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The L.A. invasion of the Las Vegas Strip

Neon lights in the shape of a chef's hat, fork and knife, dice and food
(Jade Broomfield / For the Times)

Two halves of a split lobster tail intertwine like lovers. Both sides arch upward, balancing atop a mound of noodles tangled around bean sprouts and shards of green onion.

This is the same pad Thai you can order at Kris Yenbamroong’s three Night + Market restaurants in Los Angeles, only this version is gilded with a fat lobster tail, and you eat it with the sound of slot machines ringing in the background. Night + Market opened its Vegas location at the new Virgin Hotels in March, the latest in a new crop of L.A. chefs and restaurateurs hoping to expand their empires by opening restaurants on and off the Strip.

In the last five years, Vegas has seen an influx of diverse, innovative dining options imported from Los Angeles. Yenbamroong is one of many hoping to take advantage of the millions of potential diners flooding to the city. In 2019, more than 42 million people visited Las Vegas, and Clark County raked in more than $10.3 billion in gambling revenue, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. And Vegas tourism is expected to bounce back quickly post-pandemic, with hotel room occupancy already back to 95% on the weekends.

Lobster pad Thai from Night + Market located inside Virgin Hotels on Friday, June 25, 2021 in Las Vegas.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“Everyone in my industry, I don’t care who you are or what you say, Vegas is the mecca,” said John Terzian, co-owner of the h.wood Group, a Los Angeles-based hospitality company (the Nice Guy, Bootsy Bellows, Santolina). “To be honest, it’s surprising that it wasn’t more and more earlier.”

Chefs Ray Garcia, Roy Choi, Alvin Cailan, Angelo Auriana, David Chang, Bruce Kalman, Bricia Lopez, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, Wally’s Wine & Spirits, Kassi Club, Delilah and Craig’s have all opened ventures in Vegas in the last five years.

“We weren’t looking for celebrity chefs,” said Richard “Boz” Bosworth, CEO and president of JC Hospitality, owner of Virgin Hotels Las Vegas. (Many of the major restaurant openings on the Strip over the last decade have featured reality TV cooking personalities such as Giada De Laurentiis, Gordon Ramsay and Bobby Flay.) “I could see it [Night + Market] resonated with the next generation of traveler. Kris represents for me the next celebrity chef because his food and his story are so real.”

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A Vegas restaurant had been on Yenbamroong’s mind for a while. After “cobbling together” his three L.A. Night + Markets with limited budgets, a restaurant in a Vegas casino — with a large infrastructure and sales force, opportunities for high-volume private dining, and a worldwide marketing and social media department — afforded Yenbamroong the opportunity to have the kinds of things on his menu that were not financially feasible or sustainable in Los Angeles.

The dining room at Night + Market located inside Virgin Hotels on Friday, June 25, 2021 in Las Vegas.
The dining room at Night + Market located inside Virgin Hotels on Friday, June 25, 2021 in Las Vegas.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Vegas seemed the perfect place to put lobster on pad Thai and to finally introduce the seafood towers Yenbamroong had been wanting to offer in Los Angeles. Here, there are team members solely devoted to the raw bar.

“Now we have the resources to do that,” he said. “Our place is probably in the grand scheme of things not the biggest project or the flashiest, but coming from where we come from, it’s like a mega restaurant. There is stuff we’re doing in Vegas that in an L.A. restaurant, we will never be able to replicate or offer.”

Yenbamroong said he’s also relishing an atmosphere with so many other hospitality industry professionals. While many restaurants in Los Angeles are struggling to hire back staff after the on-and-off shutdowns of the last 16 months, he believes that Vegas’ historically high volume of hospitality workers gives the city’s restaurants a slight advantage.

One of the things attracting chefs to Vegas is the people here who live and breathe hospitality and restaurants.

— Kris Yenbamroong, chef-owner of Night + Market

Philippa Fryman, the Venetian Resorts’ vice president of food and beverage, likens the current culinary scene in Las Vegas to an “ever-erupting volcano.”

Fryman helped bring new locations of Chang’s and Auriana’s downtown L.A. restaurants to the resort. Factory Kitchen opened in December 2018 ( now Matteo’s Italian Ristorante ), and Chang’s Majordomo Meat & Fish opened in January 2020 , followed by Brera Osteria in February 2021. Fryman looks at similarities in terms of seasonality and use of California products in Vegas as an incentive for Los Angeles chefs — and a unique opportunity for them to get creative.

