Image: Stack
MGM Mirage
The canyon-like effect of the lined-and-layered African mahogany walls make Stack a peaceful steakhouse oasis away from the frenzied casino outside the door at the Mirage.
updated 5/14/2008 11:17:44 AM ET 2008-05-14T15:17:44

Architect Adam Tihany was once again staring at the empty space. Plans called for a simple metal staircase to lead diners into a sunken restaurant in the soon-to-open Mandalay Bay, but it just didn’t sit right with him.

“There are already too many metal staircases in this city,” he told Bill Richardson, then vice chair of Mandalay Resort Group. “You’re sure there’s nothing else we can do?” Richardson, unconvinced, gave the architect until the following morning to present a better idea.

The next day, inspired by a late-night showing of Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible,” Tihany made Las Vegas restaurant history. His four-story glass wine tower at the center of Aureole Restaurant would be accessed by high-wire “wine angels,” who would zip up and down the tower to retrieve bottles for the diners below.

The logic that “this just might be crazy enough to work!” has been integral to transforming the blank canvas of Las Vegas into a world-class destination of uniquely designed restaurants. Tihany’s $1.2 million tower went on to generate millions in free publicity, drawing thousands of spectators to the balcony overlooking the restaurant and helping to make the restaurant one of the biggest-selling wine destinations in the fine dining universe.

In recent years, as construction of new mega resort-casinos has slowed, the one-upmanship race on The Strip has turned to who will build the next more ambitious, more outrageous, more fantasy-fuelled place to eat.

“We do have very, very generous budgets because of the economic basis for our business,” says Todd Avery Lenehan, designer of three Wolfgang Puck restaurants on the Strip, “and we also have the luxury of real estate and space.” In other major markets, such as Los Angeles in New York City, real estate comes at a premium. “In Las Vegas, you have big column-free spaces.”

The emphasis on design marks a major sea change in a city once known as a culinary wasteland of standardized steak joints, dark rooms and sloppy buffets. Increasingly, it’s known as a modern paradise for ambitious designers who want dinner time to be as entertaining as the stage shows. Nowadays, the Bellagio has paintings by Picasso hanging in a restaurant named for the artist; in the soon-to-open Encore resort, a restaurant called Botero will be adorned by the sculpture of — you guessed it — Ferdinand Botero.

“A lot of designers of my generation looked at the restaurants that were here and thought, ‘How boring,’” says Roger Thomas, Steve Wynn’s interior designer for a quarter century and the one responsible for the “Hello, Dolly”-esque staircase entrance at Alex at Wynn Las Vegas. “We saw the prospects for decor as entertainment, for decor as marketing. You used to very seldom see a picture of a restaurant room in an advertisement. But we’ve made it so that that element is used as a competitive angle.”

Image: Tao Asian Bistro
TAO Las Vegas
Tao at the Venetian is a $20 million, 42,000-square-foot restaurant-nightclub-lounge version of what, in Manhattan, is a quarter the size and doesn't have a nightclub, but some of the key design features -- a 20-foot-tall Buddha as a centerpiece and a worn-looking brick wall -- are meant to evoke facets of the New York original.
In Vegas, it’s not enough to merely become one of the great dining destinations in the world. Chefs who once thought it unthinkable a decade ago to even consider cracking an egg on the blistering Sin City sidewalk are now clamoring to build that mind-blowing something.

“Las Vegas is a great experimental design laboratory, one of the few places in the world where the clients are very receptive and open to new ideas and new concepts,” says Tihany, who designed Circo at the Bellagio as well as the buffet Cravings at The Mirage. “It’s a very unique place where people appreciate what a big role design plays in making fantasy happen. They’re willing to pay for the added value of something that’s innovative and over the top.”

Even the buffets are being made over. Lenahan insisted on having an overhead skylight at the Wynn Las Vegas buffet to allow natural light and decorated the dining areas with flowers and massive fruit-laden topiaries to “put forth a sense of wholesomeness, quality, real ingredients and a sense of wellness that comes from the Earth. That skylight was an architectural extravagance but I thought it was critical.”

Many results astound. The top-floor view down The Strip apparently wasn’t enough of a stunner or conversation piece for Alain Ducasse’s Mix at THEHotel at Mandalay, so they tossed in that $500,000 chandelier with 13,000 pieces of blown glass to envelop indoor diners. At the MGM Grand, the much-admired $6 million Japanese hotspot Shibuya greets guests with a 50-foot video wall behind the main bar as well as tables partitioned by striking floor-to-ceiling bamboo for a forest-like effect. Even the understated elegance of Fleur de Lys at Mandalay Bay has its design treasure: a leaf-shaped wall installation crammed with more than 3,500 fresh pink roses that accent colors in the restaurant’s china.

“There are budgets in Las Vegas — it’s not a blank check. But on the other hand, if there’s an idea that’s over the top and unbelievable, you have a real opportunity to sell it,” says Jeffrey Beers, who designed Rumjungle, Red White and Blue and China Grill at Mandalay Bay as well as Daniel Boulud Brasserie at Wynn. “If it’s great, somebody will fund it.”

To wit, what Vegas offers these chefs is the chance to build that restaurant of their dreams, the one they never could have conceived of when they were financing their original ventures by mortgaging their homes. The arrangements vary depending on the property — MGM Mirage and Wynn own and build most of their restaurants, whereas the Venetian leases the space — but by and large the results are the bigger, bolder, more ambitious realizations that chefs could only fantasize about earlier in their careers.

“Very, very few independent restaurateurs could ever afford something of this level of quality, scope and design,” says Paul Bartolotta, whose $10 million Ristorante Bartolotta di Mare includes mammoth terracotta jugs and crystal chandeliers that hang down the center of a curved staircase heading to a dining room that offers outdoor seating next to waterfalls and a koi-filled lake. “Nobody could afford the level of drama you have here if it weren’t a part of something like this resort.”

