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Another Mediocre Meal at Spago, Together With Mediocre Service

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Any of you who have read my posts know I detest Spago. But it was my best friend's birthday and that is where she wanted to go, so off we went, accompanied by her boyfriend.

Hope springs eternal, but for me it is always crushed at Spago.

We had 9:15 reservations, but weren't seated until close to 10:00 p.m. We stood in an overcrowded bar together with a bunch of other people who were waiting for their reservations, most of them fuming and looking at their watches. No one came over to apologize or offer us a drink. I brought a bottle of champagne for the best friend's birthday and gave it to the person at the reservation desk to chill when we came in. You would think that while we waited close to 45 minutes for our table, they might have asked if we wanted some of our own champagne, but no.

In fact, when we were finally seated, the champagne did not appear. Instead the waitress came over and asked if we wanted anything to drink. I had to tell her that yes, we wanted the champagne I brought. Definitely not the sign of a first-class restaurant.

The champagne was eventually brought, but it was not left tableside and the waitress was not exactly on the spot about refilling our classes. Again, not the sign of a first-class restaurant. I also asked for a wine list, but it wasn't brought until we were through with our appetizer.

For an appetizer, we all three split the risotto with maitake mushrooms, which was $26. Now $26 is not exactly cheap for an appetizer, but someone else on this board described maitake mushrooms as life-changing and I agree. However, the Spago risotto with maitake mushrooms was far from life-changing. In fact, it was downright mediocre. The maitakes mushrooms had no taste and the predominant taste of the dish was of the butter/cream in the risotto. It wasn't inedible, but it was the kind of thing you put in your mouth and forget about 2 minutes later. Call me hyper-critical, but for $26 for an appetizer, I expect more.

After the appetizer, the wine list was finally brought. I tried to engage the waitress in a discussion of the Austrian Vertliners versus the Sancerres versus the Vouvreys, but she wasn't especially knowledgeable (nor did she offer to send over the sommelier - I assume Spago has one) and more or less said, "they're all good." So, I was on my own with the wine. I chose a Vertliner for $48. It wasn't terrible; it wasn't great. I suppose that is all you can expect for $48, but I didn't get the feeling that this was a restaurant where anyone had any passion for wine.

The birthday girl had wild salmon. I didn't taste it. She didn't rave about it; but she didn't complain. The boyfriend and I both had PAN-ROASTED “LIBERTY” DUCK BREAST for $31, which consisted (according to the menu) of "Black Trumpet Mushrooms, English Peas, Confit Bacon, Cippolini, Sweet Pea Puree and Thyme Natural Juice." The waitress touted that as vastly superior to the CANTONESE STYLE ROASTED DUCK with Ginger, Star Anise, Black Pepper, Kumquat Chutney and Stir Fried Lo Mein Noodles.

I left half my duck over. It was basically slices of duck in an unappetizing sweet/salty sauce (I thought of taking the uneaten duck home to my dog, but was worried that the sweet sauce would make him sick). The sweet pea puree was tastless mush.

On to dessert. I have heard others complain on this board that Sherry Yard is the most overrated pastry chef in America and I would have to agree. I have never had a memorable dessert at Spago and tonight was no different. We split a chocolate torte with cherries (I think there were one or two mashed up cherries lurking somewhere in there) that the waitress touted as one of the best desserts. It wasn't horrible; but it wasn't good either. Again, the kind of thing you put in your mouth and forget about two minutes later.

Dinner for three with tip (only left 15% because service was less than stellar) $242.71. That included one bottle of wine, one appetizer, three entrees, one dessert, and one coffee. (Corkage on champagne was waived according to Spago policy because we ordered one full bottle of wine).

To me, Spago is basically an upscale chain restaurant, certainly not a big city first tier restaurant. Never again - friends don't let friends eat at Spago, even if it is their birthday.

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  1. Some suggestions for anyone going to SPAGO.
    1.Never go on a Fri or Sat night!
    2.Never make a 9:15p reservation.
    3.Never expect excellent service at the busiest time of night in a Internationally famous Restaurant like Spago.
    4.Never go to SPAGO and NOT ORDER the TASTING MENU(which is the only reason to go to SPAGO in the first place). 4 hours
    5.Never question if Spago has a Sommelier? (Kevin O'Conner is considered one of the finest in the USA)
    6.Never question if SPAGO is a First Tier Restaurant? It is! No one is more successful or well known than Wolfgang Puck, and that didn't happen by accident!
    7.SPAGO is definitely one of the 5 best restaurants in LA and considered by some to be in the Top 10 in the USA.
    8.Sherry Yard is an amazing Pastry Chef who has made fabulous desserts that you'll never forget, if you still have the space to eat them.

