What It Was Like To Eat At The First Bobby Flay Restaurant, Mesa Grill

Mesa Grill, the brainchild of celebrity chef Bobby Flay and his mentor Jerry Kretchmer, opened its doors in 1991. Located in the heart of Manhattan off of Union Square, Mesa Grill quickly became a hotspot for food enthusiasts seeking bold flavors and innovative dishes. Part of a culinary explosion in New York City, Mesa Grill was well known for its vibrancy and raucous crowds. Unfortunately, due to rising rent and issues with the landlord, Flay had to make the difficult decision to close Mesa Grill's doors in 2013.

Bobby Flay's distinctive style of American cuisine, influenced by the flavors of the Southwest and his passion for grilling, was showcased in every dish served at Mesa Grill. From New Mexican spice rubbed pork tenderloin to chipotle glazed rib-eye, each plate was full of vibrant flavors that made the restaurant popular among critics and diners alike.

For over two decades, Mesa Grill was not just a restaurant; it was a culinary destination where patrons could experience the essence of Bobby Flay's culinary genius. Despite its closure, Mesa Grill left an indelible mark on the New York dining scene, paving the way for a new era of innovative cuisine. 

Mesa Grill introduced the world to Bobby Flay's classic Southwestern style of cooking

Mesa Grill revolutionized the culinary world by introducing Bobby Flay's classic Southwestern style of cooking (something that was still relatively new to New York diners) to the masses. After its establishment in 1991, Mesa Grill quickly became a mecca for food enthusiasts eager to experience Flay's innovative fusion of flavors and textures.

Drawing inspiration from his mentor Jonathan Waxman and his experiences working in Waxman's restaurants, Flay developed a deep appreciation for Southwestern ingredients and cooking techniques. Of his experience working for Waxman, Flay told the Wall Street Journal, "That was the first time I had seen Southwestern ingredients, like blue cornmeal and chili peppers. I fell in love with the flavors, the colors, the textures. It became the palette that I reach for always."

At Mesa Grill, Flay showcased his mastery of Southwestern cuisine with dishes like ancho chile-honey glazed salmon, sweet potato tamales, and mango spice crusted tuna steak. Each dish was a harmonious blend of bold flavors and vibrant colors, reflective of Flay's passion for the cuisine. Flay blended his mastery of barbecue, Mexican cuisine, and classic American cooking, making the flavors he put forth at Mesa Grill an innovative approach to Southwestern food — in many ways defining the cuisine.

Mesa Grill started with positive reviews

When Mesa Grill burst onto the scene, it captivated diners with its vibrant ambiance and bold flavors. Just a year after its grand opening, the restaurant garnered recognition from esteemed publications like The New York Times and New York Magazine, setting the stage for its meteoric rise to fame.

The New York Times, in a list of recommendations in 1992, hailed Mesa Grill as a "leading Southwestern kitchen" in the city. The same year, Mesa Grill was named by New York Magazine's food critic Yael Green as the Best New Restaurant in New York City. These accolades emphasize the restaurant's excellence in both its food and its lively social scene. 

While critics had mixed reviews on the interior design and loudness of the patrons, they all agreed that the food was excellent, especially at the restaurant's outset. One New York Times food critic said in an early review of Mesa Grill that Flay's food was "intelligently balanced and colorful." The same critic summarized what made Mesa Grill so special in 1991 when he wrote, "The immediate success of Mesa Grill demonstrates that even in these gloomy times the right formula diligently executed can succeed. To that end, Mesa Grill is a paradigm."

Bobby Flay opened Mesa Grill at just 25

At just 25 years old, Bobby Flay defied the odds and opened Mesa Grill, marking the beginning of his illustrious culinary career. Flay's journey to success was far from conventional; he dropped out of high school and found refuge in the kitchen, where he discovered his passion for cooking.

