National accolades attract restaurant customers, motivate staff

National ratings mean a lot to Las Vegas restaurants — and in some ways you may not expect.

Yes, good ratings help drive business, restaurant representatives say. But they also build morale, encourage staff to strive for excellence and remind them of the reason they’re there: to serve you, the customer.

There aren’t as many national ratings systems looking over Las Vegas’ shoulder these days as there were a few years ago. France-based Michelin did its first — and only — guide to Las Vegas restaurants and hotels in 2009. The editor-in-chief of the Michelin Guides in North America (whose name is not released, because he or she is one of Michelin’s anonymous inspectors) said the guide was suspended because of poor sales but that the company is exploring the possibility of a digital version.

The last year the Mobil Travel Guide rated Las Vegas restaurants also was 2009.

That shines the spotlight on the diamonds of AAA, and less-formal, user-generated ratings such as Zagat and Yelp.

"To us here at Bellagio, they’re incredibly important," said Ana Marie Mormando, vice president of food and beverage at the resort that’s home to five-diamond winners Picasso and Le Cirque and four-diamond winners Prime, Sensi, Michael Mina and Jasmine. Mormando said she especially likes that the AAA guidelines focus on the customer.

"A lot of it is not so much the technical aspect, but treating hospitality with that sense of the welcoming factor," she said. "I think it really allows particularly tenured staff to understand the importance of that connection with the guest."

Of Michelin, she said, "We were highly disappointed when the guide dropped us after such a short time. Economics being what they are, totally understood. We certainly feel that we continue to have the best collection of culinary talent and that we have weathered the worst of times and are ready for a strong comeback."

While the vast majority of five- and four-diamond restaurants are on the Strip, Hank’s Fine Steaks at Green Valley Ranch Resort in Henderson has held the four-diamond award for several years.

"We make a big deal of it here on the property," said Marisa Scarpulla, food and beverage director. "Our team members are very motivated by it. It is such a big deal for us for the fact that we’re off-Strip and we hold some of the same ratings as restaurants on the Strip."

She said Hank’s has a big local following but that the award also pulls in some customers from more far-flung areas.

Mormando said that’s the case for Bellagio, too.

"Particularly now in the world of the Internet connection," she said. "People get in there and once they see your website and the validation of a certain rating, they are somewhat comfortable that they’re going to make the right decision."

Marssa at Loew’s Lake Las Vegas in Henderson also has held the four-diamond award for several years. Mark Ching, the resort’s executive chef, said he knows it drives business.

"For any of the industry-standard ratings systems, that’s the foundation," Ching said. "That’s where trade publications draw their references from, that’s where they do their research. That, in turn, spills over."

AAA representatives did not return requests for comment, but as listed in its website newsroom, the guidelines aren’t very specific. For example, for the five-diamond award, they say, "establishments are renowned and consistently provide a world-class experience. This is ‘haute cuisine’ at its best." Of the four-diamond award, they read, "Establishments are geared to individuals in search of a distinctive fine-dining experience."

There’s no mention of parking conditions or, as is rumored of Michelin, that a restaurant must have a particular grade of china to achieve its celebrated three-star rating. But Scarpulla said one requirement of a four-diamond restaurant is that it have its own restroom instead of sending customers into the casino or hotel.

Scarpulla said while she once looked at user-generated ratings such as Zagat and Yelp, she no longer gives them as much weight.

"Now it’s gotten so a guest gets upset over something silly and they bash a place," she said. "I just don’t think it holds what (AAA) holds."

But Mormando and Ching disagree. A former East Coast resident, Mormando said she was particularly pleased that New York-based Zagat now has a national presence because it’s highly regarded. As for the online Yelp, she said, "I think it is the ownership of the individual — that’s what makes it that much more interesting, whether you’re delivering what the particular guest is expecting."

And she said the two types of systems, which she views as "different but comparable," feed each other.

"The benchmark of the formal reviewers, per se, is a good measurement in general that aids you in delivering those individual reviews ultimately," she said.

"I think they have to work hand-in-hand," Ching said. "I believe that the industry critic-generated reviews, like AAA, those kinds of things set the benchmark. I believe the social sites reach further down to the grassroots level."

Ching added that he thinks user-generated reviews hold more weight with consumers now in part because of the ubiquity of social networking.

"It’s all vitally important now," he said. "Those vehicles are available to us now."

Scarpulla said ratings push restaurants to maintain high standards — and also to raise them.

"Five-diamond is just that extra level, really amazing standard of excellence," she said. "That’s what we hope — that we’re going to go up."

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@review journal.com or 702-383-0474.

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