Very successful travel scribe in Las Vegas knows that the one sure way to thrill an out-of-town editor is to write up a few ideas popular among locals but largely unknown to tourists. Spice up the piece with a little Valley of Fire or Boulder Dam Hotel and your bosses imagine they’ve learned something fresh and new about a city that has been done to death by, well, them.
Nothing does this trick, nothing screams off-the-glittering-and-paved-and-overbuilt-beaten path, quite like serving up some suggestions for quirky, popular and inexpensive dining experiences with loyal resident followings. Include a write-up on Lindo Michoacan or Nora’s Wine Bar or Marche Bacchus and editors thing you’re a culinary know-it-all.
It has always baffled me, then, that Strip executives, most of whom live here and fall in love with the charm and quality of the same places as the rest of us, aren’t more eager to sign local operators to open outposts in their resorts. If readers of the travel press place such a premium on the opinions of Las Vegas residents—and we know they do in decisions as to what shows to see—then why aren’t the casinos teeming with branches of Bagelmania and Marche Bacchus and Joyful House?
This question baffled Jonathan Jossel when he came to town a couple of years ago to become the director of Vegas properties for the Tamares Group. The Israel-based company owns the Plaza, Las Vegas Club and Western on Fremont, all of which desperately needed some creative attention.
Jossel’s road map to revival: Populate his hotels with the restaurants he loves. Hence, the Plaza is now home to an Omelet House and Firefly, and the Las Vegas Club has Tinoco’s Kitchen.
And just like that, Jossel stands the chance of revolutionizing Vegas resort cuisine. Then again, he could also reinforce a canard that it can’t work and doom any chance of ever seeing a Lotus of Caesars Palace.
There exists a modest body of data to guide him. Rosemary’s Restaurant, the celebrated West Sahara establishment, flamed out at the Rio in 2004. The owners of Ricardo’s, a once popular group of Mexican restaurants, closed their local spaces after going into the MGM Grand in 1997, only to close in 2003 when the resort decided it no longer “fit with our vision for the future,” as an exec told the Review-Journal. (The current Ricardo’s on West Flamingo is not owned by the original folks.) More recently, as documented in this column in April, the owners of what was the Mayflower Cuisinier closed shop on West Sahara only to struggle as Woo Restaurant at the Palazzo.
Jossel has decided to disregard that recent history, a wise decision, as each was a special case with its own set of problems. Rosemary’s may have been too ambitious and undefined for the middlebrow Rio clientele; Ricardo’s was foolish and vain to close the off-Strip locations; and Woo is a victim of a horrible economy and a lousy Palazzo shopping arcade design. Keeping the Mayflower open might have created cross-buzz for tourists, too.
No, Jossel is forging ahead on little more than intuition that tourists will enjoy the same foods he does and that locals will urge their friends to check out their tried-and-true haunts in their more touristy locations.
“I always took all my colleagues, whether they were visiting from London and New York, to these places,” he said. “That’s where it came from.”
Jossel made each restaurateur a remarkable offer. Tamares would renovate the room and provide it rent-free in exchange for a share of the profits. That meant, for instance, plunging $45,000 into redoing a room for Enrique Tinoco, who shut his place in the Arts Factory. (It was replaced, incidentally, by a third site for Paymon’s Mediterranean Grill, another favorite that deserves a resort location.)
So far, so good, Tinoco said. He’s now open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, up from his nine-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week schedule. He serves more than 300 meals a day now, up from about 130 at his old spot. He even persuaded Tamares to build him a snack bar, Tinoco’s Express, for simpler fare.
The crown jewel of Jossel’s trifecta, though, is the spectacular new space for the tapas hot spot Firefly that opened earlier this month in the glass-domed dining room that long held the steakhouse Center Stage and was immortalized by a squabbling Sharon Stone and Robert De Niro in the film Casino. I’ve got a soft spot for the original place on Paradise, because that was where Miles and I had our first date, but physically I never much cared for the cramped dining room and miserable parking lot. The food was worth the hassle.
Tamares spent $500,000 to create a dining room of sultry reds that keeps the focus on the unbeatable view of the Fremont Street Experience. I do not overstate the beauty of this space by saying that it has a hipness and elegance that would fit perfectly at the Palms or Mandalay Bay. Really. What’s more, locals don’t even have to go into the rest of the still-rundown Plaza; there’s a dedicated valet lane for Firefly with quick access to an elevator to the restaurant.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people sit in that window and say, ‘I had no idea the Fremont Street Experience was like this,’” Jossel said. “Those are people who lived here all their lives.”
There’s local flavor, to be sure. Tinoco’s menu still offers items named for the likes of Soho Lofts developer Sam Cherry, and the Omelet House guests are always treated to slices of the locally famous pumpkin bread. Tinoco is always on hand to chat it up with his regulars. Yet the question mark here is whether these places can appeal to tourists, and some concessions are made. Tinoco, for instance, has added a hamburger and other common staples to appeal to tourists not interested in his creative preparations for fish. Firefly owner John Simmons said he’s scrubbed his menu of references to the widely unfamiliar term “tapas”; it’s now “small plates and appetizers and finger food meant to be shared,” he said. (“You don’t know how many hundreds of times I’ve had to explain that, no, the girls aren’t going to take their clothes off,” he said of the confusion with the word “topless.”) He’s Anglicized some dishes—the “terre y mar” skewers are now “surf-and-turf,” for instance.
Simmons gladly made such adjustments for an opportunity he has long sought. For years he’s done boffo business on Paradise, a stone’s throw from the Strip, wondering why nobody from the Strip had offered him a deal, given his proven record and his frequent references in the national media. So far, without any publicity and a quiet opening, the Plaza spot is already serving 150 customers a night, he said.
“I always was kind of surprised that nobody really noticed me,” he said. “The phones should be ringing off the hook. I’m doing up to 800 meals in a day on Paradise. It’s a phenomenon, and it’s right under people’s noses, and they’re shipping in celebrity chefs from New York and LA instead. Hey, I’m right here, you guys. Put me in the game, y’know.”
Yeah, I know. I’m with Simmons, and I suspect many local restaurateurs are, too. If these three work, just imagine what those gutsy Strip folks will cook up next.