That’s not to say it always works. At Wynn, the Mediterranean Italian eatery Corsa Cucina by chef Stephen Kalt saw underwhelming traffic when it opened in 2005. Thomas and Wynn decided the place was too closed off and dark, and by year’s end walls were knocked down to open the bar area up to the casino.

Image: Joël Robuchon
MGM Mirage
The French maestro considered by many to be the greatest living chef shocked the cuisine world in 2006 by opening his first American eatery not in New York or San Francisco, but at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Since many of these restaurants are Vegas versions of eateries from elsewhere, there’s always a debate about whether to try to recreate the original with some Vegas touches or to go in a totally different direction. Craftsteak at MGM Grand, for instance, recreates the look of Craft in New York with the steel-mesh separating the booths and the naked light bulbs hanging in rows in the main dining room. Aureole, though, bears no resemblance to its namesake in New York.

Most are hybrids. Tao Asian Bistro, a 42,000-square-foot restaurant-nightclub-lounge, is one such example. The original Tao on East 58th Street in Manhattan was a quarter of the size and doesn’t have a nightclub, but some of the key design features — a 20-foot-tall Buddha as a centerpiece and a worn-looking brick wall — are meant to evoke facets of the New York original. Yet even in some of those details, there’s a Vegasizing aspect; the Vegas Buddha, Tao owner Richard Wolf says, “is sexier, the waist a little curvier.”

“This is the project of our lifetime,” Wolf says of the $20 million venture, mimicking a sentiment commonly heard from other restaurateurs these days. “It’s the biggest, most challenging restaurant we’ve ever done. To build in Las Vegas, where anything is possible — that is the highlight.”

Photos: Welcome to Vegas

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  1. Welcome to Las Vegas

    The Bellagio's fountain show entertains visitors nightly. In the background is Bally's Las Vegas, left, and Paris Las Vegas, which has a 50-story Eiffel Tower replica in front. Over 37.5 million people visit Las Vegas each year. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Fremont Street Experience

    Located in downtown Las Vegas, this exciting pedestrian promenade is home to approximately 16 million lights, making it one of the largest LED screens in the world. (Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Looking for Lady Luck

    Casion visitors play slot machines at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dunking Elvis

    An Elvis impersonator performs a slam dunk during the 2007 NBA All-Star Game on February 18, 2007, at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. (Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAEGetty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Grand casinos

    Lights from passing vehicles are seen in front of the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Poker face

    Jamie Gold, right, of California and Paul Wasicka of Colorado go head-to-head on the final table of the World Series of Poker no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event at the Rio Hotel & Casino on Aug. 11, 2006, in Las Vegas. Gold outlasted more than 8,700 other poker players to win the top prize of $12 million. Wasicka won just over $6.1 million for finishing second. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Glitz and glamour

    A Canon display is seen inside the Las Vegas Convention Center at the Consumer Electronics Show. Las Vegas is the nation's top business travel destination, with easy airline access, numerous hotel rooms, low rates, plentiful convention facilities and a wide range of dining and entertainment options. (Karl Polverino / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Over-the-top entertainment

    Performers ride a Volkswagen Beetle across the stage during a preview of "The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil" at the Mirage Hotel & Casino on June 27, 2006, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A New York minute

    The New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas recreates the Manhattan skyline, complete with replicas of the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Entertainment mecca

    Kenny Chesney performs "Out Last Night" at the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas on April 5, 2009. (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tying the knot

    From left, Elvis Presley impersonator Norm Jones plays guitar as Bruce Barnett of Virginia Beach, Va., escorts his daughter Gayle to her wedding ceremony at the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Graceland is the oldest wedding chapel in Las Vegas and offers ceremonies with or without Elvis impersonators. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    The $25 million, newly redesigned volcano display in front of the Mirage Hotel & Casino features 150 choreographed FireShooters sending fireballs more than 12 feet in the air and a custom soundtrack created by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for MGM Mirage) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A night on the Strip

    Hotels and casinos line the Las Vegas Strip. From thrilling roller coasters to erupting volcanos to art museums, Las Vegas' many attractions appeal to people of all ages and interests. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Fight night

    David Diaz and Manny Pacquiao fight during the fourth round of the WBC Lightweight Championship at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on June 28, 2008, in Las Vegas. Pacquiao won in a ninth-round knockout. (Harry How / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Day at the races

    Rookie driver Shawn Langdon earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of his career at the NHRA Nationals at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on April 4, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Richard Wong / NHRA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Fabulous shopping

    The Juicy Couture retail store at The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace is seen before the grand opening February 5, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Juicy Couture) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Stunning shows

    Buyi Zama as “Rafiki” in the opening number “The Circle of Life” from THE LION KING Las Vegas. (Joan Marcus / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A slice of Italy

    Visitors take a gondola ride at The Venetian in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Get into the groove

    Dina Buell, left, and Carla Giordano, both from California, dance at the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino during Rehab, the resort's weekly pool party, in 2005 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Let’s get this party started

    Party goers gather for the grand opening of LAX Nightclub Las Vegas in 2007. (Chris Weeks / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Big laughs

    Comedian Ellen DeGeneres performs at a taping of ''Ellen's Even Bigger Really Big Show'' during The Comedy Festival at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in 2008 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A kingly stay

    The Excalibur Hotel and Casino features a castle motif with newly refurbished hotel rooms. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A dancing fountain

    Visitors are silhouetted against the backdrop of The Bellagio's fountain show on the Las Vegas Strip. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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