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RESTAURANTS : STARDUST MEMORIES : After 10 Years, Countless Cool Movie Stars and Plenty of Hot Pizzas, Spago Is Still Cooking

February 16, 1992|Ruth Reichl

T he menu is clearly in a state of transition, and there is no doubt in my mind that Spago will only get better. If I were you, though, I'd go now, because this restaurant will probably be around for a long, long time, and you will be able to say that you knew it when.

--Ruth Reichl, January , 1982

Ten years later, I'm sitting in Spago, thinking of all the stupid predictions I've made in my career--all the restaurants I was sure were destined to become classics but that actually lasted less than a year--and congratulating myself on being right about this one. On one side of me, Lew and Edie Wasserman are dining (modestly) with Jack Valenti and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina. On the other side, Marvin Davis, sitting in a special chair that he keeps at the restaurant, is dining (lavishly) with a group that includes Betsy Bloomingdale and a woman who may or may not be Paloma Picasso. George Burns is nearby, as are the members of several rock groups, a star of daytime television, a famous director--and any number of undoubtedly important people whom I do not recognize. Spago, the upstart pizza parlor, has long since become a member of the Establishment.

"All you have to do to be successful," says Wolfgang Puck, emerging briefly from behind the counter that separates the cooks in the open kitchen from the customers at the crowded tables, "is give people what they want to eat."

Back in the winter of '82, he wasn't sure exactly what that was. "All I knew is that I didn't want to do the same food I did at Ma Maison," Puck said then. "I made up the menu a couple of days before we opened, and I followed my instincts."

His instincts are golden. When most people think about Spago, they think of it as the archetypal Hollywood restaurant, where you go to see stars. They think of it as the place with a listed number that's always busy and a few unlisted ones known only to the in-crowd. They think of it as glitzy and casual, the place that pioneered (via Puck's partner-wife Barbara Lazaroff's design) an open look in restaurants that virtually defined the new California style. What they may not think is that it is the restaurant, more than any other in America, that changed the way we eat.

The original menu said, "Spago--California Cuisine," and that was to prove prophetic. California cuisine was in its infancy, and Spago was the first to define the terms: local ingredients, emphasis on the grill, vinaigrettes instead of sauces, uncluttered plates.

But the meaning has changed over time. When Spago opened, good food invariably meant French food. Spago was the first serious restaurant to buck that trend by looking defiantly toward Italy. Spago not only had an Italian name and served pizza, it also had a whole section of the menu devoted to pasta. In those days, that was unusual; the enormous success of Spago paved the way for the Italian food that was to come.

A few years later, Spago would put Asian-inspired dishes on the menu, pioneering what was to become today's "Pacific Rim" cuisine. A glance at the differences between Spago's first menu and the current one traces the changes in American food over the last 10 years.

The early reviews made much of the fact that Spago was using local goat cheese. Today, of course, nobody would bother to mention it. But where the cheese used to come snuggled down on arugula and curly endive, today it is on a bed of field greens (grown specially for the restaurant) and dressed with balsamic vinegar (10 years ago, few people even knew what balsamic vinegar was).

On the first menu there were only eight appetizers. Today there are half again as many--and the new ones say a lot about where we've been. Some demonstrate the new importance of Asia in our cooking: seared shrimp and vegetable spring rolls, Misuji beef salad, Japanese pumpkin soup, abalone on crispy noodles, a sausage glazed with Chinese mustard. It's hard to imagine that sausages would have been considered a proper appetizer in the early '80s, but now we eat them eagerly, especially when they're made of such frankly bizarre combinations as pistachios and duck.

The early menu listed just four pastas: one ravioli, one angel hair and two that were simply called "pasta." Today we want to know exactly what sort of pasta we are going to ingest, so the '92 menu also lists gnocchi and linguine. Risotto, which was virtually unknown on menus in 1982, is now a fixture of California cuisine, and it's hard to imagine Spago without at least one. The current version is made with a ragout (a real '90s word) of shrimp, lobster and scallops.

The pizza section is the only part of the menu that hasn't changed very much. There were six then, there are six now--and some seem much the same. The prices have gone up, though. They once ranged from $8 to $9.50 but will now set you back between $13 and $14.75.

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