John Curtas is …

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

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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 off 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, at best.

“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.

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* 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.

Facing Reality: The Strip Has Lost Its Luster

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I recently sent a holiday e-mail to one of the titans of American gastronomy (not the fellow pictured above – more on him later). The dude I was sending season’s greetings to has major food chops. He’s what I call a restaurant intellectual, as well as being a noted cookbook author and food writer of great renown. My holiday greeting was filled with the usual “2014 was a wonderful year as we discovered the joys of making compost”  blather, but in the midst of all the trite, yuletide good cheer I strangely found myself typing these words:

 It’s funny that I choose this year to do it, because unlike the last twenty, this one has been a fairly dull one when it comes to our dining scene. Of course the party had to end sometime, but after the restaurant revolution of 1998-2010, these past few years have witnessed little, if any, interesting work being done by chefs and hoteliers, save for the occasional Japanese joint tucked away in places most gringos fear to tread.

 In fact, the biggest revolution of all has taken place in my head, where I have become increasingly disenchanted with the tourist-trap pricing of our major hotels. It seems after almost two decades of entreating people to embrace the Strip and its celebrity-chef wonders, I find myself choking on the prices, and deploring the inorganic, top-down nature of our food culture. In this sense I’ve also come around to understanding certain journalist’s (and the James Beard Foundation’s) lack of respect for our casino-driven food “culture” – which has warped and stunted any real growth in our neighborhood food scene.

 So basically I’ve become 1984 in reverse – I’ve learned to hate Big Brother (after once being his biggest fan).

The words came so fast and so easily it was sort of a shock. It was like my fingers had brains of their own and decided to type something completely at odds with opinions and thoughts and actions I had held firmly too for over twenty years. Could I really be saying to an esteemed member of the national food press that the condescending naysayers about the Vegas food scene were right all along? Was I actually throwing in the towel, conceding defeat and changing Vegas’s plea to guilty as charged?

Was I — John A. Curtas, Las Vegas’s biggest champion to the outside food world (especially over the last ten years) — admitting that the Vegas restaurant revolution has been a house of cards; a Potemkin Village of flash and cash, containing no substance?

Yes I did and yes it is.

Upon reflection, I realized this 180 degree change of attitude has been creeping up on me for some time. After a brief flirtation with reasonable prices and making a half-hearted attempt to appeal to locals (remember all the specials that ran in the wake of the 2008-2009 crash?), the Strip has come raping back with a vengeance — with prices that would choke a horse and the sort of arrogance that only comes from having a captive, gullible audience. I’m talking about $18 cocktails, $40 glasses of wine, $25 side dishes and $35 pastas. I’m talking about being a la carted and upsold to death. I’m talking about big, fancy places with famous chefs’ names on the door just going through the motions, making their numbers and not giving a shit.

What I’m talking about is a food “culture” that never really was one, and is now but a shell of what it was ten years ago. A restaurant scene born of excess; created by the stroke of a pen and thrown money. Something that never had a foundation to build upon, and now exists as just another way to rip-off tourists.

“All those people that had the vision and made (Vegas) great back in the late 90s and early aughts are gone now.”  These are the words of a former F&B executive who opened a couple of our most iconic hotels and now owns a small  restaurant off the Strip. As he starts ruing the sad state of  our hotel restaurants he also starts getting specific and naming names: “Remember when Tony Angotti was the head of F&B at Mandalay Bay? Or Ana Marie Mormando at Bellagio? Or the lineup of chefs that opened the Wynn? How about Gamal Aziz? He was every bit the visionary that Steve Wynn was. They all were passionate and knowledgeable about the restaurant business.  But they’ve all moved on. Now, everything’s run by accountants who don’t know anything about the business…and they hire third string chefs who are only interested in making their numbers and getting their paychecks.”

That’s an insider’s perspective, of course, but from where this outsider sits he couldn’t be more spot on. The lack of passion is palpable when you dine on the Strip these days. Does Bobby Flay change his menu anymore? Does anyone care? Is there a single good reason to eat in a Tom Colicchio restaurant? Does Todd English give a crap about Olives? Beyond the check he receives every quarter (and its ability to lure major babes into a hot tub – see above)? Our answer is probably no. Hubert Keller’s Fleur is a mess of a menu (dictated, no doubt by those accountants), and dear old, Emeril Lagasse — both the man and his food — has sunk into the abyss of irrelevance.

Do any diners even know or care that the generally excellent Sage is a Shawn McClain restaurant? Answer: no and really no.

None of this would matter to yours truly if the price of a meal at any of these joints was in line with what you’d pay in any other big city in America. But in Vegas, your tariff will get to $100+ a person without breaking a sweat, and at the end of the evening you will most likely have paid around $300/couple for tired food cooked by rote and served by a hotel more concerned with depreciation than deliciousness.

Such was not the case ten years ago. Then, everyone had something to prove. Sure it was a revolution every bit as store-bought and soulless as critics say, but it was exciting and full of wonders brought to you by people at the top of their game. It was also unprecedented in a no-one-had-ever seen-anything-like-it way. But, like our restaurateur/insider says: “Those days are as dead as Woodrow Wilson.”

Of course each of these “celebrity chefs” could actually come to town, start cooking and infuse their operations with some of the energy and ingenuity that made them famous in the first place. But that was never their deal and why bother? The template still works; the tourists are still rolling in and the checks still clear. Most of them now get their money for nothing and their chicks for free (see above, again). And that’s just fine with them. Once the brand is exhausted, they will slink away with their pockets full, and bid adieu to a town that they never really came to in the first place.

THIS IS PART ONE OF A TWO-PART ARTICLE. THE SECOND INSTALLMENT (CONCERNING HOW THE STRIP ENSURES WE WILL NEVER HAVE A REAL, NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT SCENE) WILL APPEAR IN A FEW DAYS AND DEPRESS YOU EVEN MORE.

I’m Not Prejudiced, I Just Hate Everyone’s Opinion Except My Own

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“Prejudice is a vagrant opinion without visible means of support.”
Ambrose Bierce

“Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices–just recognize them.”
Edward R. Murrow

“How you look at it is pretty much how you’ll see it”

Am I prejudiced? You bet your sweet bippy I’m prejudiced. But unlike the the blindly opinionated, I like to think my biases are born of experience, not bigotry.

Put another way: I’m not easily impressed. And I do carry a certain “been there, done that” attitude into most restaurants these days.

Does that mean I can’t be objective? No it doesn’t and yes it does.

Because I don’t look at places through the wide-eyed amazement of some amateur….or the credulous, bought-and-paid-for acceptance of someone just happy to be getting free food.

And I do have a certain chip on my shoulder that comes from enduring thousands of p.r. pitches over the decades telling me how “amazing” some chef or his menu is….and then discovering it’s nothing but a re-hash of something done better (and a lot earlier) somewhere else by someone more talented.

Which is basically a long way of saying there are probably some restaurants I just shouldn’t bother with anymore. Because even walking into them, I know exactly what they’re doing and what I’m going to hate about them.

Like Hearthstone Kitchen & Cellars.

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