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Vegas Fine Dining Not Dead, Just Evolving

From Heidi Knapp Rinella, Las Vegas Review-Journal: The unexpected demise of Michelin-starred, Five-Diamond Alex, which closed Saturday at Wynn Las Vegas, certainly set tongues a waggin' on the Las Vegas restaurant scene. With Wynn representatives declining comment, speculation ranged from the impending demise of fine dining in Las Vegas to a sudden personality conflict between chef Alex Stratta and Steve and/or Elaine Wynn after a collaboration of many years.

So here's some comfort food of a different kind: While we have no knowledge of the latter -- and we at Taste make it a policy not to speculate -- it appears that foodies can take heart because there's no evidence of the former. But things may be shifting slightly.

"I don't think fine dining is done," said David Robins, managing partner, operations, for the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining in Las Vegas. That said, "I think Las Vegas has an overabundance of high-end and not enough of what we consider casual dining on a high level."

Robins said his company saw the trend coming about a year and a half ago and made changes to Postrio at the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian to blend more casual dining with its fine-dining element. And he said the trend influenced their newest restaurant, Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria & Cucina in Crystals at CityCenter.

"We really saw the effect of casual dining at Crystals," Robins said. "Because of what was going on at Aria, with its high-end selection of restaurants, we saw an opportunity to do casual dining as a second and third option" for people who were in town for a week or so.

"And it's paid off," Robins said.

But not initially. The restaurant opened as a brasserie and was switched to a slightly less expensive Italian restaurant, "with more of a pizza concept."

Now, "we're going gangbusters," he said, adding that average business had quadrupled.

Robins noted that back in 1992, when Spago opened at the Forum Shops at Caesars, the company "took some baby steps" by pairing a fine-dining room with a casual cafe in the front. The reason, he said, was to accommodate both those looking for a fine-dining experience and those in search of a bargain meal or quick bite.

The former, he said, seems to be in demand less frequently these days, partly because of the economic downturn that has tightened purse strings but also because of the fact that as a society we're increasingly used to instant everything.

"People are on the move," Robins said. "People have expectations in terms of doing more in Las Vegas than just dining."

Hubert Keller, whose fine-dining Fleur de Lys at Mandalay Bay became the small-plates restaurant Fleur in December, agrees that people are looking for more than simply sitting in a restaurant for several hours. About a year ago, he put a patio area outside the door, where he started serving "some fun, cool bar food," much of it inspired by his experiences living and working in various parts of the world.

"We had quite a response," he said. "People were actually coming back and asking if they could have it inside, also." So he decided to rip out the front wall of the restaurant, expand the patio and concentrate on small plates -- including a tasting menu.

"It's probably a little more casual," he said. "Basically the whole thing is still about being entertained. We really worked on presentation."

To wit: Barbecued ribs that come to the table under a glass dome, with the dome filled with smoke. Or ice cream that's frozen tableside with nitrogen -- which, he said, turned out to be better than the restaurant's homemade ice cream made in the kitchen with an expensive, elaborate machine.

Keller compared such presentations with the old-school cherries jubilee, flamed at the table.

"We add our own personal touch to every single one," he said. "It's a little show on one hand, on the other hand definitely the taste, the flavor and the ingredients."

He said some customers do make an evening out of dinner, so the entertainment factor is important to them.

"They will spend the time in a restaurant if it's a cool spot," he said. "You're not being instructed by the waiter, or how the chef said you should do it -- all the things that can be intimidating.

"The younger crowd is not used to the old-time restaurants, but they still definitely go out and socialize. They want to be in a place where it's happening." He noted that many retail stores have added entertainment components to amuse their customers.

David Myers, whose Comme Ça Parisian-style brasserie opened with the Cosmopolitan last month, agreed that changing lifestyles are affecting dining.

"I think the attention span is definitely shorter than it used to be," he said. "I think people are definitely wanting to get in and get out. They want to get on with their lives and do something."

But, he said, "I think people tend to expect a high level of fine dining, in the most casual way." Of the brasserie concept, he said, "given the economy and the changes we've had over the last couple of years, it's certainly a great fit. It's affordable; it's a place where people can go and take some friends and come weekly if they want," which he said has been the case at his Los Angeles restaurant and is starting to happen in Las Vegas.

Christina Clifton, vice president of food and beverage at Aria at CityCenter, said she also has noticed a shift.

"I think that there have been in the last several years people turning away from three-hour dinners," she said. "That's been a trend that has been unfolding. The seven-course meals and the 17-course meals, people don't take to them like they used to."

The growth of social networks, Clifton said, has changed dining dynamics as well, with plenty of customers tweeting from the table.

"I think what they do is they end up bringing a larger base of their friends into their dining experience, even though they're not present, by tweeting it and Facebooking it at the time that it happens," she said.

"I think people are trying to get more done in a shorter period of time and have the same feel of being satisfied," Robins said. "But they may have a great salad and a great pizza instead of sitting down for an hour and a half and having a three-course tasting menu.

"I wouldn't say the trend is going away. It is becoming a finer percentage than it used to be. Maybe five years ago it was 10 percent, now maybe 5 percent want a fine-dining experience."

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