When Wolfgang Puck’s Spago Was the Epicenter of L.A.’s Social Scene
In his new book, ‘Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll,’ Andrew Friedman delves into the history of pioneering restaurants.
Spago opened on January 16, 1982. Wolfgang Puck was so insecure that he told [his investor] Don Salk to invite his wife’s enormous extended family to ensure a somewhat full house. But when the dentist and his family arrived, they were confronted with eighteen Rolls-Royces in the parking lot and had to wait hours for a table. The restaurant did 170 covers that night.
“When the doors first opened,” remembers Barbara Lazaroff, “I was still shoeless standing on top of the kitchen counter getting the track lights correct. I thought of it as a stage. I used to study theater lighting and design; that’s what I did. So I said, ‘That’s my star. These are my stars. I’m lighting them up.’”
“I never even got to realize what I was in the middle of because who would have thought Spago, which became what Spago was overnight, would become that?” says Nancy Silverton, who was the restaurant’s pastry chef. What Silverton calls the “floods” came the minute the doors opened. Because there was only the open kitchen, she had to clear out by 4 P.M., when Ed LaDou, the pizza maker, came in. She’d prepped days’ worth of ingredients prior to opening night, but it was all gone by closing time.
Things were even more discombobulated on the hot line. Of that first night, Kazuto Matsusaka remembers: “The timing was horrible. And nobody knew what to do. There’s no system. There’s no preopening meeting or preopening discussions. There was nothing. And the food started to run out. That was the craziest opening I’ve ever done. Mark [Peel] was next to me; he was on pasta. He was making a pasta at six. Later, he was cutting [more fresh] angel hair pasta.”
Puck was a draw, which was great for business, but a doubleedged sword. Continues Matsusaka: “Wolfgang was in the kitchen, so when we opened Spago, everybody came to see him. That means they’re going to start talking to him. So he was on the grill. Then the food has to go out together. So Wolfgang starts talking, nothing is coming out. So I told Mark, ‘Mark, we have to kick Wolfgang out of the kitchen.’ That’s what we did. Because he loves to cook and he loves to talk. He has to be out of the kitchen so he can schmooze those people, talk to people, whatever he wants to do, then we can run the kitchen a little more smoothly.”
“It was so crazy we could not get a handle on it at all,” said Puck. Famous customers denied a table “screamed at me and said they were never going to talk to me again.” If he tried to accommodate them, resulting in a wait, “then they screamed again. It was so hard.”
Between Puck’s Ma Maison fan base and the restaurant’s heat, Spago began drawing a celebrity clientele. Before long, two paparazzi were stationed like snipers along the hill that ran up from the parking lot to the restaurant.
“I had just come from five years working in a beauty salon,” says Wendi Matthews, a childhood friend of Silverton’s who became an office manager at Spago. “Lots of cocaine and lots of Quaaludes. Lots of hip, cool, young people. Everybody was sleeping with everybody. And it was sort of that same feeling at the restaurant. There were customers coming upstairs and sneaking off into the storage area to get high, and employees and people sleeping with everybody. It was that same sort of feel. It felt like being at a party all the time. I mean, even though during the day we weren’t open and it was work, but everybody was sort of having fun.”
“You knew who was holding, who was high, who wasn’t. But definitely there was a lot of substance going on,” says Jannis Swerman, who helped run the dining room. “You couldn’t get into the bathrooms. People were going two at a time, so it was either sex or drugs or both.”
Swerman thinks Puck and Lazaroff were largely oblivious to it, but Lazaroff, who maintains she was an abstainer, was routinely offered coke and pot by customers, as a tip or just to share the good times. She told them owners don’t accept tips, to give it to the staff at the door.
Sometimes the sheer volume of self-abuse so overwhelmed her that she’d go home at the end of the night, throw open the door, and sob into the living room of the house she and Puck shared on Fifth Street. “We knew we were on this new wave, this niche of people wanting to have a place that was their own little casual playground that was exclusive in certain ways but was also inclusive, because actually you had a lot of people who were very well known in different fields, a lot of them in entertainment, but in different fields,” says Lazaroff. “And some of the most powerful weren’t known by the other people in the restaurant, like the studio heads and whatever. I mean, the stars knew who they were, but there were loads of people. Our postman who delivered our mail would come there and dine.”
