Monday, Oct. 25, 2010 | 1:55 a.m.
Map of Firefly* Westside
9560 W. Sahara Avenue, Las Vegas
- Perseverance pays off for Firefly owner (12-3-2009)
When John Simmons opened his first Firefly restaurant on Paradise Road seven years ago, tapas were virtually unheard of in Las Vegas.
“Initially, half of the people I talked to thought I was saying ‘topless,’” the Firefly chef and owner said, rolling his eyes. “That was then, and this is now. Now most people know what it is.”
With two restaurants under his belt, Simmons recently opened his third Firefly near Summerlin. The reception, Simmons said, has been great.
“We’ve only been open a week and we’ve been packed,” he said. “The first few days, I didn’t even turn the signs on and we did like 350 dinners. People are finding us and liking us, apparently.”
Restaurants in Las Vegas have had it rough in the wake of the recession, but Simmons’ Firefly restaurants have seemingly escaped much of it. Each Firefly is packed nightly, Simmons said, and the newest restaurant, 9560 W. Sahara Ave., so far is no different.
Red eggshell lights adorn the tall cathedral-style wooden ceiling. On a recent afternoon, the wait staff was hustling around the stone floor, taking orders from a few customers left over from the busy lunch hour. Soft music echoed around the dark brown interior.
It’s a restaurant atmosphere that’s uniquely Las Vegas, Simmons said.
“We have a rabid following,” Simmons said. “I’m just trying to meet the demand. Supplying more Firefly. That’s what people want.”
Although Simmons now knows what his customers want, the 42-year-old Chicago native didn’t always know what he wanted for himself. Fresh out of college at age 20 with an economics degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Simmons’ first job was in the business world, working at his father’s trucking company.
Simmons said he hated his four years there.
“Cubicles, phones, filing cabinets… it’s not me,” Simmons said. “In a way I had my mid-life crisis during my mid-20s.”
Simmons had worked in restaurants throughout college and said he liked it, working weekends “busting my butt off.” At the urging of his friends, Simmons went to culinary school, graduating from Kendall College in 1995.
Four years later, Simmons moved to the valley and started working as a chef at the Mon Ami Gabi restaurant at the Paris Hotel and Casino. The experience of cooking at the world-class French restaurant was unparalleled, but Simmons said he knew there was something missing in the Las Vegas dining scene.
“I think in this town, it’s an anomaly to have this cool, hip, independent affordable restaurant,” he said. “Everything is either out in the suburbs and it’s a chain, or it’s in the hotels and casinos and it costs $100 per person to eat.”
Having grown up eating at Chicago’s many tapas restaurants, Simmons said he wanted to introduce Las Vegas to the Spanish cultural experience of eating small portions of fine cuisine.
“It’s a fun way to eat because you get a table full of people, you order 10 things and you get to try out a whole bunch of different things,” he said. “That just happens to be the way I like to eat.”
Simmons started out with 20 tapas on the menu. Not everything was Spanish. For example, Firefly’s signature sliders – made with Cyrano ham, ground beef, filet mignon and caramelized onions – were inspired by White Castle’s mini-burgers.
“I was like, 'These are like little tapas burgers,'” said Simmons, recalling a “eureka” moment he had while sitting in the White Castle drive-through. “I said, ‘Whoa, that could actually work.’ So I tried to Spanish-ize it, bastardize the most American thing, and put a little twist on it.”
Simmons now has 5,000 different tapas in his cooking repertoire and the new restaurant serves 60 of them on its menu, none costing more than $10. It’s this unique flavor, eating style and affordability that keeps his customers coming, Simmons said.
“Our check average is $30 (per person),” he said. “The economy is tanking but my business is increasing because we’re affordable. People can have a good time for not a lot of money.”
Simmons said he hopes people will keep coming to his restaurants despite whatever happens around them. His second restaurant, at 1 Main Street in downtown Las Vegas, is thriving despite being inside the mostly shuttered Plaza casino.
Last month, the Plaza announced it was temporarily closing its hotel and laying off 400 workers as it renovated the aging property. It is set to reopen next fall.
“I think we do well in spite of the location to a large degree because we have such a good following,” Simmons said. “I’m a little worried going into the slower season because a lot of people think we’re closing (the Plaza Firefly). But we’re doing great there.”
“I like to think I have a cool, chic urban vibe, something you just don’t find off the Strip,” he said, looking around his restaurant. “I kind of knew it was going to be a hit. I was right, it looks like.”