The Speech

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Speaking in public is as natural to me as polishing off a Poulet de Bresse en Cocotte avec Champignons Glacée et Truffes with a bottle of Clavoillon Puligny-Montrachet 2018.

Between my legal career, trial work, teaching gigs and second career as a semi-famous food critic, I suppose I’ve addressed crowds (ranging from a handful to hundreds) at least a thousand times in my life.

In that last capacity, I get asked occasionally to give talks to local groups who want to hear about my career as that food dude who has spent most of his adult life obsessing over restaurants.

About a month ago, I gave such a speech to a nice group of local Rotarians. Wonderful people; nice lunch (at the always-lovely Lawry’s).

It was a version of the same talk I’ve given many times over the years, charting the culinary history of Las Vegas, my food-writing origins, and the state of our gastronomic state….all of it spiced with recommendations and tales of my many tangles with celebrity chefs.

I was sober, not hung over, and plenty prepared (not always the case years ago). But still, I rambled and forgot a few things, and it’s been bugging me ever since.

My wife (the long-suffering Food Gal®) was in attendance and gave my speech a “it was fine, you were great” review in the same tone she uses to cheer me up after another mediocre performance in bed.

So….I’ve decided to actually write out the same speech I’ve been giving for 25 years and condense my thoughts into a single 20 minute script.

There may never be a next time. Perhaps my speech-making days are over. (As I told the Rotarians: I’m a dinosaur and I know it. I was Las Vegas’s first real restaurant critic, and I’m probably destined to be its last.)

But if there is another one, if I am asked to give one more, I’ll be prepared, for once.

Image(Thanks, Rotarians, for the bio and the sunburn!)

Intro

The three questions I get asked most often when someone hears I am a restaurant critic are: How did you become one? How many times a week do you eat out? And how do you stay so thin? (turn sideways) The answers are: It’s a long story; ten times a week; and I have the metabolism of a hummingbird.

As for my weight, well, to quote the late, great Los Angeles food critic Elmer Dills (remember him?): I’m not as fat as I could be nor as thin as I should be.

Being a restaurant critic is a lot like being a horse put out to stud: It sounds like a great idea until you have to do it on command, all the time.

Anyway, being a serious critic — one who writes for money about restaurants on a regular basis — you get a lot of dudes (it’s always guys) who’ll look at you and say, “I could do that; sounds like fun No big deal. I like to eat.” It’s the same shit they say when they meet  male porn starts: “Damn dude, that ain’t work. Sign me up!” Well, like a porn star, you look at these fools and say, “No, dude, you can’t. You couldn’t keep up with me for three days.”

Of course, as with sex, the tasting is the fun part; the work is in making it fun for others. But more on that in a minute.

First, let’s talk about how Las Vegas went from “The Town That Taste Forgot” to Gourmet Capital to Celebrity Chef Hell…

So….how DID we go from the Town That Taste Forgot to one of the gastronomic capitals of the world? People like to say it started with Wolfgang Puck at Spago in the Forum Shops in December, 1992, but in reality, it began a few years earlier with a chain steakhouse….and that steakhouse was…

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Ruth’s Chris! Yes, as the story goes, Ruth Ertel — the founder of Ruth’s Chris — loved to gamble in Vegas. Her favorite dealer at Caesars was a fellow named Marcel Taylor. Taylor was an ambitious sort, and sometime in the late 80s he persuaded Ertel (over the objections of her board of directors) to open an outlet in Las Vegas. The thinking then was: Why on earth would anyone ever leave a casino to eat? Every hotel in those times had four different eateries: a coffee shop, a buffet, a steakhouse, and a “gourmet room” serving “continental cuisine.” (From which continent they never really specified.)

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Keeping the customer captured was on every hotels’ mind back then. The thought that people would leave to peruse the dining options at another hotel was ridiculous. The idea they might venture a mile off the Strip to eat was unthinkable.

But in 1989 Ruth’s Chris opened on Paradise Road and within a year it was the best performing venue in the chain. Other prime chain steakhouses took notice, and within a couple of years, Morton’s and Palm (back when both were actually good) had opened outposts here.

