After years of promising to become a great food destination, the time is now for Downtown Las Vegas.
From Eat, a baby spinach salad with strawberries, sugared pecans, feta, red onions, and balsamic vinaigrette.
When Brian Howard, one of the city’s most exciting young chefs, decided to leave his post at Cosmopolitan’s now-closed Comme Ça to spearhead his own restaurant projects, he knew exactly where he wanted to be. “I’ve been here 15 years, and Las Vegas has done so much for me, helping me hone my skills and become a better chef, and it’s time to give back,” he says. “I really think the best way I can do that is to get away from a hotel and help grow our local dining scene. There’s no better place to do that than Downtown.”
By now we’ve all heard about and probably experienced the fast-moving redevelopment that’s happening in Downtown Las Vegas, but it may still come as a shock to learn that in a very short time the city’s original core has become the hottest restaurant neighborhood in the Las Vegas Valley— with even recent entrants to the Downtown scene now opening encore acts to capture the area’s wildfire popularity. Where did it start? Well, the first two big culinary trailblazers were Le Thai (523 Fremont St.,702- 778-0888), with its spicy, addictive flavors (owner Daniel Coughlin has since expanded the area’s Asian options by opening the sushi joint Bocho and is partnering with the team from District One Kitchen & Bar on the forthcoming Le Pho in Juhl on East Bonneville Avenue), and the warm, welcoming breakfast and lunch joint Eat (707 Carson Ave., 702-534- 1515). Eat’s proprietor, veteran chef Natalie Young, is also opening another Downtown restaurant soon, the fried chicken and Chinese food–focused Chow (1020 E. Fremont St.).
Then interesting dining spots began popping up fast. Vegas nightclub pioneer Michael Morton created the comfy Mexican outpost La Comida (100 Sixth St., 702- 463-9900). California pizza impresario Tony Gemignani brought the wondrous Pizza Rock (201 N. Third St., 702-385-0838) // taste buds // to Downtown3rd. MTO Cafe (500 S. Main St., 702-380-8229), which has since opened a second location at Downtown Summerlin, started as a breakfast hot spot across from City Hall. Downtown Project, an investor in Eat, created Downtown Container Park (707 Fremont St.), currently stacked with everything from gourmet hot dogs at Cheffini’s (702-527-7599) and authentic street food at Pinches Tacos (702-910-3100) to craft cocktails at Oak & Ivy (702-945-6717) and a relaxing full-service restaurant in The Perch (702-854-1418).
And then came the game-changer: the small-plate paradise Carson Kitchen, in the refurbished John E. Carson building at 124 South Sixth Street, along with the madscientist sweets shop O Face Doughnuts (702-476-3223). “Carson Kitchen brought a lot of attention to Downtown, thanks to Kerry Simon,” says Dan Adams, Downtown Project’s director of food and beverage. “More of that would help, not that that’s everything. But it’s really about the chefs and getting them here opening different concepts.”
Most people wouldn’t think of Zappos boss Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project as a major player in food and drink, but the development company has the biggest restaurant and bar footprint in the neighborhood. It owns and operates the backyard game–driven Gold Spike (702- 476-1082), The Perch, Oak & Ivy, and the Fremont East grocery store The Market, and it serves as partner, investor, or landlord for numerous spots, including La Comida, O Face, Banger Brewing, and the Container Park restaurants.
Downtown Project is also involved in the upcoming Fremont East restaurant The Smashed Pig Gastropub (from Nobu Matsuhisa–trained Linda Rodriguez) as well as the sizzling new triumvirate of trendy destinations in the renovated building at 616 East Carson Avenue (at Seventh Street): chef Bradley Manchester’s Glutton (gluttonlv.com), chef Donald Lemperle’s VegeNation, and chef Brandon Trahan’s Zydeco Po-Boys. Talk about chefs and distinctive concepts.
“What’s cool about being down here is we still haven’t touched on all the different cuisines and styles of service,” says Adams. “There are so many possibilities left.”
And Howard’s dual concepts are perhaps the most exciting of all. First up is Harvest & Larder, opening in October, to be joined later by Grazing Pig Charcuterie, both in a cool, industrialish building in the Arts District, just off Main Street—an area growing in its own right with the recent addition of beer, coffee, and noodle spots. At Comme Ça, Howard was well-known for his house-made charcuterie program, so the prominence of that element makes sense. But it’s only the beginning. “My idea is about showcasing ingredients as fully as possible, about simplicity, and about preserving American history through cuisine,” he says. But most important to Howard is what seems to be the number-one overall goal of Downtown proprietors: opening your favorite neighborhood restaurant, “somewhere where they know your name and what you like to eat and drink.”
Perhaps Howard’s restaurants will be the ones that focus an even larger spotlight on Downtown. Or maybe it will be PublicUs (1126 Fremont St., 702-331-5500), a hip, dynamic artisanal bakery and coffeehouse. Or it could be something else, previously undreamed-of dishes from the inventive mind of a chef, known or unknown, who has yet to announce his or her plans. But one thing is certain: It will be exciting to watch—and taste.