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[Neon Eden]

Downtown’s dining options are about to explode. Hungry?

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Michael Vakneen is one of the co-partners in Pop Up Pizza, which has been an immense success since opening a few months ago Downtown.
Photo: Steve Marcus

For years, Fremont East was a fun place to drink, especially if you were so committed to drinking (you know who you are) that you didn’t want food to get in the way.

You could drink an Alaskan Amber Ale at the Griffin, shotgun a PBR to the sounds of electro-pop at Beauty Bar and sip a Brandy Alexander at Downtown Cocktail Room. But unless you were willing to wander into the maze of a Downtown casino or risk some fried mystery at the Fremont Street Experience, food options in the new entertainment district were hard to come by.

Now, however, a restaurant boomlet is coming Downtown. What had been slow and steady progress—go to Le Thai, if you can get a table!—is quickening, with a pile of new spots opening, in construction or stewing in someone’s imagination. Seasonal comfort food, Latin-inspired small plates, Mexican with Michael Morton, a vegan fast food joint(!) and pizza pizza pizza are all on the way—to say nothing of the rumored and half-baked.

This development was inevitable—imbibers do like to eat, eventually, even if it’s French fries piled high with a cheese-like substance. But the great food movement that has swept the rest of the city, bringing cuisine that is fresh, ethnic and innovative, has been delayed Downtown by the lack of restaurant infrastructure. The buildings on East Fremont didn’t have kitchens, and restaurateurs were intimidated by the build-from-scratch challenge.

Le Thai has done well Downtown, thanks to the hard work of Dan Coughlin.

“I think it just proves that restaurants are that hard to do,” says Dan Coughlin, chef and owner of Fremont hot spot Le Thai. A bar is ambiance, alcohol and security. Food requires kitchen equipment, quality ingredients (and their preservation) and a skilled staff just to get started. Once established, a restaurant can die of a bad review. No one ever panned a vodka tonic.

Moreover, just a few years ago, before the Ogden condo tower filled and Fremont began seeing more residents and daytime visitors, the customer base was iffy.

“Now people are willing to take the risk and take that leap a little bit,” says Alex Epstein, executive vice president of the El Cortez. She says El Cortez brought the Vegas StrEATs monthly food truck festival to Jackie Gaughan Plaza to help improve the food scene, and she welcomes new restaurants, even though they’re competition. “We’ll want to keep up and innovate, and I don’t think that makes us nervous. We’re excited for that.”

Coughlin echoes the welcome to newcomers: “The competition is going to be good because you have to be good or you get bounced. I like it.”

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a look at some of what’s coming.

Eat

Natalie Young is a veteran Vegas chef, having run kitchens at MGM Grand, Hard Rock Hotel and P.J. Clarke’s at the Forum Shops. Today, she’s chef and co-owner of Eat, a breakfast joint planned to open in the fall in a space in the Park Avenue Apartments at 7th and Carson streets. May she cure countless hangovers.

Chef Natalie Young’s Eat will focus on simple food for breakfast and lunch.

And we almost lost her. Young said she was considering leaving Las Vegas when Downtown Cocktail Room owner Michael Cornthwaite convinced her to stay and introduced her to Tony Hsieh, the Zappos CEO who is investing millions in Downtown Las Vegas. Hsieh’s Downtown Project partners are backing Eat, and Young doesn’t buy the cynicism surrounding Downtown Project’s small business plans. “I’m a cynical person, and it seems unbelievable, but it’s real and they’re all nice people. I did my due diligence.”

Eat, which Young says will likely be the first Downtown Project-backed restaurant to open in the area, will be a 2,200-square-foot space focusing on fresh, simple food for breakfast and lunch. “I thought, ‘What’s my niche?’ In a year and a half, Downtown will be saturated with options for dinner and nightlife. But I thought, ‘Nobody wants to do breakfast; nobody wants to get up at 5 a.m.’ I don’t mind. I’m cool with that,” she says.

Don’t expect conventional fare, however: “If I wake up and I want a great plate of spaghetti and meatballs or green chili chicken enchiladas, I’ll be able to do it that day as a special. I just want to cook simple food and be nice to people.”