The next big moment came in 1994/1995 when Gamal Aziz (a forgotten name but pivotal in birthing Vegas’s gastronomic renaissance), brought Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Trotter, and the Coyote Cafe’s Mark Miller to the MGM. Soon thereafter, a non-celeb chef joint at the MGM –Nob Hill — was the first restaurant in Las Vegas to spend more than $1 mil on its build-out. These days, $10+ mil is more the norm.)

Steve Wynn paid close attention to the the success of Spago, and the MGM. By 1998, when he opened the Bellagio, he was ready to dial things up to “11”. As I’ve said many times: when the Bellagio opened in Las Vegas, the gastronomic ground shook in the High Mojave Desert and the whole world felt the shudder.

People take it for granted now, but the Murderer’s Row in one hotel: Julian Serrano at Picasso, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Prime, Olives, Aqua, and the Maccioni family, with its double-magnum of of Big Apple excellence —  Le Cirque and Circo — was like nothing ever seen, in any hotel, anywhere in America…before or since.

By the turn of the century, every national food and wine magazine, not to mention most major newspapers (remember them?) were sending writers to cover our restaurants.

(If you’ll permit me a slight detour: then and now, the lack of attention paid by Las Vegas’s mainstream media to the culinary explosion going on on the Strip, has been an embarrassment to this town since 1995. And don’t get me started on the lame-ass lip service paid by our LVCVA to our food scene — even though our restaurant scene has been, for over twenty straight years, one of the most famous in the world. Our world class dining became a big deal in spite of our local media, not because of it.)

Thus it was written in The Book of Ruth’s Chris (any biblical scholars out there?) that one steakhouse begat another and the MGM begat the Bellagio and Bellagio begat Mandalay Bay which begat the Venetian, which begat Caesars upgrading its dining options, as well as begatting all sorts of bar raising for new hotels like Aria and the Cosmopolitan.

The early aughts were the halcyon days of the celebrity chef  — Ogden, Palladin, Palmer, Batali, Flay, English, Keller (both of them), Mina, Lagasse, Andrés — when casinos would throw money at anyone famous if they’d agree to slap their name on the door. This regrettably led to to the Giadas, Ramsays, Changs and Fieris showing up (who were not, let’s say, as dedicated to quality as the original pioneers), but as with any fad, you have to take the good with the bad.  On the whole, though, it was a net gain for all concerned, and going to Vegas just to eat (something else that was unthinkable in 1995), became a trend in its own right in the first ten years of this century.

A word or two about celebrity chefs: I’m of two minds about famous chefs: on the one hand, they made this town. On the other, most of their restaurants are a joke, the culinary equivalent of an Elton John picking up a fat paycheck for a show where others sing his songs for him. Without celebrity chefs we’d all still be swooning over the Circus Circus Steakhouse; now that they’ve made their mark (and their cash), most of them should slink back to whatever TV studio keeps them employed. Just the other day, I had a colleague ask me about Bobby Flay’s new Italian restaurant, because, he said, “My wife likes Bobby Flay.” (eye roll) Summoning all the tact I could muster, through clenched teeth I muttered: “Bobby Flay is to Italian food what Chef Boyardee was to noodles.”

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Famous chefs (most of them) are just brands. They don’t cook; they don’t even run businesses. They just sell their names for cash. Cash that you pay. For the privilege of them not cooking.

What started as the raising of the bar in a few huge hotels, got taken to the Stratosphere (the atmospheric one not the pathetic one), when the French Revolution took hold between 2005 and 2010. In short order, we saw three of the world’s greatest chefs — Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy, and Pierre Gagnaire — plant their flags, directly from Paris, and our gastronomic revolution was complete. By 2010 even snooty New Yorkers and imperious Parisians were taking us seriously.

Now, let’s be honest here: did all this fame show up because of our wealth of natural resources? Our verdant food culture? Amber waves of grain and pristine seafood? Nope, they came because there was gold in them thar hills and every one wanted a nugget. 40 million mouths are a lot to feed, and unlike Orlando or Branson, MO, the Vegas tourist is flush with cash and ready to spend it on experiences they can’t get there or in Paducah. (I don’t know what people spend their disposable income on in Branson and Paducah, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t overpriced caviar and champagne.)

