Reinventing the Plate

Reinventing the Plate -- Appetite for Life -- © Microsoft
What's true of Kenny Rogers' cards is true of napkins, omelets and restaurants: "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em."

A restaurant is a volatile mix of food, chefs, servers, customers, design and the two most elusive ingredients — reputation and buzz. Not one of those is immune to fashion, so running a successful restaurant requires more than serving delicious dishes to happy customers. It's understanding when to change — and when not to.

Two of America's most iconic restaurants, Wolfgang Puck's Spago and Le Cirque in New York City, have undergone complete overhauls in the past several years. Another, San Francisco's bayside Fog City Diner, closed in early 2013 to reopen simply as Fog City later in the year.

"We opened Spago in 1982. Then we opened a new Spago in 1997," Puck says. "So every 15 years I get an urge to change.

"I don't want to get bored," he continues. "I feel we have to change before business goes down, before business goes slow. The restaurants who don't change are not relevant anymore, and I want to stay relevant for the rest of my life."

The new Spago features smaller, shareable dishes from a variety of cuisines, as well as new fireplaces and modern art. "The biggest surprise is that a lot of the older people told me they really like it," Puck says. "[Legendary record executive] Clive Davis is 80 years old, and he looked at the place and said, 'That's fantastic that you changed. I'm so happy I don't have to look at the old menu anymore.'"

Bill Higgins, co-founder of Fog City Diner, is working on taking his restaurant's clientele on a longer journey. His restaurant has been operating in its original format — creative American cooking in a diner setting — since 1985.

"We had a restaurant that was one of the most famous restaurants in this city for nearly a quarter century, but we found that the diner concept was kind of running out of gas," Higgins says. "And it was limiting. Every time we tried to take some strides toward contemporary cuisines, people said, 'Wait, why are you trying to sell something of that nature when this is a diner?' In order to play with everyone and what's going on in the food scene, we felt that it was time to blow it up."

Removing "Diner" from the name may have been the easiest part. The hardest? Simply pulling the trigger. "The restaurant was still busy," Higgins says. "And it was hard for the staff. Some of them had been there for quite a while. At the same time, I'm really excited about what we're going to do there."

To see that mixture of discomfort, excitement and hard work — with the added element of intergenerational family intrigue &mdahs; watch the HBO documentary "Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven," about the closing, moving and reopening of one of Manhattan's best-known restaurants. Sirio Maccioni, who founded his elegant, celebrity-studded French/Italian restaurant in 1974, quibbles with his three sons over the next menu, new plates and even the dress code as the four men balance tradition and potential.

"You know, there are people who take their whole lives to build one restaurant," the senior Maccioni says in the film. "I've built five, and I feel them all in my legs."