It was inevitable that many of them would follow when he moved to his own place in '82. Initially, Puck wanted to open a neighborhood cafe. He thought that checked tablecloths and sawdust on the floor would be inviting. The decor wasn't as important as the menu or the ambience he envisioned.
Twenty years ago, when CDs and e-mail didn't exist, restaurants were dramatically different as well. For those who could afford it, going out to dinner at Los Angeles' best establishments meant being served multiple courses prepared in keeping with the rigid conventions of French cooking. The food might be exquisite, but gastronomic temples such as L'Orangerie and L'Hermitage were stuffy. "The waiter was wearing a tuxedo, so he was better dressed than you were, and he looked down on customers who couldn't pronounce what was on the menu," Puck says.
The classically trained chef didn't see why intimidation had to be part of the experience. He dreamed of presenting wonderful, surprising food, made of the freshest, best-quality ingredients, in a relaxed atmosphere. His simple concept was radical: Fine dining could be informal. It could be fun.
Like most great, well-timed ideas, the novel cooking style that Puck was experimenting with, later dubbed California cuisine, was also being developed by a number of others: Alice Waters at Chez Panisse Cafe in Berkeley, Michael Roberts at Trumps in West Hollywood and Jonathan Waxman and Ken Frank at Michael McCarty's Michael's in Santa Monica. Like them, Puck drew inspiration from California's mix of cultures, then added a few important, non-culinary elements.
When he took over the lease of Kafka's, a Russian-Armenian restaurant that had once been a private home, Puck deputized then-girlfriend Lazaroff as interior designer. There wasn't a lot of money to spend. Twenty-nine limited partners paid $15,000 each for a share of Spago, a name that means "spaghetti" in Neapolitan slang. Don Salk, a dentist who had enrolled in a cooking class taught by Puck, helped recruit investors--other dentists, doctors, stockbrokers and lawyers. That effort didn't raise enough cash, so Puck and Salk took out a loan, putting their homes up as security.
Lazaroff could spend only $25 each for the 200 chairs and bought wine glasses for $1. She tore down interior walls, creating a space with unobstructed sight lines, the perfect setting for the seeing and being seen that became a Spago sport. She let raw wood beams in the ceiling show, as they would in a Malibu beach shack, and decided to let the cooks be visible too.
"People credit me with inventing the open kitchen, but what about the American diner?" says Lazaroff, who became Puck's wife in 1984. "The difference is we were creating food of a certain level, right where everyone could see it."
At Spago, cuisine was theater, and waiters and waitresses were important players in the mise en scene. Puck knew it would be easier to hire a nice person and teach him how to serve than to try to make an experienced but nasty server pleasant. He encouraged the attractive people who donned the uniform of pink striped shirt, pink satin bow tie and bistro apron to be more, rather than less, familiar with customers.
"When everyone knew that all the directors, producers and studio heads were coming to Spago, a lot of aspiring actors and actresses felt they'd have a chance to be discovered if they worked there. A few of the girls did get to sleep with famous actors," Puck says with a chuckle. "They said, 'Now we're in the movie business.' "
Well, it was the '80s. Occasionally, there were hookers at the bar, people doing cocaine in the bathrooms and having sex in the parking lot. But Spago was never known as the wildest place in town. Once you got in, it was the friendliest. It wasn't very expensive--although prices doubled in time, when it opened, no entree was priced over $15. Tables were crammed so close together that having a private conversation was impossible. Not only would a perfect stranger at a neighboring table chide Sean Penn for not finishing his dessert, but at the height of his bad-boy period, he'd offer it to her. "As a kid, I dreamed of going to Hollywood, going to Romanoff's and hanging out with Bogart and Bacall," says director Henry Jaglom, who ate at Spago almost every night in its first decade. "I had this illusion that there would be a place where you would run into your friends, fellow workers in the film business, and meet new and interesting people. When I came here in the late '60s, it didn't exist. And then it came to pass at Spago. It was a magical, magical place."