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The Last Days of Spago

No more foie gras with mashed potatoes for Dolly, pizza topped with caviar for Sidney or back-room lounging for Joni. Wolfgang Puck's signature place is closing its doors.

March 19, 2001|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Spago. Can you hold?

Spago. Can you hold?

Spago. Can you hold?

Hello. A table for 8 o'clock? I'm sorry, we're booked.

Hello. Sorry, we're full.

Hello. Sorry, we're full.

Spago. Can you hold?

*

Groucho Marx once said he didn't want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. For more than 10 years after Spago opened its doors in 1982, seven phone lines rang incessantly because the restaurant embodied the star-spangled converse of Marx's axiom: The harder the place was to get into, the more desirable admission became.

Everyone, it seemed, wanted to eat at the hottest, busiest, most celebrated of Hollywood restaurants. It perched above a car rental agency on a scruffy elbow of the Sunset Strip. But it really existed at the intersection where power, wealth and celebrity met a revolution in American cuisine. Spago wasn't a mythic spot created by the media hype that attended the glamorous parties held there on Academy Awards night. Reality equaled the gushing press coverage. And now one last burst of attention focuses on the Hollywood restaurant this month, before its doors close April 2.

The rickety Spago building had long been aching for a renovation. Three years ago, founder Wolfgang Puck and his wife and partner, Barbara Lazaroff, decided that instead of buying it a face lift, they'd give birth to a lavish new Spago in Beverly Hills' golden triangle. Puck wanted a bigger showplace where his talents, not the clientele, would star. Business had been declining in West Hollywood, a reflection of changes in the culture of celebrity. And, in a way, the original Spago became a victim of its founder's creativity. Its casual style and menu have been copied all over the country.

Even when Spago was new, it was never difficult for Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine and Sean Connery to get in. Months after the restaurant opened, a typical night saw them huddled with their wives at a round table in the middle of the room. The champagne flowed, decimated plates of chef Puck's Jewish pizza--smoked salmon, creme fraiche, chives, red onion and a dollop of caviar layered on a pizza crust--littered the tabletop. Caine, a fabled raconteur, delivered a bull's-eye of a punch line, and his select audience roared.

The group was having such a good time it was oblivious to the fact that it had brought the place to a standstill. Diners lingered at their tables, as intoxicated by the spectacle of movie stars at play as if they'd inhaled airborne happy dust. The tiny bar area became tightly packed with impatient people, their reservations rendered as valuable as Confederate script. Lazaroff, a formidable presence dressed in her trademark baroque babewear, tried to soothe the wounded egos of those forced to wait. The cooks in the open kitchen on the dining room's eastern border were stalled; no one was getting up to leave, so no new food orders were placed.

Just in case the situation wasn't challenging Spago's staff enough, the private line reserved for VIPs rang, and maitre d' Henri Labadie took the kind of call that had become routine: Producer Joel Silver, a frequent customer and, like many Spago devotees, a man accustomed to getting what he wanted when he wanted it, was on his way over with a party of eight and expected that his favorite table would be ready.

After midnight on such frenzied nights, Puck would slump at a table over a glass of Cristal champagne, the mother's milk of Spago, and, in the words of the Eagles, would wonder "how it ever got this crazy." He had spent hours simultaneously cooking and schmoozing and could still take in the action--a blockade of busboys making it impossible for a tourist to score an autograph from Barbra Streisand; Debra Winger crawling on the floor, searching for a lost earring; Jimmy Connors and Lionel Ritchie sitting on the stairs sharing a pizza while waiting for a table.

Mark Peel was Spago's first chef at Puck's elbow. He says, "If there were a way to engineer the kind of heat that Spago had from the beginning, every restaurant would be a success. I knew that it was going to be a hit, even if Wolfgang didn't. He had a big reputation in town, his concept was innovative, and he knew how to take care of people."

*

Puck was 25 when he came to Los Angeles in 1975. At 14, he left his native Austria, where his mother was a hotel chef, to serve as an apprentice cook in the south of France and in Paris, then worked briefly in a restaurant downtown before becoming chef at Ma Maison.

Despite being known as the home of the Hollywood power lunch, the little bistro on Melrose Avenue with Astro Turf carpeting and the arrogance to keep its phone number unlisted was on the brink of bankruptcy when Puck took over its kitchen. Cherubic, creative, ambitious yet rather shy, he became a favorite of Ma Maison's A-list clientele.

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