    1 Reply
    1. re: russkar

      I don't see how you can say Spago is a first-tier restaurant and then say, don't go on a Friday or Saturday night. To me, if a restaurant is top tier, it is top tier every night, not just during the week.

      I can certainly understand that one could be kept waiting for their table on a Saturday night, especially with a late reservation because the restaurant can't avoid the earlier diners lingering. But what I can't understand is how for 45 minutes, no one came over and apologized or inquired whether we might like some of the champagne we brought. I have never been made to wait that long in any other first-class restaurant without anyone at least expressing concern or apology. And the fact that when we were finally seated, the waitress didn't bring over our champagne, but instead cluelessly asked if we would like something to drink is unforgiveable. I'm sorry, but if you think that's a sign of a first-class restaurant, then we just have different definitions of a first-class restaurant.

      As to never questioning as to whether Spago has a sommelier, if Spago has such a great sommelier, I don't understand why the waitress didn't ask whether we would like to speak to him? That's what has happened at every other top tier restaurant where I have dined - you start asking questions about the wine list and you are asked if you would like to speak with the sommelier. Or at Spago, does someone have to say to their waitperson, "Gee, you don't sound so knowledgeable. Isn't there a sommelier?"

      I'm sorry. Although I've never liked the food at Spago, I have had gracious service there in the past. However, last night, the restaurant just seemed to me to be a big corporate, souless, passionless behemoth operating on autopilot.

    2. It is uncanny how when one really expects a bad experience somewhere then that is usually what they get.

      My wife and I had an incredible experience at Spago a month or so ago. It was a Saturday night as well. We also brought our bottle of special wine which they decanted and did not even charge us a corkage fee.

      3 Replies
      1. re: cdmedici

        Haha....exactly, it seems that most of the detractors of Spago go in with a chip on their shoulders, with some pre-convceived dislike. If this is the case then why go??

        I've been there around 8 times, ALWAYS on Saturday night, almost always had the tasting menu, and always had top notch service AND food.

        1. re: markn

          There is absolutely no excuse for the poor service I experienced at Spago. We didn't walk in with a chip on our shoulders - we were nicely dressed and stood politely in the bar while waiting 45 minutes for our table. Unlike some of the other people waiting in the bar, we weren't pacing anxiously, fuming or looking at our watches. We just stood there politely.

          "My wife and I had an incredible experience" - I'm not one to find sexism everywhere, but maybe the secret to good service at Spago on a busy night is make sure the party is headed up by a man who, for instance, orders the wine. Perhaps women don't rate a sommelier because a woman isn't going to order a pricey bottle of wine anyway, much less leave a big tip. (And I don't really want to go there, but 2 of 3 people in our party were people of color).

          Talk about expectations being met - if restaurants treat women (or people of color) shabbily because they don't think they are big spenders or big tippers, well yeah, that's exactly what happens -- I don't leave a big tip when I receive poor service.

          The bottom line is that the service my party received at Spago was inexcusable for a supposed first-tier restaurant. You may have received good service at Spago, but I didn't, and I don't generally have a problem receiving good service at first tier restaurants.

          Good service (together with good wine) can go a long way towards making a restaurant a pleasant experience even if the food doesn't thrill one's palette. Danny Meyer of the Union Square Hospitality Group in NYC is the genius of this. I can't imagine the service I received at Spago happening at any of his restaurants.

          1. re: omotosando

            I have continued to find your original post interesting enough for me to save and to read the follow ups. I am still in the camp of having only kudos to proclaim when it comes to our experiences at Spago, and it has surprised me to read of anything other than this type of experience for anyone. Your latest post is unsettling, to say the least, and I find myself just staring at my keyboard right now. Don't know exactly what to say. I just wish you happy meals wherever you dine.

      2. Excuse me, each of us is entitled to his or her opinion, and no, a restaurant that serves 99 diners for every 1 tasting menu does NOT get to be judged solely by the tasting menu, which is also mediocre, at least at lunch.

        At one time Spago did have good servers. It no longer has a serious, professional wait staff as do the Grill and even Cut. Spago may be a "first-tier restaurant" to you but it has been resting on its laurels for a long time now and no longer has that "special occasion" distinctiveness to it despite prices that demand it should. Top 10 in the U.S.? Five years ago, maybe.

