It sounds trite, like an obnoxiously optimistic internet meme, but there are opportunities to be seized in the age of COVID-19. It’s even true in an industry that has been clearly and comprehensively decimated by the pandemic.
James Trees, the Vegas-born chef behind Downtown’s Esther’s Kitchen—one of the most popular local restaurants in recent years—has teamed with the LEV Restaurant Group to open Al Solito Posto, a neighborhood Italian spot that can seat more than 250 diners at the upscale outdoor retail development Tivoli Village.
In the early springtime stages of the pandemic, Trees was figuring out how to maintain operations at his second local restaurant, Ada’s at Tivoli Village, when this unforeseen opportunity came knocking. The previous tenant, national franchise Brio Italian Grille, had run into some trouble during lease negotiations, Trees says, and the space’s owners “took the keys, brought them down and tossed them to us, like ‘You want this?’ I was like, ‘Maybe?’
“My partners from the LEV Group got involved, and they saw the opportunity,” he says. “The biggest problem we had at Ada’s was, we never had any seats [available]. So we’ve rectified that situation.”
Al Solito Posto opened quietly on January 6 and launches officially on January 22. The menu of familiar Italian favorites cooked with care and affection is overseen by executive chef Emily Brubaker, formerly of Joël Robuchon at MGM Grand and Sage at Aria. The beverage director is David Bonatesta, from NoMad at Park MGM, and the front of the house is under the supervision of general manager Andy St. John from Bouchon at Venetian and Carbone at Aria, along with LEV development partner Carlo Cannuscio, a hospitality veteran who has worked around the world and in Las Vegas at the former Valentino at Venetian, Bartolotta at Wynn and Twist at Mandarin Oriental.
It’s a huge neighborhood Italian restaurant with a fantastic menu and an all-star team of food pros running the show—and it opened at the height of the pandemic.
“We were able to cherry-pick the best chefs and best operators from the Strip almost at will, because [big casino companies] have done such a bad job of holding on to talent,” Trees says. “How does that happen? We’re in a really interesting time and place where good operators and people have the ability to jump off the Strip, change the way they live their lives and be in a better position for their future.”
With a great location and solid, experienced backing, Al Solito Posto marks an atypical example of a new restaurant opening in Las Vegas during this public health and economic crisis. But it’s happening. Many new restaurants or additional locations of existing businesses have sprung up around the Valley since the March 2020 shutdown, while development on the restaurant-rich Las Vegas Strip has mostly stalled without tourist diners to push things along.
The Aria resort moved forward with the arrival of acclaimed dumpling house Din Tai Fung but also permanently closed Sage, a fine-dining favorite for a decade. Wynn Las Vegas debuted its first-ever Mexican restaurant, Elio at Encore, for a soft opening during the summer. But the resort recently closed Elio and is planning to announce a new dining offering in the same space when business improves.
The Vegas dining landscape has always been driven by what happens in the casinos on the Strip, with the local scene evolving when talented and ambitious hospitality professionals stake their own claims in various neighborhoods away from the tourist corridor. During the pandemic, the energy is coming from that local scene.
Standing at the center of that food excitement heading into 2021 is the Downtown Arts District, where Trees opened Esther’s Kitchen in 2018. Several highly anticipated restaurants, bars and breweries are debuting there, even while the already extreme challenges of opening a new spot have multiplied and become more complicated thanks to COVID-19.
Main St. Provisions, from chef Justin Kingsley Hall (Comme Ça, the Kitchen at Atomic, Sparrow + Wolf) and Kim Owens (Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse), was set to open in March on Main Street, but virus-related construction and licensing delays slowed the process. It finally arrived in December, seating only 37 diners at a time in a space built for 113, while following 25% capacity restrictions.
“No one has a pandemic in their business plan, that’s for sure,” says Owens, who helped open 15 restaurants across the country while working in corporate dining for 22 years before opening a place of hers in Las Vegas. “We focus on the guests that are here that we are able to serve, one at a time, and make sure they have a great experience so they want to come back again and again.”
One of the most prominent challenges for Main St. Provisions has been turning tables, a seemingly impossible balancing act between taking ultimate care of customers and moving them along so the restaurant can maximize its limited capacity every night. Without a concert or a show to attend after dinner, Owens says, diners are lingering longer, which would normally be great for business but is limiting revenues at the moment.
“We’re so happy people are having such a good time and they’re so comfortable in the room that they want to stay and have an extra glass of wine or visit just a little bit longer, but there has to be a balance,” she says. “We have to take care of more guests, so in turn, we can take care of our employees.”
Of the restaurant’s 22 employees, most were not working in 2020, Owens says, “and they’re just trying to get caught up on life and bills and move forward. But our guests are very understanding as we try to find that balance.”
Next door, Vincent Rotolo opened a bigger, better version of his Good Pie pizza bar—moving his headquarters from his first store in Downtown’s Pawn Plaza—one week before his friends at Main St. Provisions made their big debut. Good Pie initially opened for takeout and delivery only, including selling pizza slices from a strategically placed service window, in order to keep customers and staff as safe as possible.
But Rotolo is gearing up for dine-in service soon, so he can serve the full menu of Brooklyn-style Italian dishes he’s always planned for the space.
