With the purchase agreement for his new Las Vegas bar and restaurant in hand, Nectaly Mendoza uncomfortably watched President Obama discuss the economy’s woes on television. Undeterred by the Great Recession, Mendoza opened Herbs & Rye in December 2009 on West Sahara Avenue, a gritty, car dealership–heavy neighborhood minutes from the Strip. It might not have seemed the best decision at the time, but, Mendoza thought, if it’s good, they’ll come.
After polishing glasses at Todd English’s Olives at the Bellagio, Mendoza catapulted his Vegas hospitality career by spending nearly a decade, first as a barback and later a beverage specialist, working at upscale, high-energy bars and restaurants created by the Light Group, which was acquired by the Hakkasan Group in 2014. Mendoza certainly knew how to run a bar, and the one he wanted to introduce to the city would be devoted to classic cocktails.
Well-wrought Old Fashioneds and Negronis are now commonplace in Vegas, but back then, around 2009, except for the efforts of pioneering bartenders like Tony Abou-Ganim, Patricia Richards, and Francesco Lafranconi, they were noticeably absent. “Las Vegas was a nightclub mecca, and we were proud of it,” Mendoza says of his vision. Right off the bat he saw Herbs & Rye as a top-notch, throwback cocktail bar offering retro food to match, “a legit place for the service industry to go have a drink and order a steak late at night.”
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For the first few years, Mendoza worried that his instincts had been off; business was so bad he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stay afloat. Vegas visitors claimed they wanted cocktails, he explains, but during an era when spending each dollar was carefully considered, it was the clubs they continued to frequent, the familiar vodka and sodas they still asked for. From the beginning—albeit slowly, through word of mouth—it was members of the service industry, just as Mendoza desired, who were attracted to Herbs & Rye. “Early on they gave us, and continue to do so, an immense amount of respect,” he says. “We didn’t have the families and guys in suits until four or five years later.”
Anthony Jamison, the co-owner of the Sand Dollar Lounge, a live-music den, was a regular of Herbs & Rye from year one. “Great food and cocktails after 12 am is a must in a city with so many industry people,” he says. “Staff treat you like family, and it’s turned into Cheers for many of us. Any time you walk in you’re going to know at least five people sitting at the bar.”
Along with wee-hours dates and tourists on the last stop of their bar crawl, the joint is packed with postshift hospitality employees knocking back Manhattans and tucking into beef tartare and sweet potato tots. And although Mendoza was determined to bring something new to a forlorn stretch of Las Vegas, he never assumed Herbs & Rye would grow to have the impact it has, or that it would lead to another ambitious project—the forthcoming Cleaver, a 7,000-square-foot steakhouse adjacent to the convention center. Evenings at Herbs & Rye hover around 400 to 500 covers, with bar staff churning out some 1,000 cocktails. This talent for melding speed and quality earned the venue an award for Best American High Volume Cocktail Bar at the 2016 Tales of the Cocktail. “Vegas is the definition of high volume,” Mendoza says. “Bartenders here deal with a different cut of people; some of them have already showed up with the mentality [that] they want to cut loose and get ripped. We see a little more than others.”
5 Tips for Creating an Industry Cocktail Hangout
1. Showcase Tried-and-True Drinks
Patrons clamoring for inventive, theatrical cocktails should not pull up a stool at Herbs & Rye. Mendoza serves only classics, a steady stream of treasured drinks like the martini and daiquiri—the Clover Club and Blood & Sand are especially popular—that shun newfangled twists. “We go back to the foundations,” Mendoza says. This reverence for simplicity is a refreshing reprieve after a grueling night at work.
2. Roll Out Two Food-Fueled Happy Hours
Unless it’s their day off, line cooks and waiters are unlikely to be able to swing a visit to Herbs & Rye for the generous 5 pm to 8 pm happy hour, but the second “hour,” from midnight to 3 am, coincides perfectly with the schedule of, say, a famished sommelier just released from the cellar. Discounted well drinks are a boon, but better yet are the half-price steaks and chops on offer. All the meat is butchered in-house, which means “we give that value back to the guest,” says Mendoza. A proper New York strip with au poivre sauce is certainly more tantalizing than yet another midnight run to In-N-Out Burger.
3. Create a Welcoming Backdrop
Herbs & Rye might have the trappings of a speakeasy—brick, booths, elegant pops of red—but Mendoza built the bar on a shoestring budget, lovingly giving the space, which for almost half a century was home to the beloved Italian restaurant the Venetian, a personal touch. “My girl hung the wallpaper, and the chandeliers were from Lowe’s,” he says. Eventually, more luxe materials were swapped in, but the air of modesty still clings to the place, encouraging guests to “come as they are.”
4. Invest in Your Staff
Instead of focusing on a buzzy opening bar team, Mendoza aimed to create an institution from the get-go. He knew staff would come and go, but he never wanted the level of hospitality to waver. His team, he says, is populated with “second-chancers and have-nots, too, because they may not fit the protocol of the industry, but are great people.” Mendoza doesn’t just want to build a bar program, he wants to nurture “amazing human beings—loyal, trustworthy people” as he does so.
5. Connect with the Community
Herbs & Rye recently hosted the fourth annual edition of Barmania, a competition dreamed up by Mendoza in which bartenders, dressed in kitschy WWE wrestling attire and accompanied by their own theme song, go head-to-head in a series of rapid-fire rounds to raise money for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a nonprofit that funds research on cures for kids with cancer. This year Barmania raked in close to $25,000.
Alia Akkam is a writer who covers food, drink, travel, and design. Her work has appeared in Vogue.com, Playboy, and Taste, among others, and she is a former editor at Edible Queens, Hospitality Design, and Beverage Media. With the Tippling Bros. she wrote the book A Lime and a Shaker: Discovering Mexican-Inspired Cocktails. A native New Yorker, Alia now calls Budapest home. Follow Alia @behdria.