"There's only one Spago, and this isn't it," an older gentleman declares to the woman behind the bar at Spago.
At first, she looks taken aback. She's been explaining to him what the staff of Wolfgang Puck's legendary Beverly Hills restaurant will do while it undergoes a renovation this summer. Some are taking time off. Some are going to work at other Puck restaurants around the country. For a minute it seems as though he's suggesting that one of these other places — Spago Las Vegas, for example — is the true Spago. But then she realizes he's talking about the original location, in West Hollywood.
It's an interesting scene at Spago's bar in these final few days of the restaurant's second incarnation. Customers stop in for a last taste of Puck's famous goulash with spaetzle. A handsome young man with a European accent scribbles in a small black notebook as he eats schnitzel and flirts mercilessly with everyone, from busboys to fur-adorned women drinking Champagne with their husbands. Businessmen reminisce about all the good times they've had at this bar.
The Beverly Hills location opened in 1997, at the time a flashy younger sibling to the Sunset Strip Spago. The original kept its doors open until 2001, when it closed for good.
This summer's projected six-week renovation, which comes just after the restaurant celebrated its 30th anniversary, aims to update Spago's look, as well as its menu. Puck and his marketing team are keeping fairly quiet about what the new menu will look like, but when pressed, they say yes, the food will be going in "a totally different direction." Dishes that have become favorites but seem oddly outdated, like the beet-and–goat cheese "layer cakes," will disappear, as will most of the food that has long served as tribute to Puck's Austrian heritage. The schnitzel and the goulash are going away.
It's an inherently smart move if Spago is to retain its relevance. From what I observed during my meal there, most of the customers seemed to be regulars — a certain breed of ultra-rich diner who can afford to call Spago their Thursday date-night spot; the place they take Mother; the place they bring clients.
There were also a few special-occasion diners. But, barring perhaps our young European gent, there weren't many curious culinary tourists, which is a shame. Until this past weekend, Spago was serving some of the most flawless cooking in Los Angeles.
In an age where many chefs aim for cleverness, in scientific methods or cross-cultural acrobatics on the plate, Spago's kitchen seemed steeped in balance and technique. You got the sense when eating the sautéed head cheese, for instance, that every bite was carefully thought out — how a pickled mustard seed would pop on the palate and play against the meat and fat, how the garnishes of tart pickled vegetables would balance the dish, how a sweet, lightly pickled cherry would finish it all off. This is a kitchen that understands the role of acid and uses it with command.
It's refreshing, for once, to have food with magical elements to it — that minute where you pause and say, "How did they do that?" A sweet pea agnolotti had a filling so hot you'd think it would ruin the delicate pasta around it, or turn the vibrant green pea purée brown. And yet the pasta maintained its delicacy, the pea its color and ringing fresh flavor. Temperature may seem unimportant, but it's exactly the type of detail that few chefs think about anymore, and in this case it turned the dish from something very good into something masterful.
By contrast, the goulash was damn delicious — rich, comforting, with hints of heat and ginger playing at its edges. But it seemed of a different breed altogether than the seasonal offerings on the menu: less refined, less thoughtful.
Because Puck is part of the generation of chefs who invented things like spicy tuna tartare in sesame miso cones, Spago got a pass for still serving them, even if they seemed outdated. If the heart of this restaurant was based in nostalgia, then changing things up might be a mistake. But this is a kitchen capable of some genuinely astonishing cooking, and that fact is obscured somewhat by the weight of all those "classic dishes" and the decidedly outdated look of the place.
Indeed, it's impossible not to notice the colored glass squiggles surrounding the door and the funny shoes-stuffed-with-vegetables sculpture on the way to the bathroom. They give the restaurant a dated, odd feeling, like dining in your eccentric elderly aunt's sunroom.
Spago's problem in some ways is that too much of what looked cutting-edge in the '90s — tile floors, colored glass accents — has since been coopted by the faux-fancy set, the Olive Gardens and Cheesecake Factories.
It's a similar problem as the spicy tuna tartare — what was cutting-edge 15 years ago has since become clichéd, and it's a shame for a restaurant to end up looking and tasting like the down-market versions of places that copied its style and food in the first place.
Some restaurants fall gracefully into a kind of time warp, a testament to a dining era past. For certain places that's fine, but Spago is too good to become a museum. I'm not sure what a "totally different direction" means, but I'm guessing (and hoping) that the dedication to excellence, to technique, to balance will not be lost. Because those qualities will never go out of style.
SPAGO | 176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills | (310) 385-0880 | wolfgangpuck.com/restaurants/fine-dining/3635/