On the first weekend of the new year, The Mayfair Supper Club opened its doors within the Bellagio resort and casino on Las Vegas’s famed Strip. In a city of high rollers and glitzy spectacle, restaurant debuts aren’t typically a noteworthy occasion. But The Mayfair Supper Club is an altogether different affair.
“It’s not a restaurant, and it’s not a club; it’s a place where dining is just the beginning,” says Dominique Bertolone, vice president of development, food-and-beverage strategy, MGM Resorts International, which leases the Bellagio and owns dozens of other properties. “A lot of people told us they love our restaurants, they love our shows, they love our nightclubs, but they wish they could get all of that in one place.”
The Mayfair offers dinner and live musical performances throughout the night. There’s no charge for the performance, but it is specifically designed to engage and connect with guests. “This is part of our strategy of evolving and bringing new and exciting things to our guests,” Bertolone says. “We want people to come and have an experience.”
In the foodie age, the sumptuous steakhouses and all-you-can-eat buffets of yesteryear no longer hit the mark. Top-name chefs, global cuisine, and cutting-edge cooking styles are all expected by savvy consumers—particularly those in the extravagant state of mind that vacations and casino visits inspire.
To that end, many casinos—both on the Strip and beyond—are leaning into the eatertainment trend by marrying exceptional F&B programs to unique experiences.
Raising the stakes
At Mystique Asian Restaurant & Lounge, the goal is to both entertain and delight the guest, says executive chef Anthony Micari. The restaurant opened within the Encore Boston Harbor luxury resort and casino in Everett, Massachusetts, last June.
Serving sushi, large-format dishes, and Japanese-inspired cuisine, tapas-style, Mystique spans some 16,400 square feet and includes robata (fireside cooking), an open kitchen, and private dining areas. The lavish lounge is adorned with Asian-inspired décor curated from around the world.
Global flourishes in a restaurant’s cuisine and design are also in sync with the times. The casino customer has changed; guests are now better traveled with high expectations for food and service quality, Bertolone says.
“We spend an incredible amount of time on details. From the moment you step inside, we have to transport you and make you feel you’re in a different environment. We have to think every day about how can we get better and provide a better, more customized experience,” Bertolone adds. “That’s the biggest challenge in Vegas.”
To stay relevant, restaurants within these establishments need to think about the trends of tomorrow, Bertolone adds. He and his team spend a lot of time traveling the world for inspiration and combing through consumer analytics to stay ahead of the curve.
Besting the competition—or at the very least, keeping pace with consumers—is a challenge for all restaurants, but the Sin City raises the stakes.
“Every day you have to wow the guest. Every day is a new day, and there’s no room for error. It’s very important to create this ‘wow’ moment, this unique experience for our guests—and it’s the only way we can create loyalty,” Bertolone says.
Celebrity chefs are one route to conjuring awe in patrons. Over the last several years, industry luminaries including José Andrés and Marcus Samuelsson have opened shop in Las Vegas, often drawing larger crowds than their standalone restaurants elsewhere.
Another way to build a loyal following is through creating lifestyle restaurants so it’s not about the name of the chef or the restaurant but rather the social influence the brand has. This strategy, Bertolone explains, will be a growing part of what MGM Resorts offers going forward, as reflected in its newly opened restaurant, The Mayfair.
Il Mulino New York operates more than a dozen restaurants under various brands across the country, including an outpost in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace and the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The latter was USA Today’s No. 1 casino restaurant in the 10 Best Readers’ Choice poll last year.
“The casino business has changed, and Il Mulino has that brand-name appeal nationwide. A consumer knows what they’re getting,” says Brian Galligan, president of Il Mulino. “We’re not chef-driven so [our restaurant] doesn’t change if the chef quits or leaves; customers come for the brandname appeal.” The original Il Mulino New York had been a mainstay of Greenwich Village for decades when Galligan partnered with the independent restaurant to streamline operations and expand its footprint.
Next door to the Atlantic City location of Il Mulino New York stands Trattoria Il Mulino—a more casual establishment that accordingly attracts a different crowd. Galligan says that across the board, casino dining has become more laid-back with a looser dress code, which helps drive business to establishments like Trattoria Il Mulino.
