Vested in Vegas
The celebrity chef capital has staked its claim as a serious food city, with the best chefs in the world convinced what happens in Vegas is a sure bet for new concepts.
Las Vegas is back. Perhaps prognosticators are fearful of making such bold statements, but it’s hard to ignore the evidence that Las Vegas has moved past the recession and is ready to return to prosperity and growth. With 40 million annual visitors, 22,000 conventions every year, and an approximate 84 percent occupancy rate over more than 150,000 hotel rooms, the city—and the four miles of Las Vegas Boulevard that make up the Strip—doubled down with a huge year in 2014.
A squadron of new resorts and attractions came to life on the Strip for the first time in four years, suburban developments that stalled during darker days were reignited, and decades-long revitalization plans for downtown Las Vegas began to bear fruit. New success looms large, but this is not the same Vegas.
In the past, restaurants in casinos were a signifier of how Vegas was doing. Today, restaurants are helping Vegas do better. Food is a major driver, not a loss leader, and the city’s dining scene has become more diverse, dynamic, and competitive than anyone outside its massive local industry recognizes.
For today’s Vegas visitors, where to dine is as big a decision as where to stay, what show to see, and how much to wager at the tables. According to demographic stats from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the average food and drink expenditure over a typical three-night trip is $278.95—almost twice as much as spending on shopping and shows. Seventy-two percent of visitors attend a show, 71 percent gamble, but everybody eats. And the Strip has transitioned into a dining destination that truly has something for everyone, from the most elegant fine-dining experience available anywhere to comfort food concocted by celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Bobby Flay.
“Vegas has been evolving,” says Sebastien Silvestri, vice president of food and beverage at the Venetian and Palazzo, two of the Strip’s biggest resorts. “When I came here 12 years ago to work at Bellagio, that was the benchmark. Bellagio was the first casino [in 1998] to have a truly great restaurant program. Well, it’s been contagious. Every single property that has opened since then wants that kind of program.”
Silvestri’s resorts certainly demonstrate the pattern. The Venetian alone contains restaurants from Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Keller, Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, and now, Daniel Boulud. Internationally acclaimed chefs and restaurateurs like these first started arriving in Las Vegas two decades ago, with Puck and Lagasse among the earliest pioneers. The post-Bellagio boom helped create a perception that these restaurants were just outposts, that the operators were looking to capitalize on a huge, hungry, captive audience for an easy score.
Things have changed, Silvestri says. “The chefs that do business with us here, Daniel and Wolfgang and Mario and Emeril and Thomas Keller? They are the best of the best in this business, and when they put their name in front of a restaurant, they are obsessed with quality, consistency, and customer service. It’s their name out there.”
Boulud’s return to Las Vegas with DB Brasserie at the Venetian was one of the year’s biggest events, debuting in April with Chef Boulud on hand for the official opening on May 8. His first stint on the Strip was at Wynn from 2005 to 2010, but that restaurant was about 25 percent bigger and focused on a more upscale clientele. Chef Boulud says his new restaurant is more independent, a true partnership with the Venetian. Situated where the casino meets the sprawling convention space, it was an instant blockbuster success.
“It’s a different setting and a different feel for us in Las Vegas, but it’s also more like a classic French brasserie, something you would find in Paris or Lyon,” Chef Boulud says. “It’s smaller but still large enough to entertain a large group during a special convention when those groups come, but also it’s within the budget of what most companies or people can afford for entertainment when they come to Las Vegas. It’s still a chef-driven restaurant, first and foremost about the food and service and what we give to the customer. That’s what matters most.”
DB has the advantages of a great location, an acclaimed celebrity chef, and an operator who has played the Vegas game before. But the business landscape has changed dramatically since then. “We were totally aware of that, and how even five or six years ago, maybe you could have done this a little more grand,” Chef Boulud says. “It’s a very different landscape. Now people are more conscious of where they go, and they are making sure to go to the right place for what they’re looking for.” He notes that food and beverage on the Strip is still primarily supported by conventioneers, but that’s changing, with weekend tourist visits surging.
“We make sure we are staying relevant with the food, but also with training our chefs and staff, so that everyone understands the goals of the restaurant,” he says. “When guests push open that door, we want them to feel that there is a constant presence, and we want our staff to feel a constant expectation of performance. The only way to do that is a lot of communication, staying organized, and giving support.”
