The economy of dining remains strong
Because even in a recession, people will always be hungry
Thu, Jul 16, 2009 (midnight)
Illustration: Jeff Drew
“If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches, but take away from his desires.” –Epicurus
Deliciousness breeds optimism. This is the best way to explain the ever-upbeat attitude of the quoted philosopher and his faithful Las Vegas following, for despite this epic recession and the lack of visitors dropping coin in our machines and at our restaurants, those who specialize in the creation and consumption of deliciousness insist things are looking good in this city.
Only the stodgiest observer will hesitate to call Vegas a great restaurant city. It is a food destination, one constructed in unique haste without the strongest foundation. Could it all come crumbling down in this economic free fall?
“I don’t think it will affect it at all. It’s going to be a blip on the radar screen.” So says Elizabeth Blau, who has done as much as anyone to build Vegas’ culinary reputation. She is a partner in three restaurants here, runs her eponymous consulting firm and helped open Bellagio, the resort that took Vegas dining to new heights.
If she says we’re okay, we’re okay. Right?
Let’s retrace our steps. Up until about 1990, every hotel-casino had the same four restaurants: a buffet, a coffee shop, a steakhouse and a gourmet room. Around then, some national franchises arrived, like Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s steakhouses. In 1992, Wolfgang Puck brought Spago to the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, starting the “first real celebrity-chef wave.” (This history lesson comes courtesy of John Curtas, who has been writing and talking about restaurants in Las Vegas longer than anyone else.) “After that, you’ve got Emeril coming to the MGM and many other things happening, and that was the case until Bellagio opened in ’98. That was the second wave, and it was a tidal wave. That begat Mandalay Bay, the Venetian and more.” Real restaurants, great restaurants were all over the Strip (and popping up off-Strip, too), and the tourists were literally eating it up. “Then in the last four years, the French chefs show up—Hubert Keller, Guy Savoy, Joel Robuchon,” Curtas says. “No place on Earth has the concentration of great restaurants and great chefs we have in three square miles. You can walk from place to place, where you’ve got maybe 30 of the greatest restaurants in the United States. You can’t get that in San Francisco or New York, or even London or Tokyo.”
So here we are, our great name being bandied about with those world-class cities, a haven for big names and a natural for the next season of Top Chef. Industry insiders and critics agree the growth can continue, although it might not be based on the trends of our past.
“It’s better now than it’s ever been, but the trend at this time is away from high-priced, expensive fine dining, toward far more reasonable casual dining,” says Robin Leach, now a longtime Las Vegan. “Visitors to Vegas are getting a better deal than in the recent past. Provided the restaurants learn not to gouge customers again and provide true value for their money, the customers will be there. This temporary, painful hiccup is not going to stop us from growing, and it’s not going to stop star chefs from coming in.”
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Leach points to the planned arrival of Pierre Gagnaire at CityCenter’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, another multiple Michelin star-winning modern French chef to add to Vegas’ stable. Leach recently reported Gagnaire’s restaurant would open on December 5. Restaurants planned for the neighboring Aria resort include Bar Masa, from New York’s acclaimed Masayoshi Takayama; Sage, from Chicago’s famed Shawn McClain; and eateries from Vegas mainstays Michael Mina, Julian Serrano, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Sirio Maccioni.
So if we build it, somehow, the French masters and celebrity chefs, they will come. Still. But maybe not as much. Curtas estimates food and beverage is around 30 percent of gross revenue at big resorts these days. “Even with the recession, there’s 30 or 40 million people coming here,” he says. “I just wonder whether the super-high end will sustain itself. Are people still willing to pay $300 for dinner for two anymore? All these restaurants have to retrench and recalibrate their menus and price points, because people won’t pay like they did three years ago.”
But let’s not jump to conclusions. That doesn’t mean we’re all going to revert to the Vegas of old, where the drinks and steaks were comped, and the buffets were scary. Or does it?
Todd Clore might know. He might not be a celebrity outside of Henderson, but he’s a great chef with years of experience on and off the Strip. “From rumors I’m hearing, some of the hotels are going back to the way of old Vegas. It was unheard of to pay for food and beverage if you were a player then. A lot of that stuff has disappeared,” Clore says. “In the ’90s, all the corporations came in, and they had to make money. Food and beverage always was a loss leader for hotels. Now the gamblers are rethinking the value for their dollars. I believe a lot of them will find themselves going back to the past where there were more freebies for players.”
At his suburban stronghold, Todd’s Unique Dining, Clore is doing better than just holding on. “The effect [of the economy] is noticeable, but it’s a relatively small place, so I might lose three or four people every day instead of three or four hundred. But I’ve noticed it.” And he’s implemented some options to keep ’em coming in, but not at the expense of quality product. That’s one sacrifice Clore refuses to make. “My philosophy always has been the Strip never did justice to a local. We have a lot people that live here, and whether they dine at a buffet, a coffee shop or a nice restaurant, the choice is casino or out-of-casino. In this economy, when you’re not going out as much, would you rather spend it someplace that treats you like a decent human being?”
Blau believes keeping it real is the secret to survival, no matter the venue: “It’s authenticity. Whether you’re doing comfort food or fine dining, you have to be authentic and have a passion for what you’re doing. You’ve got to be best you can be. No shortcuts.”
One of Blau’s partners and a true celebrity chef who actually lives in Las Vegas, Kerry Simon, says Vegas’ past and the bumpy present make it hard to predict what direction the industry will take next. He’s worked with Steve Wynn and Vongerichten at Bellagio, just off the Strip at the Hard Rock and the Palms, and back on it at Luxor.
“Casinos can withstand certain things, and certain restaurants never have a hard time,” Simon says. “But I’m open to going back to what Vegas was, more approachable for everybody, because it seemed it was getting up there [price-wise]. Vegas should be more approachable. That’s where I’m at already. I want to be able to have people come and enjoy themselves.”
Easy for him to say; if there is a trend ready-made for today’s more casual food attitude, it’s a modern menu of nostalgic comfort cuisine, the combination of familiar tastes and upscale experience that Simon specializes in. You can find this vibe at his Palms Place restaurant, at Blau’s husband Kim Canteenwalla’s Society Café at Encore and at the new First Food and Bar at Palazzo, among others. “Look at what Rick Moonen is doing at [RM Seafood at] Mandalay Bay,” Curtas says. “He’s completely revamped the menu; everything is well-prepared with high-end ingredients, but fundamentally, it’s finger food. I call it gourmet bar food—chicken fingers, pork sliders, a tuna melt he just takes to another level … he’s a gourmet chef taking everyday food and making it sing, and everybody is on board. It’s not about Coquilles St. Jacques anymore. Only snobby critics like me still get into that kinda stuff.”
Leach, maybe the most famous restaurant snob in the world, takes it a step further. If there is a trend, he thinks it’s that Vegas food and beverage has become—or is becoming—far more realistic, far more dedicated to customer service, and acutely aware that high-end can exist as long as the top-tier diner is willing to pay.
For everyone else in the middle, it’s survival of the fittest. Some restaurants have closed. Others are opening. This analysis makes sense in any era of Vegas development, not just today’s doom-and-gloom climate.
“Vegas may have to go through another transformation, not in physical structure, but how tourists think and, especially on the Strip, how restaurants think,” says Clore. “There is the mentality of the single-transaction guest, the idea on the Strip that we don’t have to kill ourselves once they’re here. Now everyone should be thinking it’s not just important to get them in, but that they have to come see us, and we want them to visit us twice next time.”