When I heard last week that Mario Maccioni was leaving Las Vegas, all I could do was sigh, shake my head, and sink into my chair. The news felt inevitable, but nevertheless filled me with a sense of nostalgia and melancholy that can only be compared to the feeling you get when you know you are closing an important chapter in life. We’ll get to that inevitability in a minute, but first a little history.
If you lived in Vegas in 1997, and had any sort of gourmet aspirations, your choice of venues for educating your palate (and honing your sense of epicurean enlightenment) was confined to Spago, two chain steakhouses (Morton’s and Palm), Emeril’s Fish House and Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe (both in the MGM). The whole celebrity chef thing was in its infancy, and Charlie Trotter’s first flame-out here (a year earlier) seemed to be the death knell for any kind of chef-driven, big city gastronomic scene. (There was hardly any restaurant writing going on either. Yours truly on KNPR and Muriel Stevens at the Las Vegas Sun, provided what little reporting/criticism/enthusiasm there was for Las Vegas restaurants.)
Unbeknownst to us, Steve Wynn and the Bellagio had big plans to change all that. Wynn foresaw a Las Vegas loaded with all sorts of upscale amenities — none of which had anything to do with gambling — to appeal to (and help lighten the wallets of) all those baby boomers who were enjoying their salad days of middle age.
And the number one amenity Wynn and the Bellagio revealed out for the world to behold was its restaurants.
And the number one restaurant Wynn had to have, if he and Vegas were to be taken seriously, was Le Cirque.
If you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, once Wynn corralled the Maccioni’s twin show ponies of Le Cirque and Circo, a tidal wave of attention washed over our culinary desert , and the stampede was on. In short order, Julian Serrano (San Francisco’s most celebrated chef at the time) was enticed to move here, and Jean Georges Vongerichten and Todd English planted their flags on the Strip.
The rest is history, as they say, but that history wouldn’t have happened if Sirio Maccioni hadn’t decided to roll the dice.
One of the ways he hedged his bets was by placing his oldest son at the helm of his Las Vegas gamble, and since August, 1998, Mario Maccioni has been a constant presence in his family’s side by side enterprises in the wild wild west.
Mario has guided the fortunes of these outposts since the day they opened in October,1998, and now, almost 15 years to the day since he moved to our humble burg, he is leaving to return to his New York roots, and help his brothers expand the Maccioni restaurant empire. He’s expecting to open five new restaurants in the coming year, in places as far flung as India and Dubai.
“We had a fifteen year contract with the Bellagio,” is how he put it to me, “and now that it’s up, they only want my father to make an occasional appearance at the restaurants.”
In other words, the landlord no longer requires the Maccioni touch, only the name brand, and they’ll run things just fine in house, thank you.
At this point ELV is tempted to rant about how most hotel F & B departments could screw up a free lunch, and how the revolving door of chefs and executives at most renders them an ineffectual joke, but we’ll hold off for now out of respect for the nice folks at the Bellagio (who do have a much better track record than their competitors).
But we are not here to fulminate, we are here to give a sad salute to a departing professional, who has informed his restaurants and our community with a casual, debonair excellence from the moment he stepped off the plane. Mario Maccioni is not a chef nor a manager; he is an owner who has the right stuff and knows how to deliver the ne plus ultra in restaurant experiences. He’s neither as cranky as his dad nor as jovial as his brothers, but having him there mattered….and made Le Cirque Las Vegas and Circo Las Vegas places that we all could be proud of.
When I asked him what was the biggest change he witnessed in his 15 years in Vegas, his response was immediate:
“The recession hit us hard,” he offered without missing a beat. “Everything has gotten dumbed down since then. Nobody cares about great service; there’s no interest in great food….or tablecloths anymore.”
Which is one of the reasons Circo will close for good next year, and one of the reasons the Bellagio sees no further use for having a member of the Maccioni family on premises, lending both credibility and a certain savoir faire to their restaurants.
“People want the brand name, but they don’t necessarily care about what’s behind that name,” is how Mario put it to me. Which is another way of saying that whatever gourmet credibility was built up here over the past 15 years, will now be exploited ad nauseum, without that much concern for the quality and reputations that brought those brand names here in the first place.
So, Mario rides East, into the sun, taking with him the satisfaction of helping to revolutionize the Las Vegas food scene, and with the knowledge that what made him and his restaurants so special, and so successful, is no longer the driving force behind our restaurant culture.
I will miss him; Vegas will miss him; and sooner or later — after we’ve had our fill of burgers and faux bistros — even the dining out public will miss the quality and panache that he and his family brought to our town.