A precise brasserie from a legendary chef is not an unexpected development for Las Vegas, but if you’re looking for surprises, 2014 had those, too. Caesars Entertainment’s Linq project, a retail- and restaurant-filled pedestrian thoroughfare stretching from the Strip to the 550-foot-tall High Roller observation wheel, is anchored by Brooklyn Bowl, an 80,000-square-foot venue with live music, bowling lanes, multiple bars, and food from New York’s Bromberg brothers. And at the aging Monte Carlo resort—the furthest thing from a dining hot spot—Chicago chef Matthias Merges opened Yusho, an edgy space serving his hip ode to Japanese street food. Neither new spot is like anything the Strip has seen before.
Bruce and Eric Bromberg first landed in Las Vegas with Blue Ribbon at the Cosmopolitan in 2010. Even during those depressed years, Bruce Bromberg says, it was clear Las Vegas restaurants were becoming more aspirational. “We were part of a group that really wanted to create those everlasting experiences for people who dined in our places. It had more weight.”
Trying to find deeper connections to customers is something Bromberg’s company shared with the changing state of Las Vegas restaurants. At Brooklyn Bowl, there is infinite potential for connections through music, food, and fun. The nostalgia-inducing menu is all about classic fried chicken, piled-high sandwiches, and French bread pizzas, focused not only on satisfaction but also on creating regular customers, no matter where they live.
“We adopted Vegas as our town and we’re vested in the city’s future,” Bromberg says. “We don’t want [customers] to just come to our restaurant, we want them to come back to the city as well, and the way we treat them is all about creating that desire to come back.”
For all its uniqueness, Brooklyn Bowl faces true challenges. It began as a “real New York experience,” Bromberg says, and transferring and translating those sensibilities to Las Vegas is no simple task. “Everybody is happy eating fried chicken, but just the vastness of that space is a challenge. Ultimately it’s about finding the right music selections and connecting with the crowd,” he says. Additionally, the location is exciting and multi-faceted, but it will likely take some time for tourists to seek out and get comfortable with the Linq.
Yusho, however, is right on the street. Strip pedestrians can’t miss it. For this new restaurant, it’s all about translating super-cool cuisine for the typical Vegas crowd. Luckily for Chef Merges, that crowd is getting younger and cooler.
“The average American is becoming more savvy about food. It’s such a big cultural shift, and they are looking for food and experiences that are authentic and well-crafted,” Chef Merges says. “Yusho speaks to that. It’s a challenge to some people who don’t understand it when they first come in, but once they sit down, they love it. Any cuisine that’s not steak and potatoes, you have to articulate your vision, but if the staff is trained and buys into the vision, you can get past it.”
Yusho also benefits from being part of a beautifully renovated Strip-side courtyard that features a barbecue-oriented saloon and fast-casual ice cream, coffee, and pizza concepts. It’s the first stage of MGM Resorts’ Park project, what will eventually be an alternate version of the Linq: a heavily landscaped outdoor area laced with bars, restaurants, and shops, culminating in a 10,000-seat events arena. Shake Shack, from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, will have its first Las Vegas store among the offerings at the Park.
Still, for every Strip restaurant serving artisan pork broth ramen, there are two others slinging familiar crowd-pleasers like pasta and burgers. And since it’s the celebrity chef capital of the universe, Las Vegas is always ready to welcome famous food figures to town to add to its simple equation for success.
Two Food Network stars proved that with their recent arrivals: Guy Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen & Bar, which opened in April, dishes up oversized food and flavor at the Quad, while Giada De Laurentiis’ namesake restaurant, which opened in June at the newly opened Cromwell boutique hotel, specializes in her California-inspired take on traditional Italian. Both opened with tons of hype and a rock-solid partnership with Caesars.
Upon the occasion of debuting her first-ever restaurant, Chef De Laurentiis says she received some advice that makes all the difference. “Bobby Flay has been here for 11 or 12 years, and he told me you’ve got to stick to your guns and know that your team has your back, and they will deliver no matter what. The best way to create that is to be here and to listen, to be willing to listen to everybody’s feedback even if it’s not a democracy. Ultimately, I make the choices.”
