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One of Strip’s most famous restaurants closing after nearly 26 years

Updated May 16, 2024 - 11:55 am

A restaurant named for a master artist, one with a master chef at the helm, is closing after a masterful 26-year run at Bellagio.

The restaurant is Picasso, of course. And the chef, naturally, is Julian Serrano. Picasso will send out its last quail salads, its final scallops with potato mousseline, in August. The restaurant opened with Bellagio in October 1998, with Serrano one of several celebrated chefs who launched signature restaurants in the new megaresorts of the late 1990s.

These chefs joined their celebrated predecessors in Vegas — among them, André Rochat, Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Louis Palladin — in lifting the culinary reputation of the city and laying the groundwork for Vegas becoming the world-class dining destination it is today.

Serrano seemed wistful the other afternoon as he looked back on his time at Picasso, which received two Michelin stars, among a host of other accolades.

Outside, the Fountains of Bellagio swelled and surged, as if acknowledging an era was drawing to a close.

“Everything has a start; everything has a finish. I decided to retire,” said Serrano, who will be 74 in July. “That is the reason we’re closing.” The chef added that he’d been thinking about retiring for several years, and had chosen to retire a year ago, but was talked into staying one more year, which is almost up.

“I think I’m in a good state in my mind, in my body to do something else.”

In kitchen most nights

The decision to retire was mutual, and it dovetails with the property’s continual culinary evolution, said Josef Wagner, vice president of food and beverage for Bellagio.

“There is not a single celebrity chef that works harder or is more present than chef Julian Serrano. He is here six or seven days a week, and that’s unheard of. Over time, it’s OK to step back and enjoy life. When it comes to dining, Bellagio is always on the forefront, and it’s time to be on the forefront again when we look at our food and beverage landscape.”

What will replace Picasso? Nothing has been settled, but a sense of history will play a part, Wagner said.

“We’re incredibly proud of chef Julian’s contributions. It’s important to recognize his legacy and what this restaurant built for Bellagio and this city; it propelled Bellagio forward. How will that live on? It’s up to us to figure out.”

Boss and friend

The other afternoon, it wasn’t just his own future on Serrano’s mind. He was also thinking about Picasso’s 75 or so employees.

“The crew was my favorite thing. Not only was I the boss, I was the friend. That’s why I took a long time to retirement: Because I really enjoyed to be here.”

Serrano and Wagner estimated that 70 percent of the staff had worked at Picasso for at least 20 years, and they suggested many of those folks would retire, with the chef, when the restaurant closed. The Picasso staff is unionized, so collective bargaining agreements will also play a role.

“Out of respect for the employees, it was important to give 90 days’ notice,” Wagner said. Employees were informed Wednesday of the closing.

Masterpieces on wall

Picasso probably wouldn’t open today, Serrano and Wagner agreed.

Its swagged windows, thick carpeting, white tablecloths, polished service and exquisite, labor-intensive French food (with Spanish moments) served over multiple hours and courses — its overall mood of voluptuous opulence — has passed from fashion for new restaurants, to be replaced in popularity by omakase (a worthy successor) or clubstaurants or brunch (less so).

And certainly no restaurant would open today with what everyone at Picasso calls the paintings.

Those would be the 11 works by the artist — nine paintings and two ceramic pieces — that were displayed for years in the restaurant, having been collected by Steve Wynn, former owner of Bellagio. The paintings were a draw for the restaurant, and after they were auctioned off in 2021 for almost $110 million, the effect on the Picasso was initially unclear.

“Everyone was worried how we would do after the paintings,” Serrano said. “People commented, ‘Where are the paintings?’ After we sold the paintings, we had our best year. The paintings were only one part. People were not coming for the paintings; they were coming for the experience on the table.”

Don’t jump!

In “Ocean’s Eleven,” Julia Roberts and George Clooney dine at Picasso. After the film’s release in December 2001, requests soared for the “Ocean’s Eleven” table, No. 34. But Picasso appearing in a Hollywood blockbuster might not even be the most memorable event from the chef’s 26 years at the restaurant.

There was the time a man dining in a party of 10 on the terrace indicated his intent to jump into the Bellagio lagoon. His companions tried to dissuade him without success. He jumped. He regretted it.

“The lake is not deep; it’s very shallow, Serrano said. “He was not happy.”

Another time, a woman swore that her $300,000 ring had gone missing at her table. An extended search ensued, even in the bathrooms. Security interviewed every employee on duty. “We almost took the carpet out,” Serrano said. “Then she remembered she forgot it at the blackjack table before dinner.”

Tribute dinner

Serrano came to Bellagio after Wynn recruited him to open the restaurant that turned out to be Picasso. (It was originally intended to be Spanish.)

“The only thing he wanted was for the chef to be here, to cook here,” Serrano said, something that has always set Picasso apart from Strip restaurants where the famous chef only drops by a couple of times a year for contractual visits.

“When I first came, I didn’t know how long I was going to be here,” the chef continued. Early on, a hotel in Santa Barbara, California, tried to lure the chef away to open a restaurant, but he ended up declining. “After that, I never leave. It has been one of the best professional decisions I ever made.”

Along with his retirement from Picasso, the chef will be leaving Lago, its sister restaurant at Bellagio; Lago will remain open. The chef is continuing his involvement with Julian Serrano Tapas in Aria.

Before Serrano retires, Picasso will host a one-night tribute dinner open to the public; details are still being firmed up. Once word of the retirement and closing emerges, Wagner said he expected to be booked solid through the last night of service.

Folks will want to experience, one final time, the chef and the restaurant for whom the word legendary is not a cliché; they’re masterpieces.

Contact Johnathan L. Wright at jwright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @JLWTaste on Instagram.

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