"I almost cried when it closed down,” says Las Vegas native Nectaly Mendoza. He’s not alone. The venerable Venetian Restaurant had been around since 1966, was at one point owned by Lou and Angie Ruvo and meant the world to a lot of people. It featured solid Italian food, serviceable drinks, a friendly old-world atmosphere—dusty and dated but cumulatively a crowd-pleaser, especially late-night. When it closed a few years ago, what followed were two less-fortunate venues, both of which brought some ticky-tacky cantina kitsch with them.
But all that’s been swept away since Mendoza, 29, sold everything he owned and literally put it all on the line to purchase 3713 West Sahara for a reported $1.64 million and open Herbs & Rye restaurant and late-night cocktail lounge. Part Italian ristorante, part classic mixology bar, Herbs & Rye soft-opens December 15 and grand-opens January 15, with Mendoza promising authenticity.
A former Light Group beverage manager, Mendoza started out as a barback at Light at the age of 21. He worked his way through every venue Light Group has owned in Las Vegas, eventually developing the beverage programs along the way; he most recently left Yellowtail to open Herbs & Rye. But before that, when he was 18, Mendoza was a glass-polisher at Olives at the Bellagio, and that’s where he met mixology legend Tony Abou-Ganim and the man who would later become a mentor, the Enigma Group’s Michael MacDonnell. Over the years Mendoza had the opportunity to travel with brands like Jim Beam and Remy Martin to France and Italy. "I wasn't one to follow the typical pattern," says Mendoza. But now, he says, is the right time to step out on his own.
“We spent zero on labor,” Mendoza says, gesturing to the construction, nearly complete. He and his team did the 6,297-square-foot building’s renovation themselves and to wonderful effect; rumor has it there might even be a second phase of construction. "Everything that has been done in this restaurant we’ve done ourselves, says Mendoza. “A lot of heart went into this place."
But just because he’s made the jump from employee to owner, don’t expect him to act like he’s never polished a glass before. Mendoza expects to pull bartending shifts nightly.
Along with right-hand man Gerardo de la Torre, Mendoza aims to provide authentic, pre-Prohibition cocktails of the late 1800s and early 1900s with an all-fresh program. His mission is simple: “We will have—off the Strip—the best beverage program in the city.” Herbs & Rye’s program revolves around classic cocktails. Behind the bar, homemade bitters and syrups infused in-house will mingle with fresh, in-season produce to populate a menu which will rotate every two to three weeks. “Can’t order a mojito here in the winter, can’t order a mint julep here in the winter,” he says, shaking his head at man’s folly. “Because the mint’s not fresh.”
As nothing is pre-prepped, guests themselves will be expected to participate in the 15-minute shaking process should they order a Ramos Gin Fizz, and they’ll need to understand that freshly squeezed isn’t as fast as the pop of a bottle top. “We’re building ’em right, we’re doing ’em right, stirring the browns, shaking the whites,” Mendoza says of his spirits and how they ought to be handled. His julep strainers hail from auctions, his two-prong strainers from Europe, his sterling silver straws will grace only certain cocktails—all items collected through Mendoza’s travels over the years.
Herbs & Rye will be open daily from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., always serving a full menu by executive chef Fabian Badillo. “Rustic Italian with interpretive Mediterranean flair,” says Badillo, formerly of RM Seafood. “My philosophy and ideas of cooking will be coming out in the specials.” Flat screens will show old-school mobster movies from the 1940s and before. Along those lines, male servers will be wearing garters on their sleeves, the ladies in flapper-esque garb. Occasional jazz and brass bands will grace the stage in the main room, playing one set during dinner, and one late night.
Gone are the signs that the Slanted Clam and Camino de Morelia were ever there. But the Venetian’s brick foyer and basic layout remain, as does a piece of original Venetian memorabilia in the private dining room. Inside, the main dining room offers black-leather banquette booths with a chef’s table in the adjacent private dining room. Provocative fishnet-enrobed columns break up the floor plan, and flocked red wallpaper lines the entire space, with six more high-boy tables in the bar.
Ah, yes, the bar—that’s where the magic happens. “We’re not in bed with anybody,” says Mendoza matter-of-factly, meaning that Herbs & Rye will serve whatever spirits are required for Mendoza’s classic cocktail list. Regardless of distributor, “We pick here what we want." Eclectic beers. Rotating featured absinthes. And don’t worry about being classed-out by a frightening menu, either. “We welcome everyone,” Mendoza says. “These classic cocktails became classics because people drank what they wanted.”
So feel free to sample the classics, reach for a standard or just have it your way. “You can preach tradition all day,” Mendoza says, “but the guy who comes in and orders a Coors Light wants a Coors Light. So give him a Coors Light!” But consider yourself warned: Order a vodka Red Bull and you’ll be mixing it yourself.