In an interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Flay reflected on how cooking saved his life, steering him away from a potentially destructive path. "I could've easily gone down a bad road ... I mean, how was I gonna make a living? What were my skills?" he asked, adding that many of his childhood friends fell into a life of crime. "I took a different path," Flay said.

The path to owning Mesa Grill was not a particularly easy one for Bobby Flay. The chef started his journey working in restaurant kitchens as a teenager. After years of not caring about anything, including school, Flay discovered his passion for cooking. In an interview with Forbes, he said "After about six months, I remember sitting in my bed, thinking about going to work and being really excited about it. It was the first time I was excited about anything like that." It turns out that he just wasn't doing the right kind of learning; according to Flay, "[I] needed to do something with my hands. I needed to learn in a practical manner."

Mesa Grill New York

Bobby Flay's ascent in the culinary world gained momentum when he joined forces with restaurateur Jerry Kretchmer to bring Mesa Grill to life in 1991. Kretchmer, who wanted to open a Southwestern restaurant after a trip to the area, went searching for a chef who had mastered the cuisine. Flay told the Wall Street Journal, "he heard about me, and he asked if I wanted to open a restaurant with him and I said yes." Lucky for Flay, Kretchmer did not expect him to contribute financially, although he was invited to be an owner. "I was bringing sweat equity," as Flay put it. 

Since he was born and raised in New York, it makes sense that Flay's first restaurant was in the Big Apple. Flay's decision to venture into the restaurant industry stemmed from a desire to channel his passion for cooking into a meaningful career. Over the years, Mesa Grill earned two stars from esteemed New York Times critic Biff Grimes in 2000, before losing one of its stars in 2009. Flay's dedication to his craft and commitment to excellence propelled Mesa Grill to become a beloved fixture in the New York dining scene.

What was on the original menu?

Mesa Grill's original menu boasted a wide array of dishes that showcased Flay's mastery of flavors. A 1991 New York Times review of Mesa Grill provides a window into what was on the menu, with a long list of recommended dishes listed. On this list were unique items such as blue corn salmon cakes, blue-corn-coated fried chicken salad, and a gingerbread ice cream sandwich. There were also modern takes on Southwestern classics, such as grilled tostada with black beans and mango salsa, a white-bean-and-roasted-tomato soup, and a shrimp-and-garlic tamale.

The tamale in particular was a staple of Mesa Grill, remaining on the menu in some form throughout the run of the restaurant. In a 1991 review, New York Times food critic Bryan Miller said that the shrimp and garlic tamale was his favorite, while a 2015 review of the Las Vegas Mesa Grill in Las Vegas Magazine described the dish as a "can't-miss appetizer." Even at its closing, the shrimp and garlic tamale remained on the menu.

While Mesa Grill was most famous for its savory items, its desserts were also excellent. The buñuelos and raspberry custard, both on the original menu, were described by Bryan Miller as "better than anything I have had within 100 miles of the Rio Grande."

What the inside looked like

The interior of Mesa Grill offered a busy and eclectic ambiance that reflected the dynamic energy of its Southwestern-inspired cuisine. The entrance beckoned guests with its vibrant facade adorned with large block letters spelling out the restaurant's name in primary colors. Inside the Las Vegas location, multicolored glass bottles above the bar cast a playful glow, adding to the lively atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the New York City location boasted a blend of Southwestern charm and grandeur, making for an interior that, at the very least, confused the senses. Grecian columns punctuated the spacious dining area, and the decorations were almost gaudy. White-linen draped tables provided an elegant backdrop for diners to enjoy their meals. Booths featuring a horse pattern brought a touch of cowboy flair to the hustle and bustle of New York — and yet, the hustle and bustle of New York was palpable in this restaurant described by New York Times critic Bryan Miller as a "Big open space with loud, stylish crowd"

The interior decor received mixed reviews from critics. While it certainly wasn't offensive, critics pointed out that the interiors were perplexing. Miller expressed confusion over the eclectic decor, writing, "I have tried unsuccessfully to grasp the message of the decor." Despite the varied opinions on the interior aesthetic, Mesa Grill's vibrant atmosphere and exceptional cuisine made it a popular dining destination for both locals and tourists alike.

