John Curtas is …

An Insider’s Guide to EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants

ImageIllustration: Chris Morris

What happens when three food critics get together and try to pick the city’s 50 best restaurants? We ask the Weekly’s John Curtas, who teamed up with Max Jacobson and Al Mancini on Eating Las Vegas: The 50 Essential Restaurants, out this week on Huntington Press.

Did the three of you approach the project planning to include 50 restaurants, or did you arrive at that number once you evaluated Las Vegas’ food scene?

I think the 50 kind of evolved. My first top-50 list had 75 restaurants on it, but 50’s a good round number. Vegas probably doesn’t have enough of a broad-based culinary scene to do a top 100.

Eating Las Vegas’ top 10
Alex (at Wynn)
Bartolotta Ristorante Di Mare (at Wynn)
Bar Masa (at Aria)
Cut (at the Palazzo)
Guy Savoy (at Caesars Palace)
Joel Robuchon (at MGM Grand)
L’atelier (at MGM Grand)
Picasso (at Bellagio)
RM Seafood (At Mandalay Place)
Twist (at Mandarin Oriental)

I’m guessing you guys agreed on 30 or 40 fairly easily. How tough was ironing out the rest?

Exactly. The first 35, maybe even 40, were fairly easy to come by. Those last 10 or 12 … we had several lunches … knives were drawn … forks and glasses were slammed down on tables … people got up and stormed away over a few. Then we just compromised. And at the end we all shook hands and remain friends. We still love to needle each other, but I think we have a lot of respect for each other, too.

How much did you guys consider variety—be it type of cuisine or neighborhood or price range—versus just picking the best food, period?

That’s where our personal prejudices really came into play. I’m more the persnickety foodie among the three of us, so I just wanted it to be the best 50 restaurants in town. I don’t care if all of them are located in one hotel (laughs). Max is enamored of all of these little Asian hole-in-the-walls and real particular restaurants that specialize in one dish or two. And Al is much more of an everyman. He was looking at the reading audience more, like, we should have something for the hip kids to go to, and mom and pop taking their kids out for dinner. We should have something for everybody.

Both of them were more savvy than me when it came to broadening the base of the book. I would have been just about the food. And I compromised and saw it their way. ’Cause I think on one level they’re right. If you’re gonna write a book that’s gonna sell a lot of copies and have a lot of people wanna read it, you can’t just have the top French restaurants and the top Italian restaurants in the hotels. That would be kinda boring after a while.

Were there times you guys simply couldn’t agree, and it came down to a straight vote?

We had two rules that are kind of contradictory. One was, two can always outvote the third. But the corollary to that was, each of us had absolute veto power. And somehow it worked. Sometimes, two of us said, “We want this one in,” and the odd man out would go, “Okay.” And sometimes, when the veto was strong enough, we would say, “He really doesn’t like that one. We can’t in good conscience put it in.”

Did you personally veto anything?

Yeah. We have a veto section in the book, which I think is the most interesting part. One of us will say why a restaurant deserves to be in the top 50, and then the person who vetoed it has to write an explanation of why they hated it. I think of the six I vetoed three.

Example?

Martorano’s [Cafe Martorano] in the Rio was the one I put a vehement veto on. I just think it’s a mediocre Italian restaurant. I’ve eaten there twice and didn’t like either one of them. But somehow Max and Al love it. They buy the hype or whatever. But I just put my foot down. I vetoed that and I vetoed Paymon’s [Mediterranean Cafe].

Any other Vegas institutions left out?

Andre Rochat’s restaurants [Alizé, Andre’s]. No one even had to veto them. All three of us said, you know, he’s gonna be apoplectic about it, but time has passed by his food. The kind of cooking you get in these big hotels now is way better than what he’s putting out. So he doesn’t get even a mention in the book.

Was there a place you adamantly championed—and successfully persuaded the others to include?

