Wolfgang Puck is back in town after a very long absence.
And by that I mean a lot longer than just the closing of the former Wolfgang Puck Cafe. That was the big, two-story restaurant that opened in 1996 in Downtown Disney’s then-called West Side, about the same time as House of Blues and Bongos. Puck was one of the first celebrity chefs to have a presence in Central Florida, and the first iteration of his cafe was quite good, especially the dining room on the second level that was supposed to be an approximation of his Beverly Hills hangout Spago, although it couldn’t be called that because of licensing restrictions.
Oh, here’s a fun bit of trivia: When the Ritz-Carlton was in development to open at Grande Lakes, it approached Puck to open a restaurant there. But because of a noncompete clause in his agreement with Walt Disney World Resort he was unable to consider it. So instead, the Ritz pursued a Miami chef who had recently won a James Beard Award to recreate his popular Coconut Grove restaurant. Norman Van Aken accepted, and that’s how Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton came to be. (The Coconut Grove restaurant closed many years ago.)
At the height of Puck’s popularity, he sold the cafe concept to Chicago’s Levy Restaurants, and the quality of the Disney restaurant plummeted dramatically. After I wrote an updated and largely negative review of Wolfgang Puck Cafe in 2004, I had occasion to speak to Puck by phone on another topic, but I brought up the quality of the local restaurant. He was aware of it and told me that at one point he considered asking the owners to remove his name.
Which brings us now to Disney Springs, the dining, entertainment and retail project that subsumed Downtown Disney, Pleasure Island, Disney Village and the former West Side, and one of the newest restaurants to open there, Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill. It does not stand on the old site — scorched earth, perhaps — and it’s removed in another substantial way: The food and ambiance are as good and enjoyable as when his old restaurant first opened in ’96.