Thursday, Dec. 3, 2009 | 2 a.m.
In 2003, when John Simmons opened Firefly restaurant on Paradise Road, he had to dig into his couch for loose change, take money out of the bar till every night and write IOUs to his waiters because he needed their tip money to keep the place open.
To be able to feed his few initial diners, he “would scrape together as much food as we could for the night — three steaks, two chickens — that’s how bad it was. For the first six to eight months, it was a living hell,” Simmons says.
The 42-year-old’s first restaurant, just off the Strip, is practically a Las Vegas institution. Go there almost any night of the week and it is packed with tourists, locals, young, old, hipsters and hippies.
In August, in the midst of the brutal recession, Simmons opened another Firefly and in the most unlikely of places — the Plaza — that’s right, the old stalwart on the far west end of the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas.
Many who watched Simmons make the move considered it a mistake.
Very quickly, however, the new Firefly has become a hot spot.
“I think the down economy has actually helped me a little bit,” Simmons says. “I’ve got a $35 average check for dinner with drinks, and that’s tough to beat for the experience. I don’t do bargains or specials, because I’ve always had good value. And I happen to love the Dome.”
The Dome is the flying saucer-shaped space that juts out of the Plaza’s second floor and overlooks Fremont Street. During a video montage at the beginning of “Casino,” actors Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone are seen sitting in the Dome during its heyday. But in recent years, until Simmons came in, the place stayed empty.
“It was just underutilized and now I’m driving 200 to 500 more people through here a day, and 90 percent of them would have never come here before,” Simmons says.
He lives in downtown Las Vegas, in the Huntridge neighborhood, because it’s the one part of Las Vegas that most reminds him of Homewood, Ill., the south Chicago suburb where he grew up. The son of a trucking-business owner, Simmons graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in economics. But he always loved cooking, which helped put him through college.
At a trim 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, he hardly looks like a cook. He plays slow-pitch softball — his Firefly team has three championships. But he spends more time drinking wine, reading science fiction — and poring over cookbooks.
He had a gig as a chef at Paris Las Vegas’ Mon Ami Gabi from its 1999 opening until he struck out on his own — and nearly struck out like so many other would-be restaurateurs do.
When things were bad, his perseverance didn’t stem from his belief in his idea. Instead, “it was about every uncle and aunt and friend I knew who gave me $5,000 for a few shares,” he says. “I couldn’t let them down.” He vowed to do the best he could, but envisioned being forced to leave town within a few months and “never opening another business again.”
Six years later, and with his second Firefly having beaten even bigger odds, he almost has to pinch himself.
“It’s strange and I’m still kind of catching my breath from the whole experience.”