Letter of the Week – Au Revoir to ALEX and All That

ELV note: The following comes from our Facebook exchange with Eric Gladstone about the whys and wherefores of ALEX‘s closing in the Wynn tomorrow night, and what it means for Las Vegas’ dining scene. Consider it a supplement to Gladstone’s article this week in the Las Vegas Weekly about the demise of this short lived (May 2005-January 2011) grande dame.

Dear ELV,

The patron who would best appreciate Restaurant Alex is not the patron Wynn/Encore is looking to attract anymore. Unless he’s bringing his 20-something son or daughter along, with access to the credit card [Speaking of the credit card, they might want to note that—specials aside–.fine dining price points certainly haven’t gone anywhere—Lakeside Grill’s entrées average in the $50 range. Perhaps linen suppliers are the most endangered species in the equation.] It’s hard to recall any example in modern Las Vegas history of a property changing its customer focus so dramatically.

One could point to the Cosmopolitan’s new array of exciting food as a study in contrast, but I’d prefer to look at Mr. Wynn’s former home Bellagio. Still there since the Wynn era: Todd English’s Olives, Julian Serrano’s Picasso, Jean-George’s Prime, Le Cirque/Circo, Petrossian Caviar, Michael Mina (formerly Aqua, but that was essentially an earlier version of the same restaurant)… oddly enough, more of Wynn’s original array of restaurants at Bellagio have stayed the same than have changed. Including the high-end French dining.

But running any restaurant in a very crowded market is never simple, as the reopening of a radically casual-ized Fleur at Mandalay Bay, and the backstage drama at City Center’s Eve (bankruptcy and investor lawsuits) both illustrate.

Regardless, as dining continues to be an undeniably siginificant draw for Vegas visitors, one has to wonder why so many of the resorts—in contrast to trends in every other major American city– are encouraging their chefs to simplify, dumb down, and offer fancy versions of pizza, hamburgers and other ubiquitous comfort foods. One wonders why every restaurant’s survival need hang on a Darwinian battle, rather than a unique draw. Why would any tourist come to Vegas to spend more money for a version of the same food they can get at the mall at home?

Sincerely and sadly,

E.C. Gladstone

ELV responds:

Many points are well taken, but leave many a question unanswered. Is Wynn/Encore selling out to the nightclubbing/douchebag crowd? When its entire focus from the get-go has been the super-luxury market? We doubt it. Are the F&B execs there really content to offer in-house steakhouses and rampant mediocrity (excepting Bartolotta, of course) as their dining options? It seems so. Does this signal their belief that name chefs and excellence don’t matter anymore? Well…uh…yeah. (Good luck getting any future press because of your restaurants, Steverino.)

It reminds us of a quote (paraphrased here) we read on the air at KNPR over a year ago, referring to the headlong casual-ization of American dining: The rush to less formality, smaller plates and more options may, in the long run (and despite the hype of a brave new world of restaurant dining), signal nothing more than a retreat (and an excuse to retreat) from quality.

All or none of this could be true…or the closing could simply be because the notably vitriolic/volatile/verbose Wynn got into a screaming match with Stratta a gave him the heave ho. (Don’t believe for a minute that a world-class talent like Alex S. will be content running the STRATTA food factory that bears his name.)

BTW: Loved the line about linen suppliers being an endangered species. Sad but true.

20 thoughts on “Letter of the Week – Au Revoir to ALEX and All That

  1. “in contrast to trends in every other major American city– are encouraging their chefs to simplify, dumb down, and offer fancy versions of pizza, hamburgers and other ubiquitous comfort foods” This is simply not true. One of the biggest trends over the past 2 years all over the US has been comfort food. Which I, and many welcome with open arms. And in regards to Pizza, where on the strip can you get a good one? The days of gouging tourists for mediocre “fine dining” must end! Its a new Vegas, a new era, bring on the affordable eats!

  2. John,
    Thanks for publishing. My intent in the Weekly article, and these further comments, were to ask questions for the Vegas community to consider, not to suggest answers (which only Mr. Wynn or Mr. Stratta could offer, neither of whom was able to speak to me on the record). I do think, to an extent, that the closing of Alex should hopefully inspire the foodie community of Vegas to realize that the true gems of this city’s dining need community support.

    Rob, that’s an interesting comment. In fact, the “creative comfort” food trend goes back more like 5-6 years, at least, to chefs like Kerry Simon, who never got a whole lot of credit for it (though he doesn’t seem to be suffering). The trend has long since crested and gone completely mainstream, and the culinary talent in other cities are going beyond it to try new approaches to fusion, uncommon ingredients and new presentations. But in Vegas, eminently talented world-class chefs are clearly being requested to regress. And still overcharge for it.

