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Here’s what eating out looks like in Las Vegas as it reopens

Wolfgang Puck’s Players Locker in Las Vegas is open for business with new rules. Restaurant employees are required to wear masks, but customers are encouraged to wear them.
Wolfgang Puck’s Players Locker in Las Vegas is open for business with new rules. Restaurant employees are required to wear masks, but customers are encouraged to wear them.
(Tom Kaplan / Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group)

Las Vegas area restaurants have begun welcoming guests for the first time in nearly two months, but your dining experience may not be quite as you remember it.

Restaurants can resume dine-in service, thanks to restrictions relaxed May 9, but will operate at half their usual capacity. Tables must be least six feet apart, and no party may be larger than five people.

For the record:
7:16 PM, May. 20, 2020
7:16 PM, May. 20, 2020 An earlier version of this story misspelled chef Penny Chutima’s name.

Reservations are required. Buffets and bars must remain closed. If the restaurant is inside a casino, staff must also wear face masks; guests are encouraged to do the same. And diners may see higher bills because the costs of beef, pork and safety supplies have increased.

After two months of shutdown, this is the new reality of restaurants in and near Las Vegas. Consumers should expect a radically different dining experience as restaurants struggle to deliver hospitality while dealing with new regulations, said Harley Carbery, who works in the beverage industry but was formerly wine director at Joël Robuchon, MGM Grand’s fine dining gem.

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“Don’t expect 24-hour bars or servers hovering over your table in case you need your drink refilled or accidentally drop your fork,” Carbery said.

Some Las Vegas resort hotels hope to open for Memorial Day. Social distancing means smaller crowds, but rooms will be less expensive for now.

Are hotel restaurants open?

Most of Vegas’ hotels haven’t reopened yet nor have their restaurants, but they’re planning their return.

The Venetian, Caesars Palace and the Wynn and Bellagio resorts are poised to reopen soon after Gov. Steve Sisolak and the Nevada Gaming Control Board give the green light. Neither the Democratic governor nor the board has signaled a target date that would permit casinos to unlock their doors for gaming, but the board last week granted permission for restaurants inside casinos to reopen if they could also meet a set of stringent requirements beyond sanitation and social distancing.

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To do so, restaurants would need a separate entrance to the restaurant away from the gaming floor or would need to tell the board how customers would access the restaurant and restrooms without entering the casino gaming floor, rules better suited to smaller casinos than those on the Strip or downtown.

When the hotels and their restaurants do reopen, they, too, will be different. You won’t see buffets or self-serve stations, but that’s temporary. In fact, the top-rated Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace is deep into a multimillion-dollar renovation that will debut later this year. But guests won’t serve their own scrambled eggs from steam pans, for example, or stack pancakes on their own plates. Instead, attendants will do all the serving, and more items will be apportioned in small, individual dishes.

But how will masked, gloved servers and social distancing play at vaunted restaurants such as Wing Lei tucked inside Wynn and Le Cirque at Bellagio, where five-star service and luxury trappings are an integral part of the dining experience? Restaurateurs acknowledge that customers will need some time to get accustomed to these changes, but they are part of the new culinary landscape, even at the most elite levels.

Wing Lei at the Wynn in Las Vegas.
Wing Lei at the Wynn in Las Vegas.
(Barbara Kraft)
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Those changes won’t affect a restaurant or hotel’s rating.

“We are approaching our refinements to the current inspection year standards with a lot of elasticity to accommodate some of the most common expected changes,” Amanda Frasier, executive vice president for standards and ratings at Forbes Travel Guide, said in an email.

For other eateries, creativity in serving diners is the order of the day.

Anthony Olheiser, vice president of food and beverage for Sahara Las Vegas, said he’s considering adding curbside pickup and make-and-take-home meal kits and family-style dinners at the hotel.

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The look of the new normal

Las Vegas resident Tom Kaplan, a senior managing partner of the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, has been involved in dozens of restaurant openings since joining the group in 1992 and opening Spago in Vegas. The May 9 reopening of Wolfgang Puck’s Players Locker in downtown Summerlin was particularly exciting, he said.

As arriving guests queued at a check-in table shaded by market umbrellas, Kaplan and his staff attended to last-minute touches, verifying hand sanitizer was readily available and disposable gloves were plentiful. Staff wearing blue cloth masks and translucent gloves escorted guests to assigned tables, many of which looked into the restaurant’s open kitchen where the chefs, like the dining tables, were no closer than six feet apart.

“None of the guests wore masks, but all of the staff did, so that was weird,” Kaplan said. “But every customer seemed comfortable with it and happy to be there.”

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Guests “didn’t want comfort food or anything they could cook at home,” he said. “They wanted fancy restaurant food like ceviche and Hong Kong steamed salmon.”

