Wolfgang Puck's Dining Revolution
by john curtas |
“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 Forum Shops, and thus boldly go where no great chef had gone before. The year was 1992. Puck had spent the past decade taking California by storm and, in the process, redefining America’s notion of what a great restaurant could be. Still, the move was a gutsy one. The success of the brand-new mall was considered a long shot, and many a naysayer—including Puck himself—thought that Las Vegas was 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,” he says of our dining scene 20 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: Two months after its doors first opened, the rumblings of Spago Las Vegas’s success shook the gastronomic ground in the Mojave Desert, and the whole world of fine dining 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 says. “The Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote a nice article [about our opening], and I thought we’d be turning people away, but that night only 60 people showed up.” Little did he know that the cavalry was about to show up in the guise of a rodeo. The National Finals Rodeo cowboys, to be precise, were some of the first guests, jumping straight from their bucking broncos to the one gourmet restaurant in town with a national reputation. As grateful as he was to see all of those 10-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 seen, and A-list celebrities like Puck friend and fellow fight fan Jack Nicholson started treating it as their home away from home. One Spago enthusiast who didn’t have to travel very far was Steve Wynn. “He used to come in all the time,” says Puck with a smile, “because apparently he didn’t have any place [at Mirage] to eat.”
What Wynn couldn’t get enough of was Puck’s—at the time—groundbreaking Cal-Ital-French cooking, which was as creative as it was toothsome. Twenty years later, the food is better than ever while still holding 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 might serve 900 customers in a day.) Besides turning out the signature smoked-salmon pizza and an array of seasonal specialties, Klein will celebrate his restaurant’s 20-year anniversary from December 10 through 14 by featuring Spago’s original menu from two decades 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 happily why proteins are no longer smothered in sauces owes him a debt of gratitude, as does every famous Las Vegas restaurant. 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. The Forum Shops at Caesars, 702-369-6300; wolfgangpuck.com
photography by bryan hainer