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Tony Hsieh shaped downtown Las Vegas dining scene

Updated December 4, 2020 - 2:42 pm

Tony Hsieh, who died on Nov. 27, at the age of 46, of complications from smoke inhalation, was a visionary whose impact on Las Vegas will be felt for years to come. Among his many accomplishments, the impact Hsieh had on the downtown Las Vegas dining scene is undeniable. Through the Downtown Project (now known as DTP), Fergusons Downtown and other entities, he helped finance some of the neighborhood’s most successful eateries. Yet even before those investments, he was supporting the local culinary scene.

Chef Dan Coughlin and wife Shauna Dong were among the earliest beneficiaries of that support, at their pioneering Fremont Street restaurant Le Thai.

“We were a new restaurant opening up in a deserted downtown area, wondering if anyone else sees what we see,” Coughlin says of Le Thai’s opening days in the fall of 2011. “And then (Tony Hsieh) comes around and makes a huge impact. Because, literally, he was bringing everybody who came into town to Le Thai.”

The couple formed a lasting friendship with the Zappos chief, who officiated their wedding this year. And Coughlin says that even when Hsieh began investing in restaurants of his own, they never saw him as competition.

“We always talked about how, when a new spot opened, it just meant we’re getting closer and closer to seeing a bigger picture of a downtown where you can work, live and play.”

Some of the restaurants that Hsieh helped to finance became influential neighborhood eateries in their own right. Yet he never saw himself as a restaurateur, according to several of his partners.

“He made it really clear he didn’t want to own a restaurant, he didn’t want to run a restaurant,” recalls Natalie Young, who partnered with Hsieh and several other investors early on to create the breakfast and lunch spot Eat. “He was all about — do you, do what you like.”

Cory Harwell, a partner with Hsieh and the late celebrity chef Kerry Simon in Carson Kitchen, agrees. In fact, he says Hsieh was “as far from a foodie as you can ever imagine,” who took a hands-off approach to their restaurant.

“Tony never once asked what the concept was going to be,” Harwell says of their Carson Kitchen partnership. “He never once asked what the name of the restaurant would be. He never once viewed the menu prior to us opening.”

Rather than focusing on the food, the two restaurateurs say, Hsieh was more concerned with the environments they were creating.

“He was very much into creating a space where people can meet,” Young says. “He wanted to create spaces where people ran into each other, and could be creative, and share whatever inspired them.”

“He understood the energy, the vibe,” Harwell says. “That’s what attracted him to Kerry: the energy and the vibe that was created by Kerry.”

Sonia El-Nawal, a former Downtown Project chef who opened The Perch in Downtown Container Park and The Market on Fremont Street, echoes their sentiments.

“It was always about the energy,” she says. “That was the biggest takeaway from working with DTP — you created an energy for your customer.”

Harwell also credits Hsieh with having the vision to see how a rundown property, such as the John E. Carson Hotel, still had the potential to become a neighborhood gathering place.

‘We met Tony down there, and we literally had to spray feces off of the doors to be able to even get in the place,” Harwell recalls of the first time he and Simon saw the space that now houses their restaurant. “And it took a lot of vision to be able to imagine what a Carson Kitchen could and would be downtown. And I credit, 100 percent, that vision coming from Tony.”

So does Harwell think Hsieh’s vision has been achieved?

“I don’t know that downtown Vegas is what he envisioned it was going to be,” he replies. “But it’s a far sight greater than what it was when he began his project. And I think Las Vegas as a whole, and a whole bunch of us individually, will be forever in his debt for the impact that he made — not only on downtown Las Vegas as a community, but on so many of our lives individually.”

Young says she’s one of them, and she’s glad she took the time to express her gratitude to Hsieh while he was alive.

“That guy knew I loved him, and he knew how he changed my life,” she says. “And that’s all that matters.”

Coughlin believes Hsieh’s love of the neighborhood and faith in its potential will continue to be felt for years to come.

“The guy believed in it. He put his money where his mouth is. He was on the streets with everybody. Not a lot of people would do that. And I think that’s why we’ll be talking five or 10 years from now about the impact that he had. I think it’s only going to get better because of him.”

Contact Al Mancini at amancini@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter and Instagram.

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