As another incentive, the hotel offers packages that include dining. There’s also a comp system, whereby casino-goers earn points as they play, which they can turn into dining dollars. Guests tend to use these at Il Mulino New York, he says, and those customers tend to splurge a little more, he adds. “Flexibility is important to our guests.”
At the Encore Boston Harbor, Mystique welcomes a diverse crowd who aren’t always sure what to expect. “You’re responding to someone who’s never seen this style of dining before. With a free-flowing kitchen, the food just keeps coming as it’s ready, and people often forget how much food they’ve ordered. They want to try as many dishes as possible and taste more while sampling cocktails,” Micari says.
Orders are about 60 percent food and 40 percent beverage. “Guests eat and drink more because there’s so much variety, and we have a very fun atmosphere,” he adds.
To keep things exciting, Micari changes the menu seasonally. He doesn’t do a complete overhaul, but rather makes food heartier for the winter and employs more fresh produce in the spring.
Bumping up the buffet
At Toucan Charlie’s Buffet & Grille at Atlantis Casino Resort Spa in Reno, Nevada, whole roasted pigs are arranged next to an elaborate display of dim sum specialties. Adjacent to these options are other dishes including a charcuterie platter. Buffet dining at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa is a far cry from the old days of steam tables that hold subpar foods for hours on end.
Executive chef Bob Katausky has witnessed the shift firsthand. His career spans 43 years in casino restaurants, more than 30 of which have been spent at the Atlantis Resort. “Buffets have really increased in quality, and food has gone upscale exponentially,” he says. “Years ago when you cooked food, you’d take it out to the buffet. Now it’s cooked fresh several times a day.”
Specialty stations are an integral part of the Toucan Charlie’s Buffet. In addition to the usual carving and build-your-own-omelet areas, it includes stations for custom salads, fajitas, pupusas, and carne asada, plus a Mongolian grill.
Last year, the Atlantis Buffet nabbed the No. 4 spot on the USA Today poll, which Katausky credits to great food and dining entertainment. “You have to use a quality product. And we do tableside cooking and entertainment with Steak Diane and Caesar Salad, liquid nitrogen for desserts, bananas foster, [and more].”
Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn, Washington, just south of Seattle, is in the middle of a two-year renovation that includes a complete overhaul of its dining program. Owned and operated by the eponymous Muckleshoot tribe, the property will soon add a hotel and event center while also updating each of its three on-site restaurants.
“Casino food and beverage have changed dramatically over the years,” says executive director of resort operations, Sam Askew. “You’ve seen a renaissance of sorts take place, whereby casino operators now understand food-and-beverage venues can be successful at offering great meals, great service, and great experiences, and not just be an ancillary amenity that you had to have to keep people in the casino. Food and beverage now lead in some areas as the reason why people come to a casino property.”
There’s been a change in attitude from guests over the years, too, he says. “They now understand that buffets of old were simply a means to an end: to get fueled and move in and move out. Guest expectations now are much more elevated. They want a sit-down dining experience in terms of labor and options within the buffet,” Askew adds.
Leaning into eatertainment
The renovations at Muckleshoot will bring forth a more contemporary, elevated feel—one that draws on the area’s cultural heritage. The addition of a firepit not only imbues a cozy feel, it also expands the culinary program. “We’ll use traditional styles of coastal Salish people to cook salmon, shellfish, and vegetables,” Askew says.
The buffet area is also being given an extensive facelift, with a Northwest aesthetic thanks to cedar boughs, upscale products like travertine tile, and some natural woods and colors. And instead of the traditional layout with guests selecting from already-prepared dishes, diners will be offered more customized options ranging from ramen and pho to pasta and crepes.
“Where else can you add a 45-day, dry-aged steak to your buffet meal? How about Peking duck?” Askew says.
By rethinking the typical buffet, Muckleshoot will also cut waste. Smaller portions ensure guests receive the freshest foods at the proper temperatures.
These behind-the-scenes measures, while seemingly minor, have a major impact on the overall guest experience. It’s all part of the larger eatertainment trend—one that casinos seemed destined to champion.
“We sprinkle in these great unexpected moments, whether in design of a venue, plate presentation, meal types, cultural tie-ins, or even live entertainment,” Askew says.