John Curtas is …

Downtown Las Vegas Needs a Good Restaurant

Selvaggio, Ahuja and Pellegrini sounds like a Sicilian law firm

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If ELV could wave a magic wand over the proceedings, he would use his powers to inspire the three gentlemen above (Piero Selvaggio, Sonny Ahuja and Luciano Pellegrini) to make a deal to bring a small, stylish, casual Italian trattoria to downtown Las Vegas, serving real Italian food and good wines to people who don’t think cheeseburgers, pizzas and tacos are the only sustenance on earth.

Because if there’s one thing downtown (especially the area surrounding East Fremont Street) doesn’t need, it’s another casual eatery. Once Comida comes on board (with its “authentic”, “new cusine”, yeah right)  this area will have more than enough middling makers of mediocre Mexican mastication. What it won’t have is really good food. The kind where you can taste the quality in the kitchen.

We’re not talking white table cloth, reservations-required kinds of places, folks. No, what we mean is a 75 seat joint with atmosphere, a decent-but-inexpensive wine list (really quite easy when you think about it) and a real chef running things — not some line cook whose reach exceeds his grasp.

ELV knows what the appeal of Mexican is: familiarity + cheap ingredients (i.e. lower overhead). But any day now, up on Charleston at 3rd, Mingo will open, featuring, you guessed it: “authentic and new age Mexican food!” Once Comida joins this Mexican hat dance next month, the two of them will be competing with Mundo, Mamacita’s, El Sombrero, Casa Don Juan, Dona Maria’s Tamale House and a few taco trucks, not to mention Tacos El Gordo, Tacos Mexico and Los Tacos down on East Charleston.

“WTF,” is all ELV can think to himself when he reads this shite. “Don’t these people have any new ideas? And just how stupid do they think the Gen-X, Y and Millennials are?”

The answer is: very.

Because tacos have become the supposed panacea for whatever ails downtown dining. It’s as if the music industry were trying to revive its moribund sales by shoveling Taylor Swift and Justin Beiber at everybody. (Okay, bad example.) But believe us, it’s going to get worse. For when we spoke to another, well known, local restaurateur a year ago (we were trying to get him interested in building a better sandwich joint – or at least something interesting – at the time), all he could talk about was “opening a really good taco restaurant downtown.”  You don’t need real cooks to pull off these concepts, he told us, just enough teenagers and semi-legal workers to follow a few, simple orders. Hence, a cheap price point, large profits, and their appeal.

Moreover, the downward dining mobility of  the past five years has left restaurateurs gun shy about opening anything that isn’t some kind of permutation on fast food. And they (the money guys behind these places) think that’s the only kind of eating out anyone under 40 is interested in. This might be true of folks still basking in the glow of not having to use a fake ID, but once you start growing up (something, admittedly, ELV has never quite accomplished) your tastes in booze and food change, and conversation and good eats slowly start trumping getting wasted and sobering up on cheap protein.

But just like the military — which is always ready to fight the last war, not the next one — restaurants (especially in a notoriously cheap and easy tourist town like our humble burg) lack the imagination to see the future and profit from it. If they could, they would see a lot of hungry mouths, and fatter wallets, begging for a touch of sophistication to go with their statement facial hair and various affectations.

When Selvaggio asked us what we thought of the prospects for a good restaurant downtown, our advice (and wisdom) was as crisp and bracing as a Müller-Thurgau from the Alto Adige: “It would be a gamble, Piero,” is how ELV responded, “but then again, so was opening a small, wine-centric Italian restaurant on the outskirts of Santa Monica in 1972, and whoever has the guts to do it is going to make a mint.”

“Downtown Las Vegas needs a real restaurant run by a real restaurateur,” we concluded in our diatribe to him, “not more clowns cashing in with inferior products shilled to the lowest common denominator.”

What it doesn’t need is more fucking tacos.

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6 Responses to Downtown Las Vegas Needs a Good Restaurant

  • Bravo, Maestro! We could not agree more. And what better example than the Valentino folks in the photo. Now it just becomes a matter of who is going to “get it” first. There are a few factors that even experienced restaurateurs might miss.

    First, even those like Piero Salvaggio that have been operating on the strip for a long time may underestimate the real purchasing power of the “local” market. If one can open outside of a Strip hotel, with a corresponding price drop of about 10% on food and 20% on wine, they just might be surprised at the audience. There are many locals who are more than willing to pay a fair price for genuine quality. But both the Strip “surtax”, and the inconvenience of getting in and out of those places, make a place like Valentino a once or twice per year visit, instead of once or twice per month.

    Second, the impact of the Smith Center should not be underestimated. It can probably already be labelled as a success, and take a look at the calendar – 17 event nights in May, and 20 in June (and some of those evenings bring multiple events). That brings the prototype of the crowd that would head to a Valentino-esque establishment either before, or after, a performance (the lack of places to go for some good cheese with a nice glass of wine after an event is truly frustrating).

    Third is the almost complete lack of competition from the current restaurants downtown. The Hotel/Casino operations have been dominated by generic “in-house” drabness (maybe Andiamo at the D can begin a trend). So there is a tourist audience to draw from as well. Yes, that is a different tourist from the Strip. But given the lack of competition, someone bringing a genuine product will find some quality customers from that tourist crowd.

  • Please explain what Ahuja brings to the table except a history of bad business operations? Agree whole -heartedly that downtown needs real food by real chefs and real taste. And we DON’T need more Mexican food by people who are not even Mexican! But that won’t happen with everyone drinking the Zappos juice where the untalented thrive and are celebrated by bring mediocre food service and any other bs business model they can think of. (…EAT…)

  • I agree with Unsatisfied Eater in that I don’t know how Ahuja can bring anything to the table an established, very successful restauranteur and James Beard award winning chef might need. Also, I just don’t know about downtown as a place to open up a restaurant. I can count on one finger the times I’ve been downtown to eat in the last five years and have no interest going there either. Some Casino should pick up Luciano and give him his own restaurant. It would be a shame to waste talent like that serving casual Italian food to people who complain about a ten dollar hamburger and who probably don’t know the difference between quail and squab anyway.

  • Fremont East restaurant? High cuisine it ain’t, but I must admit a soft spot for the El Cortez’s Flame steakhouse. Good steak, good sides, inexpensive vino, and on Friday nights some very nice flown-in stone crabs. And at Old Vegas loss-leader prices. I manage to throw the bones in this joint and eat at least one dinner (usually on a Friday night with the aforementioned stone crabs) on every Vegas trip I make. Take a tipple and listen to the Elvis impersonator in the lounge after your dinner is complete.

  • You need parking, not a new concept. After dusk parking is the problem. About four years ago a man from California with all the good intentions opened a swanky joint around 8th St. but could not make a go of it.

  • Apparently “Unsatisfied Eater” and friends have the palate of an ant eater… EAT is currently the only restaurant of its kind anywhere in Vegas, and would love it if more would open like them! Great ingredients, cooked with heart!!! Zappos is smart in lending the unawarded, underfunded locals to bring something other than the old hotel crap food! The newest “Park on Fremont”, and “Radio City Pizza” – both garbage in their own right…. how can you screw up a 10 item menu! And pizza that would be better if they called Dominos and had it delivered to their back door, do a swith-a-roo and replate! Its sad to think that it would take a “Valentinos” to make you happy in the up and coming downtown

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