Las Vegas isn’t exactly the kind of city where you’d expect to find a seafood restaurant with a “you catch it, we’ll cook it” policy; there just isn’t that much to catch around here, this being a landlocked desert and all.
But if you like to make your dinner into a sport, look for a restaurant that has a machine called The Lobster Zone.
Picture a plush-toy-filled claw machine, but instead of stuffed animals it’s filled with saltwater and live Maine lobsters. For $2, players get to move the claw (shaped like a lobster’s) to try to grab one. If they catch the lobster, the claw carries it to the back left corner of the machine and drops it in a bucket. From there the crustacean is whisked to the kitchen, given the steam bath of its life and served for dinner, at no additional charge.
Southern Nevada is home to seven of these machines, which are located in bars and restaurants across the Valley. They’re distributed by a company called Smart Vending, which stocks and feeds the lobsters and maintains the machines.
Eric Johnson, general manager of Fremont Street’s Mickie Finnz, says he’s seen nearly 300 people win lobsters in the six months since the restaurant got its machine. He’s also watched players put $200 into the machine and walk away crustacean-less. Johnson himself has pumped a fair amount of money into The Lobster Zone. “I’ve been trying damn near every day for six months,” he says. “I haven’t won one yet.”
When people do win, it’s customary to have their photo taken with the lobster. One man requested to have the lobster pinching his finger, dangling for the photo. (He wasn’t allowed to.) Another woman wanted to take her lobster home with her rather than let the restaurant cook it. (Again, not allowed.) Even though the lobsters are death-bound, Johnson says he does his best to respect them while they’re still alive.
“We tell people please don’t pound on the machine, don’t bang on the glass. We try and keep it as humane as we can,” he says. “But the bottom line is people want to eat you. And they’re going to try.”
Enrique Tinoco is another Lobster Zone fan. The owner of Tinoco’s Bistro, located in the Vegas Club, says the machine draws people in to his restaurant—particularly the convention crowd. He’s also found a fan base among locals. A small group of lobster lovers actually plan their schedules around Mondays and Fridays—the days that his machine is stocked.
“They come those specific days because they know they’re definitely going to get a lobster,” he says.
Of course, not everyone is a devotee. The vending machine is, as you might guess, an issue for animal activists. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has spoken out against The Lobster Zone, and in some states (not Nevada) managed to convince bar and restaurant owners to get rid of the machines in the name of animal cruelty.
“We’ve gotten complaints pouring in from all over the country,” says Ashley Byrne, a senior campaigner for PETA. “Everywhere these machines are there are horrified bar and restaurant and club customers who think making a game out of tormenting live animals is despicable.”
Kevin Lush, who owns Smart Vending, the company that distributes The Lobster Zone in Las Vegas, says that every time PETA puts the spotlight on the machines, he actually sees business increase for his clients.
“God put animals on this Earth for us to eat,” he says. “I mean, that’s in the Bible and I truly believe in the Bible. We’ve made sport out of fishing, we’ve made sport out of hunting and everything else. Not that this is a sport, but it is a game.”