Facing Reality: The Strip Has Lost Its Luster


I recently sent a holiday e-mail to one of the titans of American gastronomy (not the fellow pictured above – more on him later). The dude I was sending season’s greetings to has major food chops. He’s what I call a restaurant intellectual, as well as being a noted cookbook author and food writer of great renown. My holiday greeting was filled with the usual “2014 was a wonderful year as we discovered the joys of making compost”  blather, but in the midst of all the trite, yuletide good cheer I strangely found myself typing these words:

 It’s funny that I choose this year to do it, because unlike the last twenty, this one has been a fairly dull one when it comes to our dining scene. Of course the party had to end sometime, but after the restaurant revolution of 1998-2010, these past few years have witnessed little, if any, interesting work being done by chefs and hoteliers, save for the occasional Japanese joint tucked away in places most gringos fear to tread.

 In fact, the biggest revolution of all has taken place in my head, where I have become increasingly disenchanted with the tourist-trap pricing of our major hotels. It seems after almost two decades of entreating people to embrace the Strip and its celebrity-chef wonders, I find myself choking on the prices, and deploring the inorganic, top-down nature of our food culture. In this sense I’ve also come around to understanding certain journalist’s (and the James Beard Foundation’s) lack of respect for our casino-driven food “culture” – which has warped and stunted any real growth in our neighborhood food scene.

 So basically I’ve become 1984 in reverse – I’ve learned to hate Big Brother (after once being his biggest fan).

The words came so fast and so easily it was sort of a shock. It was like my fingers had brains of their own and decided to type something completely at odds with opinions and thoughts and actions I had held firmly too for over twenty years. Could I really be saying to an esteemed member of the national food press that the condescending naysayers about the Vegas food scene were right all along? Was I actually throwing in the towel, conceding defeat and changing Vegas’s plea to guilty as charged?

Was I — John A. Curtas, Las Vegas’s biggest champion to the outside food world (especially over the last ten years) — admitting that the Vegas restaurant revolution has been a house of cards; a Potemkin Village of flash and cash, containing no substance?

Yes I did and yes it is.

Upon reflection, I realized this 180 degree change of attitude has been creeping up on me for some time. After a brief flirtation with reasonable prices and making a half-hearted attempt to appeal to locals (remember all the specials that ran in the wake of the 2008-2009 crash?), the Strip has come raping back with a vengeance — with prices that would choke a horse and the sort of arrogance that only comes from having a captive, gullible audience. I’m talking about $18 cocktails, $40 glasses of wine, $25 side dishes and $35 pastas. I’m talking about being a la carted and upsold to death. I’m talking about big, fancy places with famous chefs’ names on the door just going through the motions, making their numbers and not giving a shit.

What I’m talking about is a food “culture” that never really was one, and is now but a shell of what it was ten years ago. A restaurant scene born of excess; created by the stroke of a pen and thrown money. Something that never had a foundation to build upon, and now exists as just another way to rip-off tourists.

“All those people that had the vision and made (Vegas) great back in the late 90s and early aughts are gone now.”  These are the words of a former F&B executive who opened a couple of our most iconic hotels and now owns a small  restaurant off the Strip. As he starts ruing the sad state of  our hotel restaurants he also starts getting specific and naming names: “Remember when Tony Angotti was the head of F&B at Mandalay Bay? Or Ana Marie Mormando at Bellagio? Or the lineup of chefs that opened the Wynn? How about Gamal Aziz? He was every bit the visionary that Steve Wynn was. They all were passionate and knowledgeable about the restaurant business.  But they’ve all moved on. Now, everything’s run by accountants who don’t know anything about the business…and they hire third string chefs who are only interested in making their numbers and getting their paychecks.”

That’s an insider’s perspective, of course, but from where this outsider sits he couldn’t be more spot on. The lack of passion is palpable when you dine on the Strip these days. Does Bobby Flay change his menu anymore? Does anyone care? Is there a single good reason to eat in a Tom Colicchio restaurant? Does Todd English give a crap about Olives? Beyond the check he receives every quarter (and its ability to lure major babes into a hot tub – see above)? Our answer is probably no. Hubert Keller’s Fleur is a mess of a menu (dictated, no doubt by those accountants), and dear old, Emeril Lagasse — both the man and his food — has sunk into the abyss of irrelevance.

Do any diners even know or care that the generally excellent Sage is a Shawn McClain restaurant? Answer: no and really no.

None of this would matter to yours truly if the price of a meal at any of these joints was in line with what you’d pay in any other big city in America. But in Vegas, your tariff will get to $100+ a person without breaking a sweat, and at the end of the evening you will most likely have paid around $300/couple for tired food cooked by rote and served by a hotel more concerned with depreciation than deliciousness.

Such was not the case ten years ago. Then, everyone had something to prove. Sure it was a revolution every bit as store-bought and soulless as critics say, but it was exciting and full of wonders brought to you by people at the top of their game. It was also unprecedented in a no-one-had-ever seen-anything-like-it way. But, like our restaurateur/insider says: “Those days are as dead as Woodrow Wilson.”

Of course each of these “celebrity chefs” could actually come to town, start cooking and infuse their operations with some of the energy and ingenuity that made them famous in the first place. But that was never their deal and why bother? The template still works; the tourists are still rolling in and the checks still clear. Most of them now get their money for nothing and their chicks for free (see above, again). And that’s just fine with them. Once the brand is exhausted, they will slink away with their pockets full, and bid adieu to a town that they never really came to in the first place.