Mesa Grill Las Vegas

Mesa Grill was so successful that chef and Food Network star Bobby Flay expanded the restaurant into a franchise, opening several locations in places like Las Vegas and the Bahamas. Mesa Grill Las Vegas was particularly exciting for Flay, who told Sean Evans on the YouTube show Hot Ones, "I love having restaurants in casinos... There's an amazing culture for the hospitality industry. A lot of people move to Las Vegas to be in it."

For Flay, a highlight of his career at Caesars Palace was the opening night of Mesa Grill, an occasion he fondly reminisces about. Describing it as a magical experience akin to "Hollywood in Las Vegas," Flay recalls the electric atmosphere and the bustling energy of the kitchen ("The kitchen was really humming," he said in a video published by Caesar's Palace) as the culinary team worked tirelessly to deliver exceptional dishes. The success of Mesa Grill Las Vegas's opening night underscored Flay's ability to captivate diners with his innovative Southwestern-inspired cuisine and his commitment to delivering impeccable service.

To Bobby Flay, ingredients were the most important part of Mesa Grill

At Mesa Grill, Bobby Flay's vision was shaped by his passion for quality ingredients, particularly those emblematic of the American Southwest. In a video about Mesa Grill Las Vegas posted by Caesars Palace, Flay said that if he were to sit down with his customers, he would "want them to know how important the food and the ingredients are to me — of the American Southwest."

Flay's passion for his cooking comes through when he talks about the ingredients he uses. In the aforementioned video, he says, "I love chile peppers, both fresh and dried, the blue corn, the white corn, the yellow corn." These ingredients, he believes, are "sort of what makes up the energy of the restaurant" and what resonates with his culinary identity. For Flay, Mesa Grill was a testament to his reverence for the ingredients that define his culinary repertoire.

Flay hasn't given up on Mesa Grill

Despite bidding farewell to Mesa Grill, Bobby Flay hasn't relinquished hope for its return. In an interview with Las Vegas Magazine, Flay said of his restaurants, "It was an amazing chapter but I don't think the chapter is closed." Mesa Grill New York closed due to a rent issue in 2013, while Mesa Grill Las Vegas was closed in 2020 to make room for Flay's new project, Amalfi.

Having had Mesa Grill in New York for 22 years and enjoyed 16 prosperous years in Las Vegas, Flay considers Mesa Grill an integral part of his identity. Expressing his fondness for the Southwestern cuisine that Mesa Grill epitomized, Flay hinted at the possibility of reimagining his restaurant, saying, "I look forward to possibly taking a new approach to Mesa in the future in Las Vegas." Despite the challenges of parting ways with a beloved establishment, Flay's unwavering dedication to his craft and his commitment to evolving with the culinary landscape keep the prospect of Mesa Grill's return alive.

You can always revisit Mesa Grill with his cookbook

While Mesa Grill may be long gone, fans and curious minds alike need not fear; "Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill Cookbook" offers a journey into the vibrant world of Southwestern cuisine. The book, published in 2007, provides home cooks with the opportunity to recreate the bold and inventive flavors of Mesa Grill in their own kitchens. From grilled asparagus and goat cheese quesadillas to seared tuna tostado with black bean mango salsa, each recipe is crafted to showcase the rich and diverse flavors of the American Southwest. 

Among the cookbook's treasures is the recipe for pan-roasted pork chops with yellow pepper mole sauce. The complex mole sauce, featuring roasted yellow peppers, mango, tomatillos, and golden raisins, perfectly complements the succulent pork chops, creating a harmony of savory and sweet notes that tantalize the taste buds. While it may not be the real thing, "Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill Cookbook" allows readers to revisit the no longer accessible Mesa Grill in the comfort of their own homes.