The Architect of Puck’s Vegas Empire

Partly because of his eye for design, Tom Kaplan has helped the chef build on Spago’s success over three decades

On the eve of yet another Wolfgang Puck restaurant opening in Las Vegas, Tom Kaplan had more than menus on his mind.

Just a few days before the opening of Brasserie Puck in Crystals at CityCenter, the 51-year-old restaurateur traveled to Austin, Texas, to tie the knot. And while he wasn’t experiencing any pre-wedding jitters (“I can’t wait to get married!”), the thought of opening a new restaurant in his absence, had him a little spooked. Even after 28 years in the business.

The Seven Things He Can’t Live Without

  • His new spouse, Elizabeth.
    They were married on Feb. 6.
  • Old friends, some of whom he’s known since he was 6.
  • His friendship and partnership with “Wolf” (as he affectionately refers to Puck) and fellow managing partners David Robins and Joe Essa.
  • The great outdoors, especially the Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho, where he recharges his batteries each summer.
  • His 12-year-old yellow Lab, Buck, and 11-year-old golden retriever, Montana. A huge animal lover, Kaplan is on the board of directors for the Las Vegas-based Animal Foundation.
  • Art and architecture.
    He combines his passion for both métiers by supervising the design of Puck restaurants and incorporating works by emerging and established artists. Thanks in part to Kaplan’s taste, Spago boasts works by several Las Vegas-based artists, including Tim Bavington and David Ryan.
  • His mother’s metabolism, which Kaplan “thankfully” inherited allowing him to freely indulge in two other things he can’t live without: great food (especially seafood (Dover sole, turbot) and wine (pinot noir).

Perhaps it’s because Kaplan’s hands touch nearly all aspects of the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, from company expansion and design supervision to marketing and public relations. And that’s a full plate, given that Brasserie gives Puck six fine-dining restaurants in Las Vegas. Somehow the senior managing partner finds time to oversee the company’s philanthropic endeavors (he’s vice president of the Puck-Lazaroff Charitable Foundation, which benefits the Los Angeles chapters of Meals on Wheels).

Long before Kaplan became the dapper don of the Las Vegas dining scene, his restaurant experience was limited to that of a college fraternity dishwasher (Bowdoin College in Maine, where he studied art history) and an aspiring architect hired to duplicate the design of a popular 1980s fast-food chain (Croissants USA in Beverly Hills).

Raised in Connecticut, Kaplan relocated to Southern California in 1980 to pursue a career in architecture, inspired by Pritzker prize-winning architect and family friend Richard Meier. It was there, in the kitchen at Ma Maison, where he met Wolfgang Puck, establishing what would become a three-decade-long partnership and friendship.

“Personally, I never anticipated being in the restaurant business,” Kaplan says. “I always thought I would be an architect. I thought I would help get Spago open [West Hollywood, 1982], but I never thought I’d make it a career.”

But by the late 1980s, Kaplan had put aside his architecture dream and let everything ride on the restaurant biz and Las Vegas.

“There’s no way we could’ve planned this,” says Kaplan of the restaurant boom that took place after he and Puck opened Spago in the Forum Shops at Caesars in 1992. “We saw how jammed The Mirage and California Pizza Kitchen were at the time, so we knew there was potential, but what we couldn’t figure out why no one else was taking advantage of it.”

Caesars World executives required no capital investment on their part, just Puck’s name on the door—still a big gamble at the time. And when Spago opened its doors just after Thanksgiving, “the place was dead,” Kaplan recalls. But in a few short months, after being sparked by Consumer Electronics Show in January, business was booming.

It changed everything—Las Vegas, Puck’s company and Kaplan’s life.

“I quickly realized I could be a starving architect,” Kaplan says, “or I could be well-fed and still get to work with amazing designers like Adam Tihany and Richard Meier.”