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NORM Q&A: Nightclub mogul Victor Drai sets sights on new Strip venture


With the Gansevoort Hotel Group out, insiders are saying Drai’s is the leading candidate as the replacement name for the Strip property.

“That was the original plan before they got involved with Gansevoort,” said one of the sources.

Reverting to that scenario became a possibility when, in a shocker, Caesars Entertainment severed ties with the Gansevoort Hotel Group last weekend after Massachusetts gaming regulators raised concerns over a Gansevoort investor’s alleged link to Russian mobsters.

The red flag arose last Friday in a background check during Caesars Entertainment’s bid to land the $1 billion casino project at Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston. The result: the Las Vegas-based gaming giant and Suffolk Downs parted ways.

If Hollywood nightclub impresario Victor Drai ends up with Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon being rebranded as Drai’s, it would be his latest jackpot from a Las Vegas gamble he took 16 years ago.

How the $185 million project came together, including the courtship of star chef Giada de Laurentiis, is detailed in today’s Q-and-A interview, which took place earlier this month with Drai, Caesars Entertainment executive Elaine Moore and Michael Achenbaum, president of the Gansevoort Hotel Group.

Here’s the interview, which was conducted inside Drai’s at Bally’s:

WOOED BY DONALD TRUMP

Drai: “My restaurant in L.A. opened in 1993. And then everybody wanted me to open another. I almost moved to New York with Donald Trump.

“I realized when I went there for a meeting, I was going to be gone for three days. It was too far for me. It didn’t make sense because my little boy had been born and I wanted to be around.

“I realized the place to go was Las Vegas. That was 1995.”

LAND OF OPPORTUNITY

Drai: “I started talking to Steve Wynn about the Bellagio and that didn’t work out. Then I found a space at the Barbary Coast. There was nothing here (as far as major clubs).

“My Drai’s in L.A. at the time had the reputation for music. We’d have a live band. So when I designed Drai’s here, the idea was to make it a restaurant nightclub. The only reason I did afterhours was because I had the restaurant. It was underground, kind of a speakeasy. A couple years later, I started the afterhours. That started everything.”

THE WYNN CONNECTION

Drai: “When they opened Bellagio, Steve was at Drai’s all the time, literally once a week. We got closer and closer and then he (sold Bellagio) and started working on the Wynn. He wasn’t doing what I liked (with the Wynn clubs).

“And then he asked me what I think he should do. Lucky for me, he called me about a month after it opened (with a job offer). It (La Bete) was such a bomb — the concept was so bad — and you know the rest.

“Then we opened Tryst (formerly La Bete) and then we opened XS.”

THE SPLIT WITH WYNN

Drai: “My first condition with Steve was ‘You never can tell me what to do.’ And he didn’t. For six or seven years years, he was the best partner. Then came a time we went apart.

“They paid me the money and it’s O.K. I already at the time was talking to Caesars (Entertainment) about that (Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall) project. Because my deal with Steve was Drai’s was an existing property before, so I can do anything I want (a noncompete contract for anywhere else in the city but not for Bill’s).

“Then I told Caesars what I wanted to do and they loved the idea.”

RAISING THE ROOF

Achenbaum: “He (Drai) had approached the hotel company, Caesars, after he had moved into the space, that he had wanted to do something on the roof. They said to him, ‘Well there’s an electrical system and wire that run across the roof.

“Long story short, it took them until — they realized literally 10-11 years later that it was to their benefit to get behind the idea because there was a necessity for other reasons. So they paid for removal of the wires. All of a sudden, you had this amazing open rooftop available to whatever you want to do on it because it was built to take on additional floors.

“Victor sort of convinced them, let’s do this hotel project. Let’s do a nightclub on the roof. Let’s renovate the building. And from there, (for Caesars) it became ‘O.K. do we do an in-house or out-of-house hotel’ and the decision by senior management was, ‘we see added value working with restaurant brands, why wouldn’t we see added value for working with hotel brands.’

“That’s sort of how I was approached. I was quite persistent that I really wanted to work on the project. And, over time, some of the senior members of Caesars management came to see the added value.

“I was able to get signed up. I worked on the branding, the design, the sales, the whole concepting of what we are doing in partnership with other people who are more in control of their specific areas.

THE COURTSHIP OF GIADA

Achenbaum: “Giada (de Laurentiis) was the final leg of putting the team together. We needed a significant restaurateur. She’s just a monster in the industry as far as awareness and talent, and it just really came together nicely.

“She bought into the idea of having something special and unique versus just being another restaurant shoved into a mammoth hotel somewhere in the back where you have to walk 200 yards to get into it or a half-mile within the hotel to get to it. And she just loved the physical exposure but also the brand exposure of Victor and myself.”

Moore: “She will be on the second floor, wrapping around that famous corner. The entire corner will be glass and open, weather permitting, with large, auto bifold windows. She will be adding some of her personal touches. When she came into the process and saw the designs and partnering with Michael and Victor, she was blown away. It will be her first-ever restaurant in the U.S. Many markets have been courting her, and she’s also the first female celebrity chef on the Strip. We like firsts.”

CRISIS MANAGEMENT

Things happen fast in this gaming city famous for its wild swings.

Ask Moore about the roller coaster ride that is Las Vegas.

In August, Caesars Entertainment announced Moore was being promoted to oversee one of the most exciting projects in the gaming giant’s empire – the Gansevoort hotel with its rooftop centerpiece, Drai’s poolside nightclub and restaurant.

After four years as president of the Mid-North Regional office in the Louisville, Ky., market, she would be overseeing the Gansevoort renovation project, the Flamingo and The Quad.

On a mid-September night, shortly after arriving here, “Victor (Drai) took me up to the roof,” she said, “and we literally climbed scaffolding to as high as (the 11-story roof) is going to be.

“When you look out at the promixity of how close you are to the most exciting corner in the United States. … it’s awe inspiring.”

From those giddy heights, Moore couldn’t have imagined how quickly the pendulum would swing, thrusting her into another role — as a member of a crisis management team.

Between last Friday and Monday, a few stunning developments rocked Caesars Entertainment.

From Boston came news that Caesars Entertainment was out of the running for the Suffolks Downs project and dropping the Gansevoort name.

Monday was a nightmare. A 5:45 a.m. shooting left a good Samaritan dead and two security guards wounded by an angry patron at Drai’s temporary club at Bally’s.

Like those wild Las Vegas swings, real-life priorities change fast, too.

Norm Clarke’s column appears Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 702-383-0244 or norm@reviewjournal.com. Find more at www.normclarke.com. Follow @Norm_Clarke on Twitter. “Norm Clarke’s Vegas” airs Thursdays on the “Morning Blend” on KTNV-TV, Channel 13.