Posted on | October 30, 2013
Written by | Alia Akkam
Myriad casino bars in Las Vegas certainly don’t want for crowds. But locals and clued-in tourists head off the Strip to Herbs & Rye for flatbreads and Moscow Mules in equal measure. At this kitchen and bar, a nod to the glamorous Sin City of yore, owner and bartender Nectaly Mendoza gushes about the classics—both in the form of cocktails and old-fashioned service.
THE BEVERAGE NETWORK: In September you won La Diablada Pisco’s “Become Shaman” competition with your Diablanca, a sweet, warm cocktail that paired the pisco with quinoa. Did that experience enlighten you about Pisco?
NECTALY MENDOZA: I learned so much about pisco while in Peru, like when we went out to the vineyards and I saw how the vines were cut and the dirt was amazingly chalky. Putting the pisco together in a blending session showed me how just hard it is to get consistent grapes in a bottle.
TBN: You started out as a busboy polishing glassware at the Bellagio, then launched venues for the Light Group. What compelled you to open your own restaurant?
NM: I knew what concept I wanted. Everywhere I went it was either a phenomenal bar with an OK kitchen, or an OK bar with a phenomenal kitchen. I wanted an equal balance between the two.
TBN: What was your recipe for a successful beverage program?
NM: Sticking with classic cocktails. I wanted Herbs & Rye to be a place where you went and didn’t have to judge the bartenders on how they were doing because they were going by the book. Some bartenders know how to make exotic syrups, but they don’t understand the past.
TBN: You opened off-Strip instead of in a casino. What were you thinking?
NM: I had been going to this building, when it was an old Italian restaurant, since I was a kid. If you had straight A’s they would give you a free slice of pizza, so I used my brother and sister’s report cards. It was the last bar in Vegas that had true gangsters, so there’s a lot of history here.
TBN: You opened in the midst of the recession. How do you think you were able to find success in that context?
NM: My dad lost his arm in a construction accident and worked hard. We grew up humble, so it’s about dedication for me. We opened and did horrendously the first year, but I had people in my corner who helped me. I sold my house and car and rode the bus, but none of us ever gave up. We knew our time was coming, we just hoped sooner rather than later.
TBN: What is the scene like now?
NM: The place is packed. Some bars people go into to say, “Let’s see how this is.” Here, most people come in to get schooled, in a non-cocky way. If you want to order a Coors Light, order it. If you bring your mom and dad in and they don’t know what to get and order a Piña Colada, we’ll make it if it makes them happy. We’re lenient on our customers. Our main thing is offering a great experience. The bartenders give you a hug, they ask you if you’re hungry, they ask you if you’re having a good day.
TBN: Clearly hospitality is a priority. How do you instill that in your staff?
NM: Every Thursday there is training, and we discuss how to encourage our guests to come back. It works for us: At 1:00 in the morning there’s a 35-minute wait. You know you’re doing something right when these are all people you know and they don’t mind standing up to eat while you hand them drinks.
TBN: What is the biggest downfall in hospitality today?
NM: When people are looking at bars and beverage programs they are often looking at just the drinks. Bartenders used to have to read the newspapers and follow up on current affairs because they were both the politican and the therapist, too. The bartender needs to have interest in you and be willing to get you a cab home if you need it. You want to have a physical relationship with your guests, not a monetary one.