Ed. note: The following essay appears in this month’s Desert Companion magazine. Click here to read it in its original format.
We seemed invincible once, didn’t we? Thirty years of ever-expanding prosperity will do that to you. Having survived Gulf wars, dot-com busts, recessions, mass shootings and depressions, it was a cinch the public’s appetite for all things Las Vegas was insatiable. Since 1994, we had seen one restaurant boom after another: celebrity chefs, the French Revolution of the early aughts, Chinatown’s twenty year expansion, Downtown’s resurgence — all of it gave us rabid restaurant revelers a false sense of security. A cocky confidence that the crowds would flock and the champagne would always flow.
And then we were floored by a Covid left hook no one saw coming. Poleaxed, cold-cocked, out on our feet. In an instant, literally, thirty years of progress hit the mat. To keep the metaphor going, we’ve now lifted ourselves to the ropes for a standing eight count. The question remains whether we can recover and still go the distance, or take one more punch and suffer a brutal TKO.
There was an eeriness to everything in those early months, as if a relative had died, or we were living in a bad dream. A sense of loss and apology filled the air. Like someone knocked unconscious (or awakening from a nightmare), our first instincts were to reassure ourselves. Restaurants were there to feed and help us back to our feet and the feelings were mutual. Reassurances and gratitude were the watchwords whenever you picked up a pizza or grabbed take-out from a chef struggling to make sense of it all.
Then, as quick as an unseen uppercut, the mood turned surly and defensive. The moment restaurants were given the go-ahead to start seating people again, the battle lines were drawn. It took some weeks to build the trenches, but by July, what began as a “we’re all in this together” fight for survival devolved into a multi-front war pitting survivalists on all sides against each other. Mutual support evaporated as tensions arose between those needing to make a living and those who saw epidemic death around every corner. Caught in the middle were the patrons: people who just wanted to go out, take advantage of our incredible restaurant scene and have a good time. Suddenly, everyone felt uncomfortable, and in a matter of a few calamitous weeks, dining out in America went from “we’re here to have a good time” to “let’s all struggle to get through this’ — not exactly a recipe for a good time, which is, after all, the whole point of eating out.
Reduced hours and crowds meant shorter menus, since every restaurant in town was forced to narrow its food options. No one seemed to mind, since anyone taking the time to dine out was simply happy the place was open. But if you sum it all up — the rules, the emptiness, the fear, the feeling of everyone being on guard — it’s a wonder anyone bothered going out at all. But going out to eat is what we do, because it is fun, convenient and delicious, and because we are human.
As Las Vegas’s most intrepid gastronaut, I’ve had to curb my voracious appetite more than anyone. Overnight my routine went from visiting ten restaurants a week to a mere few. Even in places where I’m on a first-name basis with the staff, the experience is as suppressed as the voices of the waiters. Instead of concentrating on hospitality, the singular focus is now on following all the rules. All of which makes you appreciate how the charm of restaurants stems from the sincerity of those serving you — something hard to notice when you can’t see their face.
Nowhere are these feelings more acute than on the Strip. “Las Vegas needs conventions to survive,” says Gino Ferraro, facing the simplest of facts. “If the hotels suffer, we suffer.” He’s owned Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar since 1985 and will be the first to tell you how thin the margins are for success in the business. Restaurants are in your blood more than your bank account, and micromanaging, cutting costs, and (hopefully) another year of government assistance are what he sees as keys to their survival. “Good restaurants will survive, but there’s no doubt there will be less of them.”
Unlike the free-standing Ferraro’s, the Strip is different. There, the restaurants are amenities — like stores in a mall if you will — and from Sunday-Thursday (when the conventions arrived) they used to thrive. These days, like Ferraro’s, they still pack ’em in on weekends, but almost all are closed Monday-Wednesday. This doesn’t mean the food or the service has suffered, far from it, only that everyone is hanging on by their fingernails, and this anxiety is palpable when you walk through the doors. The staffs are almost too welcoming, which is nice, but you can sense the fear and it’s not pretty, and it is not going away for many months to come.
