It Was 20 Years Ago Today….Wolfgang Puck Taught Gourmets to Play
ELV note: Spago Las Vegas turns 20 tomorrow.* In celebration of our most iconic restaurant (and the one that literally started the gourmet stampede to our humble burg), I thought not onre but TWO articles are in order. To read our paean to this auspicious event in this format, continue below, or pick up this month’s issue of VEGAS magazine — where it’s free and accompanied by lots of pretty pictures….including one of Jack Nicholson! And since our lamestream media has been typically negligent in commemorating this extraordinary event, we at ELV thought we’d publish an article from 6 years ago noting how seminal and sensational this restaurant has been for so many years. To read it, continue after the jump.
THE RESTAURANT THAT STARTED IT ALL
“I never knew where to eat when I came here to watch the fights,” is how Wolfgang Puck describes why he decided to open a branch of Spago in Caesars Forum Shops, and thus boldly go where no great chef had gone before. The year was 1992. Puck had spent the previous dozen years taking California by storm and, in the process, redefining America’s notion of what a great restaurant could be. Still, the move was a bold one. The success of the brand new mall was considered a long shot, and many a naysayer – including Puck himself – thought Las Vegas hardly ready to embrace his world-class, cutting-edge cooking, even in a restaurant as casual as his. “It was all steakhouses and “Continental” restaurants and it wasn’t that good,” is how he remembers our dining scene twenty years ago. “People would tell me how the casinos give away all these comp meals and how it wouldn’t work, but (Forum Shops developer) Sheldon Gordon told me, ‘Just you wait, thousands of people will come.’” Gordon may have been a prophet, but neither he nor Puck had the slightest inkling of the seismic shift they were about to cause. Because within two months of its opening, the rumblings of Spago Las Vegas’ success shook the gastronomic ground in the High Mojave Desert, and the whole world felt the shudder.
Spago Las Vegas officially opened on December 11, 1992, but at first, things were far from earth shaking. The first three weeks were very depressing,” Puck recalls. “The Review-Journal wrote a nice article (about our opening), and I thought we’d be turning people away, but that night only sixty people showed up.” Little did he know that the cavalry was about to show up in the guise of a rodeo. National Finals Rodeo cowboys to be precise, who jumped straight from their bucking broncs to the one restaurant in town with a national reputation. As grateful as he was to see all of those ten gallon hats, Puck quickly discovered that Las Vegas still had a ways to go in appreciating first class restaurants. He still chuckles remembering: “When they saw the open kitchen, they all thought it was a buffet and lined up and started ordering burgers and ribs.”
Within two months, everyone started breathing easier. By the end of 1993, locals had adopted it as the place to see and be scene, and A-list Hollywood celebrities (like Puck friend and fellow fight fan Jack Nicholson) started treating it as their home away from home. One Spago fan who didn’t have far to travel was Steve Wynn. “He used to come in all the time,” says Puck with a smile, “because apparently he didn’t have any place to eat (at the Mirage).”
What Wynn couldn’t get enough of was Puck’s (at the time) groundbreaking Cal-Ital-French cooking – that was as creative as it was toothsome. Twenty years on, the food is better than ever, and still true to Wolfgang’s vision. These days, top toque Eric Klein keeps the flame burning (and the standards as high) as any high volume gastronomic restaurant on earth. (On a busy weekend, Spago Las Vegas can serve 900 customers in a day.) Besides turning out the signature smoked salmon pizza and an array of seasonal specialties, Klein will feature an entire week of Spago’s original menu from twenty years ago (at 1992 prices!), including a glistening roast Cantonese duck, “Chinois Style” Colorado lamb chops, and a superior wild mushroom risotto. Pastry chef Crystal Whitford joins the fun with a gorgeous Kaiserschmarm – sort of a light-as-air soufflé pancake — and a melting chocolate cake that was de rigueur on dessert menus way back when.
Puck and Spago literally changed the way all of us think about restaurants. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a non-traditional pizza or wondered why proteins are no longer smothered in sauces owes him a debt of gratitude. Every famous Las Vegas restaurant does as well. But for this gregarious Austrian, our hotels would never have seen that there’s gold in them thar gourmet hills – leading them to jump on the celebrity chef bandwagon that Vegas culture practically invented. Just ask Steve Wynn.
SPAGO STILL ROCKS (November 16, 2006)
ELV note: to hear this script as it was broadcast on KNPR- Nevada Public Radio, click here.
Can you believe that, next month, it will have been fourteen years since Spago first opened its doors in the Forum Shops at Caesar’s? As legend has it—and there’s more truth to this story than some believe—for the first weeks of December 1992 almost no customers showed up—leaving Wolfgang Puck and his investors in a tizzy over their seemingly ill-advised idea to bring L.A.’s most famous restaurant to what was literally the culinary desert that was Las Vegas.
About the time they were about to pull the plug (or at least their hair out)—the rodeo came to town, then a few conventions, and soon the bean counters noticed that Spago-Las Vegas was doing more business in a week than the original was doing in a month. Even with success, though, Puck and his executive chef David Robins remained a tiny island of quality cooking amidst a sea of mediocrity for years as they struggled to find top shelf ingredients, seasonal vegetables and fresh seafood.
It would take those years before our gourmet revolution gained enough traction to bring the best edible stuff on earth to our doorstep and give Spago some serious competition. And I must confess that my enthusiasm for it has waxed and waned as flashier joints have turned my fickle head. But the café out front still provides the best people watching in town, the food has always been solid, if at times, uninspired, and the service never less than top draw and gracious to all who enter. And now, I’m happy to report, a spectacular redesign of both the space and the menu, has brought the founding father of great Vegas eats back into the top echelon of our restaurant scene.
One way it’s done that is with a groovy new interior—featuring spectacular works by local artists Tim Bavington and David Ryan—that symbolize and solidify Spago’s iconic status as a true Vegas original. But icons don’t cut the mustard, and you can’t eat symbolism like you can a meltingly tender piece of true Kobe beef from the Niigata Prefecture in Japan. Yes, taking a cue from its sister restaurant CUT in Beverly Hills (that just earned Esquire’s Restaurant of the Year Award)—our Spago also serves the real deal, and, for a price—you can taste what all the shoutin’ has been about . As rich as it is….and true Kobe is like butta……., for my dinero, you come here for cooking that fuses foods and cross-pollinates cuisines with the best of ‘em.
And with sophisticated new dishes like butter poached lobster with sea urchin risotto, asparagus wrapped bacon beside a perfectly poached egg, skate wing with melted leeks and short ribs with polenta and Indian chutney (if you’re counting-that’s metaphorically mixing three countries on one plate—quite successfully I might add); I can’t think of a better place to celebrate fourteen years of good taste, and toast the gentlemen that blazed a gourmet trail in 1992 that no one else could even see.
In the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace
3500 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
* In celebration of its anniversary this week, Spago Las Vegas will be featuring its entire menu from 1992. In fact, it’s where we’re having lunch today!