Grit Meets Glam at Las Vegas' Beauty & Essex
Beauty & Essex
Opened: May 2016
Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
Owner: Chris Santos, Rich Wolf, TAO Group
Average Check: $70
Description: The second location of Beauty & Essex champions the original spirit, but with an extra shot of opulence.
Chris Santos wouldn’t be offended if you compared walking into Beauty & Essex to falling down a rabbit hole and landing in Wonderland. The famed chef and perennial “Chopped” judge took as much care in developing the ambiance of his glittery concept as he did the menu.
Since the original location opened in New York’s Lower East Side in 2010, Beauty & Essex has garnered praise for its global mix of small plates—as well as notoriety for its playful atmosphere. From the streets of New York City, the restaurant appears to be nothing more than a garish pawnshop. But go through that deceptive entrance and the space suddenly expands into an opulent arena.
Last year Santos brought Beauty & Essex to the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Some menu and décor features have been tweaked, but the “gritty-but-pretty” pawnshop façade was non-negotiable.
“Because both restaurants feature such crazy, opulent, over-the-top design, the idea is to come into this very small, slightly cramped space that doesn’t begin to reveal what’s happening behind the wall. It’s almost this pseudo-speakeasy situation to walk into this big, giant restaurant,” says Santos, who in addition to Beauty & Essex, also founded New York’s popular Stanton Social.
A frequent guest at the Cosmopolitan, Santos has developed a relationship with the proprietors over the past 15 years. The luxury hotel exudes a similar bourgeoisie in its design with flourishes like a giant chandelier that cloaks the Cosmopolitan’s bar and stretches three floors tall. Chef Santos recalls thinking, “This place is dying for a Beauty & Essex.”
In New York, unaware passers-by could stroll past the restaurant without any inkling of what was behind the storefront. Since the Las Vegas location is tucked into the third floor of a luxury hotel, it has less of an opportunity to hoodwink, but it still maintains the unconventional front with electric guitars hanging on the wall above a display case of jewelry and knickknacks.
Within the restaurant, the palatial atmosphere echoes the original, but the newer location kicks it up a notch in true Vegas fashion. Santos says he wants it to be instantly recognizable as Beauty & Essex but with touches unique to its resident city. For example, the Cosmopolitan restaurant has a private dining room that separates the main dining area from the back dining area. The private room—which Santos compares to a glass window box—can fit 20 to 30 guests and is open to both sides, essentially serving as the focal point of the entire space.
“It makes sense because I think Vegas is a see-and-be-seen kind of town,” he says. In general, Chef Santos says he would like to keep things at a 70:30 split wherein 70 percent of the design and menu is recognizable as the Beauty & Essex brand. The remaining third is left open to interpretation, spotlighting unique elements of the city.
This mélange of original and new also informs the Las Vegas menu. Staples from New York, like Tuna Poke Wonton Tacos and Oven Braised Chicken Meatballs, have found a home in the Cosmopolitan—while added dishes include Pulled Chicken Arepas with manchego and salsa verde, Elote Style Scallops, and a 40-day, dry-aged Tomahawk Ribeye.
For all the luster of Beauty & Essex, one popular dish unique to Las Vegas is a mac ‘n’ cheese. Although the classic comfort food gets a pedigreed twist (complemented by short rib, pickled jalapeño, and an herbed cornbread crust), Santos admits it’s a little lowbrow for Beauty & Essex. TAO Group’s corporate chef Marc Marrone convinced him to give it a try, and the dish quickly became a favorite.
The fare at Beauty & Essex has been described as multiethnic small plates, and that suits Santos just fine. In February, the chef released his first-ever cookbook, Share: Delicious and Surprising Recipes to Pass Around Your Table, which reflects the same philosophy behind Beauty & Essex. The menu defies categorization and encourages guests to order a variety of dishes.
“Our kitchens are collaborative think tanks,” Santos says. “We don’t put ourselves in boxes where it has to be from a certain culinary tradition or certain ethnicity or a certain geographical place, which leaves us with a really large palette of things to work with.”
That innovative spirit extends to the cocktail program, composed of lost recipes that Santos says hark back to Prohibition: a Champagne cocktail called Bubbles & Berries, the Pink Panther (gin and St. Germain), and the Masterly Touch (vodka and Campari pearls).
Only one year into its operation, the Cosmopolitan’s Beauty & Essex is already running very much like a well-oiled machine, although Santos says they are still making some adjustments. Originally, he’d planned to offer brunch in Las Vegas as it does in New York, but quickly realized that the windowless space didn’t fit with that particular daypart.
Nevertheless, the fortuitous conditions that brought Beauty & Essex to Sin City have opened the door to further expansion. In March, a third location opened in Hollywood, and Santos says he is now looking at multiple cities for a fourth. He doesn’t plan to plant a flag in every major city but thinks five would be a good number stateside, assuming they find the right fit.
“It’s about exploring different cities and getting a feel for the city and saying: Would we be embraced here? Would people want to come see us if we came here? If the answer is yes, then it becomes a process of trying to find the right location—not just neighborhoodwise, but buildingwise,” Santos says. “The spaces we’re in have a lot of character. If all those things come together, then you start to get serious.”