These fancy schmancy restaurants weren’t for everyone, but they represented an aspirational level of hospitality you couldn’t find anywhere but Vegas! Baby! And it was available to all! Unlike intimidating New York, snooty Paris, or self-impressed ‘Frisco.

And talk about the pendulum swinging: in about a decade (95-‘o5), we went from 99 cent shrimp cocktails and cheap buffets to being the most expensive high-end restaurant city in the country. Not to harp on the sex thing again (but it is fun isn’t it?), but some Vegas menus (and wine lists) should be served by a proctologist with a side of K-Y Jelly.

The trouble with reaching the top is, like the New England Patriots, you have nowhere to go but down….and that, ladies and gentlemen, is where we find ourselves today. To be sure, the rising tide has raised all boats, but staying afloat, will be harder and harder in the coming years. Big deal meals are not the big deals they used to be, and the quadruple whammy of aging Boomers (who fueled the 90s boom), fading celeb chefs, the Great Recession, and the past two pandemic years have made the future of fine Strip dining very uncertain…and that’s where our local dining scene has stepped up to the plate.

While the Strip may be in a slump, new things are constantly happening in Summerlin, Chinatown, and Downtown. And I’m happy to report there are now even good things to eat in Henderson, of all places (Saga, Rebellion Pizza). Where there used to be only a sprinkling of local spots and miles of franchises, now you have locally-owned, affordable, chef-driven restaurants making big splashes all over the ‘burbs.

Even if peak Vegas has passed, we still boast the best steakhouses in the world of any city that isn’t New York or Tokyo; our Chinatown is a bang-for-the-buck gem; and female chefs (like Jamie Tran, Gina Marinelli, and Nicole Brisson) are dynamos powering our local restaurant resurgence. And at the drop of a hat, I can start waxing poetic about our French bakeries, coffee scene, gastropubs, and pizzas galore.

And you can criticize Millennials, Gen-Xrs and the Instagram/Tik Tok generations all you want, but they’ve been raised to demand better ingredients and better eating and that genie ain’t going back in the bottle.

Becoming a Critic/Doing the Work

Okay, you’ve had your history lesson, but who’s this fellow giving it to you?

To answer the first question I posed at the top of my remarks, I’ve been covering the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. When I started I was it: there were no others writing about food with any regularity or even the pretense of journalistic objectivity. I’ve never been especially prescient in anything (as my ex-wives can tell you), but one thing I did see coming down the pike was the sea change about to envelope our food and beverage industry.

As they say: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. So I started knocking on doors and asking media outlets if they were interesting in having someone cover/critique all these fabulous new eateries that were invading our humble burg…first in a trickle, and then in a tidal wave. No one was interested except Nevada Public Radio. I aced the audition (and already had a face made for radio), so I started my radio commentary years with a tongue-in-cheek admiration for Martha Stewart telling me what size tomatoes to buy.

 My first gig on KNPR radio was a sweet one for 15 years. From there I moved into segments on our local CBS and NBC affiliates, wrote for every publication in town except the Review Journal, and eventually ended up writing 8 editions of Eating Las Vegas – The 52 Essential Restaurants, which published its last edition in 2020.

Basically, I got into food writing because I wanted to be a consumer advocate. At their core, that’s what any critic is. When it comes to food, we want to guide you to where best to spend your hard-earned cash, and at our best, we teach you something while we’re doing it.

You may not like my advice on tuna tartare or tacos, but I share it from a storehouse of experience going back decades now, and from trips to Tokyo to Tuscany. To be a good food critic you need to eat a lot, read a lot, cook a lot and travel a lot. Thankfully, I’ve been able to do all four. (That hummingbird thing really helps). Comparison might be the root of all unhappiness, as Cicero said, but it’s also informs every good critic’s opinions.

Food writers are dinosaurs and we know it. Once people could take and access high quality pictures of potential meals on their phones, our goose was cooked. But we still bring something to the table. When you peruse social media for pretty pics or recommendations, all you get is crowd-sourced opinions based upon personal preferences. All taste is subjective, of course, but having done the work, traveled the globe and eaten everywhere (especially in Vegas), what I offer is the same thing Anton Ego did in the movie “Ratatouille”: perspective. An Instagrammer will only tell you if they liked something; a good critic will tell you why you do.

