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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.