As a dining room full of invited guests sampled items from the new menu at The Kitchen at Atomic on a recent Saturday night, chef Jackson Stamper visited the tables to introduce himself and discuss his cuisine and the philosophy behind it.
“I wanted to try and give the restaurant its own distinction from the bar,” he replied, when asked about his vision. “The bar has its own crowd and its own reputation, and I feel like the restaurant hasn’t quite managed to make its niche and make its identity.”
It’s an understandable goal for chef to want his restaurant to stand on its own, rather than on the reputation of a sister property. But that desire is particularly complicated when the restaurant in question is associated by name and location with one of downtown Las Vegas’ most distinctive and famous bars — especially if it’s courting a very different crowd.
That bar, of course, is Atomic Liquors, a 67-year-old institution that was re-imagined in 2013 for the burgeoning downtown renaissance. Depending on whom you ask, Atomic is a craft beer and cocktail bar, a hipster hangout, an “everyman” watering hole or something a bit less flattering.
“I knew it as a dive bar,” recent New York transplant Stamper says of the dark bar on Fremont Street between Ninth and 10th streets.
Atomic owner Lance Johns takes the description in stride.
“I don’t call it that, but people do,” he replies to his chef’s description. “And I don’t disagree with that, if that’s what they want to call it.”
Johns, however, was never interested in owning a restaurant that could be considered a dive by anyone.
“The idea here was elevated food, not what we did next door,” he explains. “Let’s bring elevated food down here to an area that doesn’t have it yet.”
And even in the days immediately after The Kitchen at Atomic’s April 2017 opening, when the menu featured french fries loaded with chili, cheese and hot dogs, soft pretzels and pepperoni pizza waffle chicken wings, its upscale décor and higher-end offerings such as steak tartare and macaroni bites with poached lobster made it clear this was a serious restaurant for serious diners. Unfortunately, not everyone got that message.
When Stamper’s predecessor Justin Kingsley Hall took over and eliminated most of the fried food and bar snacks in favor of a more formal menu, he says he got a fair amount of blowback.
“You’d definitely get some lip from people,” he recalls. “They’d be like ‘What’s this bougie (food)?’ ”
Hall understood their frustration.
“People were coming for that Atomic experience. And they were confused a bit by the branding of the restaurant.”
Johns admits that type of confusion persists. And he agrees that the name may have something to do with it.
So why give his upscale restaurant a name that conjures images of what many see as a dive bar? He blames it on “the licensing” associated with opening a restaurant that shares Atomic Liquors’ large, corner patio.
“If we were going to call this anything different than Atomic, they wanted me to put up a barrier on the patio and separate the two. And I, quite frankly, didn’t want to do that. So, if that’s the root of confusion, I would rather have that than a barricade in the patio separating the two places.”
Two years in, Stamper and Johns are now looking to that shared patio to serve as a buffer zone between hungry bar patrons seeking a snack and restaurant customers enjoying a sit-down meal.
“We’re actually talking about doing burgers and fries and chicken sandwiches and stuff on the big patio,” Johns says. “It would be strictly out in the patio, (and) it would be in plastic-ish type containers.”
His chef says the idea was among the first he discussed with his new boss upon taking the job.
“You’ve got this crowd. And they do want food. But they don’t necessarily want the food that’s gonna work here. So why don’t we just give them the food that’ll work for them over there (on the patio) and see how it goes?”
Look for that separate menu, prepared in The Kitchen but not available in its dining room or bar, to roll out as early as this summer.
In the meantime, guests inside can enjoy new menu items including cucumber and grape gazpacho, bone marrow with roasted beets and rhubarb, porterhouse pork chops and rum brine, and roasted chicken with summer corn sauce and charred heirloom carrots. And Johns has no worries that people will eventually get the message.
“You think about it, where we started six years ago over there (at the bar), and people were saying ‘You can’t do it, there’s nothing around you, cabs won’t even go down there.’ And I feel kind of déjà vu all over again in here. It’s like ‘The food’s too elevated. They want burgers and snacks down there.’ I don’t think so. I think we’re just ahead of the curve again.”