At this point I’m pretty much the professor emeritus of Vegas food writers, and I content myself being an influencer, occasionally writing blog posts at www.eatinglv.com (like this one!) and spreading the love for all the worthy eateries I can find.

I’ve been very lucky: I’ve had a front row seat for the biggest culinary revolution ever to happen to an American city. In spite of my prickly opinions and prejudices, I have enormous respect for people who work in restaurants. To be a good critic you have to be in love with your subject and I am. I have been in love with restaurants since I was eight years old and my passion has never waned.

I am in love with them and always will be because a good meal, shared with family and friends, is the loveliest expression of our common humanity that I know. As the great food writer Alan Richman once said: “Food is life itself, the rest is parsley.”

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Lunching Las Vegas

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Yours truly is a world-class luncher. Dejeuner makes my day. I revel in my midday repasts like Andrew Cuomo hovering over a female cheek.

Lunch is when my appetite shines — senses are keenest, taste buds sharpest, and my bonhomie in its fullest flower. If breakfast is only good for thinking about lunch, then lunch does its best work by making you forget about dinner. And couldn’t we all do with a little less of the latter?

I didn’t always think this way. Back in the day I indulged in fabulous feasts lasting deep into the night. My first Michelin 3-star meal (at Le Grand Vefour in the early 90s) started before 8 pm and didn’t finish until after midnight. My early excursions to Paris, New York, ‘Frisco, Lyon, Rome and Milan were filled with 8 o’clock dinner reservations at nothing but the toniest supper spots.

But time passes and what once seemed exotic now feels tedious. My upcoming trips to Europe will concentrate on where to get the best midday meal, mostly with locals, not a bunch of tourists with more money than manners, whooping it up after dark.

But I digress.

We are here to discuss midday meal suggestions…but permit me another small digression before getting to those.

Lunch is an urban invention. Back in the day (way back in the day), the midday meal was the biggest – when you ate the most (after a hard morning’s labor), and giving you sustenance for an afternoon of grueling work.

The actual word “lunch” stands for a small something you can hold in one hand, kind of like half a sandwich, or David Chang’s brain.

As people became less agrarian, the middle meal kept moving to later in the day. By the nineteenth century, according to this historian, after the invention of electricity, all the proper English were “dining” after 5:00, so copycat Americans followed suit. Thus, with such hoity-toity pretensions (along with the rise of the industrial working classes) eating at noon moved from being our main fuel to being merely a pit stop in the daily rat race. Pity.

‘Tis sad because lunch – and by “lunch” we mean a proper, sit-down lunch – is the best time of the day to gather yourself, reflect on a morning’s hard work, and gird your loins for whatever action lies ahead. Not to be crude (okay, to be crude), but sex on a full stomach is as much fun as running the high hurdles with hemorrhoids.

Gluttony and fucking are as incompatible as chocolate and cheese. Exhibit A: Have you ever heard of anyone getting laid after a huge Thanksgiving dinner? (I REST MY CASE.)

I mean who even thinks about bumping uglies after taking down six jumbo shrimp, three dinner rolls, a bleu cheese wedge, a giant rib eye, potatoes au gratin, two bottles of wine and three desserts at a late supper? (PROVE ME WRONG!)

Stuffing yourself after dark is sheer lunacy. It also makes you fat. Something the good ole Romans understood two thousand years ago:

“[Romans]….believed it was healthier to eat only one meal a day…They were obsessed with digestion and eating more than one meal was considered a form of gluttony. This thinking impacted on the way people ate for a very long time.”Caroline Yeldham

Maybe that’s why I’m at Cipriani every Friday, chowing down on one simple, spectacular lunch after another:

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End of history lesson.

Las Vegas isn’t a lunch town. Few towns are these days. Bureaucrats eat at their desks, real estate types are driving around all day, lawyers are nailed to their computers, and casino execs do nothing but fret into their phones. With no white collar infrastructure to sustain a proper lunch environment, the pickins are slim when it comes to eating well at noon.

But do not despair mon ami, lunch is not a total loss. There are dining gems buried amongst the fast food zircons. You just need to know where to look.

And not to brag (okay to brag) but I probably eat better lunches than anyone in town.