“The market as a whole is shifting away from celebrity chef concepts where chefs are the face. … That gives us the freedom to develop spinoffs based on the original brand,” she said. “That’s what we did with Moon Palace, the fast-casual offshoot of Majordomo.”

Moon Palace opened opposite Majordomo restaurant at Palazzo at the Venetian Resort in January 2020. Chang’s new venture is focused on sliders called Tastys served on King’s Hawaiian rolls, potato chips and chocolate-dipped pancakes with marshmallow fluff called Half Dips.

“It was a brand-new concept from the Momofuku team, and when you don’t have a restaurant that has the chef’s name all over it, you have the freedom to do that,” Fryman said.

Chef Ray Garcia at his new restaurant, ¡Viva!, located inside the newly opened Resorts World Las Vegas.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Broken Spanish chef Ray Garcia also had been looking at Vegas. He liked the proximity to Los Angeles and saw the city as an opportunity to introduce his food to a broader clientele.

Garcia’s ¡Viva! restaurant opened at the new $4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas hotel and casino on June 24, along with Wally’s Wine & Spirits, Craig’s Vegan (a vegan ice cream concept from Craig’s restaurant) and more than a dozen other dining options.

“I feel like I’m not doing it alone,” Garcia said. “Maybe everyone has their own motivations, but I think, for me, looking around at my own restaurants, it’s surreal. It’s a holy s— moment, to see us and all these great musical performers in the same space.”

¡Viva! is the glammed-up, party version of Broken Spanish, with a DJ and a soon-to-launch happy hour in between lunch and dinner.

Located just a few storefronts away is the first Wally’s Wine & Spirits outside Los Angeles. Twelve-foot-tall wine racks present thousands of labels throughout the two-story restaurant and wine shop.

Wally's Wine & Spirits Hundred Dollar Chicken: smashed fingerling potatoes, broccoli, truffle chicken jus, shaved truffle.
Wally’s Wine & Spirits Hundred Dollar Chicken: smashed fingerling potatoes, broccoli, truffle chicken jus, shaved truffle.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s our basic model on steroids,” Wally’s President and principal Christian Navarro said. “If you do well in Vegas, it’s the gateway to the world. … I can open up in London, Hong Kong, Moscow.”

Delilah, scheduled to open at Wynn Las Vegas on Wednesday, also was designed to be a more opulent version of the Los Angeles supper club.

“Las Vegas is an incredibly competitive market, and we know that restaurants coming from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, if they just do the same thing as they do in their home-base cities, they won’t work in Las Vegas,” said Wynn’s president and chief creative officer of design and development, Todd-Avery Lenahan. “Something has to have enough gravitas in our market.”

That meant designing the 220-seat space to be dynamic, theatrical and comfortable — and tapping Joshua Smith, formerly the chef at Church & State in Los Angeles and Bardot Brasserie at Aria in Las Vegas, to create a menu that will, management hopes, turn Delilah into a culinary destination.

Smith said he had in mind the idea of approachable luxury when crafting the Dover sole as fish and chips. He uses a potato crust for one side of the fish and serves it alongside pomme souffle. The traditional malt vinegar becomes a velvety beurre blanc.

But for some, expansion on such a large scale brings with it concerns of appealing to a broader audience that might well be looking for, say, a steakhouse. While Garcia’s ¡Viva! is a much grander venture than his Los Angeles restaurants, he’s mindful of his new diners.

Coctel De Camaron from chef Ray Garcia at his new restaurant, ¡Viva! at Resorts World in Las Vegas.
Coctel De Camaron from chef Ray Garcia at his new restaurant, ¡Viva! at Resorts World in Las Vegas.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s a very approachable menu, which I think is important for Vegas, but we also wanted to keep true to who we are,” he said. “If someone from L.A. is familiar with me, they will still be engaged on a higher level of quality but it won’t scare away people who maybe aren’t as familiar with some of the ingredients and techniques of our style of Mexican cooking.”

When Garcia starts serving lunch, a section of the menu will be devoted to wood-fired quesadillas, but he’s stuffing them with short rib and oyster mushrooms.

“It’s not just cheese, tortilla and a scoop of sour cream on the side,” he said. “They are a good entry-level into the conversation and hit that balance of something you’re familiar with but paying more attention to the execution.”

Fans of the original Broken Spanish will be happy to learn that Garcia’s chicharrón and refried lentils were non-negotiable; both are on the menu at ¡Viva!.

