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March Madness, capacity shifts help fill Las Vegas restaurants

The pandemic may have delivered a gut punch to Las Vegas’ tourism industry, but the patient is showing plenty of signs of life. The loosening of capacity restrictions on Monday to 50 percent, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations on Wednesday and the beginning of March Madness have contributed to increased traffic in the tourism corridor and the suburbs.

Scott Frost, managing partner of Hussong’s Cantina in Boca Park and The Shoppes at Mandalay Place and Slice of Vegas at the latter, said the energy among customers is palpable, particularly on the Strip, where revenues are higher now than in 2019.

“Tourists are back in a big way,” he said. “You roll around the casino floor, or you look in the mall, and the energy is there. For the suburban folks, (with) the fact that the immunizations are rolling out, there’s a little more of a sense that we’re turning the corner and things are getting a little safer.”

At the Strat on Friday afternoon, vice president and general manager Stephen Thayer said it had been “an exciting week,” with more reservations for the resort’s Top of the World restaurant and people flooding into the sportsbook and adjacent PT’s Wings & Sports for March Madness.

“People want to just sit there, watch basketball games, eat food and make bets for days at a time,” he said.

Among them was Ernie Moreno of California’s San Fernando Valley, in town for his first March Madness in several years.

“I’ve been at home with my kids for a year, homeschooling them,” Moreno said. “I just wanted a break, and wanted to watch games.”

College basketball also was the main event Friday evening at Palace Station’s Tailgate Social Sports Bar & Grill. Brian Pascoe had come to town specifically for the tournament. It wasn’t his first time, but he said it seemed improved.

“I feel like service is better,” he said. “The crowds are growing. And it feels more normal here than it has in the state of Connecticut.”

At Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant on Paradise Road, owner Gino Ferraro said Friday evening that he expected to be nearly at capacity that night and was fully booked for Saturday.

“People are coming back,” Ferraro said. “They’re feeling good about going out.”

Ferraro said his outdoor patio had been particularly popular. Early Friday evening, people dining there included Yolanda Blanco from Phoenix, who was with a party of 12 at two tables. She said it was the first time they’d returned to Las Vegas since the pandemic started.

“We were bored out of our minds,” she said. “I got the vaccine, and the kids are going to be going back to school.” She added that March Madness was part of the draw.

Jill Clark and Geoff Schierbaum of the Bay Area also were making their first return trip.

“It was time that we opened up,” he said. “We’ve got to move on with life. Vegas is coming back.”

The Peppermill Restaurant on the Strip had a 45- to 60-minute wait for some tables by 7 p.m., there was a wait for the restaurant’s Fireside Lounge and 50 to 60 people were standing outside, waiting to be seated.

“We’re busy from the time we open until we close,” general manager Peggy Orth said earlier in the week. “You can tell people are returning.”

Alberto and Rosalba Gonzalez of San Diego, who were seated in a booth Friday evening, said they had come to town to celebrate their 31st anniversary, which was Wednesday.

“I feel very comfortable,” he said. “Just use a mask and that’s it.”

And locals were out in force as well. Cory Harwell, owner of Carson Kitchen downtown, said earlier in the week that things were picking up, especially on weekends, with the restaurant seating as many people as possible considering social-distancing requirements. To that end, they were using the outdoor patio and rooftop deck as well as the dining room on Friday evening.

On the deck, locals David Brown, Mike Walton and Rich Crithfield were dining and drinking under a crescent moon. Walton said they still went out occasionally during the pandemic, “but it was very selective.”

“The (COVID-19) numbers are low” now, Brown said. He said he was aware restaurants had been among the hardest hit.

“It’s about support,” Crithfield said.

At Ferraro’s, locals Jason and Heidi Vanderslice said they, too, had continued to go out during the pandemic, to support local businesses. But he noted that “every weekend, there are more people.”

Andrea Decker and Michael Flint were part of the crowd filling Hussong’s in Boca Park on Friday. They said they’d been going out regularly and were seeing consistently bigger crowds.

“Without a doubt, it’s getting to where it used to be,” Flint said.

Earlier in the week, Todd Clore, owner of Todd’s Unique Dining on Sunset Road in Henderson, and Marcello Mauro, co-owner of Nora’s Italian Cuisine on Flamingo Road, said they were seeing more demand, but still were hampered by capacity and social-distancing requirements.

“I haven’t reopened my bar yet, because then I’d have to lose all the tables surrounding the bar,” Clore said.

“The real difference for us is, hopefully, when we lose the 6-foot restriction and go down to 3 feet,” Mauro said.

The series of celebrations that drew more people out started on St. Patrick’s Day. Ariskelnys Brea of Washington, D.C., who with her husband was at Ri Ra at The Shoppes at Mandalay Place when it closed in advance of the lockdown last March, had returned for the fourth year.

“We got tested, and we’re fine,” she said. “So we said, ‘Let’s go.’ Why not? Everything’s open.”

At McMullan’s Irish Pub on Tropicana Avenue, local Andrea Frantzek said she’d had an hour wait to get in.

“That just makes me feel like it’s a normal St. Patrick’s Day,” she said. “It just feels great. Everything’s getting back to what it used to be.”

“It’s been fantastic having people back in here,” said bartender Paul Walsh Jr. “Just to hear the chatter of people at the tables, to have live music again, it’s amazing.”

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter. Contact Al Mancini at amancini@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter.

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