So here they are, my highly vetted, very personal list of the best place for a midday meal in Las Vegas, with commentary, of course.

Crème de la Crème

Image(Friday vibes)

Note: Many, many places that used to open for lunch on the Strip are now closed. (This includes some former favorites like Spago, Jaleo, Delmonico, Bouchon, et al.) Good luck finding a decent sit-down midday meal in any big hotel…which is one of the reasons for this post.

Brera/Matteo’s – these sister spots have some of the best pizzas and pastas in town. Matteo’s downstairs at the Venetian is the quieter alternative, without music so loud you can’t hear yourself eat. Some of the pies upstairs at Brera will take your breath away, but fuggidabat any conversation until the stupid cruise ship music takes a break.

Brezza – for the time being, Nicole Brisson’s showplace is a 7 day lunch and dinner affair. Her extraordinary pastas need no introduction, and she even does an outstanding burger:

Image(BREZZA’s boffo burger)

(Update: As we predicted two weeks ago, BREZZA has now“postponed lunch” after serving it for less than a month. We knew it was too good to be true)

Cipriani – I eat here every week for a reason.

Capital Grille – the best chain steakhouse. Good steaks, great service, fabulous view. Some of the meat is standard issue, and the menu never changes, but it is huge and cozy at the same time (no mean feat that), and gals love it. Also good for business meals.

Milos – love it or hate it, but the Venetian has more decent midday meal options than any Strip hotel. It also now has our premier Greek seafood restaurant. Not quite the lunch bargain it used to be, but still a deal. Fabulous fish.

Marche Bacchus – still soothing after all these years. Still a wonder of wine and the best al fresco in the ‘burbs.

Wally’s – our newest fine wine/destination dining spot might have the best prices in town for expensive fermented grape juice. The store is a bargain hunter’s dream — if your idea of a bargain is getting a (normally) $400 bottle for two bills. Chef Eric L’Huillier is in charge of the kitchen, and is in imminent danger of turning this place into Las Vegas’s greatest French steakhouse.

Downtown’s Fabulous Food Faves

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Note: I work in downtown Las Vegas, and live two miles from my office, so you could say I eat out here All. The. Time. I eat out so much in DTLV I get bored with most of these — not because they’re not good, but because I’ve memorized the menus.

Carson Kitchen – still humming after seven years. Small menu; superb service.

DE Thai Kitchen – anything off the secret menu (which ain’t so secret) is great. So is the stuff not on the secret menu, like this incendiary green papaya salad:

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EAT. – get there early for one of Nat Young’s soul-satisfying breakfasts, serious sandwiches, and huevos motulenos.

8East – not so convenient unless you’re staying in the Circa hotel, but Dan Coughlin’s food is worth searching out.

Esther’s Kitchenwait for it…wait for it…this place is so crowded no one goes here anymore.

Letty’s – tacos, tacos y mas tacos!

Saginaw’s Deli – I love Paul Saginaw’s food, but there’s only so much deli my waistline can take.

7th & Carson – There is nothing surprising on the menu (except the stellar “Irish Breakfast”), but every time I eat here I walk away impressed by the execution.

Soulbelly BBQ – the No.1 barbecue in town and it isn’t even close. Excellent, out-of-the-ordinary sauces and one of our best burgers, too.

Chinatown

Image(Wai and Connie, still going strong at Big Wong)

Note: Chinatown (both the original on Spring Mountain Road and the new one popping up on South Rainbow) are their own thing. Most joints are open for lunch and dinner and everything in-between. Here are a few favorites, but there are dozens more where you can’t go wrong.

Big Wong – if bang for the buck was the only criteria, this Chinatown mainstay would be the best restaurant in town.

Chanko Shabu & Izakaya – swish swish your way to above average izakaya fare in a dark, clubby setting.

China MaMa – our best Chinese restaurant. That’s all there is to say.

Curry Zen – The Food Gal’s® fave, for good reason. Simple rice, Japanese curry, and a few gyoza are just the thing when you need to munch and run.

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District One – Let’s go get the oxtail soup (above), she says, and we willingly comply, even if we’re there for the Vietnamese carpaccio.

Lamaii – open for lunch, even on weekends. Top flight Thai. Incredible wine list priced to sell.

