Friday, July 17, 2009

What's eaten in Vegas...

Surely, there is no one in this country who does not know by now that recession victims are everywhere (except, just possibly, North Dakota, and even they've probably got a late, lamented Pontiac dealership or two).

And lard on to the pure-play recession victims the many folks tangled up in a set of concurrent circumstances that may or may not be directly related to the recession:

  • The newstand guy near the shell of Filene's who's not selling too many Globes or Heralds these days. He might as well start a sideline in buggy-whips.
  • All of those who got Ponzi'd by Bernie Madoff or Sir Alan Stanford.
  • Employees at my favorite Talbot's store - the one on Boston's School Street,  that just closed its bright, red door

There are several epi-centers for the recession, and, fortunately, I don't live in one of them. Because we don't have much of a manufacturing base (that went the way of the textile mill and shoe factory), nor did we get caught up in the construction BOOM, New England, while certainly ailing, is no Detroit. Nor are we, baby, a Las Vegas. (Just the thought of comparing and contrasting New England to Las Vegas and I ROTFLMAO. Hot, dry, glitz, lounge acts, and boomtown ain't never been us. Although I've been to Plimouth Plantation, and the Pilgrims may have liked lounge acts...)

Las Vegas is one of those places that has had a big hurtin' placed on it.

And some of that hurtin' is happening in the luxe restaurants that have been springing up in Vegas over the last decade or so.

I've only been to Las Vegas a couple of times, once on personal, twice for business.

The personal trip was part of a post-college, cross-country-in-a-Karmann-Ghia jaunt with my roommate, thirty-plus years ago. I think we stayed in Las Vegas one night, and I can absolutely picture the seedy, off-the-strip motel we stayed in. The highlight was when one of us opened a chest of drawers and found a rolled up pair of jockey shorts. What happened in the chest of drawers stayed in the chest of drawers.

I had no recall of where we ate, but we hadn't gone to Las Vegas with any plans to hit a big, fancy restaurant, as we had done at a couple of junctures on our trip. (In New Orleans, we had dinner at Antoine's, where the waiters were very nice to a couple of young Yankee girls, and I had Oysters Rockefeller.)

In the early 1970's, I don't think people went to Vegas to eat.

You went to gamble or for the shows.

We spent about $10 a piece playing the slots in some non-prime casino - probably the Golden Nugget - and walked in to a couple of others. Yawn.

We considered trying to get tickets for an Elvis show, but neither one of us was a particularly adoring fan, and it would have meant another night in the tawdry motel where, no doubt, we would have been tempted to check on those rolled up jockey shorts...

My two business trips to Las Vegas were in the past decade, when there were excellent - and pricey - meals to be had.

On one of these trips, most of our meals were in the hotel (MGM Grand) where Genuity's annual sales meeting was being held. On our one "free night," the VP of each group took their team out. Lamely, our boss took us to the Harley-Davidson Cafe. Vroom!

On the other business trip, I was attending the user group of a company that my company partnered with.

Lamely, on our free night, we had no customer to take out, so the four NaviSite attendees decided to go out together. The event was held in the rehabbed, and quite nice, Caesars Palace. So we decided to take the path of the least resistance and eat there.

Somehow, we ended up in their priciest restaurant.

Once we sat down and looked at the menu, I realized that, with no customer or prospect in tow, we really weren't going to be able to justify the expense.

So I told my colleagues - a product manager, a sales guy/partner manager, and a sales VP - that I would be happy, and not embarrassed at all, to get up and leave. But there was no way in Las Vegas that the sales VP was going to walk out of there.

As was customary, the senior person in a party paid - and, as a director, I was tied with the sales VP (which was an external title, internalized as a lowly director position).

No way I was going to pick this one up.

You wanna stay? You gonnna pay, pal!

Even eating and drinking modestly - one drink each, cheapish-side entree-only - we managed to rack up quite a charge.

I'm sure the sales guy bog'd up some fake customer.

The meal, by the way, was pretty good.

Thus ends my Las Vegas dining experiences.

And for many a luxe restaurant, luxe dining experiences have ended with a thud.

So sayeth a recent NY Times article, which reported that, once upon a time, waiters were bringing home $150K per year, waiting on big spenders known as "the whales."

A waiter from Rao's in Caesars - which may well have been where we supped - lamented the passing of $100 bills handed out to "everyone on the staff", and power tips on $12K and $15K meals. (I assure you, ours was nowhere near that. No, we were no whales - merely blowfish.)

Those were the days.

These days, there are over 5,000 food and restaurant workers without jobs.

Alas, Las Vegas got caught up not just in the construction boom, and the elephantine casino boom, but in the 5-star, celebrity chef boom, as well.

All kinds of multi-billion dollar projects - that included all kinds of multi-million dollar restaurants - have gone bust.

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.

(I just put that in there so you could read the name "Momofuku Ko". Whatever it sounds like, I gather that Momofuku means lucky peach, and Ko means son of.  By the way, if you break a reservation at their New York edition without giving them a 24 hour in advance heads up, you're out $150 per head. Harsh! No lucky peach for you!)

But the $8,5 billion CityCenter project is forging on, where celebrity chefs (the only one I'd heard of was the ubiquitous Wolfgang Puck) will celebrity chef-ize in 30 restaurants designed by celebrity architects like Daniel Libeskind.

The CityCenter project is the spawn of the no doubt apty-named MGM Mirage and Dubai World. (It's Dubai's world: we just live in it.)

The good news is that the project's "on". The bad news is that, with all those shiny new celebrity cheffed up restaurants, the existing celeb-chef boites will be cannibalized. (This is a Times word, but isn't it a wonderful one to use when writing about restaurants? What's in your sauce pot?)

If you're heading to Vegas - and who wouldn't be, in the dead of summer; it's a dry heat, after all - some of the swank restaurants have come a bit down market with "summer tasting menus," and other price-off options.

It's not clear how things will shake out in Las Vegas, restaurant-wise. Some places are still doing the same headcount, but with a lesser spend. Some say that things have "stabilized", others that "'being down 10 percent, that's the new flat."

One can assume that most of the celebrity chefs (and their architect friends) will somehow manage to withstand the "new flat."

For the waiters who've lost their jobs, or seen their incomes plummet, well under flat is the new reality.

As it is for the not-so-celebrity assistant chefs who actually do the chopping and sauteeing.

Hours have been cut back, cooks have found themselves demoted to lower end restaurants in their hotels, where they've displaced other cooks with less experience/seniority.

But it's not as if luxe-y restaurants have fully stopped luxe-ing.

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.

(I guess if you're an imperial red shrimp, what happens in Morocco doesn't get to stay there.)

But there is, of course, some sentiment that what goes bust will eventually go boom again.

Robert Goldstein, one of the restaurateurs interviewed mentioned:

...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?”

Well, given the world's appetite for heat, glitz, and luxury, probably not.

Check, please!

1 comment:

Marguerite said...

LOVED this...made me LOL (laugh out loud). But am I the only boomer who didn't recogize the acronym? Reminded me of my own post-college VW bug juant with 3 friends from Ohio to Newport, RI where one of the friend's sister was waitressing at the Black Pearl hoping to be an extra in The Great Gatsby filming there that summer. She delayed Robert Redford's bill so could we meet him. But after 7 hrs in an un airconditioned VW, we were too grimy and embarrassed to do so.