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COMMENTARY

The Trouble With Spago

April 08, 2001|MARK CARTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the closing of Spago Hollywood, Wolfgang Puck is quite rightly being hailed for having launched a revolution in Los Angeles restaurants. But let's also remember that every revolution has its casualties and, in the case of Spago, one of those was the trajectory of fine dining in this city.

Historically, Los Angeles had never been regarded as much of a restaurant town, but in the mid-'70s, a few highly trained French chefs had dared to settle in our culinary desert to open restaurants with a fresher outlook on classic cuisine. They helped spawn a food scene new and unique to the city, which embraced it with a mixture of equal parts passion and curiosity. Here, in virgin territory, they attempted to transform a fern-bar dining city into one that reminded them of home.

Owners of these restaurants honestly felt that if they opened it we would come. The number of gastronomic temples multiplied like the rabbits on their menus and soon we had reached culinary critical mass. There were now enough fine kitchens in which to train all of the city's struggling art majors and disenchanted medical school grads who could then go on to open their own places.

Into the mix came Ma Maison. Its owner, Patrick Terrail, clearly understood how to succeed in this new L.A. Give 'em the goods of course, but give 'em a show as well. Fine dining in Los Angeles had reached its first fork in the road; Christofle in one direction, exemplified by such restaurants as L'Ermitage, La Toque and Les Anges, and in other, the mismatched stainless-steel cutlery Messier Terrail provided in his covered carnival. It was the battle of the bains.

Former Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Lois Dwan summarized the plight of the city best when, in the early 1980s, she commented, "L.A. has no restaurants in the middle." Every new restaurant in those years opened with the aspiration of being the next "best." If you were not eating grand, you were probably eating in an ethnic restaurant, a coffee shop or a place that relied heavily on its freezer.

Spago came along like "the big one," an earthquake that reconfigured the dining landscape. Puck's idea was to have a simple place, comfortable and casual, where his chef friends could come after their kitchens closed. The first page of his prospectus for investors said, "Pizza. Pasta. Bring the kids." With proper fanfare, Los Angeles was presented with a restaurant headed by a bona-fide chef where everyone could comprehend the menu. Nothing was more familiar to us than pizza. We ate them all the time. The most expensive entree? Fifteen bucks! Easily $10 less than the veal chop at any other place in town.

Angelenos screamed, "I knew they were ripping us off all along," because, sadly, there were only a few who recognized that Spago was trying something different. The stars, the doctors, the foodies and most everyone saw the pretty room and the celebrities and they all said, "Finally, a good restaurant with reasonable prices."

And so the genie of truly fine dining was shoved back in the bottle. No amount of presentation, no Saturday cooking classes, no restaurant reviews managed to differentiate what Wolf wrought from what the rest so carefully prepared.

The popularity of Spago channeled start-up cash from fine French to casual Italian. The latter fit L.A.'s temperament perfectly, spawning ever more clones and this "easy eating" became the 10-ton gorilla at the cuisine party. The fine dining houses closed or converted and many of the chefs went packing. Few people thought of the remaining top spots even for their special occasions. It amazed most all of L.A.'s best chefs just how many pizzas the city could eat.

Truth be told, these Spago clones were better restaurants than most of that type that had gone before them, primarily because of their emphasis on fresh, quality ingredients. For the first time in the city's history, there were plenty of "good" places to eat.

But with the lowering of the bar, L.A. traded in its shot for the top; the honors for best restaurant city in the state returned to San Francisco. Many of the chefs who had once been heralded as world class left town, where they often met great success. Some of those who remained survived by making prepared food for restaurants and caterers to buy. It is like keeping Picasso around to draw caricatures on the Santa Monica Pier.

Puck did return to his more refined style in Spago Beverly Hills to again vie for his spot at the top. And a few restaurants still struggle to amaze diners with foods' possibilities. Sadly, there are not very many.

As we eulogize Spago Hollywood, let us also remember the compromises made by its success. It has left Los Angeles fatter around the culinary middle and with chefs who, when they do reach for the stars, usually are satisfied with only the fleshier ones.

*

Carter was chef-owner of Duplex in Los Feliz and is now California sales manager for Jordan Winery.

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