New Asian BBQ & Noodle – the second best dim sum in town (after Rainbow Kitchen).

Shanghai Taste – the best xiao long bao until someone proves to me otherwise:

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Shang Artisan Noodlenot actually in Chinatown, but that’s how we’re listing it. Extraordinary soups.

Rainbow Kitchen – giving China MaMa a run for its dumplings in the Chinese food supremacy department.

Rincon Buenos Aireswe forgot about RBA until we popped in for lunch a month ago. We had also forgotten about how piquant their chimichurri sauce is, and how the “lomo completo” sandwich (below) is one of the best meat and carbo loads ever:

Image(Complete with meat that’s tough to beat)

Weera Thai Kitchen – speaking of piquant: it’s tough to beat this en fuego menu of Thai street classics. Not for gringos and that’s the way we like it.

Outliers of Excellence

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Note: These are not exactly convenient unless you live near their ‘hood, but if you do, you should be ducking in to one for a midday bite on a regular basis.

Jamon JamonI don’t know what behooves Rafael Salines Catalá to stay open weekdays for lunch but I’m damn glad he does.

Image(Hot diggity Danish!)

Saga Pastry + Sandwich – is finally unshackled by Covid restrictions, and is hitting its stride with Scandinavian open-faced sandwiches and a Danish hot dog to beat the band. Those tiny shrimp alone are worth the trip to Henderson.

The Legends Oyster Bar & Grill – opened in the midst of the pandemic, in a weird-ass location with failure written all over it. Hopes are higher for this incarnation — the seafood is just too damn good. Classy/funky little build-out, too (sea above).

Win Kee Hong Kong Noodle & BBQ – Chinese ‘cue, soups and seats that make you think you’re in a Hong Kong alleyway. Criminally cheap, too.

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So why am I such a lunch lush these days? Some of it has to do with age and digestion — I find big evening meals simply don’t sit that well with my iron stomach, and can impinge on a good night’s sleep, even without wine.

Secondly, when I travel, I’ve found the great dining destinations of Europe to be friendlier, cheaper, and easier to access for the midday meal. Even a three hour repast at some destination dining palace leaves you plenty of time to walk it off and see the sights.

In Vegas, quite frankly, dinner on the Strip bores me. Have you tried parking there recently? MGM properties are the worst and Caesars isn’t far behind. Valet now costs $25+ at most hotels, and even on weeknights, getting in and out of the garages on the south Strip is a pain in the ass. (It was a pain in the ass even in the best of times, but at least it was free.)

Since 1998, I probably haven’t gone 4 weeks without stopping into the Bellagio. Now, I haven’t been in 6 months and still don’t see any reason to return.  What’s the point? To watch drunk day-clubbers stagger around?

The only reason to hit Caesars is Restaurant Guy Savoy. (Who exactly gets a boner over Bobby Flay doing Italian these days? No gastronome I know.) The shitshow that is Mandalay Bay? Are you kidding me? All the good places in these former dining destinations are either closed, on the rocks, or open for dinner, “Thurs-Sun 5 pm-10 pm.” Yeesh.

There’s a reason you find me these days hanging out at the Venetian/Palazzo, Wynn/Encore, and Resorts World and those reasons are: welcoming environment(s), ease of access, and most of all, good food…available at noon.

See you at lunch.

Image(See what you’re missing by eating at your desk?)

Gone With The Wind

Joël Robuchon Restaurant Las Vegas | Centurion Magazine

“Actually, the true gourmet, like the true artist, is one of the unhappiest creatures existent. His trouble comes from so seldom finding what he constantly seeks: perfection.” – Ludwig Bemelmans

I think I’m going to miss the butter most of all.

Because this was no ordinary butter. No, this was a smooth, oblong, silky obelisk the size of a football, stood on end on its own trolley, waiting to be shaved and savored to your heart’s content throughout the meal.

Bordier butter it was, and we shall not see its like again. Not in a Vegas restaurant; not in my lifetime anyway.

