Chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken have been a powerful presence in Las Vegas since opening their Border Grill restaurant at Mandalay Bay almost 15 years ago. They’ve been growing their brand and developing new dining concepts around their home base of Southern California, and now the celebrity chefs are ready to double down in Vegas, preparing to open a second Border Grill at the Forum Shops at Caesars this summer. The Weekly caught up with Feniger to get all the details.
It seems like you and Mary Sue spend a lot of time in Las Vegas. We do. For the first 10 years [of Border Grill at Mandalay Bay] I was in Las Vegas every week, and now it’s more sporadic. Sometimes I’m there every other week. But we both come quite a bit. We just opened [Border Grill] at LAX so we’ve been spending a fair amount of time around there.
How do you think Las Vegas has changed since you opened at Mandalay Bay? For sure we’ve seen more and more upscale restaurants from known chefs in Vegas, and that has changed in a big way in the last few years. Certainly the growth of celebrity chefs in hotels has been a dramatic difference. When Mandalay opened there was only Wolf[gang Puck] and Charlie [Palmer] and then Rick [Moonen] and Hubert [Keller]. That’s changed, and it’s a very exciting dining town, for sure.
How long have you been looking for a place for a second Border Grill in Las Vegas? It feels like it’s been quite some time. We had to find the right fit for what we do, a place where there’s enough traffic day and night and the right clientele. We did a lot of looking. At the Forum Shops, we feel like there isn’t a lot of Mexican food in the area, and with the proximity to other hotels and the Linq across the street, it’s an exciting place to be.
You’re taking over the space that was P.J. Clarke’s, on the street level of the Forum Shops right off the Strip. It’s a unique location, but so is your Mandalay Bay restaurant, which is at the southern end of the resort near the convention hall. Yeah, you know, it’s funny … when we opened at Mandalay Bay, everyone thought that was the worst location in the hotel, and now they all think it’s the best location in the hotel. And we didn’t move! That’s kind of a cool change that happened. What we’ve seen is we do strong lunch business with the pool and conventions close by, and then at night we get this great niche crowd of people that want to go out and don’t want to spend a fortune to have fun. Most people in Vegas are there to have a great time, even if they’re in town for a convention. And our concept works really well for groups. It’s such a party atmosphere, know what I mean?
At the Forum Shops, it’s not exactly the same, but there are some similarities. It’s kind of away from the hotel, and it’s really strong for lunch with all that all-day shopping. We also feel like we have a really strong local following, and we want to keep building on that. We’re going to do more cooking classes and tequila dinners at the Forum Shops, and we’re dying to do more catering in the community. I think that valet parking right there on the Strip will be very easy for locals to visit us.
Is it smaller than the original Border Grill at Mandalay? There will be less seats, because at Mandalay we have that big patio space. But also, at Mandalay we are able to keep the upstairs open for regular business and do some parties downstairs, and we’re looking to do a different version of that at the new restaurant. There will be great energy at the front bar, sort of pouring out into the mall, as well as an area where we can do private parties.
Will the new restaurant have a different or new menu? We are always pushing ourselves to continue to grow. The most fantastic part of being in the restaurant business is that you can keep learning and growing, trying new products and new ideas, and as we continue to take trips to different regions [of Mexico] we are learning new ingredients we can work with, and it’s very exciting. We do a lot of traveling and pushing to keep ourselves inspired, and we’re always trying new food and new dishes. We’ll have the Border Grill classics that people love and that we’re known for, but we’ll constantly be exploring new ideas.
Your longtime executive chef in Las Vegas, Mike Minor, is moving on to work on his own project. How hard is it to recover and replace someone that has been such a big part of your restaurant for years? We are really lucky. I love Mike and hopefully he will come back and work with us at some point in the future. It’s great to have someone like that, and when they leave it’s to go and do their dream, and we are so excited for him. We are lucky to have relationships with people like him and others that work with us, and we’re really excited to bring chef Chris Keating on and add him to our great group of managers and chefs. We also just had chef Jaime Covarrubias, who has worked on and off for us for something like 18 years, and he’s back as executive sous chef. We have such a solid team to pull from. Consistency is critical, but we have a really great team to keep things moving and also explore new things.