Desert Companion

Back to basics: Spago's David Robins forecasts the 2012 food scene

The new rule for restaurants in the coming year: Keep it simple —
and friendly. This guy would know

Fresh ingredients, a focus on value and a welcoming atmosphere. They’re not exactly austerity measures, but they make up the back-to-basics approach that will characterize the dining scene in 2012, according to David Robins. He should know. He’s managing partner of operations and corporate chef for Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group’s Las Vegas arm. As its executive chef in 1992, Robins oversaw the opening of Spago, the restaurant that proved that Vegas could do more than serve up heat lamp roast beef, starting the Las Vegas fine-dining wave that continues today. Robins recently shared his thoughts on the past year in dining — and the years to come.


Desert Companion: What kind of year has 2011 been for the Las Vegas restaurant scene?

David Robins: Fantastic. Probably one of our highlight years. After things kind of crashed a couple of years ago, we went into a new mode of operation and focused on service, hospitality and finance. All of that came to fruition this year as we were very fortunate to have a lot of traffic in town; a lot of our convention business and relationships with locals continued to grow. It was a record year, along with a year of stepping forward in hospitality and creating a “wow” experience.

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DC: What were the prevalent food trends?

DR: Back to simplicity. Quality of ingredients. Execution of technique in the kitchen. And utilizing seasonal produce.


DC: Any restaurant openings that stand out?

DR: I would say The Cosmopolitan probably was the opening of the year for its collection of restaurants, and for its ambitiousness to continue to put more restaurants onto the Strip.


DC: Noteworthy restaurant closings?

DR: Michael Jordan’s restaurant off the Strip, Rosemary’s. It probably, in my opinion, signified a change in the local market outside of the Strip. On the Strip, I can’t think if anything closing that was significant.


DC: What does the current economy mean for the restaurants in Las Vegas? Is it a time to open restaurants? Close them?

DR: I think it’s a combination of both. We’re fortunate to have a pretty strong presence here in town with our six restaurants. We continue to try and reinvent ourselves with efficiencies, but at the same time create that customer experience that is unforgettable, so that they will come back and see us. We’re really into repeat business with our conventioneers, but also with our locals coming to see us two or three times a week. But also there are great opportunities right now. We’re always looking at expanding our operation here in town, and with the right opportunity we would always look at it.


DC: Has the Las Vegas dining-out customer changed over the last few years?

DR: I think they’re a little more discerning. Also, I think they’re looking for a little bit more of a value, which is kind of in our climate currently. It’s up to the restaurant scene to create that in the sense of making people feel special at the door, being able to recognize special occasions. At the same time, people are a little bit more skeptical about the money they spend and they want to make sure they’re getting value and consistency with that dollar.


DC: It’s been said that Las Vegas is not doing all it can to promote its top-flight culinary offerings — and that if it did, more people would come to Vegas. Do you agree?

DR: I think we’re definitely a component in the entertainment factor of Las Vegas, and I think it is an untapped revenue source along with our great shows, the great concerts and events that go on here. Anything that can promote Las Vegas, that can bring people here to the hotel, gaming and entertainment sector, is important for our local market.


DC: Las Vegas restaurant lore holds that you helped launch the last dining revolution here. True?

DR: (Laughs) I don’t know if it’s me personally. I’m fortunate to work for Wolfgang, who was very visionary in 1992 to come to Las Vegas when the market did not bear fine-dining restaurants. I’ve been here for 20 years. I believe in Las Vegas, I believe in the food scene, and I believe in the people who make this town work. If I can be part of the rebirth of Las Vegas, or the continued success of it, I’m more than happy to do that.


DC: Is another restaurant revolution needed?

DR: I think so. Anything needs to be reinvented with time. We were very fortunate to uproot an amazing food-and-beverage package for Las Vegas in the last 20 years. It may have gotten a little bit on the high-end side. I believe there need to be experiences between the casual dining and the fine dining so that — if it’s a three-day visit or a five-day visit — everybody is taken care of. At the same time, you can still create a “wow” experience with pizza, pasta and salad as much as you can with foie gras and a roasted fish.


DC: Where do Las Vegas restaurants need to improve?

DR: I believe it’s in consistency on hospitality, making sure also that we are cooking with the best ingredients and not taking shortcuts. Focus on being the best that you can be within your environment. Whether it’s a freestanding restaurant or a casino restaurant, what I’m looking for is Las Vegas to be represented on the highest level.


DC: What role does social media play in helping to shape and lead the restaurant community here in town?

DR: You know, I used to be Mr. Negative about social media, but what I realized is it’s a voice for the public to have an opinion on things instantly. What that means is that you’ve got to be on your game every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s a renowned food critic from out of state or a local who’s coming into your restaurant; the individuals who dine in your restaurant have the opportunity, through Tweeting or texting, blogging, to make an opinion. That just means you’re being critiqued every day, every minute, and you’ve got to be the best you can be. I have no problem with that. I actually used the social media process for negative feedback, to go back to our group to point out opportunities where we can improve.


DC: What’s going to happen in restaurants nationally and in Las Vegas in the year ahead?

DR: I believe, nationally, that there is a recommitment to the art of food. Again, I go back to quality of ingredients and technique of cooking to execute that. Hospitality being more sincere would probably be on top of the list. Also, managing your businesses to create a family environment that makes people feel comfortable and willing to go to work and execute it on a high level. I believe it’s happening nationally and that it is going to penetrate into Las Vegas. I think we’re only on an upward process here in Las Vegas, to continue to be one of the top destinations — culinarily and entertainment-wise — in the United States.

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