Bordier Butter - - Picture of L'Avant Comptoir, Paris - Tripadvisor

The irony of me missing the butter most of all should not be lost on you, since the chefs did precious little to prepare the soft, spreadable, sunshine yellow sculpture for your table. It probably represented the least amount of work, skill, and creativity of anything on the menu at Joël Robuchon. But it also represented a level of sublime decadence and luxury unseen in these parts before Robuchon planted his very very French flag here in 2005.

And now it is gone. No one has announced its permanent exit from Vegas — the suits running the show are too crafty for that. They will keep everyone in suspense, hoping against hope that Las Vegas will return to its former glory and slabs of sunshine yellow, smooth as silk, milk fat will once again magically appear at your table .

But our best guess is the butter, like the Robuchon restaurants, have departed, never to return.

Have I been told this by someone? Yes and no. Some employees of the restaurants were given their walking papers back in September, and asked not to make a big deal about it. Will the MGM announce that JR is gone for good? Not anytime soon, even if the decision has already been made.  Good luck with that, MGM!

Is there a scenario whereby, a year or two from now, a set of circumstances will come together to re-open one of the best restaurants in the world because Vegas has rebounded so much that gastro-tourists and high-rollers are (once again) clamoring to eat at the mega-expensive, namesake restaurant of a chef who died two years ago? Yeah….but don’t bet on it.

L'Atelier De Joel Robuchon - Best Restaurants in Las Vegas

If a Robuchon restaurant is resuscitated, it will most likely be L’Atelier (above) — a more modest link in the JR chain, and certainly an easier one to re-attach. So many more of our temples of gastronomy will soon suffer the same fate. But more on them in a moment.

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I was once married to a gal who had once (in the 1970s) been married to a Vegas casino executive. She told me tales laced with incredulity about how hotels would decide their restaurant lineups back in those leisurely leisure suit days. Everything was fungible; nothing but the coffee shop was sacred. In the blink of an eye and snap of the fingers, an under-performing Italian might be plowed under for a tiki lounge; or some bigwig’s wife would get a craving for kung pao chicken and pow! — in a matter of weeks, in would come a Chinese eatery.

Casino money back then was spent fast and loose; restaurants were amenities; they had to be good, but they didn’t have to be important.

Sometime in the early 21st Century, the restaurants here started to be important. Important to tourists, high-rollers, the reputation of Las Vegas and the bottom line. With importance came quality (Robuchon, Savoy, Gagnaire, Boulud, Andrés, Batali…), with quality came pressure to succeed, and maintain that success. In retrospect, it is a wonder we sustained it for so long.

Back in the day, this storm would’ve been weathered much more easily. International reputations and 30 page licensing/profit-sharing deals weren’t part of the equation. There were no public relations minefields to navigate, nor the gaze of the food world to deflect. Eating out wasn’t entertainment, it was something you did when you weren’t home to stay alive.

Opening and closing casino restaurants was no big deal in 1980. There were no prying eyes or oversized egos to contend with. All you had to do was keep the gamblers happy.

Closing restaurants in the early months of 2021 is going to be a very big deal for Las Vegas. It will signify a sea change in how we eat and how the world perceives us. Like old rock stars, some of the “name brands” will hang around, cycling through their old hits, but one by one, they will slowly be put out to pasture.

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 This is how you do it. (Mon. Bordier with his beauteous beurre)

Back to the butter. It was glorious: rich, fresh, deeply creamy, sweet — like no butter Vegas had ever tasted. In summer it had a savory lilt; in winter, a sweeter one.

Waiters in fine French restaurants talk about such things: such things as butter that takes days to make and is delivered in 50 kilo sizes to the most expensive restaurants in the world so people can swoon over ivory-yellow towers of football-sized thickened, cultured cream to slathered on the best baked goods in the business….or just eaten with a spoon, which is what I did.

The butter was only the beginning at Joël Robuchon. After it, the courses cascaded down, one after one, until the the food and wine and service converged into a single gestalt of gustatory perfection. Food so perfect it would take your breath away. A meal so special only a handful in the world could compete with it.

Las Vegas did not get these restaurants and their fancy butters because we were a town of appreciative gourmets. We got them because for thirty years the world treated us as its playground, servicing all of its seven sins, ready to serve a clientele flush with cash and eager to part with it.