“The way this restaurant has come together feels really special, but it’s also frustrating when you can’t really let people in,” he says. “But I’m lucky. I wanted to build a slice window open to the street, and in Las Vegas, there are few locations where that’s possible. The people on Main Street and the community in the Arts District made it possible. Selling slices … was the bulk of our business for the first three weeks.”
Delaying dine-in was only one major step Rotolo took to keep his team and business safe. The Good Pie staff has been receiving twice-weekly rapid COVID-19 tests free of charge from a mobile unit, a significant expense Rotolo and his business partners nonetheless decided was necessary.
“We’re going through all the financial struggles of every new business, but this is about investing back into my employees,” Rotolo says. “I want all these team members and their families to feel taken care of, so they can better take care of our customers. Going to get tested and waiting in line can be really stressful. There’s so much anxiety and constant worrying about contact tracing and who you’ve been around. We wanted to take some of that burden off our team and let them know we support them no matter what.”
About a block away on California Avenue, just off Main and across from Esther’s, Yu-Or-Mi Sushi Bar opened on November 19. It’s a nice complement to Garagiste wine bar and Tacotarian restaurant on the same block, and that’s what it was always meant to be.
Managing partner Melissa Robinson says the sense of community in the area and the chance to bring something that was missing—“a cute little sushi place”—was magnetic. But the pandemic also delayed this new business arrival, and when Yu-Or-Mi finally opened its doors, it had to do so minus a major piece of its experience.
“Right when we were wrapping up construction was the time there was no seating allowed at bars. If you look at our spot, half of the seating is bar seating, so we thought, oh boy, we’re in trouble,” she says. “We need that so the chef can interact with guests, talk to them and provide that nice, quality service you expect when you go to a sushi restaurant.”
The restaurant has continued to adapt its seating plans to meet capacity restrictions and distancing requirements, and Robinson says diners have been understanding and flexible in dealing with the circumstances. Currently only four people can be seated at the same table, so parties of six of more must be split up among tables six feet apart.
It’s difficult, to be sure, but there’s something positive about operating under strict new guidelines while opening a new restaurant. “Maybe it’s a good thing to be coming into this slower, to ease into it, and to spend more time with the guests to get to know them,” Robinson says. “We already have regulars we adore, and we’ve come to know their families a bit. I think that’s the best part of this whole thing.”
Downtown is just one area where new restaurants are fighting their way toward success. At Town Square, North Dakota-born brand Sickies Garage has been slinging burgers and chicken wings to diners indoors and out on the patio since September. At the big Boca Park center near Summerlin, dual venue Chinglish Cantonese Wine Bar and Kosher Chinglish have attracted broad audiences with high-quality Chinese food since opening in the fall. At nearby Red Rock Resort, legendary Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri launched the outstanding Osteria Fiorella in September while his first Vegas restaurant, Vetri Cucina, sits empty at the still-shuttered Palms resort.
And at Johnny C’s Diner in the unassuming Enterprise area, veteran Vegas chef Johnny Church is dishing up refined breakfast and lunch creations like bacon pancakes, chicken fried steak, “Fat Elvis” French toast and avocado-tomatillo omelets. Church signed a lease for the space two weeks before the coronavirus forced closures, and he soldiered on to open on April 15.
“I opened with just to-go, which was a terrible business model but good because I got to teach the staff all the stuff and make sure our techniques are done right,” Church says. “Things started going well, and then the 25% [capacity restriction] hit and we went backward. Now it’s coming back again.”
Church has seen the normal ups and downs of the local restaurant biz from various kitchen positions on and off the Strip, but that regular roller-coaster ride is nothing compared to the era of COVID-19. When takeout was the only option, small independent eateries like his were forced to revamp menu items—and research alternate packaging and delivery systems—so food would travel better. “I’ve been doing a Friday fish and chips [special] and driven many times back and forth to my house to make sure you can toss it in the oven and it’ll still be crispy and delicious,” Church says. “There are a lot of little things like that you have to do now to make sure the food integrity is there.”
Takeout and delivery actually wasn’t even part of Church’s original plan. His “finer diner” concept was tailored to his location and originally included dinner service, but he hasn’t been able to expand into evenings yet. He recently pivoted into catering and meal planning for regulars, and that endeavor has grown quickly.
Industry lifers like Church and Trees are symbolic of the way restaurateurs can open new spots and keep them going even during this unpredictable business environment—and it’s further evidence of the importance of local restaurants and bars in our neighborhoods and communities.
“For me, it was just time for me to do my own thing I’ve wanted to do for years, but I guess maybe it’s the wrong time to be in the right place,” Church says. “[But] we just got in and pushed it along, and I have a good crew that really cares. I’m thankful for that and thankful to be able to still do my craft.”
For Trees, who chose to come back home and open restaurants in Las Vegas due to the exciting evolution of off-Strip dining, dealing with pandemic restrictions has been an unwelcome but educational experience. “It has taught me patience in a way I’ve never had it before, and because of that, [Al Solito Posto] has been the smoothest restaurant opening I’ve ever been involved with,” he says.
“There were expectations that 80% of restaurants would fail, and the reason 80% of restaurants haven’t failed yet is because we’ll fight. We’re fighters. We will under no circumstances give up,” Trees continues. “People don’t go broke in the restaurant business; they go into massive financial debt to save the dream.
“What we’re willing to do as an industry to survive is epic. To see people thrive and open and work through all of the challenges and hang on, that’s amazing.”