Pop Up Pizza (And a vegan joint to come)

Sam Cherry is the Downtown developer behind the Soho and Newport Lofts. He’s also co-owner of The Lady Silvia bar and Resnick’s Grocery, both on the ground floor of Soho, at Hoover and Las Vegas Boulevard. And Cherry is planning to open a vegan fast-food concept by the end of the year.

“I’m vegan, but the concept is really born out of a limited number of places to go.” The office workers support a number of lunch-only places Downtown, but, Cherry says, “What do you do at night when everyone leaves? Since the high-rises have been built, between us and the Ogden, we now have a good base of people that will come out at night.”

Cherry’s latest project, though, is the months-old Pop Up Pizza, a joint venture with the owners of the Plaza, where New York-style pies and slices are served from a quick counter at the southern corner of the casino. “The word’s gotten out,” Cherry says of Pop Up Pizza (much like the similarly clandestine pizza joint inside Cosmopolitan). “We have people coming from Henderson and Summerlin to try this little pizzeria.”

Cherry estimates that Downtown will see a bunch of new restaurants in the next year, and his company is also pursuing additional food and beverage opportunities.

Mingo

Mingo Collaso is a partner in Mundo, the Latin restaurant at World Market Center. Before Mundo opened in 2010, it existed as La Madonna in the Spring Valley suburbs. But, Collaso says, “I’ve always lived Downtown and wanted to do a restaurant Downtown.”

Mundo has been thriving since the March opening of the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, and now Collaso and his partners are expanding with a smaller restaurant called Mingo, a bar and kitchen set to open in August near the ArtSquare project at Charleston and Main. Expect a trendy menu of American (and likely Latin-influenced) small plates, quick and tasty bites perfect for sharing while cocktailing. And they’re not stopping there: “We are looking at another spot Downtown, too. We want to do different concepts. I just want to stay Downtown.”

Morton’s Mexican concept

Michael Morton, creator of Vegas venues including N9NE Steakhouse, Nove Italiano, and Ghostbar and Rain nightclubs, recently announced a planned collaboration with Downtown developer Tamares Properties for a Mexican restaurant at 106 6th St., a space just off Fremont Street across from the El Cortez.

The news release had us thinking of the Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange. “Everything about this venue will be richer than reality; more vibrant colors, the sexy rhythm of the music, intensely powerful aromas and flavors from the food, and tequila with almost palpable essence.” Will the food be dosed with MDMA? Let’s hope so.

The new restaurant is scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2013.

Slice

Miki Agrawal is the owner of Slice, a pizzeria in the West Village in New York City. Slice boasts an interesting menu driven by seasonal, farm-fresh ingredients. Imagine a whole wheat crust with basil pesto, hormone-free chicken sausage, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. (If we like hormones, can we get it with hormones?) Agrawal met Hsieh last year at an entrepreneurs’ conference, and Hsieh later approached her to open a Downtown Las Vegas version of Slice. “He was looking for new energy, new concepts and something healthier, so really it’s a perfect fit,” she says. There’s no timetable yet, but the pizzeria is slated to open in the ground-level retail space at the Ogden.

Pork and Beans ... and tea?

Cornthwaite is a Downtown warrior, having opened Downtown Cocktail Room in 2007 and toughed it out through the hard years of the recession. He’s close to Hsieh and Downtown Project and has lots of restaurant experience; he’ll be doing a beer and sausage concept tentatively titled Pork and Beans at Fremont and 7th, where Downtown Project is planning an experimental development using shipping containers. Other food concepts in the works in the shipping containers: barbecue, tacos and a wine bar and charcuterie spot. Although the deals aren’t inked, Downtown Project also expects to see a Rachel’s Kitchen location and an upscale tea lounge, both in the Ogden. (Given that none of those are off the ground yet: Salt, grain of.)

Finally, proof of a burgeoning food scene is the never-ending rumors of who’s coming next: Is Kerry Simon looking for a spot? Is the popular southwest neighborhood restaurant DW Bistro really expanding into Andre’s former space just off 6th Street? How about Sambalatte, the Summerlin coffeehouse that has the best brew in the Valley? Or Bronze Market Cafe, a bakery and vegan-friendly eatery planning to open in early 2013 somewhere?

If it all happens, the Downtown food scene will be well on its way, and perhaps missing just one thing: a real grocery store.

Brock Radke contributed reporting.

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