All of Hollywood came to Spago, from an intergenerational mix of above-the-line names such as Michael Caine, Teri Garr, Dolly Parton, Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, and Barbra Streisand, and “everybody who ever played James Bond”—as onetime dining room manager Swerman puts it—to icons like Johnny Carson, to wunderkind directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and emerging industry power brokers like Mike Ovitz. Naturally, no special requests were turned down. Puck also found creative ways to flatter VIP guests, such as automatically sending them a smoked salmon and crème fraîche pizza, known colloquially to staff and guests alike as “the Jewish pizza.”
Like the crowds, the fame just came. “All of a sudden Entertainment Tonight was there,” remembers Matthews, who transitioned into a PR role. “I was getting phone calls: ‘We want to do a segment on ET.’ I didn’t think, ‘Oh my God, we’ve hit the big time.’ It just sort of was.” (It should, however, be remembered that Spago didn’t monopolize the entertainment business. Morton’s and The Ivy, to name just two popular old-school canteens, still drew bold-faced names, and Chasen’s retained its popularity among the over-fifty set, reinvigorated by recently elected President Ronald Reagan’s fondness for it.)
Maybe, too, the populace was simply ready for something new: In 1981, nearly thirty years before the likes of Eataly in New York City, Jane Erickson, the punk-coiffed companion of notorious art dealer Douglas James Chrismas, opened Charmer’s Market, a combination open-air market and restaurant with more than twenty-five Champagnes, under a stucco tent in Santa Monica, a stone’s throw from the beach. Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Ali MacGraw, and Goldie Hawn were regulars. Charmer’s bridged nouvelle (scallops with raspberry sauce) and California (hot barbecued duck salad) cuisines and forecast one of the defining characteristics of Spago: dinner as entertainment, for the entertainment set. “I didn’t set out to get the Hollywood crowd,” Erickson told the New York Times. “But I guess there’s a certain atmosphere of theater here.”
Lazaroff was the embodiment of Spago’s theatricality. As her bank balance grew, she began realizing those childhood fashion dreams with a loud, colorful, and unmistakable style that extended from head to toe: “I wear twinkling clothes, Tinkerbell clothes that glisten with beads and sequins,” she said. “My style is my own dream as a five-year-old of what I’d look like when I grew up.” (That five-year-old must have also loved animals; circling around Lazaroff like cartoon butterflies were twenty-eight of them: parrots, rabbits, cats, and dogs.) Her wardrobe, housed in a twenty-foot-long closet that she kept locked, even from Puck, comprised more than one hundred dresses and more than a hundred pairs of shoes; just two examples: a purple taffeta Karl Lagerfeld mini-dress with a full, circle skirt, and a black bolero Rifat Ozbek suit with white passementerie. Often, she tied primitive objects into her hair and emphasized her eyes with exaggerated black eyeliner that extended the edges. (“I paint my face as if the audience were looking at me from fifty feet away,” she said.) She maintained that it only took her twenty minutes to prepare such a getup, but hours to dress casually.
Puck, too, flowered into fame: He was gifted at making the most demanding guests feel special. He says that because he came from a small town, where the nearest cinema was five kilometers away and they had no car to get there, he didn’t see movies as a kid. They didn’t even own a TV. As a consequence, “I was never impressed by them,” he says. “I wasn’t like most of the people were if somebody was a movie star: Can we get an autograph? Because I didn’t watch the movies. Most of them I never saw.” When he became friendly with director Billy Wilder, “I had to lie to him,” faking appreciation for his classics such as Some Like It Hot, while privately thinking, “I hope he doesn’t ask me who was in that!”
Tables were hard to come by, but in theory the restaurant was democratic, with one exception—Patrick Terrail [Puck’s former boss at LA restaurant Ma Maison] was forbidden. One night around 1989 while Puck was in San Francisco, his maître d’ called telling him that Terrail had shown up unannounced with good pal Ed McMahon. “You know what to do,” Puck told him, and hung up.
From Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll by Andrew Friedman. Copyright 2018 Andrew Friedman. Excerpted with permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.