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As We See It

Finding a bit of Vegas with an Albanian in Detroit

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Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas … in Detroit?
Lex Cannon

I seriously contemplated just slipping one of the menus into my bag and taking off. Nobody would notice its absence and it would, no doubt, look awesome on my desk at home along with my Norm bobblehead and that Playboy key from when the club opened at the Palms.

But when I went to the Vegas Grill’s register to pay for the greasiest, most delicious chicken gyro ever, I lost my nerve. So instead, I thought I’d just ask.

“You’re a big Vegas fan, huh?” I said to the squat, hirsute fellow in an apron who I somehow correctly pegged as the owner.

“Oh yeah, everybody loves Vegas,” he replied in what I’d learn was a mild Albanian accent.

“Where do you stay when you go?” I inquired, because that’s what I always inquire of Vegas aficionados.

“Oh, I’ve never been there,” he said.

Daniel Nrecaj, it turns out, loves Vegas as a business concept more than a vacation destination. His wife, he says, goes once a year or so with her friends, but he’s never had the time to tag along. He’s always been too busy working 60 to 100 hours per week at whichever diner he owned at the time.

I had stumbled across Nrecaj’s place entirely by accident. I’d worked up a big appetite seeking out good ol’ fashioned Detroit disaster porn in some blighted neighborhoods nearby. Famished, I pulled out onto a main boulevard in search of grub. The first two restaurants I found were, in fact, burned out and desolate. But then, a few blocks down, at 18241 Plymouth Road, I looked up to find the familiar eight-pointed star that crowns Betty Willis’ famous sign beckoning me to the fabulous Vegas Grill.

At first I was disappointed. Vegas-wise, there was little visually interesting about the place except for the nifty sign and menu art. No pictures of the Strip, no gambling motif. The most sinful thing about the place was the menu packed with artery cloggers.

I was going to slip away without chatter, because I’ve seen the crass appropriation of the Vegas name all over the world. Usually, it doesn’t actually mean anything.

Nrecaj, though, had a whole backstory that felt true to a certain Vegas ethos. Like the owners of Paymon’s or Lindo Michoacan or Tinoco’s, he’s a first-generation immigrant who saved his pennies and borrowed from countrymen to open his first eatery. He has big ideas—neon, pictures, possibly even some tie-ins with actual Detroit or Vegas casinos. A lot of what he says doesn’t really make a ton of sense, but his infectious enthusiasm for the Vegas branding of his diner is reminiscent of so many people who rely on Vegas for the fulfillment of crazy dreams.

“The Vegas name is associated not just with people going into a casino and maybe winning or losing money,” said the 45-year-old father of three. “The name and the concept are also associated with somebody who actually took over something and is doing something more.”

Nrecaj hasn’t decked the place out yet, he said, for a reason that might sound familiar in Vegas: He’s not sure he’s going to stick with this location because there may not be enough foot traffic. He opened in the former home of a long-closed Wendy’s in October on the cusp of a brutal, snowy winter knowing it would be hard for a while to tell if it was a good spot. He couldn’t wait; like Jim Murren with CityCenter, he had to open when he did because, well, the place was ready.

What fascinated me the most, though, was how Betty Willis fit into this. Nrecaj started considering the Vegas theme after his wife had a dream about playing dice on the Strip. He did his due diligence and found out that the famed Las Vegas sign is not trademarked, a piece of information that sealed the deal.

Willis, who turns 90 this year, gave the sign and its design to Las Vegas as a gift in 1959. It is, as they say, a gift that keeps on giving. Nobody will ever know how many businesses have borrowed the phrasing or the imagery because it was legally easy to do, thereby publicizing Vegas in countless permutations all over the world.

“You know what? Things like this shouldn’t really belong to any one person, because it’s a worldwide effect,” Nrecaj said. “Vegas is a worldwide thing. There’s not anybody on the planet who doesn’t know about Vegas. You go to Albania. They’ve never been to America, can’t speak a word of English, but if you mention Vegas, they know what it’s all about.”

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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