As Vegas slowly re-opens, one thing you can no longer take for granted is that each hotel will have a full compliment of dining options, from the most modest to world famous. If I had to make a prediction, it would be that a year from now, some hotels may field a smaller team of culinary superstars, and their bench will not be as deep, and those stars will have another season of wear and tear on them without any talented rookies to come along and take their place.
Long before the shutdown, there were signs we had reached peak Vegas and things were starting to wane. Some fancy French venues were showing their age, the Venetian/Palazzo (with its panoply of dining options), seemed overstuffed, and rumblings were heard that even the indefatigable David Chang had lost his fastball. The same could be said for the whole celebrity-chef-thing, which was starting to feel very end-of-last-century by the end of last year. The Palms’ murderer’s row of newly-minted sluggers was mired in a slump, and our gleaming, big box, pan-Asian eye-candy (Tao, Hakkasan) were not shining as bright as they once did.
The stakes are much higher when you consider the reputation of Las Vegas as a whole. Survey the landscape these days and all you can ask is, how much of this damage is permanent? It took from 1989-2019 to take Las Vegas from “The Town That Taste Forgot” to a world class, destination dining capital — a claim to fame like no other — where an entire planet of gastronomic delights, cooked by some of the best chefs in the business, was concentrated among a dozen swanky, closely-packed hotels. Now, what are we? A convention city with no conventions? A tourist mecca three days a week? Can we recapture this lost ground, or is some of it gone forever? Everyone is asking but no one has the answers.
Perhaps a culling of the herd was already in the works and all Covid did was accelerate the process. Are the big money restaurant days over? Certainly until those conventions return, and no one is predicting that until next year, at the earliest. If that’s the case, it will be a leaner/meaner gastronomic world that awaits us down the road — not the cornucopia of choices laid before you every night, no matter what style of food struck your fancy. The fallout will include the casinos playing it safe; not throwing money at chefs like they once did, and sticking with the tried a true for awhile. Less ambitious restaurant choices? Absolutely. It is impossible to imagine a single European concept making a splash like Joël Robuchon did in 2005, or any Food Network star getting the red carpet treatment just for slapping their name on a door. The era of Flay, Ramsay, Andrés and others is over, and the “next big thing” in Las Vegas dining won’t be a thing for a long time.
If the Strip’s prospects look bleak (at least in the short term), locally the resilience has been astounding. Neighborhood venues hunkered down like everyone else, but now seem poised for a resurgence at a much faster rate than anything happening in the hotels. If the Strip resembles a pod of beached whales, struggling to get back in the water, then local restaurants are the more nimble pilot fish, darting about, servicing smaller crowds wherever they find them. Four new worthwhile venues are popping up downtown: upscale tacos at Letty’s, Yu-Or-Mi Sushi and Sake, Good Pie and the American gastro-pub Main Street Provisions, all in the Arts District. Off the Strip Mitsuo Endo has debuted his high-toned yakitori bar — Raku Toridokoro — to much acclaim, and brew pubs are multiplying everywhere faster than peanut butter stouts.
Chinatown — with its indomitable Asians at the helm — seems the least fazed by any of this, and Circa will spring to life before year’s end on Fremont Street, hoping to capture some of the hotel mojo sadly absent a few miles south. Going forward, some of these imposed restrictions will remain in place to ensure survival (more take-out, smaller menus, fewer staff), but the bottom line is look to the neighborhoods if you wish to recapture that rarest of sensations these days, a sense of normalcy.
Watching my favorites absorb these body blows has been like nursing a sick child who did nothing to deserve such a cruel fate. In a way it’s made me realize that’s what these restaurants have become to me over decades: a community of fledgling businesses I’ve supported and watched grow in a place no one thought possible. As social experiments go, the great public health shutdown of 2020 will be debated for years, but this much is true: Las Vegas restaurants were at their peak on March 15, 2020, and reaching that pinnacle is a mountain many of them will never again climb.