WHEN I ENTERED MIDDLE AGE in Los Angeles, there were only a handful of restaurants where I was a regular. My favorite restaurant in LA, Lucques, shut its doors during the pandemic along with every other restaurant I frequented. Lucques would never reopen. So months went by when I met no one for dinner, except for my partner in our condo. Often we ate separately, just grazing on whatever we had picked up from the market that afternoon, spread over a counter in the kitchen. This period seemed especially haunting because I happened to drive by Horn Avenue every day, which runs up into the foothills of West Hollywood, just half a block above Sunset Boulevard. An empty house sits there, and has for the past 20 years, once the most famous restaurant of the 1980s in LA (if not the country). Spago. It was the first restaurant I went to as an adult, making a seismic impression on me about the importance of socializing and friendships, the joys of dining out, and the very human need to connect. For me, it was now a constant reminder of something we had lost in the year of the virus: contact.
Spago. It was the first restaurant I went to as an adult, making a seismic impression on me about the importance of socializing and friendships, the joys of dining out, and the very human need to connect.
What I noticed missing from our lives during the pandemic was something I suppose I’d always taken for granted — that the restaurant was the central meeting ground for family, friends, and new acquaintances. I realized it had always existed like this in my adult life: The restaurant was where we exchanged information about our personal lives and our careers, explained our disappointments, clarified our defeats, talked about our parents and then later our children (or not), and connected. And this was something that occurred every week, if not numerous times a week, throughout the bulk of my life. The money we spent wasn’t just for food, but for reserving a ticket of sorts into a (hopefully) beautiful setting, where you didn’t have to cook for yourself and a talented chef prepared your meal. Perhaps you were surrounded by attractive people, and if you paid 20 bucks for a martini while the bottle of gin at home cost $17, well, that was part of the price you paid.
Spago opened in January of 1982 in a house that had been built in the 1920s. Behind a completely unassuming entranceway located on a steep slant of sidewalk and without a visible name (the title on the matchbooks was in mauve longhand, but I don’t remember seeing a sign), the interior was pale pink with a wooden beamed ceiling. Massive bursts of fresh flowers brushed against it — mostly stargazer lilies in terracotta vases. A huge brick wood-burning oven anchored an open kitchen (unheard of in 1982, though common now) and was adjacent to a sweeping view of Sunset Boulevard (the iconic Tower Records in view across the street). The most requested tables were arranged against the windows there, with white patio furniture stressing just how casual the owners knew Angelinos really were.
A young chef named Wolfgang Puck opened Spago, and with it he changed the notion of the upscale American restaurant forever, taking it out of the uptight realm of coat-and-tie fine dining and into something more modern and loose — without sacrificing sophistication and while placing an emphasis on the freshest ingredients. In his mid-20s, Puck had been the co-owner of the hippest LA restaurant of the 1970s, Ma Maison, which was the first place to serve something called California cuisine. Ma Maison had an unlisted phone number and was situated inside a tent located on a parking lot. The valet parked the Rolls-Royces that pulled up directly in front of the tent.
Puck wanted something more democratic and accessible than Ma Maison, and Spago was easier to get a reservation at — you might just have to wait at the small bar and sip a few comped cocktails before you were seated at the table you had reserved for 45 minutes earlier. (But at least you got in). The main dining room wasn’t particularly large, and the tables were tightly packed. It was always a genuine scene: as glamorous as any restaurant I’ve ever been to and, most importantly, fun. This wasn’t your parent’s stuffy three-star French restaurant; this was a new kind of 1980s dining, upscale yet indulging in a kind of SoCal casualness that felt sexy and new.
