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The Downtown Project launches with Eat, a small, retro-chic breakfast/lunch spot that’s already resonating with locals

<p>Natalie Young. PHOTO: TODD LUSSIER</p>


I have to admit I’ve been a little skeptical of Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project. Yes, it’s exciting to see a huge infusion of enthusiasm and cash into giving Las Vegas a true urban center. But the idea of the shoe mogul remaking downtown in his image makes me a little nervous. So I was curious to check out the first of the group’s projects, a breakfast and lunch restaurant called Eat on Carson Avenue and Seventh Street.

Eat is the brainchild of chef Natalie Young. The Colorado native has spent time in the kitchens of MGM Grand, Hard Rock Hotel, P.J. Clarke’s in The Forum Shops and Paris’ Eiffel Tower Restaurant. Eventually, she grew disenchanted with the food scene on the Strip and began planning a move out of town.

“I’m an artist,” she explains. “And the food that I was interacting with [in the casinos], there was, like, no love.”

“When you go to Seattle or L.A. or Santa Fe or New York,” she continues, “you have these little boutique restaurants where everybody has their own flavor or style, and everything’s different, but it’s just all really good. So I wanted to create that, and I wanted to do it in Santa Fe.”

One day at The Beat coffeehouse, downtown businessman Michael Cornthwaite encouraged her to pursue her dream here in Las Vegas.

“I said ‘I don’t have any fucking money,’” Young recalls, smiling. “And he said ‘What if you don’t need any fucking money?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, dude.’ Like two seconds after we talked, he goes, ‘Tony’s here, I want you to meet Tony.’”

Young met Hsieh the first time that day. As she remembers it, his first words to her were, “What size restaurant do you want?”

The answer was a relatively small one, located on the ground floor of an apartment building. And it was only to be open for breakfast and lunch because, Young says, “I want to be home by 6 p.m., petting my four pit bull rescues.”

Young designed the cozy retro-chic space herself. She tore out the paneling to reveal beautiful brick walls, and removed the out-of-date carpeting. To decorate, she turned to some of her favorite artists.

The menu is fairly small, with the breakfast menu offering the more eclectic choices. It includes a truffled egg sandwich with mushrooms, chives, bacon and potatoes ($11), a Mediterranean-style egg white frittata with spinach, tomatoes, Kalamata olives and feta ($10), shrimp and grits ($11) and a tofu scramble with wild mushrooms, green onions and potatoes ($10), as well as more traditional breakfast options.

But the most unique dish is the one I sampled after my interview with the chef. Huevos Motelenos ($10) is a twist on huevos rancheros: two eggs over easy with red and green chili, black beans, peas, feta and sautéed bananas on a corn tortilla. It’s a perfectly balanced blend of savory, sweet and spicy that I loved, although I can see how it might overwhelm more timid eaters.

The lunch menu is considerably simpler. There are four salads ($7-$9) and seven sandwiches ($9-$13), including a trio of banh mi. I tried a pretty amazing roast beef sandwich with mouth-watering wild mushrooms, pickled red onions and just a touch of bleu cheese. (If you’re a big bleu cheese fan, ask for extra.)

When it comes to ingredients, Young is committed to the community and the environment. Everything is locally sourced from sustainable suppliers, and the chicken is free-range.

While it’s far too early to officially review the place, the community already seems to have embraced it. The morning I interviewed Young, two other local food writers and one nationally renowned restaurateur were in the house enjoying breakfast. When I returned at lunchtime, the place was full, and several people were waiting for tables. (As a single diner, I was lucky to get a seat at the counter without a wait.) When I joked with Young that she might need to expand the space, she adamantly told me that wasn’t an option. She might someday open another restaurant downtown, but as for Eat, she said, “It is what it is.” And what it is, is a nice first step for the Downtown Project.

Eat, 707 Carson Ave., 534-1515. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog,