On Dean Martin Drive in Las Vegas, Louis Osteen can survey the entire Las Vegas Strip from his 24th-floor apartment. The neon lights, the fake Eiffel Tower, the Luxor pyramid, the crowds of corn-fed Americans looking for some fun, the packs of high-heeled girlies on the prowl for deep pockets, the $7.8 billion CityCenter development that's bustling with hundreds of construction workers. It's a surreal world he surveys, full of big money, high stakes, and a glut of celebrity chefs. Every casino on the block has its own marquee name: Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, Guy Savoy, Alain Ducasse — world-famous artisans revered for their precision, creativity, and reverence for food.
Back home at Pawley's Island, Louis Osteen is a different kind of celebrity chef, but for most of the same reasons. At his two small restaurants, Louis's at Pawley's and The Fish Camp Bar, he and his wife Marlene cater to the intimate South Carolina beach community. On most any night, you'll find the two of them sitting at the bar on the Fish Camp's back porch or working the dining room inside. The rustic white cottage has become a gathering place for the community where families come for fried chicken on Sunday and regulars stop by for their Lowcountry favorites like shrimp and grits, she-crab soup, or Pâté of the South (i.e. the best pimiento cheese you've ever tasted). From here, Louis has won the James Beard Award for Best Southeastern Chef and solidified his place in the pantheon of legendary southern chefs.
He's been a part of the southern food renaissance from the beginning, helping elevate the country cooking of coastal Carolina into haute cuisine. Heck, you could even credit the guy with establishing Lowcountry cooking as a tourist draw in Charleston. Louis was the original in this town. He started back in 1989 at Louis's Charleston Grill at the Omni Hotel (now Charleston Place), cooking the cuisine of his childhood, discovering the traditions of the Lowcountry, and proving to naysayers and Yankees alike that southern cooking isn't about mushy overcooked vegetables and fatback. It's about local ingredients and ancient traditions.
But Vegas is where Louis has been lately, spending his Friday nights at a new Fish Camp where he doesn't yet know everybody's name, but he's working on it. You see, he and his wife Marlene have rolled the dice big time. They've anted up and now, to keep with the gambling metaphors, they're hoping to not go bust. Louis and Marlene cut the ribbon in November on their biggest gamble yet: Louis's Las Vegas and the Fish Camp, two restaurants that cost north of $5 million in a massive, new development just south of the Strip.
"This is Las Vegas baby. I'm all in, I can tell you that much right now," says Louis.
How does a good old boy from South Carolina, a loved and respected 66-year-old chef with all the accolades he needs, decide to take a chance when he should be taking time to relax and enjoy his hard work as he rides out the golden years?
Louis first got the idea of opening a restaurant in Vegas back in 2000, when a friend of a friend alerted him to an opportunity at The Bellagio, Steve Wynn's ostentatious gambling mecca. They were looking for a high-profile chef. Louis and several others were invited to present a luncheon, at which executives and the powers-that-be sampled their wares. It didn't work out, for one reason or another, but Louis was intrigued by the opportunity. He was also surprised to learn that one of the executives at that luncheon was a regular at Pawley's Island, where he vacationed with his family and always ate at Louis's. That businessman gave Louis and Marlene a call back in 2006.
"He said, 'You know you need to bring your Fish Camp out here to Las Vegas,'" recalls Osteen. "'There's a new center going in, and it'd be a great spot for you.' So I said, 'OK, I'll come look at it.'"
So Louis and Marlene went to Vegas, where they had visited a few times before, and found that the opportunity was indeed attractive. Not only would they be able to open two big restaurants, but they'd be able to cater to a local clientele. Perhaps after his Bellagio luncheon, Louis instinctively knew that he wasn't right for one of those high-profile casino restaurants. This was an unpretentious guy who liked to get to know his customers, who relished his regulars, and prided himself on his repeat business. He knew best how to build businesses and clientele through personal service and sincere southern hospitality. A casino restaurant, by its nature, caters to the transient diner — the person blowing through town, looking for a good time and a memorable meal at one of those celebrity chef restaurants where those celebrity chefs rarely make appearances. How comfortable would he be perched at the bar in a casino restaurant where people are eager to finish eating and get back to the fun? Would he be able to build friendships and replicate the same kind of experience he liked to deliver at his Pawley's Island restaurants? Not likely.
With the phone call from the Las Vegas businessman, who wishes to remain anonymous, came a unique opportunity — particularly for Vegas. Get a spot in an unprecedented mixed-use development that will cater to the two million locals who power the Vegas machine, the dealers who work the tables, the cooks who toil in the kitchens, the countless cabbies who all live far away from the Strip in picturesque sounding communities like Green Valley and Summerland. These are Louis's people. The families and regular Joes who want good food, but can't afford to blow a paycheck in the casino restaurants.
"If you look just to the south of the Bellagio," says Louis, "there is the largest private development in the country going up called CityCenter, and that's going to take about 25,000 people to operate, and where are they going to come from? They're going to come from somewhere else, and they're going to be customers too."
