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}

#MeToo #MeThree #Me400k

Back in the 1980s, I had a client. She was a cocktail waitress on the Strip. As I recall, she was a pretty brunette in her early 30s, divorced, and with a small child. She was referred to me by another lawyer who didn’t think she had much of a case.

When she came to my office she acted shy and quiet, barely speaking above a whisper. The whole time she sat across from me she acted like she was embarrassed about something.

At first I thought she was there with a workman’s compensation case. I thought this because the first thing she did was roll up one of her sleeves to show me the bruises on her upper arm.

“It looked worse a few days ago,” she told me. “It happened over a week ago.”

“What happened?”

“My boss grabbed me and tried to have sex with me.” She was quivering as she said this, eight days after the incident.

“Where did this happen?”

“In his office,” she replied, “where he takes all the girls he wants to have sex with.”

“Who’s your boss?”

“He’s the vice president of food and beverage.”

“For the whole hotel?”

“Yes. I don’t want to lose my job, but he shouldn’t have done this.”

“Did he do anything else to you other than grab you by the arm?”

“Yes…as I twisted away from his grip, he reached out with his other hand and grabbed my boob and ripped my dressed as I was pulling away from him.”

“Where’s the dress?”

“Right here.”

With that, she reached into a large bag she had with her and produced a short, torn cocktail server dress with the upper quarter of it ripped open.

Then, with her next statement, we both got embarrassed.

“Do you want to see it,” she murmured almost inaudibly.

I knew what she was talking about but had to ask. “See what?”

“My boob.”

It was difficult for both of us, but she showed me the inside of her breast with three short scratches and a fading bruise. It looked like someone had tried to twist her her breast off.

“Did you tell anyone at the time this happened?”

“Yes, I told my shift supervisor.”

“A man or a woman?”

“A woman.”

“What did she say?”

“She told me to forget about it if I wanted to keep my job.”

Long story short, she eventually quit, claiming sexual harassment. We sued on those grounds as well as assault and battery. The hotel fought tooth and nail, and the case eventually settled…for $15,000.

As I’ve said many a time over the years, if this case had happened two decades later, we could’ve added two zeros to the settlement. As it was, both the hotel and its attorneys continually scoffed at the claim. “All he did, at the very worst, was make a pass at her,” was their contention. The ripped dress was a fake and the bruises on her arm could’ve come from anywhere. The fact that she immediately told her supervisor bothered them not at all. “So her boss got a little out of line. What’s the big deal?”

To some youngsters, 1986 seems like the 1800s, but to those of us of a certain age, it wasn’t that long ago. And America was hardly in the dark ages about sexual harassment in the Eighties — it had been a hot topic, both legally and socially, for at least twenty years.

But Vegas took no heed of that. Las Vegas, then and now, plays by its own rules. And those rules begin and end with the fact that whatever blue-collar, unskilled job you have, you should be damn grateful to have it. Better still, you, the employee should never forget that if you move back to Fresno or Little Rock, you’ll be holding down the same job for about 60% less money.

The same holds true for our hotel executives. To a man (and woman) they know that no where else in America can they make the same, six-figure income, managing a bunch of maids, dealers and bookkeepers. And the big bosses — the guys with the high six-figure/seven-figure incomes — know that they know this, so all of them create a tight little bubble of economic security that no one wants to puncture.

Low level employees are expendable. Hot young masseuses, manicurists, waitresses are a dime a dozen. Use ’em up and spit ’em out. When one makes waves, circle the wagons and wait for it to pass. (And waiting for it to pass is what Steve Wynn is doing right now.)

And pass it does. I know one well-known executive (who has worked in at least half a dozen hotels in town), who was fired from two of his jobs because he couldn’t keep his hands off the cocktail waitresses. Nevertheless, whenever a new hotel is in the works (as many were ten-fifteen years ago) this fellow’s name kept popping up as a F&B executive. “Un-friggin-believable,” I would always say to myself….but then I would look up and there he was, strutting around the new hotel like a little Caesar with his monogrammed shirts and fuck-you Italian shoes.

The culture that allows this to go on all over Vegas is endemic to Vegas. It is unique in that we’re a town built upon the seven deadly sins. Our pleasure palaces depend upon all sorts of vices: sex, drugs, and rock & roll are what sells this town. Take away the drugs (I’m including booze when I say drugs), and the glitz and  the easy women and what do you have? Fremont Street in 1936: a dusty old western outpost with a dozen seedy gambling halls.

But dusty old gambling parlors do not support six-figure lifestyles and fuck-you Italian loafers. We need glitz and glamour and an endless supply of young. eager, compliant, blue collar employees to constantly polish and enhance our image. Managing so many uneducated folks ain’t easy, and if a casino boss wants to partake of these vices and take a few liberties, who does it harm? (Or at least that’s the thinking among the powers that be….even if they won’t admit it.)

Look no further than John L. Smith’s “Running Scared — The Life and Treacherous Times of Las Vegas Casino King Steve Wynn” — an exposé on the rise of Wynn that paints in horrifying detail his use of his executives to procure a ready supply of young women (mostly employees) for his sexual gratification. It was published in 1995, and the only eyebrows it raised were among the press. What horrified them was his ensuing libel lawsuit against Smith and the publisher — cases that were eventually tossed out of court. Wynn may have lost that battle, but he won the war. From that point forward, the sexual peccadilloes of Vegas big shots were off limits. And for twenty-plus years, the public didn’t give a shit, either.

It’s one thing when sex in the workplace is a fair fight (e.g. among the restaurant crowd with their after-hours partying and musical beds*), quite another when someone risks a valuable job in a big hotel by calling out a rich and powerful boss, especially one with his name on the building. Complicating things are the willing or semi-willing females (or males, I suppose) who go along with sexual overtures to get ahead. Or at least get along.

But my guess is that the ones who do mind outnumber the ones who don’t by 10 to 1. Everyone in Las Vegas has a story, but precious few will ever spill the beans, because Mr. Gucci will always be making $400,000 a year, and, no matter how bruised your psyche or dented your flesh, fifteen grand only goes so far.


*When the Mario Batali scandal hit, in early December, I made the observation on social media that people get into the restaurant business precisely because it’s a hotbed of social/sexual activities. (As one manager once told me, “It’s like a never-ending frat party you can continue well into your thirties.”) The morality police jumped all over me, accusing me of “hating restaurant workers” and “condoning sexual harassment.” The difference is, of course, that the groping and grabbing (and language and philandering) among  young people is an even economic match. What happens after-hours among restaurant staffs  is a far cry from Steve Wynn patrolling the halls of his hotel, looking for more notches on his belt.