There’s a new breed of gaming bar in Las Vegas, born out of a desire to offer high end food, first class gaming, and a magnificent decor to people as they relax and unwind.
It all comes together in Las Vegas at Martinis. This is the bar that was built by its owner, for its owner. “Opening bars like Martinis are what old lawyers do when they retire,” says Bill Phillips. And, although his Mixed Nuts Hospitality Group owns several other restaurant concepts, he says, “This is the one that we built for me.”
He’s not alone in his enjoyment. Martinis opened in May 2007, serving tapas and sushi and setting the bar just a littler higher in Las Vegas. In fact, General Manager Erica Muse explains it this way: “We happen to have a really great higher end restaurant, and that’s not common.” It’s the difference that she says led to one reviewer calling Martinis “the Bellagio of gaming bars.”
The concept is a Manhattan-style bar, complete with leather wing chairs, set in intimate groupings in front of a series of fireplaces. There are studded leather bar stools, tall tables, hardwood floors and lots of dark woods. Plasma screens at the bar are discreetly set back, and the video poker at many of the bar seats is just as discreet.
A little more obvious is the glass display case full of liquors. “We have one of the largest vodka selections in town,” says Muse. “When we did the menu we worked with a mixologist. We do a Martini of the Month. It gives me a chance to play around with seasonal flavors.”
Muse says the most popular martinis are the Blueberry More, the Pear-Fect and the Afterburner. “It’s an interesting mix of cucumber, lime, sugar, garlic Tabasco® and gin,” she says. “It’s really refreshing, with the cucumber flavor and a little heat.”
As they savor the martinis, visitors also get a chance to notice the art—throughout the whole restaurant are framed prints of old _New Yorker cartoons. “My wife and I did a lot of the design work,” explains Phillips. “They lacquered the walls and it just looked sterile.”
So, like any good entrepreneur, he went hunting for a solution. “When I was a child,” Phillips recounts, “I spent a lot of time at the 21 Club. I loved the feel of the 1950 mens grill—that whole vibe.” They found that vibe memorialized in the old cartoons, so they asked for any that mentioned martinis.
“We asked for every New Yorker cartoon that mentioned a martini from the last 50 years,” says Phillips. “We just loved them all.” So, they bought the licensing fee and transformed the walls.
Phillips pulled a similar transformation in the kitchen when he hired a former Top Chef contestant, Gene Villiatora, as Executive Chef. “He had finished up with Top Chef,” says Phillips, “and it was a good fit. One of the great assets is that his presentations are just beautiful.”
Like the Strawberry Salad, where the tartness of fresh berries and sweet mango blend nicely with smooth cheese and greens. Or the sushi—try the Spicy Tuna Roll, the Fried Soft Shell Crab, or the Ahi Tuna.
We had an Airline Chicken Breast cooked with the skin on, pan seared and finished in the oven, with a stuffing of spinach and prosciutto, served with Chipotle Mashed Potatoes and Lemongrass Beurre Blanc. Then there was a Smoked Pork Tenderloin with Butter Whipped Potatoes and Sweet Onion Pork Jus, and a Cranberry and Pear Crisp with Eggnog Sauce. All hit our “I’d order this” quotient with high marks.
Chef Villiatora says he gets many of his ideas in his sleep. “About six years ago I got in the habit of leaving a tablet beside my bed,” he says. “then I can jot them down. About 75 percent of the time my notes don’t make any sense, but enough of the time it all comes together!”
The Chef grew up in Hawaii, and says he worked his way up from dishwasher to cook, learning along the way about “Asian ingredients and European cooking techniques.”
Villiatora admits that the result is a bit eclectic, and says that’s become his trademark. “I can work with all types of flavors to come up with something that no one’s created before,” he says.
He also says that Martinis is a good place to come after the notoriety of a TV show. “If you can build your name locally,” he says, “the pay off is 100 percent better. I want to build rapport and relationships with the customers.” (Don’t be surprised, though, if you see him back on TV someday—he still has Iron Chef as a goal.)
Martinis’ clientele leans toward locals, with a mix of visitors. Muse says, “We get some tourists because of our relationship with the concierge desk at Red Rocks and Suncoast, but because of the neighborhood we are in, we have a great base of loyal customers.”
That loyal base, adds Muse, has expanded since Villiatora became chef. “Since Gene has come on, we have a much broader base thanks to the variety of foods—Asian, Mediterranean, South American flavors,” she says.
“We were the staff pick in the Las Vegas Review Journal for best bar food,” says Muse. “And our Kobe burger was voted one of the ten best burgers in Las Vegas.”
And, while the food is a point of pride for Martinis’ staff, Muse says the real key is being a neighborhood bar. “The difference is our staff. They are friendly, know everyone by name, and even know their kid’s names,” she says.
That’s what happens when a bar is built to the personal taste of its owner. Odds are good that if it’s what one person wants badly enough, others will, too. And, particularly at Martinis, those are good odds.
See how to make a Pumpkin Pie Martini.
See our blog from the Las Vegas tour, here.
Hear more from Martinis here.
Visit Martinis when you are in Las Vegas:
1205 S. Fort Apache Rd., Las Vegas, NV 89117
(702) 242- 8464
This is a Raves & Faves Featured Restaurant.