        A friend and I went last week in joint celebration of our birthdays. We had a reservation at 7:45 Tuesday and after arriving a few minutes early were not seated until after 8 -- not a big deal but the standard should be reservations are seated promptly.

        We were shown to a banquette where I would have spent the entire evening staring at the wall. When we declined, they gave us a four-top in the patio, which was lovely. The host began pouring champagne with the words, "I hope you are in the mood for champagne." He had begun pouring before saying that. To me that is a comp for the delay in seating.

        We ordered the pumpkin agnolotti, which to me were yummy if not particularly haute cuisine, but my friend found them unpalatably rich. Our other starter was the green salad with pecans and goat cheese -- it did not have enough of either and we literally made the waiter bring us a side plate with more of those. Without them it would have been mostly chopped lettuce and in either case we would both have preferred the beet and goat cheese salad even though the wedge version they serve now is far less generous than the huge tall one they served upon opening.

        For my entree I had the pan-roasted chicken, which was delicious, with infused mashed potatoes and some mushrooms and vegetables. My friend had the salmon, which was good but not great. Dessert was an apple almond tart that could have come from Applebees.

        When the bill came, of course the champgne was on it at an obscene $32 a glass. We informed the waiter we had not ordered it and demanded it be taken off the bill, which it was. To me that is a total bush-league move in no way in keeping with a top-tier restaurant. I'm sure most of those on expense account never look, much less question it -- to me it smacks of a cheap used car salesman.

        Speaking of which, Wolfgang came around blowing air-kisses and doling out nanosecond handshakes like an endangered incumbent politician scrambling madly to save his seat!

        1 Reply
        1. re: jcwla

          Wow - cracks in the edifice. Unwarned $32 per glass of champagne (Cristal, I hope) would have ended my long acquaintance then and there. Kudos for having the chutzpah to insist on its removal from the bill. Spago remains my reigning hope for a world class restaurant in LA. Air kisses and nanosecond handshakes are probably an appropriate characature for HRH Puck, but that should not be a criterion.

        2. Of course I'd be disappointed to have any of these things happen to me at Spago or any other high-end restaurant, but my wife & I had such a wonderful experience there for my birthday last month that I felt I should post this brief description. Even if all this bad stuff is true (and I'm sure some of it is), it is still quite possible to come away feeling like you had a great meal and that the premium you pay for saying "I ate at Spago last night" wasn't that ridiculous.

          We had an 8pm reservation on a Tuesday, and were seated between 8:05 and 8:10 at a centrally located table, right on the edge of the patio.
          Our server was a great guy, personable and happy to answer all of our questions.
          We got the beet layer cake with goat cheese and the foie gras for appetizers, and they were stellar. Never had beets taste so good, and the foie gras (prepared 2 ways; sauteed & grilled, the latter with figs) was among the best I've had.
          Entrees were (1) the liberty duck breast, which we loved (unlike the dude who started this thread; maybe we have different palates, but saying you wouldn't feed it to your dog sounds a little silly/bitter), and which had an amazing corn flan on the side -- a perfect distillation of corn flavor, and (2) the veal chop. This was the probably the most expensive entree we've ordered at around $50. It was going to take a lot to make us feel like we weren't getting ripped off, and guess what? Wolfgang delivered. I've been dreaming about this piece of meat for the last 6 weeks. Perfectly prepared, superior quality. Parmesan polenta and raisins on the side were excellent complements.
          Dessert: Here's the only place I'll give a nod to the nay-sayers. We had chocolate cake and it was good but not great. I'm struggling to remember the particulars.
          The bill was a hair under $200, and we didn't drink any alcohol. Overall, it was a great night, and we're very critical eaters. We got the foodie fix we wanted, had several truly memorable tastes, and were treated well at a celebrity joint where you'd expect a lot more attitude.

