I hadn’t been by in at least a decade, so this may partly be my fault. But I had a coupon and we couldn’t agree on anything else, so Amy and I decided to meet at the Tillerman. It’s one of those Old Vegas haunts everybody should try once, I insisted.
We were too late. The notice on those heavy wood doors read “TEMPORARILY CLOSED,” but a real estate sign announced the vacancy. The Tillerman’s last Facebook status update, on February 16, says it “closed due to the economy and a greedy landlord.”
Around the same time, our foodie press agonized over the sudden demise of Wynn Las Vegas’ Alex, which, it could be said, could use the same Facebook status. Much was made of what the loss of Alex meant to the Strip.
Nobody noticed, however, when, after an underwhelming Valentine’s Day, the owner closed a 31-year-old institution that once defined fine dining in a less-sophisticated, pre-celebuchef era.
“Servers would tell us that, back in the day, this place was crazy,” said Evan Fleisher, the Tillerman’s last executive chef. Weekly food scribe John Curtas agreed: “At one time, it was one of the top five most popular restaurants in town. It was a power broker place.”
The original Tillerman opened on Maryland Parkway in 1980, back when that area two miles east of the Strip was hot and the now-gross Boulevard Mall was Nevada’s biggest. A fire razed the restaurant, so owner Thomas Kapp rebuilt just west of Eastern on Flamingo, where it flourished with a heavy wood and brass décor that equaled opulence before wine towers and Strip-side terraces. Siegfried and Roy were devotees, the aging Rat Packers all popped in at some point, and conventioneers on expense accounts would spend big on steak, lobster and wine. There was a gimmick, too; salad was served family style on a Lazy Susan with a central lettuce bowl and condiments and vegetables in individual ramekins.
Over the years, the place deteriorated. Latter owners reduced costs by firing proper chefs and replacing them with line cooks, offending veteran customers and making the menu too costly for its inferior quality. The location also became unsavory, what with better steakhouses all over the Strip and the Tillerman’s neighborhood swarmed by empty strip malls and low-rent apartments.
It probably would’ve perished sooner if not for Karen Pollick’s shockingly poor business decisions. The 62-year-old Californian arrived unaware of both the recession and the Tillerman’s declining reputation, agreeing to take over the business for nothing from landlord Jack Spitz in exchange for paying a mind-boggling $15,000 in monthly rent. (The building is listed for sale now for an absurd $2.5 million, double the per-foot price of comparable buildings nearby. Spitz did not reply to requests for comment.)
Pollick plunged her sizeable divorce settlement into the place, spending $400,000 in all and now facing bankruptcy. She hired Fleisher and advertised everywhere, but couldn’t reverse a clearly pre-ordained fate. Celebrities never returned, unless you count the Pawn Stars guys. Now-Governor Brian Sandoval held a fundraiser there last year, too.
“We were told that this restaurant had done so well that there were lines around the block,” she said. “By the end, we were giving away our food. … I remember Vegas being a really exciting town. I just couldn’t imagine a place with all these empty buildings.”
A more savvy businesswoman might’ve asked around before getting involved in this. So as sad as that is, odds are good someone else would’ve parted her with her money if she hadn’t fallen for this particular trap.
But the Tillerman’s silent departure seems sadder still. The sudden 2003 closure of Siegfried & Roy’s Mirage show spurred me to go see old classics like Wayne Newton and Folies Bergere, and this loss is a similar reminder that Vegas has a fleet of once-mighty eateries—Pamplemousse, Golden Steer and El Sombrero Cafe sprang to my and Curtas’ minds—that will go this way someday.
Another piece of Vegas social history is gone. I thought somebody should take note.