For Las Vegas Chefs, the Odds Grow Longer

July 14, 2009

By Glenn Collins

In the late, lamented boom, waiters at luxury restaurants here could make $150,000 a year and more thanks to the electrifying arrival of high rollers renowned as “the whales.”

Robert Martinez, a 33-year-old waiter at Rao’s in Caesars Palace, said these heavyweights “had wads of $100 bills and gave them to everyone on the staff, and tipped generously on $12,000 to $15,000 checks.”

But now, said Kevin Carter, a 49-year-old waiter at Craftsteak in the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, “the whales have migrated.”

Last year, a fourth of the country’s highest-grossing restaurants were in Las Vegas. But the feast has transitioned to famine. Fewer revelers are arriving, and they are spending less. With the economy reeling, more than 5,000 food and restaurant workers are unemployed here.

“We look out and we see every jet coming and going,” said Michael N. Baker, 50, a waiter for eight years at the Top of the World restaurant in the Stratosphere Casino Hotel tower. “They used to be stacked up all day long,” he added. “Then there was nothing out there. That was scary.”

Many of the town’s 2,900 restaurants are beset by fabulousness fatigue.

“It was gold, and suddenly it became fool’s gold,” said Malcolm M. Knapp, who heads a restaurant consulting firm that bears his name.

Bill Lerner, a principal of Union Gaming, a research company, said that there were “too many five-star restaurants, shows, spas — too many celebrity chefs.”

On the Strip, near Circus Circus, is the yawning emptiness of the $4.8 billion, 87-acre Echelon project, halted last August along with its 12 to 15 new restaurants, including those of chefs such as David Chang of Momofuku Ko in Manhattan.

The unfinished, mirrored blue eyesore of the $2.9 billion 3,815-room Fontainebleau tower across from Circus Circus looms over the city like a prophecy. It went bankrupt and took 6,000 jobs with it.

But in the desert restaurant universe, a mirage has now arisen that could mean either salvation or doom: the $8.5 billion City Center project.

Bristling with construction cranes and gleaming in the 100-degree sun, the City Center casino, hotel, convention center, mall, residential and entertainment metropolis looks like a hallucinogenic 67-acre Red Grooms parody of the Las Vegas Strip. The development spans a quarter-mile, from the Bellagio to the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino, and is scheduled to open in December.

Some 30 restaurants are to inhabit the jumble of seven buildings — from tapered towers to crystalline shards — designed by eight celebrity architects, including Sir Norman Foster and Daniel Libeskind. On display, and on trial, will be the concepts of lionized chefs, among them Pierre Gagnaire, Michael Mina, Masayoshi Takayama, Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

For some, City Center, developed by MGM Mirage and Dubai World, will offer treasures that transcend buzz and hype: 4,000 food and restaurant jobs, a third of the complex’s 12,000 new jobs.

But if it cannibalizes existing restaurants it could further wound this once-sleepy railroad watering stop beset by a sere immensity of sand.

Already sin city has become a sandbox of incentives, discounts and promotions, where even luxury properties like the Bellagio are offering free hotel nights, plus gambling, food and drink coupons to their club-card customers.

Some economizing tourists are fleeing their casinos to dine off-Strip. But neighborhood restaurants are under growing pressure from the Strip, since residents are being courted as never before by casinos with “staycation packages” that include restaurant meals.

And so, amid the hawkers and escort-service card-flippers, a dizzying profusion of bargain-eats signs are competing. They include giant come-ons for the “$5.99 New York Steak N Eggs” at Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon; the mammoth billboard at the Tropicana Casino & Resort vaunting its “Legendary Lobster Special $19.95,” and the ultimate deal, the Siegel Suites billboards proclaiming “Live Here Eat Free.”

On the high end, there is a desert fiesta of advertised “summer tasting menus” at the MGM Grand ($60 at Craftsteak, $59 at Shibuya, $45 at SeaBlue, $39 at Nobhill Tavern). At Aureole and Mix in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, there are new prix fixe menus. Also offering deals are Mario Batali and David Burke in the Venetian, Wolfgang Puck at Spago in Caesars Palace and reduced-price “Taste of Wynn” promotions (including $36 menus at Society Café Encore and Daniel Boulud Brasserie).

Steve Wynn, the chairman of Wynn Resorts, said that his customers “aren’t buying that bottle of Margaux, and they aren’t ordering as much — but they are here.” His Wynn and Encore, like several properties at the high end, have 90 percent occupancy.

Mr. Wynn said he is encouraged that “each month the booking window is getting longer — it used to be 90 days, then 30 last fall, now it’s coming back — and bookings are up as well.”

Last year, “the sky was falling, and people were terrified,” said Elizabeth Blau, a restaurant consultant. “Now things have stabilized.”

But for many Las Vegas restaurateurs, flat is still the new up, and for some, “being down 10 percent, that’s the new flat,” said Joseph Bastianich, Mario Batali’s partner in three restaurants at the Venetian Resort Hotel and Casino.

