only was the open kitchen behind glass still there. The pristine wall of clear glass in the new design gave an even clearer view of the kitchen. The obscuring overlays of colored glass in the previous design had vanished. 

Second course: Fusi Istriana Pasta with Maine Sweet Shrimp, Fava Beans, Preserved Lemon. Photo by author.
In terms of cuisine, I found the global culinary influences Puck helped proliferate in the 1980s, which his head chef Lee Hefter had continued, accentuated. In ingredients and presentations, the Japanese influence was most pronounced. My first course, “‘Chirashi Sushi’ Blue Fin Tuna, Hamachi, Salmon Pearls, Sea Urchin,” was an elegant version of a familiar Japanese dish served with Japanese-style accoutrements: pointed chopsticks next to an ice-filled round lacquer container set with a shallow rectangular wooden box for the fish and rice. My third course, “A-5 True Japanese ‘Wagyu’ Beef Filet Mignon (Saga Prefecture),” boasted the finest in Japanese ingredients. In keeping with Puck’s global sensibility, however, the steak came with a “bordelaise” sauce.

Third course: A-5 True Japanese Wagyu Beef Filet Mignon (Saga Prefecture). Photo by author.
Some elements of the Spago reboot, however, were a break with Spago’s past. The décor, unchanged in its essential architectural bones, sported a thoroughly remade skin. Its new look reminded me of other currently celebrated dining rooms—including Alinea in Chicago and Benu in San Francisco. In contrast to the folksy figurative paintings and colored glass accents that prevailed before the renovation, Spago’s new interior seemed in tune with a current style of minimalism. I noticed stark interior lines and a muted palette of browns, greys, blacks, and whites. The main dining room offset this simplicity on one side by a wall of all glass showing a neat grid of wine bottles. The opposite wall sparely dispersed black-and-white photographs mounted in light boxes. Adjacent to that was an open interior dining garden fit with a fireplace and a retractable roof. (The wall opposite that gave way to the aforementioned glass-encased open kitchen.)

Staff—some wearing severe black Nehru jackets and slacks, others charcoal vests and subdued off-white dress shirts—were in sync with their subdued and elegant surroundings. So was the menu, a modernistic exercise in tidy left-justified, sans serif one-liners that deferred to the white space of the page. 

Close-up view of the wagyu. Photo by author. Beyond delicious. Still craving it. A-5 is the highest grade.
Further in keeping with trends at top restaurants, I found a menu syntax I named in an earlier blog post (January 2009) as “menu minimalism.” This is a way of listing dishes so that only commas separate the components, and conjunctions—with, and—are dispensed with as unnecessary clutter. For example, to accompany my wagyu steak, I had something described as “Roasted Maitake Mushrooms, Yuzu Citrus, Spring Onions.” (I did find one place where Spago's new menu deviated slightly from this format--an errant with in my second course, "Fusi Istriana Pasta with Main Sweet Shrimp, Fava Beans, Preserved Lemon"--but this seemed accidental in context.) In the 2000s, the modular menu syntax became prevalent in experimental restaurants that could assume a clientele food-savvy enough to leave the details to the chef.

The division of Spago’s new menu by nontraditional terms for courses—namely, “one,” “two,” “three,” and “from the garden”—likewise struck me as an adaptation to the increasing tendency of trendsetting restaurants to get rid of entrées--or, in Spago's case, to pretend dishes on the menu with noticeably larger portions and higher prices aren't what we think they are. The pre-renovation Spago menu listed “main courses” outright.

"From the Garden" to accompany the third course: Roasted Maitake Mushrooms, Yuzu Citrus, Spring Onions. Photo by author.
It’s tempting to see the Spago redesign as a case of yet another aging, yet shrewd, rock star—who once led in the field—now staying current by picking off what the younger innovators are doing. But the reality isn’t so simple here. Even the newer traits I noticed in the design of Spago Beverly Hills have actually already appeared as parts of other Puck-owned restaurants, and well before this renovation.

The most comprehensive precursor to the Spago revision is Cut, a modern take on a steakhouse he opened in the same part of town in 2006. Cut had (and has) every one of the traits the new Spago traded its former glory for. And it had them before Alinea became the number-one US restaurant to watch and while Corey Lee of Benu fame was still chef de cuisine at The French Laundry. Was Cut an imitation of restaurants that opened before it? Perhaps. I can’t be absolutely certain of how much it owes to precedents outside the Puck group.

But one thing is clear: While Puck updated Spago to keep up with today’s best-restaurant Joneses, he has all along been one of those Joneses. Question: What is Puck's place in the field of gourmet restaurant style today? Answer: Chicken and egg.


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