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Arts District food scene blends independent spirit with sense of community

Updated September 17, 2021 - 3:24 pm

There’s a truism among the redevelopment set that when a neighborhood starts to turn around, coffee houses come first, followed by restaurants.

“I’d definitely have to agree with that assessment,” said Josh Molina, co-owner of Makers &Finders on Main Street, which in 2014 became the first coffee shop, and second hospitality industry business, to establish in the Arts District during what would become a new wave of growth.

In 2012, Molina had recently graduated from UNLV and was laying the groundwork for a business.

“Back then, Fremont East was kind of at its peak,” he said. “I was very interested in Fremont East, doing a lot of research and talking to real estate agents. It was already priced out. We had to deal with the fact that we’re a startup and can’t afford premium real estate rates.”

So he started looking elsewhere, but nearby. When Velveteen Rabbit opened on Main Street in 2013, he noticed how busy it became.

“The Arts District was emerging,” Molina said. “The pioneers of the neighborhood were independent operators. I thought, ‘Maybe this is going to be a neighborhood of independent operators.’ I’d seen it in other cities in the country. ‘This is a redevelopment neighborhood in the making, and we have to be a part of that.’ ”

Today, Molina has four shops in Southern Nevada, and the Arts District’s exponential growth has been built by its many independent businesses.

‘It was a little scary’

Pamela Dylag, who owns Velveteen Rabbit with her sister, Christina, said they chose the Arts District because of what it wasn’t.

“It was just the energy of Fremont at the time” that kept them from locating there, she said. “It’s more connected to the casinos. We didn’t want to be the late-night party bar, doing shots. We wanted to have more of a laid-back cocktail lounge.”

But she will admit to some second thoughts.

“The first couple of years, it was a little scary,” Dylag said. “We were like the only place open at night — on our street, especially, but in our neighborhood. And it was our first business, so it wasn’t like we had all this confidence. We weren’t getting a lot of support in the beginning. Some people thought we were crazy.”

Jennifer Cornthwaite knows the feeling. Her husband, Michael, had been a pioneer in Fremont East, opening the Downtown Cocktail Room in 2007: “He was the crazy bastard who opened a bar there.” She’s been involved in business there and now is community manager for Jonathan Kermani, who owns the Arts Factory, Art Square and other Arts District properties.

Fremont East’s growth came quickly, guided by Zappo’s late founder Tony Hsieh and his pet Downtown Project (now DTP). “I certainly think there’s merit to the fact that Fremont East got such a shot in the arm with the Downtown Project,” she said. “But those rents started to go up; naturally people are going to look close but elsewhere.” Cornthwaite said she thinks the multiplicity of landowners in the Arts District helped fuel its streak of independence.

Ready for a restaurant

James Trees, who opened Esther’s Kitchen on Casino Center Boulevard in 2018, agrees with the theory about business progression in a redevelopment area. He saw the coffee houses start to open, the antique stores, more galleries.

“You had all these great places up and down Main Street,” Trees said. “The only thing that was stopping people from being here is they don’t have anywhere to eat. You had to leave the neighborhood to really get a substantial meal.”

Trees, who had just moved back to his hometown of Las Vegas after a decade in Southern California, felt the Arts District was ready for a restaurant.

“One of the things I saw that I really liked is you had not only the Juhl and the (residential) towers that are around here, then you had the Scotch 80s; that’s another great neighborhood,” Trees said. “The downtown Huntridge neighborhood is just fantastic. OK, so this is where the cool people live in Las Vegas. Why wouldn’t you want to open a neighborhood restaurant for these people? And what’s the restaurant that ends up in every single neighborhood? Cal-Italian, market-driven, with things that are really classic but simple.”

Ergo, Esther’s Kitchen.

“The whole entire point of Esther’s is to be a neighborhood restaurant,” Trees said. He pointed out that even while the Las Vegas Raiders were playing at home Monday night, a game that was broadcast on TV, Esther’s still was full.

“There’s such a great diverse crowd down here, we are busy every day,” he said. “The only way this restaurant is successful is if people from Las Vegas eat at it every day.”

And like the other operators, Trees said he welcomes competition.

“I love to see all of the new restaurants popping up and doing amazing things,” he said. “Across (California Street) is the best brewery in the city at CraftHaus. Garagiste is the best wine bar in the city by a mile.”

‘The local feeling’

Garagiste, also on California Street, is owned by Mario Enriquez, a certified sommelier, and Eric Prato, an advanced sommelier. Enriquez said they didn’t consider Fremont East; “we didn’t want to include anyone else in our business.” They looked in the suburbs, all over the valley. The numbers in the Arts District weren’t quite there.

“It just hadn’t developed a market for wine downtown, and the median income for a luxury operation,” he said. But they saw potential.

“Just being down here and seeing what Esther’s, Velveteen Rabbit were able to do, seeing the buzz in the area and knowing it was about to explode, we made the decision to open in the Arts District,” he said. “So far it’s proven to be the best choice we made.”

He credits the strength of the neighborhood to people who live in and near it.

“I think the biggest strength of the Arts District is the overwhelming feeling of local culture,” he said. “We’re surrounded by a lot of heavily touristy areas. I think the local feeling is its biggest draw. And everyone down here is a local business owner.”

Including Kim Owens, who in December opened Main St. Provisions after a career mostly spent with Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, where she ultimately served as national vice president of operations. Owens said she, too, looked all over the valley.

“I fell in love with the Arts District because the business owners are also operators,” she said. “They’re in their spaces all the time. They didn’t just open and walk away from them. I was looking for a community to be surrounded by, and I felt that was the perfect community to be around.”

‘So proud of it’

Ryan Matson is one of the newest business owners in the district, having opened Bungalow Coffee Co. on East Charleston Boulevard in March. His is one of at least five coffee houses in the Arts District, but he isn’t daunted by that fact.

“I think everyone has their own little market,” he said. “We created a space where people could collaborate and come to gather.” He said he’d just seen a meeting for a construction project in which blueprints were spread all over his conference table.

“I think it all comes together,” Matson said. “The coffee houses bring in the day traffic, the breweries the night traffic, for an ever-evolving rotation of people. I think we’re all important pieces down here.”

“I’m just so happy and thrilled,” Dylag said. “I can’t iterate that enough, with everything that’s happened in our neighborhood. I can’t even keep up with the businesses opening, and they’re my neighbors. There are young business owners, young women. A lot of diversity. I’m just so proud of it.”

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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