Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills has been one of Los Angeles’ best-known restaurants for decades, attracting almost as many five-star reviews as celebrity clientele.
The dining strip of Kings Georges Road in Beverly Hills in Sydney’s south-west is a world away from Wilshire Boulevard in LA. It is more famous for the many Chinese and seafood restaurants and the six lanes of passing traffic than for attracting any Hollywood names.
The one thing both Beverly Hills now have in common, however, is a restaurant named Spago. It could have been interpreted as tempting fate, straight out impertinence or grand illusions when Eddie Leung opened his Spago in 2011. But the 30-year-old Hong Kong-born chef offers a far simpler, and it has to be stated sincere, explanation.
“In Italian, spago means ‘string’, with spago a description of what spaghetti looks like,” Leung says. “We kept thinking about names related to pasta and Spago seemed to work.
“I didn’t even know of Spago in LA before this. We had a concept of a pasta restaurant and I wanted to do it in Beverly Hills as the rents were much cheaper than anywhere I could find in the city.”
Not that anyone is laughing now at Leung tempting fate with comparisons to the iconic LA restaurant. Late last year, Spago took out the Restaurant & Catering Award for Excellence in Italian Restaurant—Informal category.
“I had been to all the other restaurants in my category, so I knew how good they all were, and I didn’t expect to win,” Leung says. “The competition was so good, I was thrilled just to be in their company.”
The award came as the final piece of an overhaul masterwork, after a highly charged two-year journey from near disaster to crowning glory since Spago opened its doors.
While Leung proudly reports Spago now operates at between 90 to 100 per cent capacity, the start-up months were almost catastrophic.
Within six months of Spago serving its first diner, Leung was looking out every day on a dining room, which was empty at lunchtime and usually had only one occupied table for dinner.
What had started with the best of intentions, not to mention a carefully planned business model, had failed to ignite with the local market.
“We thought we should do Italian fine dining as there wasn’t this type of restaurant in Beverly Hills, and we wanted to do something no-one else was doing,” he says. “But we quickly found there was a good reason why no-one was doing it—there was no demand for it.
“We tried for a year, and it was tough. We kept looking at our social media reviews and diners were giving us very high points on food and service, but very low points on value—and that was a real problem.”
Leung instructed his front-of-house manager to actively ask Spago’s customers for honest feedback. It turned out appearance and the price point were the biggest issues.
“That was so frustrating as I was happy with what we were doing, but we had an empty room,” he recalls.
“We had to listen to what the market wanted, not what I wanted to offer them. The most important thing I learned was you can take the best food from the best chef in the world and put it in this suburban strip, but there is no guarantee it will work. I thought we had a point of difference to the rest of Beverly Hills, but that was not enough. We needed to cater to this area.”
After a year, Leung implemented a series of rolling changes at Spago. It no longer offered lunch but opened seven nights for dinner. The dark, moody lighting was overhauled to give the room a brighter look. Table cloths and elaborate table settings were removed and replaced with streamlined tables of smart cutlery.
But it was the menu and pricing that came in for the greatest re-examination. Pasta became the focus for the menu, with a series of special mains on offer. Portion sizes also became bigger. A fixed menu of entree, pasta, dessert and coffee was also introduced for a deal price of $39.
“I had to look closely at what we were doing with the menu to make it more affordable for us to make and more affordable for people to pay,” Leung says.
“It was also a real surprise of how much image played a role in it. Customers told us the first impression of Spago was it was far too grand and they would think ‘I can’t afford this’, even if we were exactly the same price as the café across the road. The image was we were the expensive one on the strip.”
The re-invented Spago took months for the market to note the changes, and then they stepped in to investigate. “It happened slowly but one table did turn into full houses, with the set dinner menu proving to be a big success,” he says. “We had amazing feedback on that, with people claiming it offers real value. Some nights, that deal represents 70 per
cent of our trade.
“It worked out, but really, it was difficult at times. I did believe I could make this work and knew I had all the good things for a solid base. It just needed to be tweaked and you have to believe in your food. Sometimes, it was just a matter of hanging on to that.”
Leung has been cooking since he was 10 and working in commercial kitchens since his first job at the Hong Kong Jockey Club when he was 16. He later worked at the Shangri-La and Grand Hyatt Hotels, always with Western food.
“I learned Chinese food at an early age, that is why I wanted to learn as much as I could about Western food —and I love Italian food,” he says. “I worked with one chef, Mario, at Grissini at the Grand Hyatt [Hong Kong] and he would ask me to taste something and want me to name all the ingredients. It had such an impact on me with how everything came together with food.”
Leung also studied at Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education Haking Wong School, and after moving to Sydney in 2007, did additional study at the William Blue College of Hospitality, where he enrolled in the Advanced Diploma of Hospitality in Commercial Cookery.
“I studied at William Blue for two reasons—to learn more about modern Australian cuisine and to learn how to run my own business,” he says. “I had always focused so much on cooking, I needed to learn more about running
After a long stint at the Elixir cafe in Sydney, Eddie began work on opening an Italian restaurant and found the Beverly Hills site.
The success of Spago has now become a landmark of the local area, and is also part of a bigger trend that food writer Scott Bolles described as “Sydney’s reshaped dining scene” in goodfood.com.au. The traditional dining epicentres of Surry Hills, Darlinghurst and Newtown are being challenged as diners appear eager to travel in search of new places, new tastes and new value.
In doing so, there has been a movement of suburban restaurants from the periphery of the food and beverage industry to centre stage, and it is a trend that appears set to continue.
“There has definitely been a change in attitude, and what I think is good is there is an awareness we have a similar quality to what is being served in the city, but it is not as expensive,” he says.
“If you think about going out to dinner, most people traditionally think about heading into the city, but that is not so affordable and then they only do that once every few months. But in the suburbs, you might be able to do that twice a week.”
Now confidently looking out on a full house seven nights a week, and having re-introduced lunches on Fridays and Saturdays, thoughts about expanding his business with a second restaurant are taking up some of Leung’s time these days.
He says if the tough lessons of the early days of Spago taught him anything, it is about getting the product into the right shape first before taking it to market. “Whatever we plan, we know we need to consider doing it slowly as many restaurants have closed in the past year,” he says. “It takes time. What we need to do is perfect what we are doing with Spago, and we are far from perfect yet.
“We will keep working at refining what we are doing here before even looking at another site. What we do know more than anything is the customer is key and you always need to look after them.”