"The revolution has succeeded and it's been televised," says Michael McCarty, sitting over a plate of heirloom tomatoes with burrata on the patio of his Santa Monica restaurant, Michael's. "Five-year-olds are watching 'Top Chef' now."
And the next revolution is already well underway, this time live-streaming, with the Internet changing our knowledge of food and how we eat it. And L.A.'s godfathers of California cuisine have responded.
Over the last few weeks, Wolfgang Puck's Spago and McCarty's Michael's have softly opened the doors on radically new restaurants, with fresh design and totally revamped menus. The timing of the remodels was entirely coincidental, as is the shared preference for seasonal small plates and a new emphasis on mixology on both menus. But the similarities stop there.
McCarty was referring to the American culinary revolution of the 1970s and '80s, which he — alongside famed food-world figures including Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower and Puck — helped pioneer. When Michael's opened in 1979, with its promise of creating true California cuisine, it forever changed the face of dining in Los Angeles.
Then when Puck opened Spago in 1982, he ushered in the wave of casual trattorias that would redefine the celebrity dining experience from dressed up to anything goes.
Soon California cooking (fresh, seasonal, local, adventurous) had become a national phenomenon.
More than 30 years later, McCartty says he spies another paradigm shift — this one due to the abundance of choice attributable to the ubiquity of the smart phone. Guided by text messages, Foursquare and Twitter, the modern diner moves quickly to three, four or more destinations in a night. At the same time, small plates, once a cyclical trend, are here to stay, unlike the people who enjoy them.
The current emphasis on small plates allows for flexibility and choice when dining out.
At Spago, Puck and executive chef Lee Hefter are offering a rotating menu featuring plates from the "sea," "garden" and "pasture." Barbecued skate with spicy Indonesian sambal and calamansi lime ($16) might rub up against a plate of Colorado lamb chops with Moroccan spices, charred eggplant and labneh ($34). Or a salad of Chino Farms vegetables ($16) might pair with chicken "noodle" soup spiked with chile, basil and shaved young onions ($14).
At Michael's, McCarty and executive chef John-Carlos Kuramoto have unveiled a menu with small plate options including sliders with Russian dressing, duck fat onions and American cheese ($12), and Jidori chicken liver pâté ($10), as well as moderately priced pizzas, pasta and salad.
Puck shuttered Spago for seven weeks to complete a $4-million renovation by Waldo Fernandez that leaves practically no trace of the restaurant's former self. The Michael's remodel cost a fraction of that and consists mainly of expanding the bar and garden seating and doing away with decadent trappings like white tablecloths and silver flatware.
"Most importantly you have to keep a restaurant fresh and relevant, and not just on a Saturday night," says Puck, relaxing during the lunchtime rush in the main dining room, which now features a huge, clear glass skylight that softly filters in the atmospheric L.A. sunlight. "I want to be happy in my own environment, and about two years ago I started to think it looked outdated. It did not age well."
Puck adds that Spago was not hurting for revenue (it was topping $10 million a year before the renovation) but that he saw a permanent shift in dining habits that called for a fresh approach.
"The change is, 'How do I like to eat?'" says Puck. "Do I like to have one big portion or a few different things? I'd rather have three or four dishes. A new generation is now in power. They are more casual and more adventurous."
To accommodate this new generation, Puck went for a chic look that stops short of formal. A retractable roof now shields the legendary garden from weather, a fireplace has replaced the water feature, the floors are smooth oak with a smoky finish and the walls are an oyster-colored Venetian plaster with a hand-waxed finish. A distinct and separate bar space has been created, and one wall of the dining room has been replaced by climate-controlled storage for 3,000 bottles of master sommelier Chris Miller's collection.
Spago lost a row of seating but stopped short of getting rid of its white tablecloths. Michael's, however, added seats and subtracted some of those fancy accouterments.
"People are so in love with our garden that we re-landscaped in such a way to double our capacity of tables out here," says McCarty of the lush, green space that has come to define the dining experience at Michael's. "Nobody wants a 42-inch table for two anymore, they prefer 36 or 28 inches, so they can be close and huddle."
Similarly, McCarty says there is no longer a need to drop $100,000 on white tablecloths or fresh flower arrangements.
"Back when people were paying $20 for an appetizer and $40 for a main course, that made sense," he says. "But the days of having eight pieces of silver — each one for something different — are long gone. It's a natural evolution, and it's exciting."
In the '80s, McCarty says, Michael's was an L.A. restaurant drawing diners from all over Southern California and beyond. Now he says it's more of a Santa Monica restaurant, with the bulk of his customers walking to the restaurant for its bar bites program and a light dinner before heading off to the latest hot bar opening.
"I was 25 years old when I opened this restaurant, and the bulk of my customers were in their 30s and 40s," says McCarty. "And now it's started all over again. The apartments within a 10-block radius are loaded with dual-income young professionals with no kids. They're an educated clientele, but their lifestyle is such that they gotta get over to Sassafras for a nightcap."