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Jennifer Robison

Diamond Days Here: Alex Gets AAA's Top Ranking in First Year

15 November 2005

When travel club AAA named its Five-Diamond restaurants and hotels, a new gem joined the local crown jewels already on the list.

Late last week, Wynn Las Vegas' Alex, a French restaurant with prix-fixe menus starting at $120 per person, gained membership in the elite AAA Five-Diamond club after less than seven months in operation.

Patti Shock, chairwoman of the tourism and convention department in the Harrah College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said it's "very unusual" for a restaurant to nab five diamonds in its first year. She attributed Alex's high rank to the experience of its lead chef and namesake, Alessandro Stratta. Stratta was executive chef at The Mirage's Renoir, which had earned five diamonds from AAA and five stars from Mobil Travel Guide before it closed last year so that Stratta could open Alex.

"(Stratta) already had systems in place, he knew what it took to win five diamonds and he achieved it," Shock said of Alex's first-year honor.

Nevada has a total of three restaurants and three hotels on the Five-Diamond list. All of the properties are on the Strip.

The state's other two Five-Diamond restaurants are both at Bellagio. Picasso landed on the rarefied roster for the fifth time, and Le Cirque is now a three-time recipient of the ranking. AAA recognized a total of 48 Five-Diamond restaurants in 20 states nationwide; just four states -- California, Florida, New York and Illinois -- had more winners than Nevada.

It's a stark change from 15 years ago, when Las Vegas was better known for $2 steak dinners and bargain buffets.

"(The awards) further establish Las Vegas as a long-term challenger to other big cities in the restaurant sector," said Alex's Stratta. "It's taken a lot of people for us to be able to say, 'It's really happening here -- it's not just big hotels and restaurants.' People can come here for one of the best experiences in the country, if not the world."

Shock said the local trend toward gourmet eateries began in 1992, when Wolfgang Puck opened Spago inside the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. When Bellagio opened in 1998, Shock said, it advanced the high-end dining sector with celebrity chefs including Stratta and Julian Serrano of Picasso. In addition, the Maccioni family of New York opened outposts of their famed Le Cirque and Osteria del Circo restaurants at Bellagio.

"Once that (gourmet) ball got rolling, it just kept building steam, getting bigger and bigger," Shock said. "Everyone wanted to be a part of it. Now, just about every major celebrity chef in the world has a restaurant here."

That bumper crop of well-known chefs makes standing out difficult. But Stratta said he's found the key to distinguishing his restaurants.

"As a chef, I would like to think it's about the cooking, but I think the real secret is customer service," Stratta said. "Exceeding expectations on a nightly basis is really what we strive for, and with the competition in Las Vegas, those expectations are pretty high. For us to exceed them is a great testament to my team. We're all on the same page, and that's very fulfilling."

Nevada also had three Five-Diamond hotels, all of them repeat winners. Bellagio made its fifth appearance on the Five-Diamond list, while the Four Seasons at Mandalay Bay appeared in the lineup for the seventh time. The Ritz-Carlton at Lake Las Vegas earned the rating for the third time. A total of 77 hotels in 23 states earned the Five-Diamond Award.

Shock said hotels work hard to earn five diamonds. Among other measures, they develop internal programs focused on achieving high ratings, and they hire consultants to serve as mystery shoppers.

Why the effort? Because big diamond counts can translate into real dollars, Shock said.

"A lot of people want that level of service, so they're going to look for hotels with a high rating," Shock said. "Usually, (high ratings) bring in well-heeled people who have more money to spend."

For Stratta, Alex's five diamonds are already bringing in business. After word of the eatery's grade appeared in USA Today on Friday, the restaurant booked at least 20 tables for consumers who wanted to sample the restaurant as a result of the coverage.

One local travel agent said the boost Alex has received from the AAA award will spread to other highly ranked local operations, and even across the market as a whole.

Kathy Falkensammer, president of Prestige Travel and Cruises, said travel agents use rankings to help them decide what destinations they'll refer to clients. In addition, affluent travelers use rating recommendations to choose restaurants and hotels they'll visit.

"Any time a destination or product can get publicity like this, it brings excitement," Falkensammer said. "In Las Vegas, we have all the name-brand restaurateurs and restaurants coming to town, and it's changing the whole image of Las Vegas as a great resort destination."

Shock agreed.

"People look at these ratings quite diligently before they travel. The more (Mobil) stars and diamonds we have at the destination, the better the whole destination looks," Shock said. "Las Vegas fought for years to create a quality image and get people to look beyond the glitz. It's very good for Las Vegas tourism overall, not just the hotels that got five diamonds."