The Foodie Side of Las VegasSeptember 1, 2014

Groups Flock to the Dining and Entertainment Capital of the World By
September 1, 2014

The Foodie Side of Las Vegas

Groups Flock to the Dining and Entertainment Capital of the World
Chef Masa Takayama carries simplicity to its next level of purity at barMASA at Aria. Credit: Scott Frances

Chef Masa Takayama carries simplicity to its next level of purity at barMASA at Aria. Credit: Scott Frances

From its early days as a railroad watering stop in the Nevada desert, Las Vegas always had a reputation for good (or at least a lot of) food. In the ’50s and ’60s as casino after casino opened, Las Vegas was the king of the smorgasbord — an all-you-can-eat, often-comped buffet boasting hundreds of tasty treats. Visitors flocked to Las Vegas enticed by the promise of “free” buffets and “no-charge” cocktails at the slots and gaming tables.

Not anymore. As Las Vegas has evolved into a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city of the world, it also has achieved a lofty status as a premier culinary destination boasting a stunning variety of fine-dining restaurants and more than 60 celebrity chef restaurants —more than any other destination in the world, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). The dining scene is so fine that many insurance and financial services meeting and incentive planners stage events in Las Vegas to give their attendees and top performers the opportunity to savor the experience.

Dining Enhances the Experience

Gary Pearson, director of corporate meetings and events for Chicago-based Aon Service Corporation, a global provider of insurance, reinsurance and risk management, says that dining at big-name restaurants enhances the destination experience for all attendees. “Restaurants are a huge attraction because you have all of these well-known chefs that everybody sees on TV and hears and reads about,” he says. “Las Vegas is one of the few cities that gets all these chefs to come from all over the country and the world to open a restaurant, and it’s a big draw.”

Pearson notes that attendees love to share their experiences at celebrity chef restaurants with friends after returning home. “It’s something that people can brag about,” he says. “A couple of nights they get to go out on their own. They know each other so they form pairs or groups to go out to dinner to their favorite places. Some of our people also come in early and stay later to hit their favorite restaurants.”

More meeting pros have added a restaurant category to their site selection process as the millennial generation, which is replete with “foodies,” wants destinations that can cater to them. Las Vegas is often a first choice.

Patty Kind­ness, national sales manager for AlliedPRA Destination Management Las Vegas, says Las Vegas has diversified its portfolio when it comes to dining. “Las Vegas dining has undergone a complete overhaul in the last 10 to 15 years. Most of the Las Vegas restaurants that are known around the world are found in the hotels and have famous chefs,” she says.

Las Vegas’ dining scene is part of the reason that Aon will hold a three-day meeting for 140 clients and executives at The Mandarin Oriental in November. It will be the meeting’s eighth consecutive year in Las Vegas.

Pearson plans to take full advantage of the Mandarin’s catering services to hold the group’s closing dinner offsite at a place to be determined. Such offsite dining allows Pearson to provide creative dining experiences for attendees and, at the same time, meet the hotel’s food and beverage minimums. “We need to satisfy the minimum to keep our rates as well as the meeting rooms free, so we look for options to use the hotel’s food and beverage,” he says.

Why Has the Celebrity Chef Scene Snowballed?

David McIntyre, senior vice president of food and beverage for MGM Resorts International, has the answer. “The celebrity chef scene in Las Vegas has exploded, and I believe that’s a reflection of the rise in culinary-themed TV — including staples such as Bravo’s “Top Chef” and new primetime network shows.

Top Chef's Tom Colicchio captains his signature restaurant Craftsteak at MGM Grand, and his latest addition, Heritage Steak at The Mirage. Copyright Rayon Richards 2013

Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio captains his signature restaurant Craftsteak at MGM Grand and his latest addition, Heritage Steak, at The Mirage. Copyright Rayon Richards 2013

“As the entertainment authority in Las Vegas, MGM Resorts International delivers many dynamic offerings including your favorite TV personalities such as Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio with his signature restaurant, Craftsteak, at MGM Grand and his latest addition, Heritage Steak at The Mirage. We also are home to some of the world’s most celebrated, award-winning chefs including Joël Robuchon, Julian Serrano and Michael Mina. Las Vegas features the best of the best, and next year, convention attendees will be able to experience new restaurants such as Rivea by Alain Ducasse atop Delano Las Vegas; and at Bellagio — Lago, an Italian small plates restaurant by Julian Serrano and a creative reinvention of Sensi.”

Most corporate planners agree that a memorable dining experience in Las Vegas is a main factor in bringing groups back to Las Vegas year after year.

Mike Dominguez, senior vice president sales, MGM Resorts International, says,“Today’s meeting attendee is well-traveled so the expectations are quite high. Food and beverage now is about the ‘moments,’ which include not only the culinary art, but the emotional connection to that memory. No one does that better than in Las Vegas with our culinary and beverage experts who have moved here from all over the world and have the opportunity to display their talents from intimate settings to grand-scale events.”

