Branden Powers, co-founder of High Horse and managing partner of Evel Pie and The Golden Tiki, has always been a little of a controversial figure in Las Vegas. And his opening line is one likely to send a few ripples through our community. But it’s the jolt that maybe we need.
“Let’s all fight to make Las Vegas dangerous again. Let’s make it daring, sexy and something you can fall in love with again,” Branden said. I’ve known him through the nightlife years of our city and I didn’t hesitate when he wanted a “shrunken head” of me to hang for decorative purposes in his Golden Tiki Lounge. And he didn’t hesitate when I asked him to give me his overview of the current scene.
Las Vegas, you bore me.
Your restaurants, your nightlife, your shows and your casinos are boring. You should be ashamed. We all should be ashamed. One of the things that allowed visionaries like Jay Sarno (founder of Caesars Palace and Circus Circus) and Steve Wynn (of Wynn and Encore) to transform Las Vegas was stagnation. One idea followed the last commercially successful one to the letter for decades, and that stagnation is what set the stage for a single visionary to drastically remake everything.
We’ve been in that lull since the early 2000s. We built the same boring shopping centers: grocery anchor, smoke shop, sandwich shop, smoke shop. We built row after row of the same boring houses, master-planned communities for the 2.5-child “nuclear family.”
With only a few exceptions, most involving Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh investment of $350 million to revitalize downtown Las Vegas, we built the same boring restaurants and nightclubs from Boulder City to Summerlin. Granted, there are great chefs doing great things and I don’t knock that, but no one has swept the valley with the next great big idea. Our shows appeal to all tastes because no one wants to risk polarizing potential customers with edge, personality or balls, again with few exceptions (looking at you, “Absinthe”).
Frankly, we let them homogenize the greater Las Vegas Valley when we should be the greatest Las Vegas Valley. It started in the late 1970s and 80s when we pushed out the mob and brought in the bean counters, the culture-killers whose greatest idea was to ape an idea Sarno had 20 years earlier. So that Caesars Palace stuff really works, huh? Then let’s do Egypt, Paris, Venice …
But at least those were rip-offs that didn’t hurt anyone. The greatest visions displayed by the masters of today’s Las Vegas Strip are nearly unreasonable resort fees, dreaded paid parking and other car dealership-undercoating scams.
Corporate stagnation is helping some of us the same way it helped Sarno and Wynn and Hsieh. My partners in High Horse, Seth Schorr, Jeff Fine, Joe Cain and I aren’t building Caesars Palace, Bellagio or another Zappos, but we’re taking risks. Everyone should be! But because virtually no one is right now, we’re reaping all the benefits when we want everyone in Las Vegas to reap them.
We took a nightlife genre left for dead by the mainstream, the tiki lounge, and jolted it back to life. Now we operate one of the nation’s most heralded new establishments, The Golden Tiki on Spring Mountain Road. We’re applying similar electrodes to a well-known restaurant you’ll hear about soon enough, and we reintroduced the legend of Evel Knievel to Las Vegas, in cooperation with his son, Kelly Knievel, through the unlikely magic of a kick-ass 1970s-style New York pizzeria on East Fremont called Evel Pie.
And there’s plenty of room for more vision. Let’s all look for inspiration to the intellectuals, the artists, the poets, the musicians, the writers, the chefs, the designers, the dancers and drag queens who have traditionally made Las Vegas creative and exciting. The dreamers and the outcasts are the only people who can take our town to the next level. The bean counters won’t. In fact, it’s actually their job not to.
Let’s all fight to make Las Vegas dangerous again. Let’s make it daring, sexy and something you can fall in love with again. Something that gets you high again.
As I’ve said before and I’ll say again, Las Vegas needs more Las Vegas. If you agree, then stop in at either one of our establishments, Evel Pie or The Golden Tiki, and say, “Las Vegas needs more Las Vegas,” and receive a complimentary token of our gratitude for being a fellow visionary. Throw us some ideas. Throw yourself some ideas. Let’s take this to the next level.