Esther’s is moving to expand its footprint and occupancy
The first in a series of stories following the growth of off-Strip restaurant favorites.
Whether opening new restaurants or expanding on existing ones, Las Vegas is not an easy place to do either. Not every restaurateur has the backing of a celebrity or hospitality group. The pandemic also has affected both staffing and guests’ dining routines. Maybe it’s a numbers game. Restaurants are notoriously understood to be a gamble in and of themselves.
The local dining scene enjoys the celebrity and big-group restaurants, of course, but it’s protective–almost fiercely–of the chef-owner-entrepreneur. So, when they are successful, growing and contributing to the community, they are to be revered.
Let’s celebrate some recent home-grown achievements in our neighborhoods. Join us as we explore a series of restaurants and hospitality groups growing their companies, teams and menus all around the Las Vegas valley.
Esther’s Expands and Elaborates
Downtown darling Esther’s Kitchen is always busy. Take Italian comfort food, give it a creative twist, and elevate it with chef-owner James Trees’ highly-trained palate; this combination results in a brilliant trattoria in the heart of the Las Vegas Arts District.
With a large opening to the kitchen and a diner-side expediting pass, this gives guests a clear view of the smooth operation of a hard-working staff.
The seating is comfortable and complemented by the calming yet energizing decor. The interior design features a palette of grays, blues and woods along with yellow accents and other citrus notes.
The icing on the cake is the dedicated staff who impart an unmatched friends-and-family energy in the restaurant.
An innovative team and creative seating can do amazing things, but space is limited. It’s a smaller place, which means reservations are a necessity. While it can be frustrating to show up and not find a seat, this is to be celebrated. It’s hard not to be supportive of such success, and supporting local–and local this good–is an unstated but hard Las Vegas rule.
Another option was individual dining pods with space heaters during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but seemed impractical in the Vegas summer.
Nestled into an end-cap space facing California Avenue, Esther’s is bursting at the seams and ready for more. To do that, Esther’s must grow. To do that, Esther’s must move.
So where is it going? The new spot is half a block to the west, if one measures the “trek” from front door to front door.
Trees is purchasing the property currently housing the bright pink Retro Vegas vintage shop, located on the corner of Main Street and California Avenue. The shop stretches down to the alleyway, which was the separating space from Esther’s current location.
The chef says renewing a space instead of building new was important to him. “I love that building. I love the Arts District and its history. I don’t ever want to put something new in the Arts District that’s going to take away from the awesome 50s, 60s, 70s, and even 80s vibes that we have going on there.”
Esther’s is moving to expand its footprint and occupancy. Trees is adding a new 3,000 square foot kitchen to the 5,000 square foot property. The expansion also includes additional storage, restrooms and prep areas.
And it keeps growing. “The current storage that is there, that’s going to be a craft-focused package liquor store,” says Trees, “catering to people like [this writer] who are picky about what they like but cannot find at the bigger stores. And we will not sell beer, we will not sell wine. But we will have 40 amaros!”
All of this work excites Trees and his team. Says Trees, “So those are the things that we’re doing that are a little bit different, right? And is it easy to do that?”
Between last year’s COVID-19 pandemic closures, county permitting, staffing, backlogs, and the pandemic’s effects on supply chains, it’s a lot of work. There are many regulatory issues to work through along with a lot of chasing documentation, meetings, and approvals. But he’s positive about the situation.
“It takes dedication. I am super excited about all that stuff. I’m gonna support [everyone’s efforts]. So that’s where my energy goes.”
A New Concept and Cuisine Joins the Family
Trees built the current Esther’s restaurant, with an expanded preparation space, to focus on bread and pasta; however, this will be converted into a French bistro called L’Aristocrat.
He talks about his time at Alizé (formerly at the Palms Las Vegas), working with celebrity chef Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin, and working with another celebrity chef, Michael Mina.
“I spent a lot of years in that system, right?” says Trees. “So there’s no reason for me not to do a French restaurant because there’s not really one in the category that I want to do, which is somewhere between Mon Ami Gabi [at the Paris Las Vegas] and Bardot [at Aria].”
The chef and his team take the idea of doing something new and different very seriously. They aren’t relying on somebody else’s ideas of Italian or French cuisine, nor trying to impress an old boss or worrying what Nana would do.
“I don’t feel like I have someone looking over my shoulder to make sure I honor an old family recipe or anything like that; I don’t have that and I don’t want that,” says Trees. “I want to be creative.”
When asked if–in doing things so differently–he was making his own dining categories, he says, “Within these things, these ideas, what we’re doing is… we’re just giving Vegas the restaurants it needs and deserves. I’ve always said that.”
He speaks fondly of restaurants that fit his vision. “I think [of] Petit Trois [by Ludo Lefebvre in Los Angeles], you know? I think Dirty French [by Major Food, including Mario Carbone] in New York. Like, I think there’s some really smart groups that have done some really cool shit in that category.”
Trees continues. “Do I think they’re complete? No, I’m gonna do things my way and I’m gonna change things; we’ll never have a dish-for-dish kind of way of looking at things. It’s going to be original, fun ideas in that category.”
Always Learning, Always Growing
Trees seems unstoppable. Moving and expanding Esther’s Kitchen, building a new French bistro and a craft liquor store, he is never short of ideas. He even has his eyes on a concept based in modern Israeli cuisine, among other fare.
All of this follows the reopening of Ada’s Wine Bar (post COVID-19 closures) with a new vision and management team, and opening the bustling new Al Solito Posto, both in Tivoli Village in Summerlin.
How can he do it all? It’s his team. His cooks and chefs, his captains and beverage directors, his waitstaff and bartenders; Trees acknowledges often that his crew is a driving force behind his desire to do more, but not repeat himself. He acknowledges he can’t copy the same team from one location to another.
They are unique as people and in their group dynamics. “So why would we repeat a concept at more than one location? It could be fun to have a couple of the same restaurants our guests love—look at Ada’s comeback; people have always suggested opening another one or two. But you can’t go to another location and find the same managers, the same sommeliers, the same people who run a place so well. It just doesn’t happen the same way.”
The chef entrepreneur says they are looking at six or more concepts down the road, each with a different food concept and guest experience.
“You learn, you continue to build, you get creative. This is what I want to do.”
Experience Local. Where to go and what to eat:
Esther’s Kitchen: 1130 S Casino Center Blvd #110, Las Vegas, NV 89104
- Get the Carrot Agnolotti with braised rabbit with a Little Gem Caesar salad and Butterscotch Budino. Ask for an Amaro digestif.
Al Solito Posto: 400 S. Rampart Dr., #180, Las Vegas, NV 89145
- Get the Lobster Benedict with Cheddar Bay Biscuit for brunch; get the Pappardelle Bolognese for dinner. Order from the choose-your-own Negroni list.
Ada’s Wine Bar: 400 S. Rampart Dr., #120, Las Vegas, NV 89145
- Get the Bottles and Boards Happy Hour specials from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.; also try the Octopus Patatas Bravas, the Donuts & Caviar, and Mick’s Royale with Cheese.