Our local dining scene is pathetic with Chinatown, non-existent without it. — Former Las Vegas Strip F&B Executive
There are many reasons why the prospect of ever having a viable, neighborhood restaurant scene in Las Vegas stinks more than a pound of overripe Epoisses.
The easiest thing to cite is our complete lack of agriculture. Second on most people’s list would be our primarily blue collar populace — who are more concerned with spending as little on food as possible….in order to wile their days and nights away losing their paychecks at the nearest video poker machine.
Thirdly would be the relentless assault on our real estate by national chains and franchised brands — all of whom pounce on our blank-slate real estate developments like blood-sucking remora on the back of a giant (casino-bred) whale-shark. Their advertising muscle, and the top dollar they pay to park all those CVS drugstores and Domino Pizza franchises, virtually ensure that no mom and pop business will ever appear in a brand new shopping center. The best a locally-owned restaurant can ever hope for is to scout distressed locations in older strip malls and hope they can wrangle a good deal out of a landlord, who, despite experience and evidence to the contrary, will always be convinced that a Jimmy John’s or Subway or Walgreen’s is right around the bend, just waiting to sign a 10+5+5 triple net lease* for the space at twice the price per square foot.
(Truth be told, even in vibrant, local economies, commercial landlords hate small, local restaurants as tenants. Why? Because their credit is abysmal; the failure rate is legendary; and the people in the biz are like gypsies.)
All of the above provide more than enough reasons why interesting local restaurants in Las Vegas remain as rare as a slot junkie with a new car.
But the real reason we will never have an interesting food scene here is the Strip.
Yes, the Strip. That four mile stretch of road filled with dozens of mega-casinos, thousands of hotel rooms, and millions of hungry visitors. The Strip perverts everything. It creates economies of scale that no small business can compete with, and warps our expectations, as in: everyone wants to make Strip money, even if they’re working miles away from it.
Whether management or labor, landlord or tenant, chef or customer, the sheer amount of volume, money, personnel and ingredients that flow up and down Las Vegas Boulevard South dwarfs everything and anything that ever occurs off the avenue. It also ensures that every restaurant off the Strip will be, by definition, second rate.
“No one wants to work that hard for so little money.” I’m hearing these words from a chef who left the Strip and now runs a successful venture off it. What he’s referring to are the legions of cooks and chefs who claim to want to run their own place, but, in reality, are addicted to the paycheck they get from the big hotels. He continues: “Why would a sous chef walk away from $80,000 a year to work twice the hours for half the money?” The answer is they wouldn’t and they won’t, no matter how much they lust for a food scene like you’ll find in Portland, Denver or Chicago.
The other problem, the chef says, is that everyone who lives here comes from someplace else, so they’re constantly looking for meal options that are familiar and affordable (read: Fleming’s, Bonefish Grill, Brio and (gag) Claim Jumper), rather than a bottom-up, organic restaurant culture where old reliables co-exist with home-grown start-ups. “It’s never going to happen here because the chefs won’t take the chance and the residents won’t support them if they do,” our chef continues, and we have a hard time arguing with him. Because of these influences, he asserts, every local joint is constantly pressured to bring its recipes down to a lowest-common-denominator norm. “That explains the lack of risks being taken,” he concludes. Again, we can’t disagree with a word he says.
Think about it: how many venerable restaurants are there in all of Las Vegas? A handful at most. Take the ones away that are Strip-adjacent — Piero’s, Pamplemousse, Golden Steer — and you’re left with a mere handful: Bob Taylor’s Ranch House, Cafe Chloé, and maybe one or two more. Then, think about the actual, full-service, chef-driven places out in the ‘burbs. Having trouble? Well, here they are:
Todd’s Unique Dining
Honey Salt/Made LV
Did I miss a few? Maybe, but you get the point. For a town of 2 million people, in this day and age, to have less than a dozen, modern, chef-centric restaurants is an embarrassment….and a fact you have to attribute to something other than the bad taste and broken dreams of all of those video poker players.
That’s where the Strip comes in…and why it has to take the blame. Sure, we all owe Wolfgang Puck a debt of gratitude. And the level of excellence being practiced in our frog ponds (Twist, Guy Savoy, Joël Robuchon, Le Cirque) is unmatched anywhere in the world outside of Paris, Tokyo, London or New York. And what carnivore among us isn’t grateful for our impressive meat emporiums — Carnevino, CUT, Botero, et al? (I’ll put our steakhouses up against any in the world, save for the Big Apple.)
But sadly folks, once he veers off course in any direction, our emperor loses his clothes entirely. Over the past five years I’ve traveled to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Santa Fe, Philadelphia, Nashville, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Napa Valley, San Diego, Atlanta, Charleston, St. Louis, Boston and New Orleans. I have eaten bite after bite in scores of fun, small, exciting restaurants run by famous and not-so-famous chefs that have made me drop my fork in appreciation. And in the same time period, I haven’t eaten a bite of food….not a BITE…in one of our local restaurants that even came close to the passion and ingenuity I tasted all over America.
Those two essential ingredients — passion and ingenuity — are the very things our Strip kills and locals won’t support.
That’s why we will never have a vibrant, locally-owned-and-supported restaurant scene.
Shoot the messenger if you wish, but such is the reality of where we live.
* A lease with an initial term of 10 years with two five year options — fairly standard in the franchise restaurant business — in which the tenant, not the landlord, pays for virtually everything involved with the rental space. ELV’s other hat he wears is as a business/real estate lawyer, usually suing or defending over the terms of such contracts.