    I don’t have a problem with comfort food, I like it as much as anyone. But with the number of dining venues, and the level of talent here in Vegas, does EVERY restaurant need to offer a pizza and sliders?? That’s a sure way for many to go out of business.

    The days of gouging tourists for mediocre “fine dining” are unlikely to end very soon, especially since asking a chef to perform under his/her abilities is pretty much begging them to leave at the first opportunity and go where they’re appreciated.

    Affordability isn’t the issue, Rob. There are many places to get good food for a great deal, IF YOU KNOW HOW TO SEPARATE THE GOOD, BAD & THE UGLY (which is what ELV is for, right John?). Here’s one: Earl of Sandwich, at Planet Hollywood.

    Good pizza on the Strip? DOCG at Cosmopolitan served me one of the best Napoli-style Margherita pies I’ve ever had in my life (Scott Conant’s from Connecticut, I’d expect nothing less!). And it is around 14 bucks, not at all expensive. http://ecgladstone.com/2011/01/conant-goes-casual/
    But I also do honestly love Stratta’s Bosco pizza. And the secret pizza slices at Cosmo are also damn good.

    Feel free to enjoy some last Alex pics here:

  3. Has anyone thought that maybe Alex is just done with this over hyped, controlled by some shitbag food buyer, bringing in the cheapest shit, dining scene.

    Wynn can offered to lose 5-10 million a year on a restaurants; lets just say “that didnt make money”.

    Wynn does want highend dining – what resort property doesnt want their version of highend dining.

    Its stupid to even think that Wynn/Encore is headed the route of Circus Circus, Riveria, south Point or Harrahs.

    Maybe Alex is just over the realities of Vegas or Wynn or Bellagio/MGM-MIRAGE transplants; and is done fighting for his passion because its useless to fight with people that just dont understand food. Of course at the end of the day, he still no Gastronomic Committee President Joël Robuchon and possibly he is reminded of that everyday when all major strip properties have their go to goliaths.

    And as far as American cheap eats – Cosmo has got that covered – Pizza, beer, tacos and burgers. NO strip hotel can contend with what they got going on with Secret pizza shop, cheap ass tacos and guac @ China – P, and Cheap ass burgers @ holsteins, where you can watch sluttly waitresses try to balance drinks in thouse hidious high heel boots. “Yeah, girls, you know who you are”!!!

    I’m really starting to believe that the Cosmo is the coolest thing created, now that I have excepted the next generation of Las Vegas.

    I believe WYNN may have some sick shit up his sleave – granted and reality, he has been some what of an inovator of Las Vegas.

  4. Hey, Mr. Who Gives A Shit. You are a funny-and clever-guy. Your syntax and spelling ain’t so gud, though. R U a native speaker?? Max

  5. People are being health concious and pocket concious (French food can deplete both). The Casino’s are not supporting the Five-Star Chef’s as they used to before the Big R word. The fancy places with ‘Gone With The Wind” staircases and chandeliers are not going to attract the high-rollers anymore. The middle aged men with money who would have steak and eggs for breakfast are turning Vegan.

  6. yes max, well native and the spelling aint so gud. It flows off the tounge much nicer. Degenerate, barely passed high school, generation -x, ebonics mixed breed Californian, desert dweller.

  7. Mr. ELV-

    You’re missing something.

    “Is Wynn/Encore selling out to the nightclubbing/douchebag crowd? When its entire focus from the get-go has been the super-luxury market?”

    Actually, IMHO BOTH are true. Let me clarify. Early on, Steve Wynn wanted to outdo his own amazing work at Bellagio by upping the luxury ante at Wynn LV to something we never saw before. And yes, he was originally targeting a “more mature” clientele with top-notch restaurants. But as The Great Recession raged on in 2009, room prices hit rock bottom, and Wynn had to offer deep discounts to keep occupancy high at Wynn LV & newly opened Encore, Mr. Steverino looked at what was happening elsewhere along The Strip and realized what he had to do to return his Las Vegas casinos to profitability.

    Without a doubt, Wynncore is still catering to high-end tourists. Look at their current room prices, store lineup, and restaurant prices for that matter. But instead of appealing to mature gourmands, Wynn think its bread is better buttered by the MTV celebutante wannabe crowd hoping they can catch a glimpse of the newest, “hottest” reality stars shaking their groove thangs at Tryst/XS/Surrender. Basically, I think Wynncore is becoming a Strip five-star version of Hard Rock/Palms, if that makes any sense.

