Vegas Casinos Trade Gimmicky Themes for Marquee Chefs, Restaurants

Later this year, the Cosmopolitan resort and casino will be the newest arrival to the Las Vegas Strip. Up to this point, what the final product will look like has been a bit of a mystery. There has been little-to-no publicity about the design of the Cosmopolitan's rooms or the layout of its gambling floor. Yet, a recent announcement disclosing that the restaurants inside the casino will include offshoots of New York's Blue Ribbon and West Hollywood's Comme Ca offer some valuable clues as to what the Cosmopolitan will end up looking like and the types of guests it hopes to attract.

"Based on that list, Cosmopolitan wants to be hip and urban," says Elizabeth Blau, CEO of Blau & Associates, a Vegas-based restaurant consulting firm. "Those restaurants are good, solid choices that are not going after the low-end market."

In Vegas these days, it's the restaurants that make the casino.Many have abandoned the pursuit of gimmicky themes -- think the Venetian with its gondola rides or New York, New York, with its facade recreating the Manhattan skyline -- for elite chefs and well-established eateries. "Restaurants do define the properties," says Blau, who is a partnerin Society Cafe, a casual all-day eatery in Steve Wynn's Encore, which Esquire magazine's John Mariani hailed as one of the best new restaurants in America. "Having great food has become integral to having a great casino."

Michelin Star Attractions

The recently opened Aria, which is part of the 67-acre CityCenter, situated sushi master (and Michelin 3-star chef) Masayoshi Takayama's Bar Masa and Shaboo (complete with its $500 prix fixe menu) front and center, just beyond the front desk where guests check in. When Caesar's Palace opened its luxe Augustus Tower back in 2005, haute cuisine chef Guy Savoy was recruited, evidence of the casino's desire to be perceived as smart and chic despite Caesars' overwhelming dowdiness. Several blocks to the west, trendy Palms Casino Resort is more or less defined by the rollicking, ultra modern, N9NE steakhouse. It's where the guys from Entourage would dine if they were in Vegas and it has attracted real life stars such as Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio.

"Taking away the nightclubs and restaurants would be impossible," says Palms owner George Maloof, who has used celebrity appearances in the restaurant to create a distinct Young Hollywood vibe for his casino. "They function as brands of the Palms."

In 2008, when Maloof opened Palms Place, a condo building attached to the hotel/casino, he brought in celebrity chef Kerry Simon and Simon's partner Blau. They created a swanky but relaxed restaurant called Simon that sends out a very different kind of message. "I wanted a fun, casual place that has fine dining, sushi, and a great breakfast," says Maloof. Because the boutique Palms Place caters to a high-end clientele, he needed "a three-meal restaurant that would not be a coffee shop. I envisioned a restaurant where a guest could come down at 11 a.m., a little hungover, and sip the best bloody Mary while looking out at the pool." If this mythical guest winds up ordering from the breakfast menu, he might augment his morning cocktail with steak and eggs for $22; at dinner, ahi tuna goes for $32 and the New York Strip is $46. Clientele at Simon ranges from Jay-Z to Ben Stiller to Richard Branson -- and the chef himself regularly tweets when a hot name sits down to eat his high-end comfort food.

Ditching Theme Park Gimmicks for Grass-Fed Beef

Ten years ago, the MGM Grand was designed around a movie theme, with greeters dressed up as characters from The Wizard of Oz and a theme park out back. When Gamal Aziz, the president of MGM Grand, came on board in 2001, he ditched the movie tie-ins and focused on great chefs who were under-the-radar at the time. Aziz brought in Bay Area superstar Michael Mina and the pre-Top Chef Tom Colicchio whose Craft restaurant , which is known for using ingredients from small, family-owned farms such as grass-fed beef, was all the rage in New York. They both served as image-changers. Suddenlythe excitement level increased, bigger players were drawn to MGM, and its guests stayed to dine and party rather than running off to enjoy the amenities of competing properties. When Joël Robuchon signed on to open what would be touted as the greatest French restaurant in America, it was very intentionally called Joël Robuchon as it had become widely known what a celebrity chef's name could do for a casino.

Vice president of food and beverage Alexandre Gaudelet brags about having "54 [AAA] diamonds under one roof" and after sampling Robuchon's 16-course tasting menu, at a cost of $385,there is no doubt that great food (Joel Robuchon is the only 3-star Michelin restaurant in town) can elevate the impression one has of a property. That said, however, Vegas being Vegas, certain concessions must be made. "We worked with the Robuchon experience so that you can sit down and have a meal with only two or three dishes if you don't want all 16," says Gaudelet. "Most people in Las Vegas want to be done eating in 1-hour and 45-minutes max."

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