New mega-budget attractions shoot for non-gamblers, families, residents

Vegas ventures eye restaurants for big payoff: new mega-budget attractions shoot for non-gamblers, families, residents

Richard Martin

LAS VEGAS — Slot machines and cheap buffets may remain common lures of the local hospitality industry, but developers of the city’s biggest and newest tourist attractions — including Main Street Station — are increasingly betting their megabudgets on grandiose restaurant concepts and unconventional entertainment extravaganzas.

Non-gamblers, families and residents of this fast-growing desert mecca are also being targeted by the newfangled ventures, as evidenced by MGM Grand Inc.’s planned $1 billion development of a 33-acre theme park at the world’s largest hotel and casino, for which ground was broken last week.

Another striking variation from the Las Vegas hospitality field’s traditional gaming orientation is Los Angeles restaurateur Wolfgang Puck’s deal to clone his famed Spago inside a $100 million boutique mall here.

Even restaurateur Peter Morton of Hard Rock Cafe fame is out to reshape the town’s stereotyped image as a tacky gathering ground for luckless losers, all-you-can-eat coupon clippers and fans of gaudy floor shows.

Targeting an upwardly mobile clientele of Bruce Springsteen fans, Morton’s rock-‘n’-roll-themed Hard Rock Hotel and Casino is scheduled to break ground soon beside the Las Vegas Hard Rock Cafe, which just concluded its first year of business with sales totaling $16.5 million.

Currently, an impressive sign of the local industry’s evolution can be seen in the $100,000-per-day food and beverage sales reported by the 1-month-old Main Street Station — an antique-studded spin-off of developer Robert Snow’s landmark Church Street Station restaurant-entertainment-shopping complex in Orlando, Fla.

“Las Vegas has become a resort destination, and corporate businesses are moving in,” bringing with them residents “who are looking for a quality product with the service to match,” said Sigfried Pumberger, the food and beverage director of the 16-acre Main Street Station development.

The complex’s $82 million first-phase development includes a 428-room hotel and casino (the former downtown Holiday Inn) that are aimed at visitors. But Main Street Station is also geared to draw locals to its 150,000-square-foot complex of eight “turn-of-the-century” restaurants, dance-hall pubs and railroad-car dining rooms, all of which are elaborately decorated with items from Snow’s $20 million inventory of architectural antiques.

In addition to a no-cover, no-minimum policy, Main Street Station boasts Western-style floor shows and variety acts staged in the vast Rosie O’Grady’s pub and apple Annie’s Courtyard. Among its range of restaurants, the 1,000-seat complex features a fine-dining grill menu at Lili Marlene’s, authentic Pullman china service in the adjacent “Louisa Alcott” dining car and imported-daily-from-New-York deli fare served amidst a snooker table from Windsor Castle and other billiard-parlor antiques at Fast Eddie’s delicatessen.

Pumberger believes that the downtown complex, which intends to tap the tourist throngs that are drawn primarily to the Strip area, has so far drawn the bulk of its clientele from the ranks of Las Vegas residents. Based on chamber of commerce estimates that the Las Vegas area’s population of 860,000 is growing at the rate of 6,000 newcomers a month, locals represent a prodigious market potential for hospitality operators offering more than just lodging, gaming and bargain dining.

“The industry is moving ahead and into the ’90s,” said Pumberger, a former food and beverage director at Caesar’s Palace here.

Las Vegas’ annual influx of tourists — whose numbers nearly doubled during the last decade, to 20.3 million last year — are increasingly drawn to such new and lavishly themed hotels as the 4,032-room Excalibur “castle” and the luxurious Mirage, with 3,054 rooms. Those properties are reportedly posting 90-percent occupancy rates and 25-percent operating margins while helping to elevate Las Vegas’ overall occupancy average to 85 percent, compared with 60 percent nationally and 79 percent in Orlando.

Steve Wynn, the chief executive of Mirage Resorts, helps to characterize the contemporary hospitality attitude of the “new” Las Vegas, not just in his equipping of the Mirage with a $13 million “erupting” volcano at its entrance or a 20,000-gallon marine aquarium in its lobby. Wynn is also the first franchisee of the high-grossing and trendy California Pizza Kitchen chain, a 23-unit nationwide group based in Los Angeles, whose Las Vegas branches are at Wynn’s Mirage and Golden Nugget hotels.

Wolfgang Puck isn’t the only other Los Angeles restaurant operating branching out to Las Vegas: His 360-seat Spago in the 235,000-square-foot Forum Shops mall, which has been under construction here since last year, will be joined there by Tempietto, a 280-seat Italian concept being launched by Mauro Vincenti of Rex il Ristorante, and by Nicky Blair’s, spawned by actor-restaurateur Nicky Blair’s star-studded namesake restaurant on Sunset Strip.

“Some people think Las Vegas is just a funny town where people go to see women show their breasts,” said Puck, “but it’s a real city.” And, in terms of fine restaurants, “it’s a neglected city, in a way.”

Main Street Station, for its part, intends to eschew the coupon specials and loss-leaders used as tourist bait by so many Las Vegas hotels and restaurants. “We’re not into those $4.95, all-you-can-eat buffets,” said Dick Milano, a key executive at the Main Street complex and a former vice president and general manager of Church Street Station in Florida. Besides, he added, “the local market thinks we’re the greatest thing since bread and butter. We don’t feel we have to go to Jack in the Box pricing.”

“We’re above that level,” said Pumberger, predicting that the 40-seat Louisa Alcott dining car, for instance, will have no trouble attracting patrons for its $35 prix-fixe dinners. And seafood and grill items served in the richly appointed Lili Marlene’s will easily fetch check averages of $30 at dinner and $12 to $15 at lunch, he added.

Other Main Street Station dining concepts include Cracker’s seafood and oyster bar, whose exhibition kitchen will also prepare pastas and plate-sized “gourmet” pizzas; the 28-seat “Cascade” railroad parlor car, featuring hors d’oeuvre and cocktails; and the Morning Glory Beignet Cafe, slated to become the hotel complex’s 24-hour restaurant.

Robert Snow’s Main Street development has an impressive role model in his Church Street Station landmark, which has evolved at a cost of some $50 million since its 1974 inception into the reputed highest-grossing, privately owned food and beverage operation in the nation, with annual restaurant and bar sales of some $30 million.

The $300 million second phase of Snow’s Las Vegas venture, scheduled to begin next year, would involve hotel-room renovations and construction of a 350,000-square-foot shopping center, the 78,000-square-foot Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House, and the Gandy Dance Beer Co. brew-pub restaurant, Milano said.

After being fitted with more fixtures from Snow’s “world’s largest” collection of antiques, those expanded Main Street Station facilities should broaden the mainstream appeal of Las Vegas as a vacation destination–in much the same way that MGM Grand expects its theme park to attract families to the city.

Although the lodging and airline company has not specified foodservice plans for its 5,000-room hotel and amusement park, it has said that the park will include a raft adventure on a 1,600-foot-long water course, a log-flume ride with a 50-foot plunge into a pond and a “ghost” coaster with a 35-foot drop.

COPYRIGHT 1991 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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