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THE MOVABLE BUFFET

Fall's hotter than you think

The after-summer surge is sparking quite the opening season for restaurants and clubs.

September 14, 2008|Richard Abowitz | Special to The Times

In vEGAS, New Year's weekend has traditionally been the most popular time to open restaurants and nightclubs. But the period around Labor Day is catching up. The reason: a convention and tourist bump that marks the end of the summer doldrums. (The slowdown during the hot weather also makes construction easier, what with fewer people to inconvenience.)

"There is a dramatic amount of business that comes from conventions starting in September," says Jason Strauss, a co-owner of the Palazzo's nightclub-restaurant Lavo, which soft-opened before Labor Day weekend and was set to hold a grand opening Saturday. "Opening in September allows you to take advantage of the new season."

But also important to folks such as Strauss is that this busy stretch is followed by a relatively slow period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That means the lessons learned can be incorporated into changes in a venue, before the tourist season that runs essentially uninterrupted from New Year's into summer.

Here are the Buffet's picks of the best of this fall's openings:

Lavo at the Palazzo: Lavo is the first new offering in Vegas from the owners of the wildly successful Tao nightclub and restaurant at sister property the Venetian. Because of Tao's success, the buzz on this place has been huge.

Lavo is heavily dedicated to its Roman/Mediterranean bathhouse theme. "When we open a space, we want the place to tell a story," Strauss says. This is less a narrative story than a fancifully assembled theme, but it still is created with complexity and detail (if not historical accuracy). For example, the bathrooms in the restaurant use sinks operated by a foot pedal; the water falls from the ceiling into the basins.

The restaurant seats 300, and the menu is designed with an emphasis on appetizer-sized portions to foster ordering a few items and sharing, rather than ordering large individual entrees.

As with Tao, the nightclub and restaurant are partitioned from each other with relative success. But with only 4,500 square feet, Lavo's nightclub has no VIP areas. This again is to keep the communal feel -- although equality is relative. After all, if you want to sit down, that's what bottle service is for.

In addition to dancers, Lavo has live voyeur female models: a bathing beauty in the restaurant, a preening Cleopatra on the way into the nightclub, and others acting out scenarios. And there's a balcony with hookahs, presided over by a hookah master.

So, though Lavo may be tinier than many other top-tier clubs, it's still full of extravagance. "Our price point for the nightclub is the same as Tao," Strauss notes. "I think celebrity, design and cuisine are all part of the puzzle. . . . People will not mind paying a premium."

Rok Vegas at New York New York: Featuring a 360-degree wrap-around video screen, Rok Vegas is attempting to spread the nightclub scene to a more mainstream crowd.

"We wanted a less intimidating, more inviting environment," says managing partner Ethan Asch. So, Asch says of the music: "No club music. No techno at all. We play rock. We aren't doing paid celebrity-hosted events. But we will do the occasional concert. Our goal is to create a nightclub that people can feel comfortable being at."

In part, Asch's plans reflect a rare glimmer of realism in Vegas, noting that the club was opening in "weird economic times." According to Asch, "Our backs are a little against the wall. This is not the economy we expected when we began planning."

Rok has developed a "half-bottle service" -- which takes the concept of paying for a bottle of alcohol to reserve a place to sit and makes it less expensive. How much? "Full bottle service is anywhere between $295 to $500, and half-bottles are between $150 and $200," Asch says. "And you still get the table."

Yellowtail Sushi Restaurant & Bar at Bellagio: Yellowtail is the latest offering from the Vegas-based Light Group, best known for running nightclubs such as Bank (Bellagio) and Jet (Mirage). The new place features a menu created by chef Akira Back, an "Iron Chef America" contestant in 2008.

Featuring a plush interior, the restaurant-bar also is clearly meant to cater to those who want the Vegas celebrity chef experience rather than bargain hunters.

"I want to be among the highest-quality restaurants in Vegas," says Back. "This is where all the best chefs come; I moved here for this." As at Lavo, a lot of Back's dishes are meant to be shared communally, such as his tuna pizza.

To keep business up, Light Group is cleverly pushing Back on the celebrity chef circuit. A special news release about him was created to accompany the restaurant's opening, and Back, rather than managers and executives, was offered to the media for interviews.

The day I met him, he had already been interviewed by the Travel Channel. Back says of his media efforts and television experiences: "To tell the truth, I never thought I would like it. But after 'Iron Chef,' I loved it. I keep wanting to do more television and interviews."

It's an attitude that will certainly help Back fit in with Vegas.

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For more of what's happening on and off the Strip, see latimes.com/movablebuffet.

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