Mario Batali’s Carnevino. Max and Al thought there were too many steakhouses in the book already—we had Cut in the top 10 and three or four more in the top 50—but I think Carnevino is one of the best steakhouses in America. Batali’s a great chef, and we already had B&B [Ristorante] in, but I went to bat for Carnevino.

What’s one inclusion that might surprise readers?

Los Antojos. It’s a complete hole-in-the-wall, but all of us went there multiple times and the food is just fantastic. Probably the best fresh-made Mexican food in town.

What’s the rough Strip/off-Strip breakdown?

Two-thirds Strip restaurants, maybe even 70 percent Strip. We wanted to give a lot of love to the neighborhoods, but even somebody like Al, who really likes to go out in the neighborhoods and try all these little places, had to admit that the world-class cooking is taking place on the Strip. It’s hard to deny that.

Obviously, chefs and restaurants in Vegas come and go constantly. Do you guys plan to update the list from time to time?

We hope so. The idea is for this to be a franchise. We’ve already got a whole list of things we want to improve and expand for next year. And the pre-sales have been phenomenal. The idea is for this to go on for years and become the go-to guide for Vegas restaurants.

Eating Las Vegas is also the name of your blog. How’d you get the others to agree to title the book that?

Back in May or June we had a meeting about the title. I always thought Eating Las Vegas should be the name, but for the first time in my life I didn’t say a word. And finally, [publisher] Anthony Curtis—no relation—said to me, “You know the name I like?” And I said, “Eating Las Vegas?” And he went, “Yeah.” And it took about 30 seconds for everybody to say that should be it.

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ELV note: Many thanks to Spencer Patterson and the LVWeekly for the interview. Below are some more inside tidbits that might interest you.

Top 10 (in alphabetical order, because if we had to rank #’s 3-10, we’d still be arguing and the book would’ve never gotten published):

ALEX

BAR MASA

Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare

CUT

Joël Robuchon

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon

Picasso

Restaurant Guy Savoy

RM Upstairs

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire

Number of meals (mostly lunches) it took to hash out the final 50:

4

Best lunch of the bunch:

Border Grill

Number of nasty, insulting, petulant e-mails exchanged:

At least one for every restaurant in the book (i.e. well over 50)

Number of times food was actually thrown across the table in disgust:

Twice

Who did the throwing:

Mancini and ELV

Foodstuffs thrown:

Shrimp and a small, tasty baguette

Number of times someone stormed out of a restaurant:

Once

Who did the storming:

ELV

Biggest debate amongst the authors:

Leaving Raku out of the Top 10 (some of us believe it belongs there, but who would we bump?)

Second biggest debate(s) amongst the authors:

See the veto section

Celebrity chef who didn’t even rate a debate:

Emeril Lagasse

Celebrity chef we all wished was in the book (sigh):

Daniel Boulud

Chefs/owners with more than one restaurant in the Final 50:

Julian Serrano, Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck, Joel Robuchon, Michael Mina, the Maccioni family.

Humblest restaurants in the Final 50:

Settebello, Monta, M&M Soul Food Cafe, Los Antojos, China MaMa

Biggest hope for the next issue:

That we expand the neighborhood and Chinatown sections, and that Jacobson and Mancini put their forks down (and shut their pie holes) long enough to bask in (and absorb) all of ELV’s brilliance.

Best place to buy the book right now (before it hits all the bookstores):

http://www.shoplva.com/products/eating-las-vegas


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17 Responses to An Insider’s Guide to EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants

  • I am currently undergoing skin treatments for too much basking in ELV’s brilliance. Maybe soon, they’ll come out with Sun Block 50,000.

  • Grand Lux Cafe in the Venetian is my favorite. And In N Out!

  • Hello Mr. Curtas:

    I see Mr. Jacobson made a comment. I am hoping to receive the book soon. I would love to know YOUR Top 10 (and Max’s, too), not in alphabetical order but in chronological order; but I know no amount of money will pry that information from your mouth or fingers. I can surmise the top 2 you three would agree upon: Joel Robuchon at the Mansion is obviously #1. I would imagine #2 would probably be Alex; maybe Picasso. My personal preference is Twist.

