Feeding Community and Community-Building

The distance between Jöel Robuchon, Las Vegas’ first and only Michelin three star restaurant, and Fremont East may be a little less than eight miles. But the culinary and cultural chasm that exists between the two locales is far more vast. Las Vegas has become known throughout the world as a dining destination while the economic importance of star-chef-operated, high-end restaurants has grown over the last few years. According to a report released this month by the Nevada Gaming Control Board, food, beverage, and “other offerings” comprised a record high 34.1 percent of total Las Vegas casino revenues.

While those dining options may be attractive to visitors to our city and to some locals, redevelopment of an area like Downtown will require more to feed its residents, workers, and visitors than an intersection with a street that’s home to world famous restaurants. Neighborhood eateries like The Beat and Le Thai are an excellent starting point for the evolution of Downtown dining. The Kabob Korner is a long-time late night favorite. But there must be more, not just to feed the masses, but also to feed the growth of community.

As more businesses and residents relocate to Downtown, there will be the obvious need for them to eat. Of course, grocery stores and home cooking are an essential component of residential life and are critical to the success of Downtown redevelopment. But dining outside the home is an essential component of urban residential life.

Since the first of our human ancestors decided to sit together and share whatever food they hunted and gathered, meal times have been an important social ritual. Throughout our evolution as a species that ritual has also evolved. Even now it takes varying forms in suburban homes and in high-density urban areas. Edward Glaeser notes in Triumph of the City that suburbanites may be more likely to eat at home because of the time and distance that may need to be traveled in order to dine out. Their urban counterparts, whose homes may be smaller and nearer to a variety of restaurants, utilize those options as a way to compensate for their own less expansive private spaces. “In a sense, then, cities pull people out of private space into public areas, which helps to make them centers for socialization. . .” he writes.

Thus, dining out serves as an important catalyst for building community as people look outward from their homes and into their neighborhood for places to share a meal and to interact with those who live near them. Longtime Las Vegas food writer John Curtas frames it this way: “It brings people together in a public/private space to do something that is a communal, common experience to everybody. Eating is the one group activity that binds all humanity and restaurants are the place it happens.”

In addition to the interactions of residents, owners and workers also form a sub-community whenever restaurants are clustered together. “It becomes a situation where it isn’t this is MY place. Instead, it’s ‘together we’re successful,’” says Sonny Ahuja, a local restaurateur and caterer. Ahuja also reports that restaurants that are near each other actually increase the number of customers for all rather than dividing a finite population of possible patrons amongst themselves.

Drawing people to the area who aren’t Downtown residents is also essential to the area’s revitalization. Abundant food options serve as a catalyst for engagement in Downtown activities by locals who might not otherwise venture into the neighborhood. “Food attracts people, like the kitchen in the home. It brings in people to experience Downtown. It helps them to feel that they can find a place to hang their hats and then decide if they want to come back,” says Ahuja.

Food can also attract people to the area who might not otherwise be interested in current draws such as galleries, bars, and events like First Friday. People who don’t perceive themselves as fitting in with the crowd on Fremont East or in the Arts District can, however, envision themselves enjoying a great meal. And Las Vegas residents are accustomed to traveling outside of their own environs to try the latest and greatest dining options.

Las Vegas native Brock Radke, a food writer and the organizer of the community-minded culinary competition Street Food Throw Down, notes that tendency amongst locals. Radke also sees the success of the area’s revitalization as being on a course that parallels the restaurants there. “Downtown food is going to be the same as Downtown everything else. Are you going to bring the rest of Las Vegas Downtown? People in Las Vegas drive around and go to restaurants outside their neighborhoods. People who like to try new things. People do go to the Strip sometimes, go to Chinatown. People in Summerlin will go to Henderson if they hear that there’s something awesome there that they should check out. People will come Downtown for that, too,” he says. Curtas agrees, saying “there needs to be places to attract people. The bars are great. The restaurants are what’s going to put us on the map.”

But what Downtown needs to put it on the map is very different from what has made The Strip an important location in gustatory geography. High-prices and pre-fab glitz don’t often draw locals to dine out on Las Vegas Boulevard, so such establishments certainly won’t be appropriate in a high-density redeveloped urban area—either for residents or visitors from the suburbs. “The Strip is rightfully perceived as being a tourist rip-off,” says Curtas. “I’ve been quoted saying this for ten years. We’re the most expensive restaurant city in America.” He goes on to describe the kinds of small, individually run dining establishments that are needed and would be suitable for Downtown, places like Le Thai rather than Le Cirque. “Down here it will be a human scale. It won’t be perceived as something that appeals to that captive, conventioneer audience. It will be from the bottom up rather than the top down. There’s something very artificial about that to most people, and they can feel it. Even if the food’s fantastic,” he says.

Of course, the question remains as to who will open and operate these much-needed eateries and gathering spots. There have been many culinary professionals who have left the kitchens of hotel-casino restaurants to strike out on their own here. There have been mixed results: Firefly Chef/Owner John Simmons has grown his business after a stint at Paris-Las Vegas; Michael and Wendy Jordan, who came to town to work for Emeril Lagasse closed Rosemary’s last July after 11 years.

Why more talented chefs don’t make that transition from The Strip to neighborhoods is a subject of speculation. “So many young chefs come to Vegas because they got a big job. We have seen some of them branch out and make their homes here . . . Maybe it’s the same Vegas paradox as everything else. Maybe the city hasn’t provided enough to keep people here, engaged in the community. What’s happening now is going to change that,” says Radke.

How do we keep those talented people? How do we prevent a culinary brain drain? Says Curtas, “They need a place where they can flourish. They aren’t going to flourish at the corner of Buffalo and Lake Mead. That’s why Downtown is so important. Downtown could provide the petri dish for these people to come and do things.”

At least one big-time local chef has taken notice of Downtown and sees it as a place with the potential for a new locale for him to grow his restaurant business. World-renowned “Rock and Roll Chef” Kerry Simon came to town in 1997 to open Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Prime at Bellagio and has since made it his home. He currently operates two restaurants locally, Simon at Palms Place and KGB at Harrah’s. In addition, Simon has places in Atlantic City and Los Angeles and has plans to open one at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

“Everybody’s enthusiastic. It’s like a small town,” says Simon of Downtown. “I can picture the restaurant I want to do down there. I create restaurants that are everyday restaurants, approachable. I think this downtown thing could be a real establishment for me. It could be a real meeting place. It would mean a lot. It could be a real community place,” he says.

Photo by Bryan Schnitzer