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Desert Companion

Essay: The Food Abides

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The Staying Power
Illustration by Chris Sickles

The restaurants that survived a decade of turmoil and turnover may lead the way to Vegas’ next culinary renaissance

Ten years is a long time — and for restaurants, it’s practically a lifetime. Laboring under their own set of unique pressures and stresses, restaurants age in dog years, and those who make it past a decade deserve a trophy for longevity.

2007 seems like an eternity away. It was the last boom year before the big bust of 2008. Social media was a harmless novelty; Facebook and Twitter were just gaining traction with adults, and Instagram was years away from becoming the app that launched a trillion food pics.

A decade ago, two of the best restaurants in town were Alex and Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in the Wynn. Rosemary’s was firmly ensconced as our most popular off-Strip eatery, and Bradley Ogden and Valentino were still basking in the glow of their James Beard awards from 2004. Boulud Brasserie, also in the Wynn, was as fabulously French as you could get, Circo rang all of our Tuscan chimes at the Bellagio, and Hubert Keller was wowing us with his Alsatian-Californian cuisine at Fleur de Lys in Mandalay Bay — at the time, perhaps the prettiest dining room in town. Today: They’re all gone.

It’s wild to think that all those restaurants have closed, as well as plenty of off-Strip eateries from Henderson (David Clawson, Bread & Butter, Standard & Pour) to Downtown (Glutton). It confirms the idea of Las Vegas as a wildly unpredictable restaurant market where no seemingly sure thing is safe. Or does it?

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Numbers game

Actually, there are plenty of valley success stories that contain some valuable lessons. What keeps these places alive while other, equally worthy restaurants fold their tents? Rosemary’s went under, but Grape Street Café kept itself afloat, and is now thriving in a new Downtown Summerlin location. Circo and Valentino bit the dust, but Ferraro’s and Carbone (a relative newcomer) are both flying high. Standard & Pour didn’t make it even a year in Green Valley; Downtown’s Carson Kitchen, with a similar menu, is packed day and night. Glutton closed but, just across the street, EAT thrives. What separates the casualties from the survivors, and what can the past tell us about the future of dining in the valley?

When it comes to casualties, I have two theories. The less sexy theory involves real estate, contracts, and accounting. The Strip is a numbers game, pure and simple. The big hotels are dominated by a need to maximize the profitability of every inch of their real estate. Wall Street demands it, investors demand it, and food and beverage executives think of little else. Restaurants to them are amenities just like swimming pools and high-end retail stores — something to be looked at through the prism of profit margins. When the lease is up (as it was at Valentino, Bradley Ogden, Osteria del Circo, and others), the focus shifts from how wonderful a restaurant is to what prospective new tenant can move the most numbers through the space with the highest cover average. Romantic notions of dappled lights in an architecturally perfect, Adam Tihany-designed room where you fall in love over a subtle Tuscan fish stew and Mama Egi’s ravioli with brown butter sauce mean nothing to the bean counters — especially during a post-recession hangover when every one of those beans count. Exit the Maccioni family’s renowned Circo at Bellagio, enter Lago, a restaurant with all the charm of a bus station. But it’s a crowded bus station, slinging pizzas and pastas at the nightclub crowd, and that’s all that matters. When the recession hit, that’s really all that mattered. Circo, Valentino, and Bradley Ogden never had a chance.

 

Back to the plate

Theory number two concerns food — specifically, what sells and what doesn’t. Off the Strip, you need a hook. And you need perceived value, the sense that what you are paying for is worth it, or more than worth it. For instance, at Marché Bacchus, it’s the outdoor dining, the wine shop, and never-fail French bistro food. (That’s three hooks. Four if you include the cheesiest, gooiest onion soup in town.) Daniel Krohmer’s Other Mama has been a hit since its doors opened a couple of years ago, in no small part due to his Strip-quality oysters, straight-from-the-Pacific seafood, and fusion  concoctions such as French toast caviar that get your attention. Ferraro’s has patriarch Gino at the door (and its 30-year-famous osso buco and a world-class wine list), and Raku became instantly known for its house-made tofu and tender, glazed yakitori skewers that taste like they came straight from a Shinjuku alleyway. Glutton’s only hook was its terrible name and logo. Its neighbor EAT has yeasty pancakes and dense corned beef hash; one bite of either and it becomes your favorite breakfast spot.

On the Strip, the hook used to be a chef’s name. Today, the food gets the attention, not some network star. Many of the celebrities that made our food famous have seen their brands diminish over the past 10 years, and the big splashes these days are made by plates, not personalities — by the over-the-top spectacle of Mr. Chow’s Peking Duck, the tableside ministrations of Carbone, or the extraordinary meat and seafood bars of Bazaar Meat.

 


Lookback: What began in January 1998 as John Curtas' annual year-in-review segment for KNPR would eventually evolve in to the magazine's Restaurant Awards. Read those and more highlight dining stories from our 10 years.

 

Big and showy is what Vegas does best, but the places that last another 10 years are going to be all about what’s on the menu, not whose name is on the marquee. That’s the way it should be, and that’s where we were headed before the recession derailed our restaurant renaissance.

Now it feels like we’re picking up where we left off. Consider: Rainbow Boulevard south of the 215 has become its own mini-Chinatown; Andre’s Bar & Bistro, Sparrow + Wolf, and Elia Authentic Greek Taverna have all opened recently to great and deserved acclaim; and Other Mama, Japaneiro, and Rosallie Le French Café continue to draw passionate foodies. And on the Strip, some venerable joints — such as Cut, Picasso, and Le Cirque — just keep getting better, while newcomers such as Libertine Social and reboots such as Blue Ribbon further bolster my hope for Vegas’ dining future.

At long last, a decade of downsizing is over. It’s time to get cooking again.

 

Great food, service, and setting. What went wrong?

Circo, Bellagio
(1998-2013)

The licensing/management deal with the Maccioni family expired after 15 years, and with it went our only authentic Tuscan cuisine — replaced by the decidedly less magical, but more profitable Lago. If you miss Circo, try Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar.

 

Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, The Wynn
(2005-2013)

Paul Bartolotta’s masterpiece was expensive to create and maintain, and fell victim to the Wynn going all-in on nightclubs and bottle service. The restaurant that took its place is but a pale imitation of what was once the best Italian seafood restaurant in America. If you miss Bartolotta, try Estiatorio Milos in The Cosmopolitan.

 

Bradley Ogden, Caesars
(2002-2012)

Caesars had a choice: Continue with a sleek, stylish place with a world-class chef and his groundbreaking American cuisine, or slap a TV star’s name (Gordon Ramsay) on a downmarket facsimile of an English pub. Guess which won out? If you miss Bradley Ogden, try Blue Ribbon in The Cosmopolitan. JC