Flash, glow and flow: Firefly owner aims to give late-night diners new option

Hip and original aren't usually the first words people use to describe the environment around the Fremont Street Experience.

But tough times can make seemingly risky choices safe again.

The result of such new-thinking-by-necessity is the decision by chef-owner John Simmons to install a new version of his Firefly tapas restaurant in a decidedly unhip location, the Plaza.

Simmons' second Firefly -- the first opened six years ago at 3900 Paradise Road -- is in the glass dome that overlooks the Fremont Street Experience.

The site has been the setting of the popular Center Stage Restaurant, a backdrop in the movie "Casino," a sports bar and even once had a pool.

Recently, before the Firefly moved in, it was mostly empty and a reminder of the zest that has seeped out of much of downtown Las Vegas.

Nevertheless, Simmons is psyched about the new location and about getting back in the kitchen. He said he hopes difficult times can bring back original thinking he says can revive downtown dining in Las Vegas.

Question: What is Firefly?

Answer: We specialize in tapas, which are small plates and appetizers. At the Firefly Paradise there are about 60 tapas, nothing priced at more than $10. This one has a little bit smaller menu and is a little bit more mainstream, and that is going to expand. The idea is you order in waves and you can build your own multicourse meal. It is meant to be shared and tasted and discussed, maybe washed down with some sangria and a bottle of wine.

Question: Why is the menu different downtown?

Answer: First, to offer locals who like the Firefly on Paradise a little bit different option, a little bit different angle. Second, I think it is a little bit more mainstream crowd down here, probably a little less adventurous.

Question: What are some things you changed?

Answer: I rounded out some of the ethnic things to try to make things more mainstream. For example, I took pulpo asado off the menu, which is grilled octopus. And I changed the name on some of the stuff so it is less of a Spanish kind of a thing. I'm trying to aim it more at American-style comfort food with mac-and-cheese and sliders and fries. I took off the duck. Also, it simplifies things in the kitchen for me.

Question: How did you choose this concept for Las Vegas?

Answer: I'm a chef and that is the way I like to eat. I came from Chicago and there are a lot of tapas places out there. There wasn't anything like that going on out here. Anyway, I get off work, I need some good food. I'm tired, it is midnight. There is nothing open but (bars), and it smells like an ashtray and the food is disgusting. I felt there has to be an alternative for people who want to just have more of a light grazing experience instead of going to (casual dining chain restaurants) and getting 15 pounds of mediocre food. So I would go to a nice restaurant, I'd sit at the bar and eat a bunch of different appetizers.

Question: Why is it called Firefly?

Answer: I loved the tapas thing, I didn't know whether to call it Small Plates because tapas is kind of intimidating. So, I wanted it to be American mainstream. Firefly, that name came from two culinary terms. The word fire means to cook in the kitchen. If I need a steak medium rare I say "fire steak medium rare," and if I need it fast I say "on the fly." It just seemed to fit. It is kind of a late-night hangout and fireflies come out late at night.

Question: Do you still cook at the Paradise location?

Answer: I don't do anything anymore. That's the irony. The busier the restaurant gets the less I have to do.

Question: Why did it take so long to add another restaurant?

Answer: I've always been looking and listening. Most of the things people approached me with didn't pan out. Usually it is, "You have to build a Firefly out in Summerlin, you need to build a Firefly in San Diego or out in Los Angeles." I have everything I need to do it except for the money. And that is what they don't have. ... That is the hardest part, the money. I have the restaurant, I have the ideas I have the concept. I just don't have the money otherwise I'd have 20 of these things right now.

Question: What about money from the existing restaurant?

Answer: One of the things that happened with the original Firefly was that it was leveraged so heavily because I didn't have any money. I was a sweat-equity guy. I barely scraped enough to even get the doors open, then I had to borrow to get through the hard time. I took on a lot of partners so that money is pretty much divided up. I don't actually retain that much. This is different. I'm pretty much going to be the sole owner of this one.

Question: Do you have any reservations about downtown or the Plaza, given that both have seen better days?

Answer: Of course there are reservations. But also, to me, it is an opportunity. This is a pretty cool spot. ... The people at the hotel have been very cool. They have the money. And they have the space and they work with me. It is going to be a tough sell but people are going to come down here because it is cool.

Question: Do you feel as if you got a good deal?

Answer: A lot of people ask me that question, "Why the Plaza?" Well, Steve Wynn hasn't called me yet. I think that the reason this partnership happened is because a lot of the big players are going to be afraid to come down here. Wolfgang Puck, he's doing pretty good over at the MGM, he's not looking to expand into a place like this. I'm in a spot where I'm more adventurous, so, they got a good operator and I got a good partner. I live downtown, I hang out downtown. I know a lot of people who work downtown. I think there is a demand for this spot.

Question: How is the recession affecting your business and other restaurants like yours?

Answer: I see opportunities. People are knocking on my door every day begging me to go into their empty, brand-new spaces. Places that used to be $4 a square foot you can get for less than half that with a lot of tenant improvement money. So people are aggressively seeking tenants. My restaurant is kind of in the niche that our sales are up. We're a $30 check average for dinner and drinks. For a good experience, good food, you can't beat that.

Question: How long will it take to turn a profit?

Answer: It will take a couple months at least to really get the word out. I depend a lot on word-of-mouth, viral kind of marketing. The hotel has been cool, too. It has public relations. Initially it is going to be a lot of locals, mostly locals.

Question: How will you get the word out?

Answer: I never spent a lot of money on advertising at the first restaurant, first because I didn't have any. Second, the advertising opportunities are sitting in my restaurant. See that guy right there? Give him a free dessert, it costs me 50 cents and he is going to run around and tell all his friends. See that big party over there? Send them a bottle of champagne. Make sure everybody is happy. They go out, they tell all their friends. I focus on all the people I can reach here.

Question: Will you cook at the Plaza Firefly?

Answer: I'm cooking right now. The question is when am I going to get out of the kitchen again?

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.