Visits from two presidents, a legendary actor/comedian as a regular, a former member of the Keystone Kops as a sign-spinner and a brush with a mobster: It’s been a wild ride for the Omelet House.
The Omelet House, which has three locations in the valley, this month celebrated the 40th anniversary of the original one at Charleston Boulevard and Rancho Drive. Forty years makes a restaurant a paragon of longevity anywhere; in Las Vegas, it’s practically a miracle.
The roots of the restaurant, originally dubbed the Garden Eatery, go deeper than 1979 to the Food Factory, a seven-unit chain senior partner Mike McGowan founded in 1973 which, he said, had the first drive-thru window in town.
“It was a pretty darned exciting concept,” said senior partner Fred Ostertag, who went to work for McGowan in 1975. “Fresh, hand-formed burgers. I wish it was still around.”
The Food Factory led to Alias Smith &Jones, which McGowan opened in 1977 near Twain Avenue and Swenson Street and which became an iconic restaurant long-timers still talk about. McGowan sold a Food Factory on the same parcel, and the next owner was none other than Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, notorious for his local Hole in the Wall Gang and his ties to the Chicago Outfit. Spilotro’s guys let McGowan know he wanted a meet, and with some trepidation, McGowan agreed. Turned out Spilotro wanted to use not only the Food Factory name, but also the recipe for the secret sauce McGowan had never disclosed to anyone. He handed it over.
By 1979 McGowan and Ostertag were in the dirt-floored space at Charleston and Rancho making improvements, including hanging the wood paneling that endures today. They started the Garden Eatery, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Louis Wiener Jr., a local attorney who was known for helping new businesses get started, was an investor.
“There’s times he didn’t even get his money back” from other fledgling businesses, said senior partner Kevin Mills. “We respect the heck out of him.”
Business was slow, and McGowan’s brother, having heard about an omelet restaurant in Southern California, suggested the change. The switch was official in 1980.
McGowan was clear about his business plan. Growing up in Southern California, he remembered his father driving him past a restaurant where a steady stream of customers were leaving with boxes in their hands.
“It must be good enough to take home, and it must be more than they can eat,” McGowan remembers him saying. And so the Omelet House’s namesake dish would be made with six eggs (four if you order the “baby” version) and served with a mountain of fried potatoes and a big chunk of warm pumpkin or banana bread.
“It’s the ‘wow’ factor,” McGowan said.
But business still languished, at least in part because the restaurant, tucked away at the back of the busy plaza, wasn’t visible from Charleston or Rancho. One day a man approached McGowan, said, “You need me, young man,” and pulled out a Keystone Kops jacket and hat and a sign that said “Best Omelet.” A veteran showman — he’d also been a piano player for Fatty Arbuckle — he became a pied piper of sorts for the Omelet House.
“He did a dance out on Charleston,” McGowan said. “It brought people in.”
“He was an act on the sidewalk,” Ostertag said. “He drove attention to a location that was basically hidden.”
But by the late ’80s, the restaurant was in trouble. Wiener called Mills, who had graduated from UNLV with a hospitality degree and taken a job at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.
“He was kind of like a stepfather to me,” Mills said. “I guess he kept talking, but I put the receiver down and started packing, because I couldn’t wait to leave San Francisco.”
Mills still manages the Charleston location, which has expanded over the years and currently has 250 seats. The late Jerry Lewis was a longtime loyal customer; so are the Mayors Goodman, who have a booth dedicated to them. There’s a Jerry Tarkanian booth as well and a room dedicated to the Vegas Golden Knights. The clientele is movers, shakers and regular folks, many of whom started coming in as kids.
Their secret to operating the second-oldest continually owned restaurant in Las Vegas (after the Bootlegger)?
“We pride ourselves on fresh, homemade food,” Ostertag said.
“Like we feed our families,” Mills said.
Oh, and those presidents? Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, whose autographed menus hang in the foyer, on separate visits. Mills remembers before Carter arrived, the Secret Service, looking for a place to hide the president should the need arise, commandeered a small enclosed space near his office.
“Every time I look at the door of the closet,” Mills said, “I think of Carter.”
Omelet House trivia
■ They use about 30,000 eggs a week at the original location.
■ They also use 1,200 takeout containers.
■ The most popular omelet is pork chile verde, created 12 to 15 years ago; they make 36 quarts of the chili three times a week.
■ The chicken-fried steak omelet, currently one of the most popular, was created when a supplier delivered a case of meat that was losing its breading. Not one to waste it, Mike McGowan dreamed up a way to use it.
■ The Omelet House’s popular fried zucchini was created at Alias Smith & Jones by employees playing around with the fried-vegetable fad of the era. It’s still served with the original cheese sauce, as well as ranch dressing. And here’s a secret: Orange juice is the main ingredient in the breading.
■ Their iconic pumpkin bread came from an employee’s recipe.
■ During a pumpkin shortage, they created the banana bread. For every batch of 96 pieces, they need 14 pounds of overripe bananas, which they sometimes have to source all over the valley.
■ The most popular non-omelet dish is Eggs Benedict; the hamburgers also have an avid following.
■ The Henderson location has two challenges, a 12-egg omelet and a 3-pound burger with a 10-inch-wide bun. Some people split them rather than take the challenge.
■ Together, senior partners Mike McGowan, Fred Ostertag and Kevin Mills have 134 years of experience.