Michel Richard is justifiably famous for his cooking; the James Beard Foundation named him the country's best chef in 2007. But he's also a restaurateur of prodigious proportions, at one point overseeing a fine dining empire that stretched from Santa Barbara to Washington, DC. Given his entrepreneurial background, it's no wonder he jumped at the chance to set up shop in the lobby of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The result: Central Michel Richard, which opened last September.
Other celebrity chefs have restaurants at Caesars — Brad Ogden, Bobby Flay, Guy Savoy, Wolfgang Puck — but they're not front and center like Richard is. His location enjoys a level of visibility and foot traffic unmatched anywhere else in town. Central (pronounced cen-TRAL) Michel Richard isn't just in Caesars. It's the first thing people see when they enter from the Strip. And plenty of people see it. In addition to the throngs of tourists and casino-goers who stream by, Central Michel Richard faces the lobby where hotel guests check into and out of Caesars' 3,300 rooms.
Central is a big restaurant. It's a 9,600 — sq.-ft. area with seats for 220 guests indoors, plus an outdoor terrace that can hold 80 more. That terrace is a rarity for a Las Vegas restaurant of this caliber. A 75-foot-long onyx bar that opens directly onto the lobby provides even more visibility.
The previous occupant of the space, the Augustus Café, was a we-never-close eatery with an old-school Roman Empire theme. Richard, whose home base is Washington, DC fine dining standout Citronelle, chose his more casual DC concept, Central, to replace it for Caesars.
Central, itself a winner of a Beard Award in 2008 for Best New Restaurant, is a lunch-dinner spot in Washington. It serves 24/7 in Las Vegas. Richard describes its food as “American cuisine with a French accent,” i.e., elevated comfort food sourced, cooked and presented with finesse.
Richard repeats a number of items from the DC Central menu at Caesars, where lunch and dinner are served off a single brasserie -style menu. But he had to create many new items for two additional dayparts — late night and breakfast.
He knew enough to not overreach. Big-selling entrees include such seemingly simply fare as fried chicken with smashed potatoes ($24, $21 on the late night menu); a hamburger with bacon, cheddar and crunchy potato tuile ($18); and spaghetti and meatballs ($16). Appetizers come straight from the DC menu — deviled eggs ($6), cheese puffs ($6) and his signature faux gras (i.e., chicken liver mousse, $7).
A soup and salad section (matzo onion soup, $12; goat cheese Caesar salad, $14) and an eight-option sandwich menu (corned beef sandwich, $16 with French fries or salad) and limited all-day breakfast lineup (three eggs any style, $14) make sure that the food won't go over the clientele's head.
The late night menu is a trimmed-down version of the lunch-dinner menu: 34 items versus 45. A handful of items (chicken wings, $15) are added, and the entrée list shrinks from 18 items down to seven. It's an important daypart from the revenue perspective, to the point where the restaurant runs a 2 a.m.-4 a.m. happy hour where the up-all-night crowd gets a 24 percent discount off food selections made from a special bar menu.
Central goes big at breakfast, offering a 42-item menu whose price points make a chef/owner, which Richard is here, smile. Huevos Rancheros with chorizo go for $16, chicken and waffles cost $24 and it's $15 for a Denver omelet. A cup of coffee is $3.
Breakfast is one place where Richard, who began as a pastry chef, can show off those skills. The day/night dessert lineup is another, full of stunners usually seen in fancier restaurants, It's hard to believe a French-born chef at his level of achievement is actually self-taught, switching to the savory side after a stellar career in pastry.
Central Michel Richard resembles a cross between an authentic brasserie and an IHOP or a Denny's, re-imagined by one of the country's great chefs. Standards are achingly high, though; Richard tells RH he heads to Las Vegas every three weeks to keep this place humming.
So did Richard get into Vegas at the wrong time? True, the town got smacked by the recent recession. But the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reports visitations have increased 19 months in a row. Final 2011 numbers will see 39 million visitors come to Las Vegas, making it the second-busiest year on record. Richard's in the right place at the right time.