Is Las Vegas' Golden Age Of Dining Over?
Local businesses have been majorly impacted by the pandemic, and among the hardest hit are restaurants.
Though many dining establishments have reopened, they’ve had to reduce guest capacities and, in many instances, their staff.
And some restaurants haven’t reopened at all, especially on the Strip, where visitation is still nowhere near pre-pandemic times.
The last three decades have seen tremendous growth in the local dining scene. Has that spurt reached its end? Or will Covid-19 force it to evolve?
Longtime local food writer John Curtas recently wrote on this topic for Desert Companion’s Fifth Street newsletter.
"There's no doubt that 30 years of progress was wiped out in about 30 days," Curtas told KNPR's State of Nevada.
Curtas traces the city's dining revolution to when some of the bigger steakhouse chains like Ruth's Chris and Morton's set up shop here in the late '80s. That brought in celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse.
Now, he argues the progress Las Vegas has made over the past 30 years from bad buffets and 99-cent cocktails to a food destination is gone, and it is not coming back.
"I don't want to be too pessimistic because there is no bigger cheerleader about local restaurants than me," he said. "But I'm not sure Las Vegas is ever coming back from it. Certainly, not in my lifetime. I don't see it happening."
Curtas was clear that are two different stories in the dining scene in Las Vegas: One is the Strip, which he described as a "beached whale," and the neighborhood dining scene, which is making successful efforts to adapt.
"But [neighborhood restaurants'] expectations are also a lot lower," he said. "These giant Strip restaurants, especially the famous ones, are built on a minimum of a $1-million-a-month gross revenues and nobody is [making] that right now."
Curtas said he was much more confident about the survival of off-Strip restaurants than he is for on-Strip places.
However, the pandemic may have just accelerated a process that was underway already. Curtas said that many of the once-great restaurants on the Strip were starting to see lagging sales and showing their age — even before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
"I think we had reached peak Vegas, in terms of our restaurant and food scene... probably a few years ago," he said. "You can see a lot of these places are starting to show their age. They weren't making their numbers in 2018 and 2019 like they had a few years earlier."
Alexandria Dazlich is the director of government affairs for the Nevada Restaurant Association. She agrees that the food and beverage business is a tough one right now, but she is far more optimistic.
"I think there is going to be demand for fine dining, celebrity chefs and one-of-a-kind experiences that only the Strip can provide," she said. "At the end of the day, people come here from all around the world to see the Strip. I don't think that's going to go anywhere."
But it is that change in experience, even at a casual dining restaurant, that Curtas says is really hurting the industry.
"The experience of dining out involves conviviality and going to a place where you feel comfortable and you know the menu and the staff greets you by name and you know what your favorite cocktail is or the beer you like there — or you have a favorite appetizer — and you walk in and everyone is in a happy mood. That's gone," he said.
He added that people are doing their best to get past the restrictions like mask mandates, but he believes a key component of the hospitality industry has been lost when you can't see people smile.
"This isn't a recipe for fun. This is a recipe for being in a dentist chair," he quipped.
While the experience of dining out has changed because of the health restrictions, it is the diminished capacity that is really hurting restaurants.
Dazlich said at 50 percent capacity, every restaurant operator is going to struggle, but her group is not pushing for a premature re-opening of indoor dining.
"Our first priority is the health and safety of customers and employees," she said. "We want to continue at the Nevada Restaurant Association to promote the recommended required guidelines put out by the governor's office and the local health authorities."
The real solution, she said, is a vaccine so people will feel safe being out again.
"I think, at the end of the day, it's foot traffic. It's about volume. So, if we find a vaccine, there's really not going to be an issue of [fear]," she said, "I think once that's eliminated, then there's really nothing holding people back."
In the meantime, Dazlich and her association would like to see a relief package from the federal government finally get passed to help all of the restaurants that working to stay afloat.
Although Curtas is pessimistic about the future of dining in Las Vegas, he hopes he's completely wrong about it and that Duzlich is right to be optimistic.
"I'm looking forward to the day that I can be proven wrong on these things because I don't want right about it," he said.
John Curtas, food writer, Eating LV; Alexandria Dazlich, director of government affairs, Nevada Restaurant Association