Unlike CityCenter, which is smack dab in the middle of the Strip, the development where Louis has opened his restaurants is located a bit farther south, near the airport. It's billed as an "open-air shopping, dining, and entertainment destination," shooting squarely for the locals.
Marlene says that, up 'til now, Vegas lacked a place for locals to go. "If you wanted to take your family to dinner and a movie, your only option was to go through a casino."
The Town Square development is massive in scale and ambition. When all is said and done, there will be 14 restaurants, 150 stores, an 18-screen movie theater, two boutique hotels, and 352,000 square feet of office space.
On a recent February afternoon, the outdoor shopping mall — which is still waiting for a majority of the shops and restaurants to open — had a smattering of families and young people frolicking on the lawn outside Louis's Fish Camp as they listened to a live band playing in the gazebo. It seems the crowds are already starting to trickle in.
Upstairs in the Fish Camp, the more casual of Louis's two dining rooms, it's a quiet Saturday afternoon. Perhaps those families down there on the green don't realize that there's a place up here for them. An entire wall in the 300-seat restaurant is covered in chalkboard paint, buckets of colored chalk sit waiting to be discovered. And the food is as accessible and family friendly as it can get without being dumbed down to the level of an Applebee's.
The menu has all of Louis's favorites: pickled shrimp cocktail, chilled gulf oysters, lump crab cakes, she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, fried flounder, shrimp burgers, and pulled pork sandwiches. You can also get a respectable plate of real southern veggies: beer-braised collards, mac 'n' cheese, creamed spinach, winter succotash, and skillet cornbread. Surely something for everyone, even Las Vegans.
The Fish Camp is the casual side of Louis, featuring a whimsical design that conjures up all kinds of feelings of the Carolina coast. Crab traps are stacked to the ceiling in the back, effectively walling off Zelda's Bar, which specializes in single-batch bourbons.
"At the casinos, it takes 18 cases of liquor to get through the line to the gun," says Louis in disbelief. "Eighteen cases. It just sits there all the time." He marvels at the way they do things here in Vegas, like charging five dollars more for something, even if they could afford to charge a dollar less, which is the opposite of how he does things — perhaps another reason why a casino restaurant wouldn't have worked for him.
The mesh crab traps double as bourbon and bottle lockers for the locals. Mayor Oscar B. Goodman has already got one started with bottles of Bombay Sapphire and Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve.
Paintings by Charleston artist David Boatwright adorn the walls, adding another element of down-home humor. A mural by Charleston's Kevin Harrison depicts a picturesque southern scene with a hammock and a shady oak tree and tells the story of one of Louis's late pals — Dickey Creighton of Pawley's Island.
"Dickey had a dream — recurring," says Louis, "that on his passing, he'd like to leave a secret place for all his friends to get beer. You can see the tree with a draft tap over there." An element of southern eccentricity if ever there was one.
The Osteens hired Charleston architect Reggie Gibson to design a place that was true to the Carolina coast.
"We were very focused on the mission of bringing something real and authentic to Las Vegas," says Marlene, "not merely creating the façade of something that is so often done here, which is why the design elements at both restaurants were imported from the South."
Dock floats hang down from the ceiling and two huge planks of cypress wood serve as community tables in the bar area.
Gibson brought an entire cypress tree from Florida to use in all kinds of ways. Planks cover the walls of the more formal restaurant next door and a big chunk of tree bursts through the glass and protrudes into the exterior walkway. Inside, it flows and forms the reception desk, looking as if it had grown that way.
The quiet grace of this room is a direct contrast to the low-key comfort of the neighboring Fish Camp.
"It's organically southern," says Louis. "It's really sophisticated and really nice, but it's southern through and through."
The carpet squares below mimic the look of seagrass, a massive light fixture above was crafted by some Charleston artists by threading cotton around steel frames of various shapes that, when fitted together, create a circle. The moss green chair covers were woven in Louis's hometown of Anderson, and one wall is painted the color of clay — southern red clay, that is.
Fortunately, the food at Louis's Las Vegas isn't a bluff. It's the same creative, intelligent, and respectful regional southern cuisine that has put Louis Osteen in the pantheon of southern chefs. The dinner menu is elegant and creative with dishes like braised lamb shank, Blue Ridge rainbow trout, chicken-fried duck breast, and a scrumptious interpretation of shrimp and grits, where the grits are formed into a timbale and served with Lowcountry shrimp gravy.
But how weird is it to find Charleston's ubiquitous shrimp and grits, albeit "at its cultured finest," on a menu in Vegas? Does it ring true to find such a distinctive regional food exported to such a different kind of place? For John T. Edge, the executive director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and an old friend of the Osteens who visited them in December, the term authentic is a difficult one to bandy about. "Louis's is a respectful and enjoyable and honorable interpretation of the cooking of Lowcountry South Carolina and the extended South, yeah. Is it authentic? Is it supposed to be?"
For Louis and Marlene, authenticity is an important element of their venture, as their attention to the details attests. For Edge, the authentic debate is ultimately moot.
