On Dec. 18, Michael Symon hosted a party to celebrate what may have been the most high-profile opening in a month packed with restaurant debuts: Mabel’s BBQ at the Palms.
“It’s always fun when you invite 1,000 people to a party and 1,400 show up,” Symon said, laughing, the following morning.
That party was the crest of a tsunami of hype that’s hasn’t fully retreated in the month since. (Three days later, the letters P, A and L in the Palms signs were dimmed, leaving only “MS,” the chef’s initials.) Yet, even as Vegas foodies are still forming their opinion on Mabel’s, Symon has been quietly working on a very different, low-profile venture in a small adjacent space.
A handful of those 1,400 grand-opening partygoers were treated to a small sneak preview of another Symon project, Sara’s, hidden behind the dining room walls of Mabel’s. Its opening, expected near the end of the month, will provide Simon’s fans with two distinct, side-by-side perspectives on his cuisine, and his personality.
The main attraction
Mabel is a large, open, casual space that serves hearty helpings of extremely comfortable cuisine. Designed by Symon’s wife and partner, Liz Shanahan, the chef describes its vibe as that of “an old European stable.”
Long rows of tables stretch to the casino entrance under a handful of arching beams that break up the two stories of open space above them. The east side wall houses a bar, packed with an impressive collection of more than 130 American whiskeys, among other libations. Above it, behind a neon sign encouraging patrons to “Eat More Meat,” a window opens into the smoking room, where three smokers that hold a combined 2,000 pounds of meat operate around the clock.
The menu features casual down-home cuisine. Brisket, pork belly, turkey and kielbasa (a nod to the chef’s Midwestern roots) are offered family-style in half-pound portions alongside half chickens, various ribs and chicken wings on metal trays lined with brown paper. Hot-and-sweet pickles, kraut and sliced white bread accompany the meats. Farm-style porcine specialties include pigs’ tails, crispy ears and cracklins seasoned in salt and vinegar. It is a restaurant without pretensions.
A restaurant within a restaurant
Pass through a secret door to the left of the main bar and then another, and you’re transported to a different world, one with a more refined aesthetic.
Symon describes Sara’s, a tiny jewel box restaurant named after the mother of his partner Doug Petkovic as “a throwback restaurant.”
“Sara’s is our little speakeasy, almost like a secret little restaurant within a restaurant. We give you a little key. You can come in when you want. It’s gonna be about 50 seats, fine dining, waiters in tuxedos, tableside service.”
“We’re only doing about five entrees,” he says of the menu. “We’re going to do some smoked prime rib in there. We’re gonna do lobster. We’re gonna do truffle fried chicken, Dover sole with brown butter. And then maybe a secret burger late night. And then just big shellfish towers, and some really old-school European dishes. Like we’ll be doing escargot with parsley garlic butter, baked — things like that.”
The centerpiece of the indoor/outdoor space will be a show bar, where a “James Bond-like” waiter in a tuxedo will stand in front of $400,000 in “great Scotches, incredibly hard-to-find stuff, killer cognacs, unique selections.” Seasonal truffles may adorn the bar, borrowed from time to time by a server to shave over a dish.
A handful of Symon’s friends and Palms VIPs have membership keys that will allow them access, and reservations can be secured through the normal whisper-and-handshake channels that provide access to many of the valley’s more exclusive haunts. But with fewer than 50 seats, admission may prove difficult during dinner hours.
After hours, when Mabel’s is closed, guests will still be able to enter through a back door that opens out to the Palms parking lot. Symon hopes the hideaway will become an after-work hangout for restaurant and bar workers heading home from their jobs on the Strip.
“I think industry people will love it. You’re going hard all night long in the kitchen, it’s crazy. (So) to kind of come to a place that’s just a little bit more sedate, get a great cocktail, listen to some great music … I think that they’ll appreciate the decompression process.”
More importantly, however, he says it’s “kind of an ode to how we grew up and were brought up in the restaurant business.”
“Doug, Liz and I,” he explains, “when we came up in the business, these were the restaurants we worked in.”