Upping the Ante on Hospitality
The Strip is thick with mega-resorts, and each of them is stocked with myriad restaurants. But as overwhelming as the competition has become, the single factor that makes doing business in Las Vegas worth the pressure is the unshakeable culture of hospitality, built on the huge number of experienced, dedicated workers.
“It is a food and beverage town. Even the average front-of-house staff here is as good or better than the average big-city waitstaff,” says Chef Merges. “Las Vegas is ahead of the game. What we have been working to do is bring in the culture of what Yusho is and let them augment their toolkit.”
Consistently offering the highest level of service is a deeply seeded concept in Las Vegas, and it’s easy to see why. Everyone’s in on it. In recapping the last 23 years, the UNLV Center for Gaming Research’s Las Vegas Strip Casino Employment report released in May notes the number of food employees has increased by 46 percent, and food revenues have increased by 447 percent since 1990.
The veteran executive Silvestri concurs. “It’s a cultural thing in Vegas. People know it’s in their best interest to perform and do the right thing. We’ve also put so much into programs—training and overtraining these people to provide an amazing experience. So that, plus the way people are compensated on gratuity, it’s just a different dynamic. We have so many things that work to our advantage in this city, and it’s why we are so strong and getting stronger every year.”
Embedded professionalism and a deep talent pool are defining factors in the local restaurant landscape, too, which grew with daring leaps this past year. Chicago-based operators Tony Hu, who brought his Lao Sze Chuan Chinese restaurant to the Palms, and the Sandoval brothers, who brought Mercadito’s innovative Mexican fare to the Red Rock Resort, successfully planted proven concepts in off-Strip Las Vegas casinos. Husband-and-wife team Kim Canteenwalla and Elizabeth Blau opened their second neighborhood restaurant with the upscale tavern Made L.V. in the burgeoning Tivoli Village retail district and planned a third for the nearby Downtown Summerlin complex. The legendary Wolfgang Puck is opening his first Las Vegas neighborhood restaurant there, too.
Even downtown, the original Las Vegas has turned to food and beverage to boost its long-simmering, suddenly sparked comeback. Chef Kerry Simon, a vital local presence since he helped open Prime steakhouse at Bellagio, was the first big-time chef to jump on the downtown Vegas comeback wagon, opening the hip, small plate-oriented Carson Kitchen at the renovated John E. Carson hotel building in partnership with the redevelopment collective Downtown Project. Even though Chef Simon is locked in a brutal battle against Multiple System Atrophy, Carson Kitchen has become one of the most beloved new restaurants in the city.
Perhaps the best example of how big a factor dining is in today’s Sin City is happening at the northern tip of the Strip, where the former Sahara casino—an icon of Vegas in the ’50s and ’60s—has been transformed into a fresh, stylized resort where restaurants are without question the chief draw.
SLS Las Vegas opened right before Labor Day, a flagship hotel in the portfolio of Los Angeles-based SBE’s popular hotel and restaurant brands. It has a smaller casino, by Vegas Strip standards, plenty of rooms, and a handful of nightclubs. It also has eight restaurants, seven of which are new-to-Vegas concepts and six of which are proven successes in other cities. Iconic chef José Andrés is the resort’s culinary director, and all of the restaurants are operated by SBE. With the exception of the buffet and Andrés’ Bazaar Meat—which attempts to redefine the big Vegas steakhouse experience—the restaurants of SLS each have fewer than 200 seats and a collective check average under $40.
“I don’t want to sound over-confident, but in some ways we are helping to evolve restaurant programs in Las Vegas,” says SLS vice president of restaurant operations Matt Erickson. “We are bringing brands from other markets that look completely different from each other, rather than having a homogenized design within the resort.”
That design approach also maximizes efficiencies, such as a connected, shareable back of house for sushi spot Katsuya, Mediterranean restaurant Cleo, and the 800° Degrees pizzeria, and a similar prep and dishwasher space for the in-room dining kitchen, the noodle bar, and the breakfast-oriented Griddle Café. SLS also is likely the first Strip casino to actively market its restaurants to local Las Vegans.
“It’s been an interesting transition for people in the Vegas market to wrap their heads around, but we’re working with a different business model where the restaurant can be the primary force of awareness,” Erickson says.