          1. We've enjoyed Spago for years and on many levels. My post is not to negate any experiences that have been disappointing to the original poster of this thread. It's just that spousal unit and I have yet to leave Spago feeling less than pampered, extremely well fed, and happy. Over the years we've dined off of the menu and last year for a 50th. birthday, we went with DebbieW and Michael for Spago's tasting menu- - -it was the most over the top hedonstic, and enjoyable 4 hour experience ever, albeit with a temporary 3 pound weight gain the next morning! Unless completely unavoidable we never go to fine dining establishments on the weekend. Weekend nights are our nights to cook/entertain at home, or for very casual dinners out. We are by no means "players" in Los Angeles restaurant wise, because I cook 4 nights weekly. The only reason we might be known in various restaurants is because we show appreciation, and it almost always gets bounced right back to us. We've been treated so warmly at Spago, and I am always so impressed that non-famous folk can feel a little bit fancy/schmancy from the warmth of this restaurant and it's staff. We are discussing Spago for our 30th. anniversary dinner, come this November. Again, my post is not to discredit omotosando's post one bit. It's just that we've had completely the opposite take on this restaurant.

            Cheers,
            Jeff

            1. Sounds like luck of the draw, my two experiences there were somewhere south of mediocre and won't go back.
              And my comment: if the only reason to go to a restaurant is because they have a stellar tasting menu, then there's no reason for any regular/average/normal? diner to go because most of us that fall into that category just want a meal of one entree and not a whole production, and as I think it's safe to say that this restaurant and any other upmarket restaurant, relies on their 'average' diners to make the bottom line, then "we" the majority should be treated like the real "stars", because if it wasn't for us, bye bye Spago.
              Of course none of the above will affect the place one whit as it's reached 'critical mass' and they could be serving dog food and still have the same number of people rave about it.
              One other thing I've always found hard to understand...why do certain people feel it necessary to defend to the death a restaurant that others find not as special as they do. Any resident shrinks willing to offer an opinion?

              1 Reply
              1. re: Thorn

                Thorn, Spago was created for the Foodies. (Those people that order a BMW 7 series with M speed options and never get above 20 mph in rush hour traffic. But, hey, they bought the ultimate driving machine, right?) BMW does great marketing, so does Wolfgang.

              2. Based on one experience at Spago, I agree with you re Sherry Yard. We had the tasting menu and at the end were presented with one measly, tasteless dessert. It was the most disappointing dessert I've had at a fine restaurant and, given the reputation of the pastry chef, unforgivable.

                I also thought the service was a bit lacking. Four of us had the tasting menu with wine pairing and drinks/dish pairings did not appear at the same time. Random waiters/busboys would drop off the different courses, with no explanation of what it was we were eating.

                1. Having lived and eaten too well in LA for nearlyI 30 years, I have a theory about Puck's restaurants: When a star is born the other restaurants always suffer a bit. And right now, Cut is off the charts. The reviews are ubiquitious and raving. It's impossible to get reservations on a Friday or Saturday less than a month in advance, unless you want to eat at 5 or 10. In LA, the star always gets the most attention and I think that mindset affects all his other places. Isn't Chinois kinda like Bette Davis in "All About Eve?"

                  1. Well were they to serve "dog food" & were it like my house they would be serving very
                    well. My dogs eat only ground turkey, North Shore Cattle Co. grass fed beef, beet tops,
                    carrots, purple sweet potatoes and grains which while it is "dog food" anyone could cetainly
                    eat and be thrilled with. Spago lived up to my wildest expectations and dreams of eating when we
                    went there for lunch last spring. Our waiter was refreshing and witty and rolled with our
                    punches (some at the 'scene' of things) and made us feel welcome and made sure we had a
                    great time. We ate almost the entire menu since we're not sure we'll ever make it back and not
                    one item was dissapointing. Having eaten Chef Lee's food only at food events (here in HI) it was great to
                    be on his home turf. From start to finish everything was fabulous and I must say worth the
                    somewhere around $300.00 for lunch, this does not include the limo ride in from Anaheim
                    (Disneyland Hotel). They sent us off with a bag full of goodies to enjoy later after they heard
                    we were in a hotel on vacation. BRAVO and A HUI HOU SPAGO!!!!!!!

                    1. I will go to Spago when my foie gras craving hits...I heard their tasting menu, featuring foie gras four ways, rocks the house!

                      1. Spago = nogo. Been there 3x and each time it was a real waste of time, money, etc. Don't believe the hype.

                        1. Maybe a better choice currently: Cut

                          1. Been to Spago twice and thoroughly enjoyed the tasting menu both times. If Spago doesn't fit your fancy, why not try Grace, Lucques or Providence?

                            You can have whatever opinion you like; I for one don't like Lucques at all, and would go to AOC every time given the choice between the two. I'm sure the Temple of Chef Goin has just as many believers as the Temple of Chef Puck, but tastes are tastes, and thank goodness for choice.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: SauceSupreme

                              Puck has more.