Wednesday, June 21, 2017 | 2 a.m.
The Forum Shops is celebrating 25 years of changing the Las Vegas experience this year, having opened in May 1992 when luxury retail was not a significant element on the Strip. What seemed like an ambitious and possibly unnecessary project turned into the highest grossing shopping mall in the United States.
But the dramatic destination with the talking Roman statues and ceiling made to replicate a Mediterranean sky didn’t just bring famous boutiques like Versace and Gucci to Caesars Palace — it brought new restaurants, too. Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck’s Spago opened that first year at the Forum Shops and is often credited with pushing the snowball down the hill of the city’s restaurant renaissance. But another famous eatery also made a major impact at the Forum Shops and continues as a favorite today — the Palm.
“The story goes, I was coming out to Las Vegas from Chicago and then I was supposed to open the Palm in Scottsdale,” says Larry Close, general manager of the Vegas restaurant for the last 19 years. “But they kept turning down possible locations in Scottsdale and I ended up staying in Vegas, and the Palm never opened there. My wife keeps telling the story that it was only supposed to be 18 months in Las Vegas.”
The Palm opened at the casino-side entrance to the Forum Shops in January 1994; It was the first restaurant you would encounter walking from Caesars into the mall. With its dark, masculine, classic steakhouse décor, ritzy bar and huge Nova Scotia lobsters, it quickly became a favorite for a pre-show dinner, and then as a business lunch destination where gaming, hospitality and other executives would take turns impressing each other. Remember, this was before Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and Venetian opened on the Strip, each stacked with fine dining restaurants.
“I got here in 1997 when we had been open awhile, and even then, literally every month we were doing better than the previous month. That continued right up until the recession in 2006,” says Close. “You could do no wrong. We had more customers than restaurant seats, busy all the time. Of course, everybody got wind that Las Vegas was on fire and the celebrity chefs decided to make Vegas their home. Now we’re the culinary capital of the world and competition is fierce.”
On this side of the country, most people know the name of the Palm because of the wildly successful West Hollywood location, a magnet for celebrities in the ’70s and ’80s. But that was actually the fourth location of the restaurant, which was originally opened by Italian immigrants Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi on Second Avenue in New York City in 1926. As the story goes, a newspaper reporter requested a steak from this Italian restaurant in 1931, and one of the owners ran to the butcher shop to get it and cook it to order. That marked the transition from Italian food to steakhouse, but today’s Palm — remarkably still owned by members of the Bozzi and Ganzi families, with nearly 30 locations — offers some classic Italian dishes like veal parmigiana and linguine and clams alongside the steaks and seafood.
The Forum Shops Palm just reopened in September after a massive remodel that brightened the place up and added a huge mural of Las Vegas. The lunch crowd has shifted to more conventioneers, but the Palm still has a lot of regulars who live all over. Close says a survey executed by American Express shows that around 45 percent of the clientele is local.
“I think the reason people keep coming back is the high quality, the consistency of the food. They know what they’re going to get and we deliver,” he says. “We have six original servers, and the next 10 or 15 people on the staff have been with us for 12 to 15 years. My entire kitchen staff came back when we reopened. That’s consistency.”
Summertime is one of the best times to visit the Palm as the annual summer lobster special is back. Through Aug. 15, the Palm is offering a four-pound Nova Scotia lobster split for two, plus two appetizers and one family-style side dish for $99.