The Bellagio Turned 20 Yesterday and No One Cared

Image may contain: 9 people, including Samuel DeMarco, people smiling, people standing

The Bellagio Hotel and Casino turned 20 years old last night at 8:00 and no one gave a shit.

Not a peep from its corporate parent; no parties; no press releases; no kudos from the casino industry that has become one gigantic fat cat because of the ground it plowed.

As long as we’re mixing metaphors, think of it this way: until Steve Wynn planted his flag and took his casino to “11”, restaurants were considered small fish swimming around in a large gambling pond. When he decided to ring his casino with nine superb eateries — Sam’s, Shintaro, Le Cirque, Circo, Jasmine, Aqua, Olives, Prime, and Picasso — it was big news in the culinary world. As I’ve written before: when the Bellagio opened, the gastronomic ground shook in the High Mojave Desert and the whole world felt the shudder. Something big, really big was happening here; something that would change Las Vegas’s culture and reputation in huge ways, and the food world in many small ones.

To be fair, what Wynn wrought was simply a more extravagant version of changes that had been underway for the previous five years. Wolfgang Puck was the original pioneer, along with Gamal Aziz (the MGM F&B executive who first expanded its culinary horizons with Emeril Lagasse, Mark Miller and Charlie Trotter). Together with Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse — the first upscale national chain to come here in 1989 — they proved that there was gastronomic gold in our tourism hills, and that people (mainly Boomers who were coming of age) had cash to spend on good restaurants — not just the coffee shop, steakhouse, buffet and “continental” dining rooms of decades past.

I turned 40 in the 90s, and like many of my age bubble, I looked at fine dining as a signifier of the good life I aspired to. And like many of my contemporaries, I started making some real money in those years and had cash to spend on things I had previously only dreamed of.

And spend it I did, and to the Bellagio I went — on October 15, 1998, with my then-wife — to walk around and take in the magnificence of it all. Sam’s (headed by New York chef Sam DeMarco) looked like a set from a Flintstones cartoon, and had tweaked American classics like hot dogs and grilled cheese and burgers like Vegas had never seen before. Memories have dimmed but I recall appetizers served in all sorts of fun, odd dishware, incredible mini-burgers, and wonderful fried seafood. “Too hip for the room,” were my thoughts then and I turned out to be right. Despite great food and a super-groovy decor, what Bellagio wanted/needed was a mediocre steakhouse (to catch the overflow from its superb one downstairs), and that’s what Sam’s was replaced with after a couple of years into its run.

But no matter, on that opening night, it was magical, as was Shintaro, the sushi bar with back-lit jellyfish floating above it, Prime (then and now, one of the most beautiful restaurants in America), Picasso (headlined by Julian Serrano – San Francisco’s best chef, lured here by Wynn), Aqua (helmed then by a seafood wünderkind named Michael Mina), and finally the jewels in the crown: Le Cirque and Circo. Never before had any hotel (in Vegas, in America, in the world) seen so much kitchen, menu, architectural, and cooking talent in one hotel at one time. It was a murderer’s row of restaurants, and  every chef, manager, restaurateur, and dishwasher in America couldn’t help but take notice.

And notice it they did. And within two years the Venetian and Mandalay Bay came on line to compete, and within five years the whole culinary world, from Parisian chefs to Food Network stars, were knocking on Vegas’s door asking to be let in.

And do you know how Mirage Resorts International (Bellagio’s corporate parent) celebrated this groundbreaking birthday yesterday? With crickets.

Nada. Nothing. Bupkus.

Not a tweet, not a mention, nary a “Hey, it’s Bellagio’s 20th birthday!” press release.

Why? Because they don’t give a shit. Like all casino corporations, this property is just another profit center to them. They’re not interested in legacies or histories or nostalgia. (They’re also probably not interested in celebrating anything invented by Steve “Tennis Shorts Testicles” Wynn.) The entire gambling industry, indeed the entirety of Las Vegas, is built on the here and now. Long term memories are not conducive to shilling any of the products Vegas is selling. Short term memory needs to be as short as possible — the better to keep you at the table and looking forward to winning something (YOU WON’T!), or induce you to spend money on something you don’t need, or mindless entertainment that’s like chewing gum for the eyes.

Lest I be seen as being too hard on the hotel’s owners, it must be pointed out that Las Vegas as a whole didn’t give a shit about Bellagio’s birthday, either. Maybe because the revolution in started in our food scene has faded considerably in the past five years. The Guy Savoys aren’t clamoring to come here anymore, and all we get these days is hype fatigue from Giada opening a fast casual outlet in Caesars (who the fuck cares?), David Chang slapping his name on something, or Gordon Ramsay phoning it in with another licensing deal.

Yes, the days of having Grant MacPherson, Mark Poidevin, Kerry Simon, Serrano, Mina, and DeMarco all in their kitchens at the same time are long gone. But Las Vegas eats so much better today than it did in 1997, and even in eclipse, our restaurants are still world-class — something no one thought possible until Steverino flung open those doors exactly two decades ago, and told the world it needed to come to Las Vegas to eat.

You shoulda been there; it was really something.

{From L-R in picture at top of page: Grant MacPherson, Mark Poidevin, Todd English, Dawn Varming, Steve “Tennis Shorts” Wynn,” Kerry Simon, Michael Mina, Sammy DeMarco, Julian Serrano}