Twenty-four years after opening the high-tone Spago in Los Angeles, Wolfgang Puck has finally opened his first East Coast restaurant. Its not in New York, Washington or Miami, but in a city that, not so very long ago, was an antonym for high-tone: Atlantic City, N.J.

Theres a reason that he (and fellow celebrity chefs Bobby Flay and Michael Mina) have all opened restaurants in Atlantic City, and it has everything to do with the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.

For me to go to New York City to open a restaurant, it would cost $10 million, Puck told me. Id need to pay that back, including $1.2 or $1.3 million a year in interest.

But recently departed Borgata CEO Bob Boughner made him a deal he couldnt refuse. Boughner would provide the venue in the Borgatas newly opened Water Club tower. All employees would be Boughners, though Puck could hire or fire as he pleased. It would be a partnership, with Boughner seemingly taking the risk out of opening a restaurant. Boughner describes it thus: We own the business, and they run it on our behalf.

Partnerships like these have defined the restaurant renaissance in Las Vegas over the past 14 years (Puck was in on the ground floor then, opening a Spago in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace in 1992), and the restaurant scene is perhaps the one thing that happens in Vegas that doesnt stay in Vegas. Its not just that the celebrity chef concept has been exported to Atlantic City, but the restaurant scene hinges on talk, on buzz.

Its an experience to tell people about, Puck said.

The downside of this type of partnership is that the chef is given about as much time to succeed as a souffle stays aloft. (Boughner denies this. When I asked what happens to a restaurant when things seem not to be working out as planned, he said, We both need each other. If one of us is unhappy, we sit down and figure out how to make it work. Its a partnership.)

As a result of New Jerseys state budget crisis, the casinos in Atlantic City went dark only five days after Puck, Mina and Flays restaurants had their grand openings. 

Though its gaming was shuttered, the Borgata remained open, and during the down period, the restaurant partnerships were perhaps the best thing the property had going for it.

I imagine the locals saw this as a prime opportunity to experience the new dining opportunities without having to compete for reservations with visitors.

Boughner, a 30-year veteran of Boyd Gaming, which runs the Borgata in partnership with MGM Mirage, was brought back to Las Vegas earlier this year to be president and CEO of Echelon Resort, the new complex going up on the site of the Stardust.

If youre wondering what Las Vegas next phase will be, Echelon may provide a clue. Bill Boyd, chairman of Boyd Gaming, told me that Echelon will redefine Las Vegas, with 5,300 rooms, 25 restaurants and bars, a one-million-square-foot convention center, 300,000 square feet of retail and two entertainment venues.

Its not the size of the enterprise thats revolutionary. Las Vegas has developed to the point where those numbers dont really inflate inventory in any of those segments by an appreciable percentage. What may be most significant is that Echelon takes the concept of partnerships and puts it on steroids. Partnering with a celebrity chef is one thing; partnering with other hotel companies is another.

Theres precedence for partnering on the hotel side in Las Vegas, with the first steps taken at the Mandalay Bay (Four Seasons manages four of 39 floors there).

Echelon ups the ante once again, bringing together four flags in one property. Boyd will own and operate 3,300 of the rooms, but 400 rooms will be managed by Shangri-La Hotels. Morgans Hotel Group will operate 1,000 rooms under the Mondrian flag and 600 under the Delano brand.

I wish them well. I have been a cynic when it comes to hospitality partnerships, particularly among competitors. Its hard to believe they can make nice for a significant period of time. But against very long odds, Boyd is making me a believer out of me.


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