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1st look at new $6M restaurant taking shape in downtown Las Vegas

Updated June 29, 2023 - 11:29 am

Esther’s Kitchen occupies big shoes in Las Vegas: as an anchor of downtown renewal, with a chef-owner who leads by example in his treatment of employees, and a splendid Italian-inspired menu that regularly receives praise and attention in the city and beyond. (The bucatini all’Amatriciana? Transportive.)

But Esther’s occupies its big shoes from a small footprint: The restaurant encompasses only 2,100 square feet, and chef-owner James Trees and crew prepare at least two dozen seasonal menus a year in a kitchen that doesn’t reach 700 square feet. Esther’s 58 seats fill quickly, an enviable problem that nonetheless annoys some folks when they can’t get in.

“We are really working on top of each other,” said Trees, a James Beard Award finalist. “It’s not sustainable. We can’t grow.”

So Esther’s is moving. In February, the chef broke ground on a third-of-an-acre parcel he purchased at 1131 S. Main St., at the corner of California Avenue next door to Esther’s. For the new restaurant, he’s renovating the former Retro Vegas furniture store, a pink pleated-tin building (with flamingo mural) whose 1940s provenance includes prop storage for shows at the old Stardust casino.

The other morning, Trees gave the Review-Journal an exclusive tour of the construction site, sharing publicly for the first time significant details of the $6 million project. Here are some highlights:

A terrace, a loft and lots of loaves

■ The new Esther’s will encompass at least 12,000 square feet, including a terrace. The building will feature insulation and air conditioning for the first time. A kitchen is being installed from scratch, an enormously expensive undertaking. Many windows and the entrance will front Main Street.

■ The new digs won’t surrender the spirit of the original. “You’re going to know this is an older building. We don’t want to lose its character, but it still has to be Esther’s,” Trees said. “If it’s not like Esther’s, we’ve failed. This is where Esther’s will be forever.”

■ Seating? About 170 inside (including 23 at the bar) and 50 on the terrace, nearly quadrupling capacity. “We want you to have that extra 6 inches of space between tables,” Trees said, comparing the seating to the famously snug original.

■ Valet parking. Yes. Vehicles will be parked a block away at Main Street and East Charleston Boulevard.

■ A pasta shop will allow Esther’s to serve only fresh pasta (space limitations and volume mean pasta sometimes needs to be frozen now). Extruded pasta will hang from dowels to dry, Trees said.

■ A loft will offer cocktails and lounging. Beneath the loft, the look of the original Esther’s will be revived with the same chairs, banquettes and color scheme. Glass panels, open to the restaurant, can be closed to create a private dining room.

■ The equipment includes a wood-fire oven, a 350-square-foot walk-in (five times the size of the current walk-in), a wood-fire flat-top grill modeled after the one at BRAT Restaurant in London, high-end ice machines, and a 12-foot oven (with a 12-foot loader) from which 140 or so loaves can issue in an hour. “Right now, we have to start baking at 3 a.m.,” Trees said (making one appreciate even more Esther’s crusty chewy sourdough).

■ The design includes six chandeliers and drywall painted to resemble breeze blocks, the concrete masonry used in many homes in the chef’s childhood neighborhood in east Vegas. “It’s little Vegas touches,” he said. “If you know, you know. If not, it’s just a cool look.”

Although Trees has planned a November debut for the new Esther’s, “I’m not in a hurry,” he said. “Because of the level of expectations, this has to be right from day one.”

What’s taking Esther’s place

Once Esther’s moves next door, its current space (entrance on California Avenue) will close for at least six to eight months, Trees said, to be remade (“It’s a full rebuild”) into a new restaurant. This restaurant was going to be called L’Aristocrat and serve French food, but no more, Trees said, revealing the changes publicly for the first time.

The new place, name not yet settled, will offer chef-driven modern American tasting menus, what Trees called the best cheese cart in the city and a complete departure from what came before. “When you walk into this room,” he said, “you will never know this was Esther’s.”

Contact Johnathan L. Wright at jwright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @JLWTaste on Instagram and @ItsJLW on Twitter.

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