8 thoughts on “Facing Reality: The Strip Has Lost Its Luster

  1. Nicely done, but the pricing really isn’t THAT absurd compared to what I experienced in London or in New York, though the quality of service is downright dreadful.

    What I will say is that the “top tier” still shines and it has infused the Valley with some very talented folks in tucked away places – though few and far between.

  2. But here is where the pricing absurdity does come in. New York and London both have high levels of local economic activity, and are major global financial centers, while also generating substantial tourism dollars. Las Vegas is almost solely reliant upon the latter. The reality is that Vegas is much closer to being Anaheim or Orlando in scope. And the economic model was much like those resort cities, a sober and profitable one until the punch-drunk days around the turn of the millennium, when perspective got lost.

    Compare the arc of the restaurants to the floors, walls and roofs that surround them. The Caesar’s bankruptcy negotiations coming up early in 2015 will provide fabulous entertainment. MGM Grand is sitting on a massive debt. Where would Wynn and Adelson be without Macau? Their Nevada numbers are miserable. This was a huge miscalculation across the board. Both the restaurants, and the resort developments, took a guess as to what the markets were going to be able to support, and completely changed the paradigm. They guessed wrong. And no, don’t just blame this on the recession, which is overly used as an excuse. The end result is restaurants with price points that currently don’t reflect either the money spent by tourists, or the capacities of the locals, which is why there is such a glut of empty tables. Put the blame both ways – the resort operators still charging the restaurateurs absurd rents, and the restaurateurs also lacking the experience to know how to handle this. Seriously, how long have Mina, Lagasse, Flay, English, Colicchio, Moonen, and the B&B partners really been at this game? None of them owned a restaurant before 1990.

    Hence, the current fustercluck, Which is why I eagerly await Part II, and John’s likely forecast that there will not be much hint of originality coming to the Strip anytime soon. Sad, for those of us that call Las Vegas home, considering what could have been.

  3. I’ll just take the good spots for what they are worth. Savoy here was every bit as delicious as Paris and similar in price while I prefer Twist to Sketch (neither on par to Rue Balzac, though.) I appreciate what Rose Rabbit Lie is trying to do, and same with Yusho while I also consider Carnevino to be the best steakhouse in the country.

    The dining scene here crushes Anaheim and Orlando, and if the resorts want to dig deep debt to let me enjoy a great meal I’m willing to spend for it – what the tourists save me in state income tax easily covers my local dining expenses – and I can travel if I need Texas BBQ, or New England Lobster Rolls straight off the boat.

  4. The first post was not to compare the Las Vegas culinary landscape to Anaheim or Orlando, of course it is better (duh). The point is that what this market can support much more closely matches those cities than London or New York. Las Vegas was never in that league, it was never going to be, but there are those that literally gambled billions that it might be. That harsh reality started to set in a few years ago (remember the models for Echelon Place? Or how about Scarpetta being the headline restaurant for the Fontainebleau?), but not many were willing to accept it. Now they are being forced to.

    Let’s use the Carnevino reference as an example. Some of the best steaks in the country? Absolutely. Perhaps the best. But one of the best “Steakhouses”? That is an entirely different argument. The Batali/Bastianich team had only owned restaurants for about a decade before it opened. They did not know much about this market, and still seemingly don’t – neither is seen here very often. Outside of the brilliant aging program for the beef, the prices for other items are nonsensical for what this economy can support, and they would have to knock the wine prices down by at least 30% to even get in the game on that front. Service continues to be erratic, at best, through a continual shuffling door. Being a great restaurant is about knowing and understanding your audience, and adapting food, wine and service programs in a way that works for both the entrepreneur and the diner. Carnevino has “great” steaks; after a dozen or so visits though the years I am not sure I would even classify it as a “good” restaurant. There is a capacity for greatness, but it is not even closed to being realized. The difference is more than subtle semantics, and that has been my experience up and down the Strip through the years – many get dazzled just enough by the food quality (and some tourists, by the names on the marquees) to miss the shortcomings that would be unacceptable at these price points somewhere else.

  5. I don’t disagree, at all. The service and “culture” are quite dreadful at most places on the strip. The same could be said of LA’s “sceney” spots, though.

  6. Sadly, having been a Las Vegas resident for over 45 yrs I have seen the evolution, the revolution and the decline in dining on the strip. I concur with everything ELV has stated and would add that it corresponds to the decline in the clientele frequenting these establishments. When was the last time you went out to a supposedly “fine”dining establishment and seen the patrons in shorts, collarless shirts and heaven for bid a jacket and tie? No wonder the chefs owners could care less about what they deliver to your table at prices befitting a Royal wedding!The shlepers who are lulled into these venues and fleeced of their shekels are seen as rubes, which for the most part they are sadly.The last of the real promoters on the Strip, Adleson( now an alter cocker) and Wynn(busy shagging his young new trophy wife )had the vision to offer fine dining, bu have fallen into the same corporate mentality the rest of the Strip hotels run by morons akin to idiot savants mortgage up to their kiesters without a care for quality offerings in their dining establishments except for who can have the most “named” chef on their marques and pump up the bottom line on the touristas and expense account schmucks willing to pay the freight to see and be seen at these “celebrity” joints.

  7. Look at the bright side side of life, thats my motto. As the mediocre joints continue to increase prices to the point of near highway robbery, the prices at l’atelier de joel robuchon and twist seem more affordable. This side effect of the hoi polloi fleecing is making it easier and easier to spend a night out with one of the greatest (absent) chefs in the world, with the appearance of no financial regrets.

    Alternatively, just tell yourself that you want to spend yet another night being amazed by the dedication to the craft in Chinatown. This is my other motto.

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