If dining was viewed as little more than a casino amenity in 1998, cocktails received even less respect. With drinks given away even to gamblers who couldn’t qualify for a complimentary buffet, quality was not a huge concern to those who consumed them, or those who made them. And unlike chefs, who could be poached from respected restaurants in other cities around the globe, accomplished bartenders were a rarity.
So when Gamal Aziz set out to find someone to head a cocktail program that would live up to the Bellagio standard, there weren’t a lot of names from which to choose. He turned to Tony Abou-Ganim, who then was working at San Francisco’s Starlight Room. Abou-Ganim, who now co-owns Libertine Social in Mandalay Bay, says the philosophy he brought to Las Vegas was straightforward.
“Let’s not try to re-create the wheel,” he said of the idea behind the property’s cocktail program. “Let’s make the best wheel that we can make and put together a fresh cocktail program, which was pretty unheard of in Las Vegas at that point.”
Best known then as the inventor of the Cable Car cocktail, Abou-Ganim found himself in charge of more than 200 bartenders at Bellagio’s 29 bars. His expectations were simple — but unheard of — for an operation of that size. Every bar would use only fresh ingredients, such as juices squeezed to order for every drink. Every cocktail would be made using the same recipe every single time, with no improvising. Glassware and ice would be of the highest quality available. And customer service would be as good as the drinks.
“Great ingredients, proper technique, a big smile and embracing hospitality,” Abou-Ganim explained.
“Everyone thought I was crazy when I said we’re going to be juicing limes a la minute per drink,” Abou-Ganim said, but the staff caught on when they saw the results.
Two decades on, some of those recipes are still in use at Bellagio, and the standards Abou-Ganim brought to the resort are commonplace in Las Vegas and across the country. Despite leaving the property in 2003, he says it’s still one of his favorite places to enjoy a drink.
“The Petrossian Lounge for a negroni or a martini — I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I still love that place. You sit there and watch the world go by. And there aren’t many places in the world where you can do that.”