Wolfgang Puck marks Las Vegas milestone

Twenty years ago, Wolfgang Puck would go home at night to a small apartment he rented near the Strip with a bottle of red wine to help nurse his pain.

A week into the opening of his first Spago restaurant outside of Los Angeles, Puck wondered whether the naysayers had actually been correct.

Puck’s original Spago in Beverly Hills was a dining hot spot that attracted movie stars and sports celebrities with such items as smoked salmon pizza, butternut squash ravioli and wienerschnitzel.

No way, some of Puck’s contemporaries told him, would a high-end eatery make it in Las Vegas, the land of 99 cent shrimp cocktails, $2 steak dinners and the $9.99 all-you-can-eat buffet.

During its first week of business, Spago Las Vegas, in the newly opened Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, attracted only rodeo fans who quickly turned away when they weren’t going to find barbecue ribs or pork and beans.

A short while later, the New Year’s Eve holiday hit.

“We’ve been busy ever since,” Puck said Tuesday at Spago, 20 years to the day the restaurant opened.

Spago is still located in its original spot near the connection between the Forum Shops and Caesars Palace. The operators of the Simon Property Group, which built the Forum Shops, convinced Puck locating a Spago inside the mall would be successful.

The 220-seat restaurant has gone through three interior design renovations and countless changes to the menu since 1992.

Puck considered the 20-year milestone a significant event because an endless number of restaurant concepts have come and gone along the Strip while Spago remained true to form.

“It’s a combination of everything. You have to change and evolve with times, and we have done that,” Puck said. “It’s also the food and people.”

Puck, 63, is credited with trailblazing the change for how the casino industry views the restaurant component. Once Spago arrived, other eateries owned and operated by celebrity chefs flourished.

Today, many restaurant magazines rank Las Vegas as one of the top cities in the U.S. for restaurant offerings.

Puck was placed in the Gaming Hall of Fame in 2005 by the American Gaming Association because of the changes he brought to dining in casinos. He was the first celebrity chef honored by the organization.

“We showed the gaming industry that the restaurant can be profitable,” Puck said.

To celebrate the 20-year milestone, Spago is offering a special anniversary menu until Friday that includes selected dishes from the restaurant’s opening day at 1992 prices. Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman presented Puck with a key to the city of Las Vegas on Tuesday .

Puck, who recently opened Wolfgang Puck Steak at the MGM Grand Detroit, his 23rd fine dining restaurant, has grown with the casino industry.

In addition to Spago, he operates these restaurants in Las Vegas : CUT Las Vegas at the Palazzo, Postrio at The Venetian, Trattoria del Lupo at Mandalay Bay, Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria & Cucina at Crystals, and Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill at the MGM Grand.

In addition, Puck operates two restaurants that serve pool areas at The Venetian and Palazzo.

Puck’s company, The Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, leases space in the hotel-casinos and operates the restaurants.

David Robins, managing partner of the dining group who also oversees the companies, was Puck’s original executive chef at Spago. He thought he’d spend a year or two in Las Vegas and then return home to San Francisco. Today, he oversees about 700 employees.

“It’s amazing to realize that all of our restaurants are within five miles of each other,” Robins said.

The restaurant business can be tricky, Puck said. One concept, Chinois, which has been popular in Santa Monica, Calif., since 1983, failed when it was placed in an expansion phase of the Forum Shops. Meanwhile, Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill is the most profitable of his Las Vegas locations.

“I know there is more that we can do,” Puck said. “I’m looking to celebrate another 20 years. Maybe my kids will be running this place.”

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.

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