Dominguez describes what meeting attendees can look forward to on their next trip to Las Vegas. “You will continue to see more unique casual experiences and a move to outdoor food and beverage opportunities. Food trucks and ‘street food’ are extremely popular, flexible and fun for groups.”

And from the chef’s point of view, Anthony Zappola, the executive chef at Tom Colicchio’s Heritage Steak, suggests that quality is always a winner. “The corporate meeting attendees seem to be attracted to Las Vegas celebrity chef restaurants because of their quality. Las Vegas has always been known for shows and having fun. Now with the celebrity chef restaurants, choosing a good venue is equally important. And with a celebrity chef restaurant you know you’re going to get a great experience,” says Zappola.

“The corporate meeting attendees seem to be attracted to Las Vegas celebrity chef restaurants because of their quality. …You know you’re going to get a great experience.” — Anthony Zappola

Executive chefs, who often work directly with a meeting planner to fashion a menu, have a great advantage working among so many other top-rated restaurants within one hotel. As chef Zappola, explains, “The good thing about Las Vegas is we have many resources within the hotel that can meet almost any request. If a guest asks for something specific, chances are someone from the hotel uses that product. We can expedite the process much faster than a freestanding restaurant.”

Other celebrity chefs making their mark include Enzo Febbraro, the Na­ples-born executive chef of Allegro at Wynn Las Vegas; and Paul Bartolotta, of Bartolotta Ris­torante Di Mare at Wynn Las Vegas. Addition­ally, there’s Thomas Keller, Bouchon at The Venetian; Maurizio Mazzon, Canaletto at The Venetian and Il Fornaio at New York-New York; Bobby Flay, Mesa Grill at Caesars Palace; Emeril Lagasse, Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House at MGM Grand and Delmo­nico Steakhouse at The Venetian, just to name a few.

One of the most well-known celebrity chefs of all time is Wolfgang Puck. His name is connected to Postrio at The Venetian; CUT at the Palazzo; Trattoria del Lupo at Mandalay Bay; Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill at MGM Grand; and Spago and Chinois at the Forums Shops at Caesars Palace.

Culinary Scene Attracts Groups

Las Vegas’ culinary scene is a key reason why New York City-based Advent Software, a provider of investment management services and software, decided to return in September after meeting elsewhere last year. The company held a 2½-day meeting at Wynn Las Vegas for 1,200 employees, clients and investment management professionals. “Last year we met at another property in another city, and I heard grumblings about the food not being that good,” says Holly Crisson, Advent’s events and conferences manager. “That’s why it was important for us to have a better experience for our people this year, and we definitely saw that at the Wynn. The food wasn’t just plentiful, but it was good quality.”

Advent enjoyed culinary options at a Wynn Las Vegas restaurant with views of the golf course. “We did a small invitation-only event at The Country Club restaurant for about 100 clients we wanted to recognize,” says Crisson. “We chose the restaurant primarily for its wine selection. That was the big draw. They did wine-tasting with very high-end bottles of wine before dinner.”

Advent plans to hold the same meeting at Wynn Las Vegas in 2015. It will be the meeting’s fourth visit to Las Vegas since 2007. In the beginning, the company wasn’t so sure about meeting in Las Vegas. “When we started looking at Vegas, there was some potential concern about going there,” says Crisson. “But what we found was that we get more attendance — around 10 percent — and more engagement because folks don’t have to leave the property. You can do everything in one hotel. It’s so much easier than getting on a bus to go someplace. You naturally lose people when you do that.”

Great Dine-around Options

Perhaps no other destination offers so many properties with so many self-contained dine-around options. “We do a lot of them,” says Kindness. “We use big-name hotels and some lesser known ones as well. We collaborate with our clients up front about their objectives and then build options. There are so many options in Vegas that we really need to have a strategic conversation with clients. We go by several things, including what type of food they want and whether they want to be on The Strip.”

Earlier this year, Kindness planned a dine-around at the Wynn Las Vegas for about 250 bank executives and managers at four of the property’s restaurants — Lakeside Seafood, Society Café Encore, Botero and Allegro.

Last year, Kindness planned a dine-around at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas for about 200 bank executives. “They have about eight fantastic and very diverse restaurants all on one floor,” she says. “Proximity to each other is important as well as diversity. Our clients who stay at the Cosmopolitan or close to it find that a viable option for dine-arounds.”

In addition to the dine-arounds, banking executives at the meeting earlier this year enjoyed several other only-in-Las Vegas experiences. “We used the Beer Garden area at Chateau Nightclub and Gardens at Harrah’s,” says Kindness. “It’s across the street from Bellagio’s fountains. So you get a great view. The theme was The Five Senses. When guests arrived, they were greeted by a woman dressed as Marie Antoinette serving champagne. We brought in hookahs, live animals and a band that played international music.”

Kindness also planned an event at the Mob Museum. “We drew people into the history of that era,” she says. “A lot of people really got into it by dressing up in fedoras and boas and got into the history of Vegas through the interactive exhibits. We had music from the “rat pack” (singers Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin).”