Nick Mathers, the Australian entrepreneur behind the Wish You Were Here group, which operates a handful of restaurants in Los Angeles, including Eveleigh in West Hollywood and Elephante in Santa Monica, opened Kassi Beach House at the Virgin Hotels in May. While the L.A. version of Kassi was a Greek pop-up restaurant in West Hollywood, Mathers retooled Kassi Beach House into an Italian venture for Vegas.

You have to understand who you’re catering to, and with Vegas, you get a larger scope of different parts of America. I definitely wanted to think about a broader palate and not intimidate my core clientele.

— Nick Mathers, Kassi Beach House

The whipped eggplant dip and some other mezze from the Los Angeles Kassi survived the change in concept, but the Kassi Beach House menu is heavily focused on Italian food, with half a dozen pizzas and pastas.

With new casino openings and travel starting to pick up again, Vegas is ripe with opportunity for out-of-town restaurateurs and chefs, but there once was a time when opening a restaurant in Vegas was a shaky proposition. When Wolfgang Puck was approached to open Spago in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace in 1992, there were no chef-driven restaurants on the Strip. People loaded up at the buffets, then went straight back to gambling.

When Puck opened Spago that December, he had 100 employees and 60 reservations in the books.

“For three weeks I thought I had made the biggest mistake,” he said. “Then the holidays came and it picked up, New Year’s was crazy, and the first week in January we had a consumer electronics show. Then it became the rage.”

Now Puck has five restaurants on the Strip, and he is credited as the catalyst for the area’s dining revolution.

Bruce Kalman stands with his smokers at Soul Belly BBQ in Las Vegas.
(Cody Long / Los Angeles Times)

But opportunities to open dream restaurants aren’t reserved for the big casinos on the Strip. Bruce Kalman, who made a name for himself with his Italian food at Union in Pasadena, moved to Vegas last year.

In Los Angeles, his restaurant rent was high, the cost of living was high, and Kalman said he simply needed a change. James Trees, a chef friend who owns the Vegas restaurant Esther’s Kitchen, extolled the advantages of starting a business in the area.

Kalman started hosting weekly barbecue pop-ups at HUDL Brewing and opened SoulBelly BBQ in May in a converted Aamco auto shop on Brewery Row in the Arts District, the stretch between the Strip and Old Vegas.

“As far as opportunity goes, I’ve never seen so much opportunity before,” Kalman said. “It’s easier here, and it’s a lot less expensive.”

Kalman has two 5,000-pound smokers in front of SoulBelly where he cooks his brisket, sausage links, turkey, chicken and pork belly. Inside there’s a stage in the dining room where he hosts music shows in the evening.

And he has multiple other projects in the works, including his BK Brinery pickles company.

“Compared to other cities I’ve lived in, not just L.A., you hear no a lot,” he said. “And everything here is, ‘I want to help you open another one.’ There is a lot happening here right now.”

L.A. chefs and restaurants in Las Vegas

Resorts World Las Vegas: ¡Viva! by Ray Garcia, Wally’s Wine & Spirits, Craig’s Vegan
3000 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
rwlasvegas.com/dining

Park MGM: Best Friend by Roy Choi, Mama Rabbit by Bricia Lopez
3770 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
parkmgm.mgmresorts.com/en/restaurants.html

Bellagio: Spago by Wolfgang Puck
3600 Las Vegas Blvd.
bellagio.mgmresorts.com/en/restaurants.html

Cosmopolitan: Eggslut by Alvin Cailan
3708 Las Vegas Blvd.
cosmopolitanlasvegas.com/restaurants

Venetian Resorts and Palazzo at the Venetian Resorts: Majordomo Meat & Fish and Moon Palace by David Chang, Brera Osteria and Matteo’s Italian Ristorante (formerly Factory Kitchen) by Angelo Auriana and Matteo Ferdinandi, Cut by Wolfgang Puck
3355 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
venetian.com

Virgin Hotels: Night + Market by Kris Yenbamroong, Kassi Beach House by Nick Mathers, Afters Ice Cream
4455 Paradise Road
virginhotelslv.com/dine-and-drink-las-vegas-dining

Wynn Las Vegas: Delilah by h.wood Group, Urth Caffe
3131 Las Vegas Blvd.
wynnlasvegas.com/dining

Mandalay Bay: Border Grill and BBQ Mexicana by Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, Lupo by Wolfgang Puck
3950 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
mandalaybay.mgmresorts.com/en/restaurants.html

SoulBelly BBQ by Bruce Kalman
1327 S. Main St.
soulbellybbq.com

Dragon Tiger Noodle Co. by Jet Tila
Multiple locations
dragontigernoodle.com


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