Live By The Strip, Die By The Strip: How It Dooms Our Local Dining Scene

http://www.lasvegashighrisecondoliving.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/las-vegas-strip-Las-Vegas-Condos.jpg

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:

DW Bistro

Due Forni

Todd’s Unique Dining

Marche Bacchus

MTO

David Clawson

Honey Salt/Made LV

Soho

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.

7 thoughts on “Live By The Strip, Die By The Strip: How It Dooms Our Local Dining Scene

  1. Absolutely right on! When one is lucky enough to find that off-strip oasis, that challenges the norm, the joy is usually limited to two or three years. Then, the challenge of dragging people away from the buffet line takes its inevitable toll.

  2. I like the article but is it written in surprise or more of an informational response to the question?

    Vegas is the home of the $2.50 prime rib dinner and endless buffetts, as such i’d never expect a “neighborhood” culture anywhere within the sickly glow of the strip.

  3. There’s nothing in either this or the previous article that isn’t true on its face. And statements that many were making in 2007, including myself, calling Las Vegas the #3 restaurant city in the country look pretty silly in retrospect. And, yes, Las Vegas doesn’t have the food scene that New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago have. But, these cities are much larger communities than what we have out here. When you compare the totality of the food scene in Las Vegas with other communities with between 1.5 and 2.5 million people it still looks pretty damn good. Sure, there are glaring gaps in the LV food scene, but there are in any community of comparable size.

    I’ve spent my share of time in most of the urban areas ELV compares to Las Vegas, although I’ll wager I haven’t eaten there as extensively or as expertly as ELV. While Santa Fe, St. Louis, San Diego, New Orleans and other urban areas have great places to eat, and all have qualities going for them that Las Vegas doesn’t, nonetheless I’ll take the totality of the LV food scene over any of these other places, and yes, that includes the Strip and Chinatown, because lamenting Las Vegas restaurants while excluding these locations is like lamenting the San Diego food scene excluding Mexican eateries and seafood.

    So, yeah, the Strip will always dominate the restaurant scene here, the majority of residents will prefer insipid chain restaurants to anything even the tiniest bit outside their comfort zone, and mall landlords will desperately prefer chains to family run businesses. In the meantime in Nashville and St. Louis and Fort Worth the latter two conditions will apply equally, and the foodies there will lament not having enough high-end tourism to support the great “frog ponds” and steakhouses that make LV a pretty damn good place to eat, overall.

    It’s especially unfair to criticize the number of venerable restaurants in Las Vegas. This wasn’t even a real city until 1990. I mean, when Peter Luger’s was founded, the Las Vegas land auction hadn’t even occurred. If you need history to enjoy food, move to Europe.

    I know you’re bored with our humble burg, and there will always be great kinds of food revolutions that happen in communities that have no chance of taking root here for reasons you mention, but really the glass is still more than half full. I have foodie friends and family visit from comparably sized urban areas around the country, and they’re consistently blown away by the variety and quality of the dining options here, both on and off the Strip, and rightfully so.

  4. NPC’s spirited defense is appreciated….and we appreciate the fact that he chooses to see the glass as half full. But he misses the main point that, for all of our international acclaim, and for all of the kitchen talent we have all over town, almost none of it has seeped into the ‘burbs. There’s a reason for that that is unique to Vegas, and that was the thrust of our article.

    We also love his San Diego comparison, but for the purpose of our thesis, we intentionally left out both Chinatown and Downtown. Chinatown because it exists in a (beautiful) bubble of its own Asian making (and in many ways is an extension of the Strip), and Downtown because 2 breakfast/lunch places, one interesting one (Carson Kitchen) and a shitty sushi bar do not yet entitle it to be part of the conversation.

  5. I normally try to avoid getting into a back-and-forth in the comment sections of web sites, nonetheless, I’ll clarify a little.

    You’re quite correct that the Strip kitchen talent has done little to seep into the city, and especially into the ‘burbs. And, you’re 100% correct as to the reasons, and it’s too bad. So, as an analysis of *why* the LV food scene has the limitations it does you’re articles are insightful. But it goes too far as a condemnation of the overall eating opportunities compared to, say, Nashville.

    And, again, to reiterate, talking about any food community while taking away its two best features is unfair. In addition to my San Diego comparison, you could so easily knock the food scene in Austin not counting Tex-Mex and food trucks, or Kansas City if you don’t count the use of pork. Is it fair as an evaluation of the limitations of what the city can produce? Sure. Is it fair as an evaluation of the city’s overall food scene? Not in any way. I think you let the unfair argument bleed into the fair one, and that’s my objection.

    At least part of the reason for my posting this sort of response is to both encourage and cajole you into posting more and getting yourself out of your funk about our humble ‘burg. Even, sometimes especially, when I disagree with your opinions, I want to read them because I learn something. I can’t count the number of times I’ve eaten at some place you’ve mentioned that I’ve enjoyed but never would have found on my own, and I desperately want that to continue.

  6. I can agree with some of the NPC comments when you bring in places like Kansas City, Nashville, Austin, Sante Fe, etc. However, not matter what list of 2 categories you remove from Portland or Seattle, you still have a great dining scene. Even here in the land of cheap eaters and people who don’t drink (Salt Lake City) we have a far more dynamic dining scene than Vegas. You can even remove all the restaurants related to the Ski Resorts and it doesn’t change anything. We even have a vibrant and growing craft cocktail eco system in the State with the most goofy and restrictive alcohol laws in the Country.
    I loved our Thanksgiving weekend in Vegas where we some of the off the strip highlights for us. Marche Bacchus, Kabuto, LOS, Frankies Tiki Room, and a nice get together with Mr. EatingLV and the Food Gal at Herbs & Rye. Yet, for every good off the strip place, I can come up wth several in our much smaller burg that I would recommend.

Comments are closed.