Mr. Bastianich said his Carnevino Italian Steakhouse in the Palazzo at the Venetian was projecting $18 million in revenues this year but now “we expect to do $13 million to $14 million.”

Sirio Maccioni, a Las Vegas fine-dining pioneer with his restaurants Le Cirque and Osteria del Circo at the Bellagio, cautioned that “it will take a very long time for it to come back to the way it was.” He noted that recently revenues from his restaurants have been down 5 to 10 percent, and last year were off 25 percent.

Waiters at high-end properties have suffered a reduction in tips from 20 to 50 percent. “Our membership has declined 10 or 11 percent since last year,” said D. Taylor, the secretary treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents 50,000 food and beverage workers and other employees in hotels and casinos.

Mr. Martinez of Rao’s said the staff had agreed to a reduction in the workweek from 5 days to 4, and in the workday from 8 hours to 6, just to save all their jobs. He estimated the average check cost for his tables was down $30, to $50.

And a grim recession game of musical-chair seniority has commenced. Francisco Rufino, a 33-year-old fry cook at the Paris Las Vegas casino hotel for the last nine years, was bumped down to a cafe there because of cutbacks at a higher-end casino restaurant. “In turn, I displaced another cook — who was laid off,” he said.

Nevertheless, many still have hopes. Mr. Bastianich is planning a restaurant at the Venetian, tentatively titled Nancy’s Luncheonette, offering the food of Nancy Silverton, his Los Angeles partner in Osteria Mozza with Mr. Batali.

Mr. Maccioni, who said he is 75, has not been deterred from opening a Tuscan-themed restaurant in CityCenter — “with 175 seats and a beautiful bar,” he said — to be called Sirio.

The city’s restaurateurs have hardly stopped rising to astounding levels in offering luxury to refined palates. The 300-seat Carnevino offers source-verified grass-fed beef, dry-aged for seven weeks in its own Las Vegas aging facility where computer chips control air flow and humidity.

And the 230-seat Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in the Wynn flies in a ton of seafood every week from the Mediterranean, including soft-shell crabs from Venice and imperial red shrimp from Morocco. Some of the fish is delivered live, and all of it is transported “on passenger airliners that would be flying whether my fish is on them or not,” said Paul Bartolotta, 48, who once trained at Taillevent in Paris and cooked at Spiaggia in Chicago.

Rick Moonen at RM Seafood in the Mandalay Bay offers three kinds of East Coast oysters, as well as live Dungeness crabs and Maine lobsters. “You have to be crazy to want to offer sustainable seafood in the middle of the desert,” said Mr. Moonen, who was awarded three stars from The New York Times in 2002 for his work at RM Seafood in Manhattan, and now, like Mr. Bartolotta, lives out here.

But Mr. Moonen and others are finding that luxury can only take them so far these days. At his sleek $6 million nautically themed restaurant, volume is up, he said, but the check average, which used to be $65 to $70, is now “in the 40s.” Three months ago, Mr. Moonen had to close his 80-seat fine-dining restaurant, RM Seafood Upstairs, where the average check was $120. “It was a terrible day,” he said, “but we’ll reopen in the fall.”

Alessandro Stratta said his casual restaurant at Wynn Las Vegas, Stratta, with its average check cost of $60, “is 30 percent busier this year than it was last year.” But his high-end restaurant, Alex, with an average $320 check per person, is down 15 percent in revenues, and is now open four days instead of five.

In this economy, said David McIntyre, vice president for food and beverage at the MGM Grand, “it’s not enough to just come out with a prix fixe menu, you have to redefine your product.”

So the casino’s Nobhill Tavern reconceived its menu boards and now “there is a 40 percent decline per check,” Mr. McIntyre said. “But now we’re up 60 percent in total volume.”

And though the 66-seat Joël Robuchon still offers a 16-course $385 menu dégustation, it now serves two courses for $89.

Therefore, the arrival of competing restaurants at CityCenter is not universally awaited.

“I don’t wish ill to anyone,” Mr. Bartolotta said, “but do we need 20 more restaurants? No. Now, everyone is vying for a part of a shrinking pie.”

But Bart Mahoney, vice president for food and beverage of the CityCenter partner MGM Mirage, said that “We hope to grow the market.”

Robert Goldstein, the 54-year-old president of a competitor, the Venetian, sounded sanguine about CityCenter as he sat in his second-floor office overlooking the casino’s signature 90-percent-scale replicas of the Campanile and the Bridge of Sighs. “It’s not going to be the end of the world, and it’s not going to restart tourism in Las Vegas,” he said. “It’s just another project opening in a tough time.”

He referred to a Life magazine cover article of June 20, 1955, that he had framed, depicting casino cancan dancers and proclaiming: “Las Vegas — Is Boom Overextended?”

He added: “Las Vegas is down a bit now, and right now the town is overbuilt. But do you really think all of this is going to fade away and go to black?”