When I was unpacking the other day, I came across an object that serves as a physical symbol representing the moment I became a quote/unquote “foodie.” It’s a glass ashtray from the original Spago, Wolfgang Puck’s iconic first restaurant. How it ended up in my possession is an interesting story.
OK, fine. I stole it, if you want to be technical.
The year was 1993. My ex-wife and I, living in the Bay Area at the time, took a mini vacation to Los Angeles. Why we did this is a mystery to me; I have a hate-hate relationship with that city. It’s too big, too crowded, too plastic, too smoggy, too congested with automobiles, too irritatingly sunny all the damn time. I know there are people who love L.A., such as Randy Newman, and I can respect that. It’s just not a place I have any fondness for. I’m a Portland type of guy through and through.
Be that as it may, at the time I wasn’t quite as unenthusiastic about La-La Land, so that May the then-missus and I packed the car and headed south. It’s about a six-hour drive from San Jose, and that was uneventful. Until I took a wrong turn and ended up in a part of town where you don’t want to be after dark. Even in broad, bright daylight it was scary. Luckily I found my way back to the freeway without incident. Anyway. This trip was a splurge for us. We were still kid-free at the time, but also young and barely starting out in our careers, so we weren’t exactly rich. But we pretended to be for a couple of days, staying at the ultra-modern Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown L.A., where key scenes from movies like In The Line of Fire and True Lies were filmed. It was a far cry from the Cosmic Inn in Orange County, where we’d once stayed during a Disneyland excursion. We wanted to have a really nice dinner too, so I had made reservations at Spago months in advance. At the time, Spago was one of the trendiest restaurants in America, known for its celebrity chef and excellent cutting-edge cuisine, and was a popular hangout for the stars.
Back then, Spago was located on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood (it moved to its present location in Beverly Hills in 1997) right across from a massive Tower Records, whose windows were plastered with posters for Janet Jackson’s new CD. I remember how unassuming Spago was. Kind of a ramshackle wooden building perched on the corner of a sloping street that ran up a hill. There were giant picture windows that looked out over Hollywood. Sounds nice, but if you’ve ever been to Hollywood, you’ll realize the scenery leaves much to be desired. But we were there for the food, not the view. And – truth be told – the celebrities. Looking around in a faux casual manner, we didn’t recognize anybody famous, so we asked our waitress if there were any celebrities dining there that evening.
“Ed Begley Jr. came in last night,” she informed us.
That didn’t do us a bit of good, seeing that it was the next day. And also that it was Ed Begley Jr. No offense to Ed Begley Jr., of course.
The food, on the other hand? Amazing. I don’t remember every course that we ordered, but I know we started out with a type of lavash (a cracker-like flatbread) served with a rich pate. One bite, and I was hooked; I knew I’d never look at a chicken McNugget the same way again. We had fancy salads. Pizza with exotic ingredients. It was all so, so good. Keep in mind that Wolfgang Puck’s pizza is well-known and legen…wait for it…dary (he has since opened a chain of pizza bar casual dining restaurants). Dessert escapes me, but I’m certain it was decadent. I can’t remember how much our bill was either, but that’s probably a good thing. It doesn’t matter, though – that meal changed my life. It was my first experience with haute cuisine, and opened my mind and palate to higher-quality foods. I’ve since had better meals and shared a table with a famous actress, but that evening my love for really good food was ignited. It’s a passion that burns to this day.
A lot has changed in the intervening years. The ex and I are history, relics of a bygone era much like Tower Records. Spago is bigger, fancier, and has multiple locations. Good luck finding an ashtray in a restaurant these days. Ed Begley Jr. has gone on to star in cinematic classics like The Penthouse and Ms. Bear…well, okay. Ed Begley Jr. is still Ed Begley Jr. But there’s a certain level of comfort in homeostasis, you know?
On our way out, I slipped the ashtray into my pocket, though I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life. It was a memento of a really great meal, and just one of many memories I have literally unboxed during this move.