The first time I went was in January of 1982, just after it opened, when I took a date to a late meal after a concert at The Greek. We each had a glass of rose Champagne (we were both 17, the drinking age in LA 18 back then, but we weren’t carded). We split a salad and a calzone with prosciutto. Yes, a calzone was on Spago’s menu. The idea that you would find a calzone anywhere other than an old-school Italian restaurant was playfully novel at that moment in LA, even though Puck got the idea from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Spago was the first time I encountered items like an arugula salad casually scattered with goat cheese — which would become a worldwide staple. And the restaurant became famous for its pizzas — duck sausage, Santa Barbara shrimp, smoked salmon and caviar. Though perhaps $9.50 for a small pizza seemed a bit extravagant at the time, the pizza itself added to the casualness of the atmosphere — a clubhouse for grownups. There wasn’t anything like it, even though it took its cues from Michael’s in Santa Monica and Trumps on Melrose. Spago became a comparative powerhouse, open seven days a week with an average of 300 guests a night. It stayed in that space on Horn Avenue for 19 years. Puck didn’t want to renew the lease at that location and opened another bigger Spago in Beverly Hills in 1997, before finally closing the one in West Hollywood in 2001.
Dining at Spago was one of the first moments I felt like an autonomous adult. That spring I was turning 18 and the idea of socializing with friends who were newly mobile and eating at a restaurant collided, becoming a fixed thing for us throughout our lives. Hanging out at various diners and delis and coffee shops in Westwood was one side of our youth. On the other side was having a drink at Trumps or grabbing a pizza at Spago. More than just a place to eat, there was excitement, drama, sexiness — all heightening the intensity of the meals we had there. In some respects, it was an extension of the elaborate Polynesian-themed restaurants my parents took me to as a kid, such as The Luau and Trader Vic’s. Looking like sets, the town was a soundstage as were its restaurants, and in that sense Spago was indisputably an LA place.
More than just a place to eat, there was excitement, drama, sexiness — all heightening the intensity of the meals we had there.
We were too young to be regulars anywhere, let alone Spago, and I ultimately went back East to college nine months after the restaurant opened. But when I returned home for winter breaks or summers, I would always suggest meeting there with friends, dutifully making the reservation. It wasn’t an overly expensive proposition either: You could order a pizza, split a salad, have a couple of cocktails, and get out of there without spending more than 40 or 50 bucks. An added bonus was the constant celebrity sighting. One night in December of 1985, as I was being led to a table, Jackie Collins recognized me and invited my party to join her table along with Timothy Leary, of all people, neither of whom I’d met. It seemed somehow natural, part of the restaurant’s narrative, its story, its reason. Anyway, Spago opened a door: I would go on to see my friends in restaurants, no matter where I was, to this day. Going out to a restaurant has been the social event during my lifetime; restaurants were the meeting places to gather and connect — until they weren’t, for a year during the pandemic.
During the season of the virus, this was gone. And as I would drive past the empty white house on Horn Avenue I’d be reminded of this daily, a pang and then a small wave of anxiety. But as the restaurants in LA started reopening, I ultimately started venturing out again, wary of what it might be like. The first night was with a filmmaker and his new girlfriend who had taken an Uber in from Pasadena. Even though the mask mandate was still in place, the tables far apart and sat on the funky sidewalk of 3rd Street instead of indoors, there was still a sense of connection and celebration, of finally spending time together, and also eating seriously good food after a year of lukewarm deliveries and prepared stuff that we’d microwaved. This was one of the city’s better seafood restaurants and to have fresh fish this deliciously prepared felt like something I’d never experienced before. We all drank more than usual — my friends were happily hungover the next day — and left when we realized we were the last ones remaining, the waiters rolling tables back into the restaurant’s empty dining room.
The day I’m writing this I realize that every night next week is suddenly booked with friends, some of whom I haven’t seen in over a year. And though this doesn’t erase the isolation and anxiety that coursed through all of our lives in the past 12 months, it at least suggests we’ve come out the other side of the tunnel, back to the land of the living, the social, the reconnected.
Giorgio Moroder came up with the name Spago. He had told Puck he was writing a musical titled “String” in Italian, and Puck promised he would use the title if Moroder became an investor — he didn’t, but Puck used it anyway.
Header image credit: Wolfgang Puck and Patrick Terrail outside of Ma Maison. Photo by Alan Berliner via BEI/Shutterstock.
Bret Easton Ellis Writer
Bret Easton Ellis is the author of six novels and a short story collection. His latest book, "White," is a work of nonfiction. He hosts The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast on Patreon.