The restaurant scene in L.A. is nothing if not volatile. Until recently, top honors went to Ma Maison, Patrick Terrail’s French eatery on the fringe of Beverly Hills. The new challenger is, of all things, a pizzeria, plunked down on once fashionable Sunset Strip. Its owner—oh, perfidy!—is none other than Wolfgang Puck, 32, former head chef at Ma Maison.
Rumor had it that when “Wolf” Puck decided to go into business for himself, he raised the requisite $550,000 in 15 minutes. Not true, laughs Puck. But since opening night last January, when 21 Rolls-Royces jockeyed for parking space, Spago (the name is Italian slang for spaghetti) has consistently served a full house of 300 from 6 p.m. to midnight. Reservations are now required three weeks in advance, although there is always room for Henry Winkler when he stops by not for pizza but for marinated fresh tuna with avocado and Maui onions. Ditto for Johnny Carson, though Warren Beatty, when he’s in town, prefers pasta, while Betty Ford and Jacqueline Bisset lean toward grilled chicken with garlic and Italian parsley. On any given night the owner-chef may be seen welcoming the likes of Neil Simon and Marsha Mason, Sean Connery, Michael Douglas, Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, Richard Gere, Christopher Reeve, Lillian Hellman, or Jaclyn Smith and hubby Tony Richmond.
Puck’s virtuosity at the stove is, of course, Spago’s star attraction. Wolfgang was the one credited with lifting nouvelle cuisine to new heights in Southern California while he was at Ma Maison. Now, at his own place, he is a pioneer in the latest culinary wave to sweep the West Coast: California cuisine. He describes it as “local products, freshness, simplicity, lower prices, less solemnity and no truffles.” Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Lois Dwan raved that the gifted Puck “could create a gastronomic sensation from peanut butter and Wonder bread.”
Wolfgang modestly prefers to heap praise on his West Coast sources. “America has the best-quality beef in the world,” he says, “and there are fine California wines.” He gets his oysters from Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and salmon from the waters off Santa Barbara and Monterey. California farmers sell him suckling pigs as well as vegetables and fruits. One supplier raises pigeons for a Puck specialty—whole squab marinated in late-harvest wine with sautéed apples (price: $14).
For all that, Puck’s place is styled “a trattoria.” Pizza is a house specialty (six varieties are offered), but Spago is not your usual pizzeria, not when its pizza crusts come laden with sliced smoked salmon and golden caviar.
As for Wolfgang, he was born in Austria, where his mother was a hotel chef and his stepfather a miner. At 14, young Puck began three years’ study at an Austrian hotel school, then ambitiously ascended the three-star culinary firmament of France. After hitches at Baumanière in Provence, the Hôtel de Paris in Monaco and Maxim’s in Paris, he migrated in 1973 to New York at the behest of Jean de Noyer of Manhattan’s La Goulue. A job as head chef in Indianapolis preceded his move to Los Angeles and star-studded acclaim at Ma Maison.
Since his divorce from his French wife, Marie France, three years ago, Wolfgang’s helpmate has been Bronx-born Barbara Lazaroff. The cheerfully informal atmosphere at Spago, with its bleached-oak beams and its open counter separating kitchen from dining room, owes much to Barbara’s design sense, which is remarkable for a 28-year-old holder of degrees in biochemistry and experimental psychology.
What to do for an encore? How about a Chinese restaurant? In fact, Puck has already raised $500,000 to open a second place, to be called Chinois on Main (Main Street, Santa Monica, that is). Wolfgang plans to be off soon to study in Hong Kong, with the aim of becoming the finest Austrian-born, French-trained, trattoriowning Chinese chef anywhere. That’s virtuosity!