Celebrity Burgers: A Juicy Tale

Las Vegas will soon welcome another celebrity hamburger restaurant—fitting, since the concept was born here

hubert keller burgers

Las Vegas’ original burger king, chef Hubert Keller, with his $60 Rossini burger. | Photo by Jon Estrada

Have you had a hamburger on the Strip lately?  There’s certainly no shortage of gourmet burger spots offering thick, juicy patties of exotic meats, dozens of gourmet toppings and artisanal rolls. Today’s burger is a far cry from the cardboard-tasting fast-food hockey pucks that defined hamburger restaurants just a decade ago.

Mario Batali will soon be offering his spin on the American staple at the upcoming B&B Burger & Beer in the Venetian. You can already hear certain critics bitching and moaning about another celebrity chef cashing in on the burger craze. What they ignore is the fact that celebrity hamburger joints have become a Las Vegas institution—a national trend that was born in our own backyard.

In 2003, Bill Richardson was overseeing the creation of the new Mandalay Place shopping complex when the developers of his planned hamburger restaurant dropped out. Downstairs, famed French chef Hubert Keller was in the process of bringing his San Francisco flagship restaurant Fleur de Lys to Mandalay Bay. Richardson asked Keller if he would have his team take over the space for a few months. He could do whatever he pleased. The chef decided to stick with burgers, but asked if he could keep the space permanently.

Despite gourmet touches such as a wagyu “Rossini” burger topped with shaved truffles and foie gras, a great craft beer selection, an in-house butcher shop and Keller’s insistence that all burgers be formed by hand, the dining world was skeptical. Daniel Boulud had already made headlines with a super-pricey burger at his New York brasserie. But no fine-dining chef had ever dedicated a restaurant exclusively to burgers. “No chefs would ever put their name on a burger,” Keller recalls. “Because in our industry, if you’re a complete loser, the thing [people say] is always, ‘Go flip burgers!’”

While critics snickered, Burger Bar was a hit. It was constantly packed, and other fine-dining chefs noticed. As Michelin-starred chef Alessandro Stratta told me at the time, everybody wanted a Burger Bar. Famed French chef Laurent Tourondel opened his BLT Burger in The Mirage in 2008. But it would take a few more years for a local celeb to plant his flag on the burger battlefield.

Kerry Simon was a natural for that role. He’d defeated Cat Cora in Iron Chef America’s “Battle Hamburger” episode, and soon began reproducing that winning burger in his local restaurant. He had defied critics before by abandoning fine dining to create gourmet comfort food. So the unveiling of K.G.B. (Kerry’s Gourmet Burgers) at Harrah’s in 2010 just made sense. “It had always been in my head, ever since Iron Chef,” Simon says of the burger venture. “So it just kind of fell into place.” Burger restaurants have continued to explode in Las Vegas over the past few years, including Gordon Ramsay’s BurGR in Planet Hollywood.

So why does Las Vegas need another celebrity chef burger joint?

“We don’t,” Batali says. “But we do need a really good place to get super-top-quality beef in a hamburger in a casual bar setting.” He promises that by using trimmings from the house-aged beef at his Palazzo steakhouse Carnevino, he’ll be able to offer world-class burgers at bargain prices.

So ignore the food snobs, and take pride in our celebrity burger restaurants. They aren’t simply delicious, affordable and approachable. They’re also a born-in-Vegas phenomenon, and a far greater contribution to the dining world than the 99-cent shrimp cocktail or the casino buffet.