New Restaurants

New restaurants open frequently in Las Vegas. Here are a few of the most recent openings.

The French restaurant db Brasserie opened at The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino. Chef Daniel Boulud offers a contemporary and international version of a French brasserie. The restaurant provides updated brasserie cuisine and Boulud’s classic burgers served at his restaurants in New York City. Two private dining rooms are available for groups.

Giada opened on the second floor at The Cromwell Las Vegas, a new boutique hotel and casino. The restaurant includes a dining room, lounge and terrace that accommodates 300 guests. Giada, the first restaurant by chef Giada De Laurentiis, features views of the Bellagio fountains.

Della’s Kitchen, a restaurant featuring regionally and locally grown ingredients, opened recently in the Delano Las Vegas, a new hotel on The Strip. The restaurant has its own greenhouse that grows herbs for the breakfast and lunch menu. Menu items include healthy and basic foods such as paninis, salads, and beef from grass-fed cows.

Set in Delano’s lobby, Franklin offers a cocktail-centric drink menu with more than two dozen craft beers by the bottle and a selection of wines by the glass that are entirely exclusive to Franklin. Guests also enjoy a selection of small bites and appetizers. As day turns to night, Franklin features live entertainment throughout the week, including performances and beats from the hottest up-and-coming deejays.

Made.LV restaurant has opened at Tivoli Village shopping complex. The restaurant is operated by Elizabeth Blau and Kim Canteenwalla who also own Honey Salt in Las Vegas. Made.LV is modeled after the modern American tavern.

This winter, James Beard award-winning chef Michael Mina will unveil Bardot Brasserie, a nod to Hemingway’s Paris, in the space of American Fish at Aria Resort & Casino.

Several celebrity chef-run restaurants have won prestigious awards. For example, AAA Five Diamond Award winners include Picasso and Le Cirque at Bellagio, Restaurant Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace and Jöel Robuchon at The Mansion at MGM Grand.

New and Noteworthy Venues and Hotels

The Monte Carlo and New York-New York revitalization will include The Park, which will offer an array of common spaces for socializing, relaxing, exploring and sampling the surrounding tastes, sights and sounds. Casual restaurants and bars with outdoor seating will include Shake Shack, a modern roadside burger stand; Bruxie, a fast-casual, gourmet waffle restaurant born out of Orange County serving a signature take on The Sandwich; Sake Rok, a theatrical hotspot featuring sushi, Japanese cuisine and private sake label; Beer Garden, showcasing sustainably raised farm-to-table meats, craft beer, live music and social games; a Robert Mondavi Jr. Wine Experience, boasting more than 100 wines by the glass accompanied by gourmet cuisine; and Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row, a contemporary country bar and restaurant. The Park is anticipated to open in 2016 in conjunction with the arena.

A new venue recently opened at Caesars Entertainment’s The Linq. Titled F.A.M.E., which stands for Food Art Music Entertainment, the venue specializes in the street foods of Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Korea, China and Vietnam along with live entertainment that includes lion and dragon dances, Taiko drum performances and Gangnam-style music.

Pure Nightclub at Caesars Palace has been acquired by Hakkasan Group and is currently closed to undergo a complete remodel. The new nightspot is scheduled to open in early 2015.

The Mob Museum, the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforce­ment, recently added two new displays of rare gambling artifacts as part of a collaboration with the Museum of Gaming His­tory. The first display features rare, early- to mid-20th century casino chips, photographs and other memorabilia from the 1946 opening of Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel. The second display presents artifacts from legendary illegal gambling halls around the U.S. Located in downtown Las Vegas, The Mob Museum offers a variety of unique venues for private events.

Tropicana Las Vegas – a DoubleTree by Hilton announced a March 1, 2015, completion date for the expansion of the Tropicana Pavilion. The expansion will increase the resort’s total meeting and convention facilities to 100,000 sf.

Caesars Entertainment announced that The Linq Hotel & Casino will welcome its first guests beginning on October 30, 2014. The Linq Hotel & Casino, combined with The Linq retail, dining and entertainment promenade, is located at the center of The Strip.

Delano Las Vegas opened in the Mandalay Bay complex, bringing the chic style of its iconic sister property in South Beach to the Las Vegas Strip.

Station Casinos is planning to invest $20 million over the next year to create four new restaurant concepts at its Green Valley Ranch Resort in Henderson.

Westgate Resorts’ newest property, the former Las Vegas Hilton, will be renamed Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino. The landmark hotel is adjacent to the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The Best of Both Tables

How far has dining in Las Vegas evolved? The new exclusive chef’s table at Bellagio Buffet tells the tale: To create one-of-a-kind experiences, Bellagio executive chef Edmund Won, explains, “Buffets represent the ultimate indulgence, and the Chef’s Table is our way of offering the attentive service of a fine dining restaurant with the variety of offerings afforded at a buffet. Our goal is to engage guests with this blend of luxury, chef interaction and entertainment.” I&FMM

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