    Thank you, Messrs. Curtas and Jacobson and Al, too!!! :=)

    Gary Okazaki

  • I’m sorry, but I trust Max’s and Al’s knowledge about food as much as I do Madoff’s with investments. Their credibility ranks right up there with LVRJ Best of LV. I bet during discussions of the top 50 Max argued for PF Chang’s and Al for Hash House A-No-Taste as candidates. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the only reason for buying the book is to read ELV’s opinion of the top 50 and that Al and Max should break out the knee pads for being allowed in the book. If I want to read a review on the McRib or the new menu at Mimis Cafe I’ll turn to Max and Al, but if I want to read a knowledgable/intellectual review of places I eat at, then I go to eatinglv.com. Don’t quit your day jobs.

  • I find the list to be very interesting with more restaurants at the lower end then I would have thought. I was a bit surprised to see that Border Grill made the list, but Mundo did not. I am sure it was a compromise of sorts.

    As far as the Top 10, here is the list in alpha order per Robin Leach:

    Alex at the Wynn, Chef Alexander Stratta

    Bar Masa at Aria, Chef Masa Takayama

    Bartolotta at the Wynn Chef Paul Bartolotta

    CUT at the Palazzo, Chefs Wolfgang Puck and Matt Hurley

    Joel Robuchon at MGM Grand, Chef Joel Robuchon

    L’Atelier at MGM Grand, Chef Joel Robuchon

    Picasso at Bellagio, Chef Julian Serrano

    Restaurant Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace, Chef Guy Savoy

    RM Upstairs at Mandalay Bay, Chef Rick Moonen

    Twist at Mandarin Oriental, Chef Pierre Gagnaire

  • Dear Mr. Wustof. What is the relationship between knowledge and credibility?

  • Regarding Raku… who would you replace?
    I have not heard one person say to me “You HAVE to go to BarMasa.” Not one. Not any of you three, not any MGM Resorts Publicist, not a single chef or somm or foodie. Not even Chef Masa himself.
    Contrarily, I am almost sick of people asking me “But have you been to Raku?”

  • The food at Bar Masa is exquisite. Japanese sushi, sashimi and cooking on a level never before seen in Las Vegas. Placing it in our Top 10 (and on the cover) is about as strong an entreaty as we can make. Unfortunately, the prices are equally exquisite, so imploring the whole world to go there doesn’t make a lot of sense. We have some other observations to make about it, but will save them for another time….

  • Glad to see you included Bar Masa in your top ten. Raku aside it probably is the most unique place to deen in town, and the toro is truly breathtaking.

    While Guy Savoy and Robouchon continue to gild the lilly it is nice to know that for only $15 diners can get a little taste of perfection at bar masa

  • I’m so excited! I guess I’ll have to grab the book soon. And in the mean time, it’s good to get this sneak peek of your “Top 10 List” just in time to plan Dad’s B-day dinner. He’ll be back in town next month, so I’m looking forward to surprising him to something fabulous yet again. :-)

  • Mr. Wustof — It’s fairly ironic you would bring up The McRib as a slam on Max as myself, since it was actually John’s paper that recently plastered and ad for that abonimation over a cover story on Steve Wynn’s conversion to veganism.

  • ELV responds to Wustof: While we appreciate the props, wethinks you do yourself and my co-authors a disservice by dismissing them so. Each of us can be highly critical in our own way (especially in the book)…and while I may the harshest (most consistently) you obviously need to reacquaint yourself with their body of work before you make such sweeping and erroneous statements.
    As Eric says about Vince in “Entourage”, no one gets to talk that that way about them except me.

  • Unlike Westie (who I respect) I find the choices more upscale and not the TRUE LV food and prices. So much for the choices. 2 thumbs down.

  • arm53 has a point. Real LV food and prices would be Olive Garden, Applebees and mediocre Mexican hole in the walls. Glad it’s not real LV because I know where my LV relatives eat and I don’t want to go to any of those places.

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