The chef who started it all
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.