"It's authentic in that it originates from people who are lifelong students of southern cookery. But can't it just be playful and good?" he asks, referencing his favorite menu flourish — foie gras and dirty rice, which replaces the chicken livers normally found in the rice with the much more rarefied goose liver.
Edge sees Louis as a respectful devotee of southern food, a guy who puts Lowcountry cuisine on a pedestal. "There are a lot of second-rate exports coming out of the South, and Louis's is a first-rate export certainly."
In the authenticity debate, one scholar, Sidney Mintz, contends that for a culture to have a cuisine it has to have an educated foodie who recognizes and respects the canon.
For the Osteens, finding a palate educated to the tastes of the southern coast will be the biggest challenge. "They have no idea what South Carolina is out here," says Marlene.
"That's what's problematic about [Louis's]," says Edge. "In its new setting, does it rely upon an informed class of eater to call bullshit when they see it? That will be a challenge for them, and yet, I thought, in terms of the ways I've seen southern cuisine interpreted beyond its borders, it's one of the best efforts I've seen."
The Osteens' ability to successfully export Lowcountry cuisine has a lot to do with who they tapped to run the kitchen. Chef Carlos Guia made a name for himself at Commander's Palace, New Orleans' famed restaurant, which had a good run in Vegas until its casino, the Aladdin, was blown up to make way for the new CityCenter.
"Carlos is good. I mean he's really good," says food critic Max Jacobson, who was quick to discover the food after the restaurants opened in November. "I mean, Commander's Palace never could have survived without him."
Jacobson's December review of the Fish Camp in the Las Vegas Weekly proclaims Lowcountry cuisine the second best indigenous cuisine in America (New Orleans would be first): "The Lowcountry cooking of South Carolina is far ahead of whatever comes in third. Now, at long last, it has arrived in the City of Sinners."
Jacobson says he sees Louis's venture as a great feather in the cap for Las Vegas, an interesting statement, considering that Louis Osteen is not nearly as well known as some of the big-name chefs who have alighted on the Strip.
"What validates a city as a restaurant destination is not just the tourist destinations," says Jacobson over a shared lunch at the Fish Camp of a Creole-spiced skirt steak and a Lowcountry veggie plate, "but what the locals can get. This is one of the best places off the Strip in the entire Las Vegas valley. How many American cities have this kind of cuisine besides Charleston?"
Indeed not many. As millions of visitors to Charleston, Savannah, Pawley's Island, and other coastal towns of the South soon learn, the region's cuisine is truly unique to its crops, waters, and history. As southern food historian and cookbook author Damon Fowler notes, "Classical southern food was founded on English cooking, enriched and nourished by new native ingredients, and transformed in the hands of African cooks."
For generations, that food was found only in the kitchens of the Lowcountry and not in the restaurants. Shrimp and grits was the lowly breakfast of the fishermen. Now, it's a remarkably popular restaurant dish, even in Las Vegas, where it is one of the bestselling items on Louis's menu. A menu that Jacobson notes is refreshingly unique in Vegas.
"When you write about celebrity chef restaurants," says Jacobson, "even though they're very good, there's a sameness to it all. Whether you're a Thomas Keller or Mario Batali or Emeril Lagasse or Wolfgang Puck, you're getting to some extent the same products from the same purveyors and the same wines from the same distributors, and the same type of service and the same price point. The higher up the food pyramid you go, the diversity starts to lessen."
For Las Vegas foodies, the warm atmosphere, the talents of Chef Carlos Guia, the welcoming presence of Louis and Marlene, the organic design, and the southern soundtrack all add up to one of the most charming experiences to be had in a city overflowing with experiences.
"I think it's helpful that Louis is here all the time," says Jacobson. "To some extent, it's a personality-driven restaurant. A place like this is dependent on repeat business. It's a different ballgame than it is for Mario Batali or Emeril. That's what he needs to do here. Make friends, be part of the furniture. People will come as much to hang out with him as they do for the food."
That seems to be happening already. As Louis and Carlos stand outside the Fish Camp and consult with a worker tasked with installing a massive steel and neon fish skeleton over the front door, a customer walks up and waves at Louis. "Hey Louis, we're back."
"You are back! Glad to see you, man," says Louis in a friendly drawl. "How you doin'?'
"We rocked last night, didn't we?" shoots back Louie McQuirter, a visitor from Houston who was at the Fish Camp the night before on the recommendation of his son, a Vegas resident. Today, he's back to get some take-out. "The food was excellent," he says, "and the entertainment was great." It seems at least a part of that entertainment was hanging with the Osteens, who were out late rocking to the sounds of Mississippi musician Michael Grimm.
"Our goal is to have a good restaurant and feed a lot of people good food. And I think we're doing that," says Louis. "There are not many restaurants in town that are really good restaurants that are sort of mom and pop operations, which make people almost universally feel good."
And as good as Louis's food is, it's that intangible feeling of authentic southern hospitality that will ensure the Osteens' big gamble pays off — and in a big way.