It took me almost two years but I finally did it: forced myself to eat in every one of Las Vegas’s venerable establishments. The oldest restaurants in town. Those slices of history that have hung on for decades, bucking trends and stemming tides.
And you know what I found?
They’re all terrible.
Not terrible terrible as in inedibly terrible, but so dated, shopworn and threadbare that there is no appreciable culinary reason to go to any of them.
Some are worse than others. The Pamplemousse (1976) is such a dated mess of faded Francophilia that it should be put out of its misery like a dying horse.
The Golden Steer, less than a mile up the street, hasn’t changed the menu or the carpet since 1958. If you used to come here in the 80s and 90s, you’ll see many of the same waiters, but if you look closely you’ll notice they haven’t changed their polyester tuxedos since then, either. If you recall, I used to be a YUUGE fan of the Steer, but two meals last year (tasting of brown lettuce, poorly cooked meat and despair) left me to conclude that it’s now being operated as a tourist trap.
Bob Taylor’s Ranch House (1955) still grills its steaks over an open flame, but a recent one tasted like it had been waiting in the freezer for me for that long, and the cheapness of the meat (and all the other groceries) is palpable. A certain type of quantity-over-quality foodie might not object — like the kind that hang on Guy Fieri’s every word — but palates of a more sophisticated sort will say “yuck.”
Two back to back meals recently left me stupefied. Not by how bad they were (although there were some noticeable clinkers), but by how relentlessly, stubbornly stagnant both places have remained. Like every establishment on this tour, none of them have changed a thing about their formulas (or the decor) since Ronald Reagan was president.
And then I realized maybe they weren’t so bad; maybe it’s just that they are just so boring, so predictable, so unchanged, and so old that I can’t stomach their tried and trite recipes anymore.
“They haven’t gotten worse, I’ve just grown up since I first sampled all their wares over thirty years ago,” is what I thought to myself after bite after over-breaded bite of Joe’s “famed” steamed artichoke. An artichoke, by the way, that, for forty years, they’ve refused to properly clean (by removing the “choke”) before over-breading it, baking it, and serving it packed with a fuckload of baked breadcrumbs.
And did I mention that it comes stuffed with a lot of bread? (The above pic — taken off the restaurant’s website — doesn’t do the carbo load justice.)
Okay, okay, it’s not really that bad, and once I quit removing the furry little insides (and cursing the kitchen whilst doing it), I pretty much polished off the whole thing.
But sadly, that thistle was the highlight of the meal. But it didn’t have to be. If someone at Chicago Joe’s tried a little harder, and gave a single shit about making this place just a little better, it would be a lot better. As it is, they’re content with smothering the same old overcooked pasta with the same old (decent) tomato sauce day after day, night after night, and milking the old cow til she dries up. (And from the looks of things at a recent lunch, it appears the customer base is drying up as well.)
Which is a pity because Chicago Joe’s is loaded with charm that is impossible to duplicate. It’s three small rooms may be a bit cramped but they are ultra-cozy, and everyone looks great in this space at night. As far as I know, no one has ever gotten whacked at Chicago Joe’s, but if you ever wanted to set up a sepia-toned, 1950s mob hit, this would be the place.
Like the three restaurants mentioned at the top of the page, this place could trade on its nostalgia and pack ’em in if it would bother to upgrade its food. But that would take some imagination, and a commitment to quality. Don’t hold your breath.
And then there’s the Omelet House. A place I used to eat at once a week…back in 1983. Nothing has changed about this place since then. Not the knick knacks and chotskies on the shelves, not the booths nor the barely functioning tables and chairs. No, the Omelet House hasn’t changed a thing since it opened, and that suits its aging clientele just fine. It’s more homespun than Denny’s or The Peppermill, and less intimidating than PublicUs or EAT, so a certain middle class customer (think: schoolteachers and car salesmen) feels right at home.
The problem I had with it was a certain musty dustiness that you notice on those shelves as you enter. That stuffiness permeates the room, making the whole joint feel like it could use a big steam cleaning. Look past that if you can (and not too closely in the corners) and order one of the omelets from a loooong list, if you’re still in the mood.
After a lengthy absence, we thought it safe to stick with an old reliable — the “Rio Grande Surfer” — and were as disappointed with it as we were with the hoary decor.
If taste memory serves — and our taste memory is very long — what used to come out was a fluffy three egg mash, oozing from greasy, Mexican chorizo and sharp cheddar cheese. What you get now tastes like bland ground meat and mild, yellow fromage. Give me my grease, dammit! What’s the use of ordering a chorizo omelet if it isn’t swimming in a confluence of gooey cheese and unctuous, fire engine-red lard?
So, the omelet was serviceable and the pancakes were perfunctory. (One of our loyal readers said they compared favorably with Du-par’s and he would be wrong.)
Omelet House has its fans, and nothing I say will detract them from the place. Maybe they come for the home fries (delicious), or the service (fast and fantastic), and maybe I’ll come back again if they start getting their greasiness back.
So, have they changed or have I? Those Omelet House eggs used to wow me back it the 80s; now they feel like they’re just coming from a cookie cutter. Is Chicago Joe’s so bad, or have my buds been conditioned by Rao’s, Allegro, Ferraro’s and others to expect much more?
It’s probably a bit of both, of course, but I can tell you one thing: It will be a dark day indeed before I ever deign to digest the disgusting drivel of the Steer, Bob Taylor’s or the dreaded “Grapefruit.” The Omelet House has perhaps disappointed me one too many times, but I don’t think I’ve seen the last of Chicago Joe’s. Especially if they’ll remove some of the bread (and properly clean) that friggin’ artichoke.