|March, 2010 • Volume 24, Number 2 • http://www.foodchannel.com|
A Look Back at the Inaugural Raves & Faves Restaurant Tour
When The Food Channel® set out to produce a series of in-depth multimedia features on more than a dozen independent restaurants and icons of the Vegas Strip, we weren’t quite sure what we’d find. Las Vegas has been frequently mentioned as one of the cities particularly hard hit by the struggling economy.
So perhaps it was a gamble, but what better place to do that than Sin City USA? With support from U.S. Foodservice, sponsor of this tour, we encountered some incredible eating and drinking establishments in our search for restaurant and consumer trends and, of course, great food.
One trend, or at least commonality, we quickly picked up on after visiting just a few Vegas restaurants: family pride. The folks who ran these places were justly proud of the businesses they’d built—and repeatedly referred to both staff and customers as “family.” Lindo Michoacán, Las Vegas’ home for authentic Mexican food, was like that. As owner and chef Javier Barajas said, “We care about everyone who comes in. We are like one big family.”
Timbers Bar & Grill has a similar philosophy. Kathleen Hovietz, marketing manager, talked about how they want customers to feel when entering Timbers: “You walk in and see familiar faces. We recognize you, what you like to eat, games you like to play. The complete experience.” And that experience, by the way, includes some of the best food we’d ever tasted. (We weren’t alone in that opinion. Timbers has been named Best Bar Food in a local poll for four years straight.)
We found a mixture of both Old School and modern on the tour, exemplified by Nora’s Wine Bar & Osteria. You can sample a variety of wines from the very latest in wine dispensing, the Enomatic System…or watch as they use a 1927 Berkel to shave prosciutto into delicate slices.
One of The Food Channel “trends in action” we ran into at virtually every stop in Vegas was sliders. If it fit on a mini bun, it was probably on the menu. Big Dog’s Draft House, home of wonderful Wisconsin(!) cuisine, offered Italian Sausage Sliders, Chicken Sliders, and Angus Beef or Filet Mignon Sliders. The Food Channel crew happily slid a few of those onto our plates.
Vegas restaurateurs showed us plenty of menu innovation, from the Flaming Hot Cheetos breading used on the onion rings at Sierra Gold to the Fusilli with Lobster and house-made Potato Gnocchi “Sorrento” created by Master Chef Gustav Mauler at Spiedini. Chef Mauler’s Signature Chopped Salad is a true work of art—that you get to eat.
Cutting corners may be tempting in this economy, but it was definitely NOT in evidence during the Raves & Faves Vegas tour. The Original Pancake House sounds unassuming enough, right? It has won the prestigious James Beard Award twice. Owner Kim Freudenberger claims they serve “the best bacon in town,” and every member of the staff takes a turn squeezing fresh oranges for the orange juice. “We don’t substitute quality. We don’t cut corners. And we don’t compromise,” she told us.
Paradise Cantina owner, “Lee,” expressed similar feelings about the food at his casual “Tex-Mex-Southwestern-California-Pacific” eatery. “When the economy went south, we didn’t cheapen any of the ingredients. Offering a quality product is most important to us.”
In a city as dependent on tourism as Las Vegas, it surprised us a bit how often the restaurant and bar owners and managers mentioned the locals and gaming industry workers as their primary clientele—people who they obviously enjoy serving. “I just want to serve them a great meal,” said Frank Wanamaker, corporate chef at Shuck’s Gaming & Oyster Bar. “Our customers receive the freshest seafood that’s out there in Las Vegas, thanks to modern technology.” Another thing that surprised us was the menu—items such as Ceviche, Shrimp Louie, and slipper lobster tail offered at a gaming bar. Shuck’s is right on trend with the burger craze, too. We won’t soon forget the Big Mother Shucker burger at Shuck’s—you could call it the mother of all burgers.
The Kobe Burger at Martinis is amazing, as well. No surprise that it’s been picked as one of the best burgers in all of Las Vegas.
The mixology movement still has lots of momentum, too, as you might expect in Vegas. Martinis has an astounding selection of, yes, martinis. Its Martini of the Month promotion gives customers a reason to return again and again. We also loved the collection of New Yorker cartoons adorning the walls—every one featuring some kind of martini-related gag.
Something that never goes out of style in the restaurant and bar business is good old-fashioned fun. Capo’s Italian Steakhouse knows how to have fun. The staff at this gangster-themed operation strives to make every meal an adventure for the customers, and the menu reflects that with choices such as Syndicate Salads, Bathtub Gin Soups, and House Specialties You Can’t Refuse. Not to mention the live jazz, which keeps the joint jumping.
Is there anything left of the “Old Vegas”? Those who remember the days of inexpensive and plentiful food in exchange for a little gambling will love it at Ellis Island Casino & Brewery. You can get a 20-ounce glass of draft beer for a buck-and-a-half. Or a 10-ounce USDA Choice top sirloin, served with a super salad and that draft beer, all for under $7. Their BBQ ribs are out of this world, too.
Another trend encouraged by many of the establishments along the Raves & Faves Vegas tour: sharing. It’s a great way for customers to try different foods and an ideal way for operators to expose their guests to the variety and creativity on their menus. China Grill at Mandalay Bay is a prime example. “We are all about sharing,” says Manager Leonardo Mariotti. “What’s more fun than coming with your friend” and sharing Asian-inspired world cuisine? The restaurant stocks more than 1,000 ingredients in the kitchen for creations such as Crackling Calamari Salad and Lobster Pancakes.
Sharing is a big part of the scene at the Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge too. Its signature 64-ounce drink, the Scorpion, includes six different liquors and is recommended for five or six people to share. The Peppermill is famous for its fresh fruit salad. As terrific as it tasted, the gorgeous presentation is what sells it.
So that’s a wrap. Fourteen restaurants/bars in less than a week. Lots of food. Plenty of passion and pride. Video interviews. In-depth reviews and tasty photography. Trends spotted. A behind-the-scenes-of-Vegas experience unlike any other.
The Food Channel discovered that what happens in Vegas…tastes marvelous. And, in this case, should not stay in Vegas but be shared with anyone thinking about making a trip out to this desert oasis.
We’d like to thank U.S. Foodservice for helping us to introduce Raves & Faves, a new and unique way to spotlight some of America’s finest independent restaurants and bars, and help those operations to connect with current patrons and reach out to potential new customers.
The Food Channel also publishes a great consumer newsletter, called FoodWire®. To receive a copy, please register your email address at http://www.foodchannel.com/newsletters.