  8. Point well taken atdleft. As someone who stays at Wynncore frequently I can attest to the shifting Demographic . A younger more international crowd stays there now and more non- hotel guests actually spend time there as well. When Wynn first opened I doubt most visitors made it past Lake of Dreams. Now, especially at night, you see swarms of people make their way to one of the many nightclubs. I had a good lunch at Wazzuzzu last Tuesday and the place was packed by 12:30. That is not an inexpensive place to eat and to my mind people not wanting to spend money on food stop having $90 lunches before cutting out big deal dinners. Those who stay at high end hotels expect those prices but they also expect perfectly prepared food and the best groceries, things the Wynn brand has always done the best in Las Vegas. What gets me is that almost every luxury and pseduo-luxury hotel in America has at least one big deal tasting menu restaurant. With Alex gone, Wynn is forcing its hotel guest to go off property if they want that kind of experience. I dont really care if the Wynn F&B people want to open/close different places and change concepts( Alex included) as long as there is at least one get dressed up /tasting menu style joint, which is why after the announcement last week I’ve been scratching my head. If its really about the concept being tired I’d like to see a molecular restaurant go into that space. At least that would be more interesting than another steakhouse.

  9. Someone should live blog/tweet the last nite at Alex for all of us who cannot be there, John, Max, Al . . . .

  10. Some good thoughts from everyone… I think “atdleft” nailed it in the last line.

    As for “who gives a $hit,” Cosmo has many great elements, but let’s put it in perspective, it’s really just waking up the Strip to what’s happening in other cities all around the country and planet. It’s time for Las Vegas to really be on the cutting edge, and not just hype itself into thinking it is.

    One other thought that also didn’t make the edit in the Weekly was regarding profitability, on which there are two sides to consider. On one hand is the point that a restaurant of Alex’s size and ambition might not have lasted even this long without the support of a casino. On the other hand, a restaurant with Alex’s number of awards and accolades could run on fumes in any other city for 20 years.

  11. ELV responds: We appreciate the thoughtful, insightful, well-written comments more than you know. It may be the best comment thread ever to appear on the site. (Although, it lacks that certain volubility/vitriol/inadvertent comedy that all those Turks brought forth when we dared criticize their lousy IBO.) ;-)
    Merci beaucoup to all… and we will be reporting from Last Night at ALEX on Facebook tonight (mainly from the bar from where we intend to make many a toast to its fabolous staff!)

  12. Geez Eric-

    You may spend a lot of time in Las Vegas, but you talk like a real L.A. guy who knows nothing about the Las vegas community. Are you really going to chatise locals for not properly supporting great restaurants like Alex? Vegas is a city of how many? Maybe 1.5 million and shrinking? (half of whom probably earned less in 2010 than they did in 2009) And we have how many uber-expensive gems like Alex? Let me see, there’s Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Twist, Le Cirque, Picasso and BarMasa to start. Exactly how many restaurnats on that level is the considerably larger L.A. community able to support? The average Las Vegas foodie would probably be lucky if they could afford to dine at one of the above mentioned restaurants a year on a very, very special occasion — which is the way restaurants those were meant to be enjoyed. And there simpy aren’t enough of us to keep that many restaurnts in business. These places were built (perhaps overbuilt) as showpieces for the properties that house them — not to servve the local community. And it’s the properties who owe them support!

  13. I think “chastise” is a strong word, Al. So is “condescending” (on FB). And I’m certainly not comparing it to Los Angeles. Nobody’s saying Los Angeles is a bastion of community support. Nor is it a bastion of great restaurants. It’s a much bigger city and it doesn’t have nearly the amount of ultra-fine dining that Vegas does. That’s an entirely different conversation.

    Your point is taken that these are special occasion restaurants. Obviously. Your point is also taken that there are ostensibly too many of them for a local OR tourist community to support.

    The only point I wanted to make is that in some ways people may talk more about the greatness of Vegas dining than they participate in it. And that the greatness of the Vegas dining scene may in fact be far more fragile than anyone realizes. Here’s what I know about the Las Vegas community: many in it have an extreme allergy to the Strip. I understand why it’s a turn-off in many ways to locals, but I also know they’re missing a lot. And I certainly know that the best Vegas restaurants want and need their patronage (and I know there are many that, economy notwithstanding, can afford it).

