L.A. Kinda Rules, Part One

A New Yorker gets a crush on Los Angeles, and figures out the ’80s.

Please let me apologize for my provincialism. I am a New Yorker, and New Yorkers, more than anyone but San Franciscans, have a thing with thinking their city is better than L.A. Probably Angelenos are too chilled out to even notice these cold-weather people and their upturned noses—I mean, they have 65° and sun to think about in the middle of January—but I’m going to apologize anyway. After a week there, I think L.A. kind of rules.

My conversion wasn’t instant, of course. Ignorant prejudices die hard. I’d been to a couple of badass taco trucks and saw the glories of being in the Land of Hamburgers and Doughnuts, but I still walked (well, drove) around with a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the ’80s—the garishness, the conspicuous consumption: the cocaine years. Then I landed for lunch at Spago.

Hot and sexy 25 years ago, Spago is now a classic institution. I’m used to my classic institutions being all warm woods and muted colors—you know, some buttoned-up version of dignified and classy. The hostess led me through the room, walking with the confident bounce of a shampoo commercial, and I was kind of dumbstruck. There were purples and greens and oranges and squiggles in circles and triangles and rectangles and trapezoids. There were huge panes of glass decorated with more squiggles and floating garlic and onions. There was Duran Duran on the stereo.

The hostess stopped, and I let out a gasping laugh. My table was a booth as big as a school bus. I wasn’t expecting company. “Sidney Poitier sits at this booth by himself. Why shouldn’t you?” she said, smiling.

I read through the menu, noticing the beet and goat cheese salad, the California pizzas, all the artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes, thinking these things were the cutting edge of culinary fashion the first time Duran Duran played “Hungry Like the Wolf.” I snickered a little bit when I picked up my piece of parmesan-herb flatbread—I mean, how ’80s is that?

Then I ate it. It was good. Then I ate another. It was really good. Then I ate yet another, while ordering, among other things, the beet salad. And it occurred to me: This place isn’t stuck in the ’80s; it invented the ’80s.

As one of the great temples of California cuisine, Spago was one of the birthplaces of our national obsession with Mediterranean flavors. It was where things like beet and goat cheese salads began their march toward ubiquity. And thinking back to the movies of the time—Beverly Hills Cop, Less Than Zero, Down and Out in Beverly Hills—this city defined our national culture. It’s not that this place is trying to be like the ’80s. We all spent the ’80s trying to be like this place. To be upset about that style here would be like being upset at hearing southern accents in the South.

And so, as you might imagine, the salad was fantastic, as was the sweet, lingering chicken soup and the wine-rich lamb ragù saucing tender and resilient pasta. Purple and green banquette or no, I was sold.

I chatted with my fabulous server about dessert, and when I asked about the apple strudel, she said, “Oh, we pull the strudel dough ourselves! I love it, and I’m from Austria.” Then she leaned closer, and said in a conspiratorial tone, “It’s almost as good as it is in Austria.”

She came back to ask how it was. Without a word, I put my fork in it so that we could both hear the crackle. “It’s beautiful,” I said. “But tell me about this scoop of ice cream.” It had fascinating flavors—strong vanilla, but also a caramel-y, oaky, smoky background. “It’s called our ‘50 bean,’” she said, “Made with 50 vanilla beans per pint of cream.” I did some quick math—depending on the type, vanilla beans can easily cost a couple bucks each. She read my face, saying, “It’s a very expensive ice cream.” I laughed. Ah, yes. L.A. Still as conspicuous as can be.

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