Since restaurants received the green light to reopen, a handful of notable independent restaurants such as Honey Salt, Locale, Nora’s Italian Cuisine and the ultra-retro Peppermill have also reopened their dining rooms, as well as some larger operators such as Puck’s Players Locker, Maggiano’s Little Italy and the Capital Grille.

Lotus of Siam, the nationally acclaimed Thai restaurant, plans to reopen its original East Sahara place on Wednesday; it had been closed after its roof collapsed. Co-owner Penny Chutima plans to keep the East Flamingo outpost closed for renovations.

Elizabeth Blau, a hospitality consultant and owner of Honey Salt restaurant in Summerlin, Nev., said many independent operators are shying away from opening their dining rooms until late June or mid-July.
Elizabeth Blau, a hospitality consultant and owner of Honey Salt restaurant in Summerlin, Nev., said many independent operators are shying away from opening their dining rooms until late June or mid-July.
(Honey Salt)
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Taking a breath

But not every restaurant is ready to dive in.

Chef Justin Hall was ready to open a 120-seat downtown restaurant, when the coronavirus put on the brakes.

“This has set us back, but maybe it’s a blessing that we didn’t open, then have to shut down a few days later and waste thousands of dollars in inventory,” Hall said.

“I don’t know if we really want to open right now anyway,” Hall said. “There’s a beef, pork and dairy shortage, food prices are rising. A lot of us are waiting to see how customers and the supply line shake out over the next month or so.

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“Do people still want shared plates and multiple courses? Will they want more takeout and packaged dinners? There will be people who don’t think this is a big deal, but not everyone is comfortable going to a restaurant right now.

“As visitors return to Vegas, will the locals want to eat in a restaurant packed with visitors?”

Chris Decker, a co-owner of Metro Pizza, said his takeout and delivery business has remained brisk during the quarantine, but he’s not confident that opening the dining rooms at his six locations is a wise move.

“It’s already 100 degrees here, yet somehow we’re supposed to make people wait in their cars until their reservation is ready? How is that going to work?” he asked.

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Elizabeth Blau, a hospitality consultant and owner of Honey Salt restaurant in Summerlin, said many independent operators are waiting to open their dining rooms until late June or mid-July.

“We’re being very cautious with how and when we open the dining room,” she said. “The last thing we want is for people to come off of unemployment and then we have to close again because there isn’t enough business to pay them or the quarantine has to return.

“Are people ready for servers to come to the table wearing masks and gloves and everyone in the kitchen to look like masked bandits? You spend your entire career trying to understand hospitality and then this comes along.”

Blau said her staff would limit their interactions with guests. “We won’t be folding your napkins when you get up to go to the bathroom or make a phone call,” she said.

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Kaplan said servers at his Puck’s Players Locker no longer clear plates until everyone at the table is finished eating. Managers have been instructed to cut back on table visits.

And for the bigger establishments

The approach will be even stricter at restaurants inside casino resorts, where dining and entertainment in general often account for more than half of casino revenue.

Matteo Ferdinandi, who owns the restaurants the Factory Kitchen and Sixth+Mill in L.A. and opened Matteo’s Ristorante Italiano and a Sixth+Mill in the Venetian, said he’s impressed with the Venetian’s 800-step safety plan, which addresses a range of issues, including masks (yes for staff, not for diners) and how many people can occupy an elevator at one time (four).

“I’m very comfortable with social distancing, wearing a mask and washing my hands constantly,” Ferdinandi said.

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Guests, he added, “want the same kind of dining experiences they had before we quarantined. The mask and social distance thing isn’t a problem as long as we serve you amazing food, take care of you and make sure you are comfortable.”

It’s too early to know how restaurants will adapt to their business model being tossed upside down. But insiders have some ideas.

“A lot of hospitality benchmarks are going to go away for a while,” said Hall, the chef whose downtown restaurant debut has been delayed. “Think about how many times servers touch table items like glasses, forks, napkins and plates. That can’t continue because it’s not safe. Service will become more robotic.

“And customers have to realize that prices have to go up for us to survive.”

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Parking lots, trails, family campsites and some bathroom facilities at Joshua Tree National Park were reopened Sunday afternoon.

Honey Salt’s Blau sees vegetables taking center stage, but not just because meat prices are rising. “Farmers are bringing us the most amazing products right now because Mother Nature isn’t taking a break,” she said. “There’s been an amazing harvest this year.”

Dan Krohmer, whose Vegas restaurants include Other Mama, La Monja Cantina and Hatsumi, thinks eateries will become laser-focused on doing one or two things exceptionally well.

“Restaurants can’t keep trying to be everything to everyone,” Krohmer said. “They’ll start to specialize like they do in Japan.

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“If you want the best pork, you go to a pork guy. If it’s steak or seafood, you go to the steak or seafood guy. I had a lot of time ... to think about this, and that’s why I’ll reopen Other Mama as a place that serves only fresh, sustainable seafood and local produce.”


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