There are two at O’Hare airport, one inside the Museum of Contemporary Art, and now one anchoring downtown Evanston’s new 18-theater movie complex. They aren’t gift shops or snack shops; they’re Wolfgang Puck cafes–downscaled versions of the chefs famous Asian-fusion restaurant Spago. And in the last few years, Chicago seems to have become a target market for them.
Puck first expanded his operation beyond fine dining back in 1993. At the time he owned and operated-five upscale restaurants Postrio, Granita, Chinois, and Spago in southern California and a second Spago in Las Vegas. He wanted to improve on the usual standard of mall food, and his solution was Wolfgang Puck’s Cafe in LA’s Universal City, which features 14 of the most popular and least expensive dishes from Spago, with a particular focus on his signature woodoven pizzas. (Not long after, he launched a frozen pizza line.) Robin Stotter, Puck’s current regional chef for restaurants outside California and one of the original chefs at Spago in Las Vegas, recalls Puck’s motivation: “He wanted more people than the Hollywood -crowd to eat his food,” says Stotter. “I was concerned that we were selling out by. opening the cafe,” but Puck convinced him that “we’re really just making our fare more accessible.”
The Universal City cafe was an immediate success, and a springboard for branches across the country. Another opened that same year in Orange County, followed by Denver and Fort Lauderdale cafes in 1994. In 1995 an expanded version (the first “Grand” Cafe) debuted inside the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. In 1997 Puck turned to Orlando, opening a massive restaurant complex inside Disney World with five separate dining rooms, ranging from upscale Spago fare to grab-‘n’-go pizzas and sandwiches. It serves close to 3,000 meals a day, and its over-the-top decor-featuring colorful, tile, mosaics, a giant exposed kitchen and wood-fired oven, and jewel-‘ toned. chairs and tables–matches the hyperbolic mood of the park.
Meanwhile Spago debuted in Chicago in late 1996 to a somewhat lackluster reception. While it initially drew an East Bank Club crowd, arguably Chicago’s version of the Beverly Hills set, it never became the ultimate see-and-be-seen hangout it was in California. That didn’t stop Puck from rolling out his cafes, which have opened in quick succession: in May 1999, Wolfgang Puck’s Express, a miniaturized version of the cafe, on the B concourse in terminal one at O’Hare; two weeks later, a regular cafe in terminal three; in October 199.9, Puck”s at the MCA, a hybrid of Spago and the casual cafes, with chef Francois Kwaku-Dongo, Spago Chicago’s chef, at the helm; and two months ago, Wolfgang Puck’s Grand Cafe in downtown Evanston.
The Puck strategy for opening multiple restaurants is as corporate as it gets. Management-level employees are sent to Puck, University= actually the cafe in Orange County, which also serves as a training center-for a twoweek session. Trainers also travel to new locations to coordinate hiring and training of employees. Two weeks before the Evanston cafe opened, close to 50 trainers flew in from Orlando, Denver, and Los Angeles. They stayed for anywhere from two weeks to a month, phasing out as-the new employees showed their aptitude. “We’re hesitant to open a new restaurant until we’ve got a secure support structure in place,” says Stotter, who oversees each new restaurant opening.
Another secret to Puck’s success is that the cafes are opened only in preexisting settings like malls, entertainment complexes, and airports; none of, the 16 cafes open to date are freestanding. They all look more or less the same, thanks to a design by Puck’s wife, Barbara Lazaroff, that features lots of cracked tile, geometric figures, and giant, oddly shaped handmade urns. And a “grand cafe” differs from a “cafe,” says a spokesman at Wolfgang Puck Food Company, only in its size and the presence of a raw bar or sushi bar.
The Evanston Wolfgang Puck’s Grand, Cafe opened November 20 under general manager Glenn Brandl, with national trai I ners still in place and an
extremely ambitious menu. While the bulk of dishes come off an already existing cafe menu, chef Jorg Limper (formerly of Nick’s Fishmarket), backed by a 50-cook staff, has some autonomy. There are plenty of signature. dishes on the menu: prosciutto, fontina, and goat cheese pizza; the original Chinois chicken salad; a warm meat loaf sandwich with grilled onions and a spicy tomato sa uce; fettuccine “Wolf-fredo” with pancetta, garlic, and thyme; and entrees like coriander-crusted ahi tuna, pan-seared salmon with garlic mashed potatoes in an artichoke broth, and Wiener schnitzel–an homage to Puck’s Austrian heritage. Limper’s creativity comes through in his chefs tasting menu, a series of dishes he creates daily using local fresh ingredients. The raw bar menu, straight from the corporate office, features Florida stone crabs, jumbo shrimp cocktail, an interesting sesame-crusted fried oyster dish with-‘a I cilantro-m int dipping sauce, and several intriguing seafood rolls, similar to Japanese makis but with wrappers made o f pressed soybeans rather than seaweed. The wine list is also determined on a corporate level, but it’s impressive and reasonable with over two dozen bythe-glass options, mostly Californian with a few Italian, Chilean, and French options.
Wolfgang Puck’s Grand Cafe is at 1701 Maple in Evanston, 847-869-9653.
On December 22 a judge lifted an injunction brought at the request of Smoke Daddy owner Mark Brumbach against Cliff and Mitch Einhorn, owners of the Twisted Spoke, that had prevented them from using the name Bone Daddy for their barbecue restaurant at 551 N. Ogden.
Cucina Bella Osteria at 1612 N. Sedgwick reopened December 7 after a four-month closure due to city licensing issues.
The much anticipated Trotters to Go finally opened on December 11 at 1337 W. Fullerton.
–LAURA LEVY SHATKIN
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.