On October 30, Le Thai celebrated its fifth anniversary with a casual backyard barbecue for friends, longtime customers and locals. Owner Dan Coughlin encouraged them to bring their own cuts of meat to throw on the grill if they liked, although he certainly had some of his own, as well as plenty of celebratory beverages. But, he warned revelers seeking the restaurant’s signature dishes, “I don’t want to cook; I just want to grill.”
While a major accomplishment, five years almost seems too short a time for the Downtown revolution that’s transpired during Le Thai’s tenure. Today, the neighborhood’s go-to Thai restaurant is just one of many excellent dining choices. But in 2011, the East Fremont area was little more than a developing cocktail corridor with very little in the way of decent eats available outside of the nearby casinos.
Over a recent meal in the restaurant, Coughlin and his business partner and fiancée, Shauna Dong, recalled their thoughts when, after he catered a dinner party for Downtown entrepreneurs Michael and Jennifer Cornthwaite, Michael mentioned a piece of vacant real estate that would be perfect for a restaurant.
“Shauna and I had been hanging out Downtown a lot at Beauty Bar, Downtown Cocktail Room and the Griffin,” says Coughlin, who was running Mix Zone Café at the time. “And right away I was like, ‘This whole area has so many bars right now. But we need some food.’”
Securing the space was easy. “When I negotiated this lease, we negotiated against nobody,” he recalls, “because nobody wanted to put a restaurant down here.”
According to Shauna, who was DJing at Beauty Bar at the time, their expectations weren’t high. “We were thinking no more than 100 people a day,” she says. “[Dan] specifically told me, ‘I just want lawyers and hipsters.’” They assumed they’d serve the former at lunch and the latter during late-night hours, all but writing off the dinner period.
The couple cite Zappos’ official announcement of relocating Downtown as the restaurant’s turning point. It brought new attention and new customers to the neighborhood. But it also meant new competitors.
“I’m not gonna lie, I was nervous,” Coughlin says. “I thought, ‘Man, the party’s over,’” but he soon realized that a rising tide really does lift all boats, explaining, “Right now, I believe we’re just part of a restaurant group over here. I don’t think there is a ‘competitor.’ When Shauna and I aren’t at work, we eat out Downtown a lot. We love Carson Kitchen, La Comida, Pizza Rock—all these spots. I want it to be a food [destination].”
In keeping with that, the couple invested in two other Downtown restaurants: Bocho and Le Pho. But neither has been their personal vision, despite the way Bocho was originally marketed. “Downtown Project wanted me to put my name on it and my face on it, and I was fine with that,” Coughlin says.
The pair will be very involved, however, with a new coffee roastery called Vesta on Casino Center Boulevard that will double as a retail coffee shop. It was inspired by their friend Jerad Howard, who’d briefly moved to L.A. and, upon his return, told them, “I like the coffee houses in Vegas, but I’m shocked there’s not more coffee-roasting places.” With Howard as a partner, they’re hoping to roast proprietary beans for local coffee shops, and serve their own product to the public with light food and free Wi-Fi.
The pair are also hoping to open another Thai restaurant sometime soon, but say it’s too early to discuss details. But don’t expect it to be too far from Downtown. Of the neighborhood they helped launch, Coughlin confirms, “We’re in it for the long haul.”