    How do I know that, Al? Because it’s a conversation I started with Alex Stratta two years ago. Got anything else?

  14. Don’t I always have something else, Eric.

    I’m really not sure what you mean by many? I mean, when I lived in New York, ANY people in Brooklyn, The Bronx and Queens as well as MOST people in Staten Island never went into Manhattan. Until very recently, most people I know in L.A. never even dreamed of ventring into downtown L.A. And yes, many people in Vegas avoid The Strip. That may have a lot to do with the fact that they work in casinos, surrounded by tourists, and don’t want to spend their downtime in a casino. That may be because very few casinos offer local-friendly parking access. Who knows really.

    But you weren’t speaking about locals in general. You were adresseing the “foodie community.” And it would be insane to say that the local foodie community avoids The Strip. Every foodie I know (and I know quite a few), dines out on The Strip regularly.

    So we get back to your statement that foodies should show more support to places like Alex. I reiterate that I think it’s impractical to expect such a small communtiy to support so many high-end restaurants. Moreover, I think you were implying that Vegas foodies are in some way responsible for the closing of Alex. And you were most certianly lecturing Vegas foodies on how you think they should behave. So I stand by the words “chastise” and condescending.”

    Hopefully I’ll see you at Alex tonight.

  15. OOPA — that should say MANY people in Brooklyn, The Bornx and Queens. Getting ready for Miss America and don’t have a lot of time to proofread.

  16. Our good foodie friend Russell Wong may have asked the right question and come up with yet another (as possibly right on) explanation for the demise of this restaurant:

    Question to ELV: Is there a public disclosure of Steve & Elaine Wynn’s finalized divorce decree?
    The reason I’m asking is that Steve Wynn didn’t want disclosure of the divorce settlement.
    Re: who owns what, who’s in charge of what, etc.
    I did some investigation, and I want to verify who had the power and authority to close Alex restaurant.
    It’s possible that Steve didn’t close the restaurant. Perhaps Elaine?
    Possible scenario: Elaine owns all of Encore. Steve owns all the land & properties of Wynn; E. is in charge of Wynn operations (shops, restaurants, etc.). Dirty laundry is being aired via business decisions (based on feelings and emotions and “loyalties.” E’s side or S’s side?)
    I was informed that Steve built Alex restaurant for Elaine. NB Paul may be next on the chopping block ….

    I might come to Vegas Uncork’d in May. We’ll see what happens …

    Take care,

    ELV responds: Things keep getting curiouser and curiouser… Now it makes sense when we read: “Steve and Elaine Wynn had barely ever been in the restaurant.”
    In other words: He built it for her, their marriage soured, neither could conjure up a reason to like the place (given the twice-failed romance it was built upon), and it had no defenders within the Wynn empire…
    Who knows? All ELV knows is, he will be getting drunk at the ALEX bar tonight….nibbling on great cheese, and raising glass after glass to a great culinary team…

  17. Al brought up some sick points that blasts EC out of the water. Vegas foodies dont support half ass restaurants because we can taste difference between $500 bucks spent over here to $500 bucks spent over there.

    So EC, in Los angeles do you scrape on the folks that live in Azusa, Glendale, Pomona, East LA, Monrovia, Altadena, West of Irwindale near LAX, Longbeach, Paramount or any fucking LA city to bump into trendy spots where all your RICH celebrity friends hang. For the cause of supporting an over priced fucking restaurant.

    Get real, 30 million fucking come to this town a year. thats the fucking bread and butter. Las Vegas people could give a shit about overpriced grub, considering we work jobs that charge the average loser too much for drinks, take their money at the tables, demand the scumbags tip, end some hoes even sell their snatch for cash. Welcome to Las Vegas, we could give a shit.

  18. Comps, offered to high-rollers and free dining offered to any one to say nice things about the establishment, is what hurting these Venues. You don’t see this in NY, SF, or LA. There is false sense of security and dubious fame these 5-Star Chefs enjoy in Vegas that the Chefs in other cities are envious of and rightfully so. They assume that the Casino’s would protect them from bad economy, inflation and unions. The other factor is the percentage of gross, they have to share with the Casino’s. This is disproportionate to the return on their money, It would cost a fraction of that money, if they did their own advertising and marketing. The demise, closing or folding of “Alex”, proves that they have made a few fundamentally wrong business decisions like keeping the prices so high that no mere mortal could afford to eat paying every cent from their hard earned money,includng the tips. Tips -To Insure Prompt Service. What kind of insurance do you need for prompt service ? when you are paying 500$ for a meal? May I ask?

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