With attention to detail, craft beer and a farm-to-table menu, The Owl’s hyperkinetic owner, Stephan Galdau, is living his dream
Stephan Galdau has a voice like a taxi rolling over a pothole. When he sees one of his young barbacks at The Owl come out from the back wearing a windbreaker despite it being the dead of July, he barks out a couple of choice epithets before growling, “It’s your generation. You guys are so (expletive) soft.”
It’s a veteran piece of chops-busting that’s the mark of a native New Yorker, and it’s one of those things that still feels a little out of place on the sensitive West Coast. But you look around at The Owl, and there’s not much yet that’s really in place with the Las Vegas bar scene.
There’s no Internet jukebox. Galdau would rather lean on his own curated playlist of classic rock, alt-rock, rockabilly and oldies. The televisions rotate menu pictures and photos from the bar. There aren’t any video poker machines (yet). “People need to remember what a bar is for,” he says. “Talking to each other, listening to music, drinking.”
And yelling at chilly millennials.
Galdau, 41, is loud, demonstrative and has the attention span of some of your more thoughtful goldfish. But that’s part of being hyper-attuned to everything that’s going on in his bar. When he sees one customer walk in, then turn around and go right out, he stops mid-conversation to go run them down and find out what was wrong. Ten minutes later, he stops dead again to find out why no one has cleared a glass from a guy at the bar.
Galdau spent 12 years in corporate advertising in New York City. In 2008, during the worst of the recession, he lost his job, and in that crisis, found an epiphany. “I said to my father, ‘I don’t have a skill,’” he said. “If I was a plumber I’d have a skill. Selling advertising is not a skill.” He remembered, though, college days spent tending bar and how it was the best time of his life. So he entered the bar scene in Manhattan, relearning his trade at the likes of industry hangout Daddy-O, a Soho-adjacent spot on the west side that catered to off-duty servers, bartenders and chefs.
He had already fallen in love with Nevada. On a trip with a girlfriend, they visited Red Rock Canyon and the Grand Canyon. It was the opposite of Manhattan. It was the don’t-fence-me-in dream.
“I loved space,” he said. “Mountains, no traffic, bright blue skies. You never get sick of it. I was sick of people being around me all the time, always fighting for everything. Whether it was walking through a store, getting a cab, getting the subway, jobs.”
So he made the call four years ago to trade great pizza for sweeping vistas — maybe the toughest bit of culinary/quality-of-living calculus anyone should ever have to make. Along the way he realized the guy he came out with had a nasty Oxycontin addiction and left Galdau with just $600 when he got here. The economic necessity of living in an extended-stay suite led, predictably, to a break-in, in which crooks got everything, including his passport and his Xbox. Metro gave him the welcome-to-Las Vegas advice that if the place you’re staying says “suites,” it’s not sweet. Duly noted.
Initial brush with crime aside, Galdau knew that bar ownership was the end goal. He bounced around from job to job, with Ferraro’s and the Tao Group and Sapphire and Insert Coin(s) as a bartender, bar manager and general manager.
It was a Sunday night at what was then Hammers & Ales when Galdau realized he’d found his spot. It was the first night of football, and Galdau and a buddy were the only two in the joint. It was a sign, he said, that the current owner wanted out. Talks started in December 2013. A year later he won the bidding process over four other prospective owners, and the bar, formerly The Hammer, and remodeled in a Bar Rescue episode as Hammer & Ales, gave way to The Owl.
Where Hammer & Ales was unapologetically a beer bar, Galdau takes a more catholic approach. There’s a wide-ranging craft beer menu, including some more exotic breweries not widely found in Vegas, such as offerings from Butternuts Beer & Ale in Garrattsville, N.Y. (Trust: Their Porkslap is a hoppy-enough pale without the jam-a-pine-tree-in-your-mouth ethos of the overdone IPA craze endemic to craft-beer menus nationwide.) The Owl also goes in for a cocktail program with a mix of originals and riffs on classics.
But it’s the farm-to-table kitchen under executive chef Daniel Schneider that’s the crown jewel of the operation. The fare fits the elevated comfort-food mold of so many gastropubs, but what might set it apart is a vegan menu partially crowd-sourced from those particular diners. It’s a small subset of the menu, but it offers creative takes like a slab of seared polenta or vegan “deviled eggs” made out of cleverly molded tofu.
The downside of sourcing fresh is that it means not everything will be available at all times — a planned Fourth of July barbecue quickly became a vegan affair when farm-raised meat wasn’t available. But what’s available on any given day is worth the foray into Plan B.
The smoked pulled-pork sandwich is a straight-up avalanche of meat with a side of cactus slaw and homemade hot BBQ sauce. The bun doesn’t stand a chance against this kind of pork/slaw onslaught, and frankly, it’s thoroughly outclassed to begin with. Forget the bun. Go in fork-first. Or face-first. The pork is rich, dark and fatty. When the revolution comes, this is the kind of pig you set up a perimeter around to protect at all costs.
Loaded garlic fries seem to be a bit of a misnomer at first. Sure, there’s surprisingly tender steak on this riff on nachos, but it doesn’t seem to fit the bill without minced garlic shotgunned all over the spuds. Until you dig through like a fried-starch miner and find whole cloves of roasted garlic underneath. This is your reward for eating your way through fries, steak and jalapeños. It’s like somebody waited until the end of Christmas Day to bust out your birthday presents.
The Korean sliders make bulgogi into burgers, with miso mayo and a side of kimchi. Maybe not the best representation of bulgogi in the city, but still a quality interpretation that allows you to stay on the lighter side of meaty. The jalapeño poppers skip the deep-fry and focus on the pepper. The dessert menu consists of just one item, pecan pie with bourbon whipped cream. Like you were going to linger over anything else when bourbon whipped cream is on the table anyway.
Galdau has tattoos on each hand, of his parents’ initials. He says it’s to remind him to stay on the straight and narrow. On the Fourth, he had to choose between store-bought organic meat of questionable provenance or stay true to his farm-to-table vision.
“I was like, make money and lie, or tell the truth and lose everything, and I chose the latter,” he said. The truth shall set you free? Maybe. If the truth is in that pork, sign us up.