They stood like beacons to the  hungry and starstruck once —  these outposts of Puck, Lagasse, Flay, Trotter, Maccioni, Mina, Ramsay, the Michelin stars, the gastronomic gods — like nowhere else on earth, crammed together, right in our own backyard.

But no more. Those days are gone with the wind. The winds of change, of Covid, of a recovery that will take years. This will not be like the Great Recession of 2008-2012. Then, people retained their hunger for Vegas, their yearning for sin, their eagerness to unleash their ids in defeat of all superegos.  All they lacked back then was equity, or corporate expense accounts — the two things our economy relied on to keep the hotels full. But all of those were in reserve waiting to be unleashed when the economy loosened up. And loosen up it did. And Vegas came roaring back stronger than ever. Until 2020 hit.

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Somehow the butter — from French cows that traveled 6,000 miles to be here — represents all that we have lost. Of course, neither it nor the meals it preceded were for everyone: How many people don’t blink at spending $500/pp on dinner? We’re talking rarefied air here, something even the most dedicated, well-heeled fresser might only indulge in occasionally. (No one appreciates fine French more than yours truly, but even in my haughtiest, haute cuisine heyday, too many supercilious meals in a row would have me craving a burger or pizza.)

But the Robuchons, Savoys, Minas, Ducasses and Maccionis represented something that transcended their super swanky settings: they meant Las Vegas had arrived on the big kitchen stage and deserved to be there.

Now the stage will shrink and with it, our reputation. This isn’t the 80s: we can’t just throw up another in-house concept and keep the customers satisfied.

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Fifty years ago, a gambler didn’t care who the cook was; neither he nor his wife gave a hoot who was tossing the pasta at the Desert Inn. The only chef any of them could name was probably Chef Boy-Ar-Dee.

And then we became known for such things: for outposts of celebrities we had seen cooking on TV; for the stars who were then gracing the covers of food magazines, appearing on cooking contests, hobnobbing with the cool kids. From anonymity to superstardom in 30 years — it happened to chefs, and it happened to Las Vegas’s food scene, almost on parallel tracks. And it all culminated with that tower of butter in a 40-seat jewel box tucked into a corner of a mega-casino: ruining us forever for other luxury meals — because everything looks like a valley once you’ve been to the mountaintop.

There will always be a place for super-posh ultra-refined dining. The best-of-everything crowd will demand it, and world capitals like Paris, London, New York and Tokyo will provide it. And for a glorious quarter-century, so did a tacky tourist town in the middle of the High Mojave Desert.

Culinary reputations aren’t built solely upon ethereal ingredients, intensive care service, and wallet-bending meals fit for a king. But remove that level of excellence and what continues will be barely an echo of a time when the world took us seriously, we seemed to have it all, and we could boast of being among the best.

Gone with the Wind Movie Review —

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The following represented our gastronomic scene at its peak. These were the important ones; the ones that put Las Vegas on the map. A few will make it; most won’t. (My crystal ball tells me the Vegas of 2030 will resemble Branson, Missouri more than an ersatz Paris.)

Restaurant Guy Savoy (Against all odds, has reopened and is thriving; I’d eat here weekly if my bank account and waistline would let me.)

Le Cirque (If you think I’m sad about Joël Robuchon….)

Michael Mina (Has always been an underrated gem.)

Jaleo (Still sets the Spanish standard.)

‘e’ by José Andrés (Amazingly, has also re-opened. Having only 8 seats helps.)

CUT (Packed five nights a week.)

Emeril’s (Still busy; still good; still a bitch to get to.)

Bazaar Meat (Steakhouses will be the only survivors of the coming gastronomic genocide.)

Spago ( Spago 2.0 has scaled back its ambitions and is still solid, if unspectacular.)

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire (“Temporarily Closed,” but they’re not fooling anyone. I was told it was on the chopping block two years ago.)

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (see above)

Joël Robuchon (see above)

Picasso (For its first decade, as pitch-perfect as a restaurant can be. For its second, a little stale. Those paintings though.)

Hall of Fame

Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare (Still doesn’t get enough credit for the excellence it brought to our burg.)

ALEX (Spectacular, but in so many ways, destined for failure.)

Aureole (Lost its fastball after five years and never recovered its form.)

Bradley Ogden (Was like one of those ensemble movies where the young cast all go on to be big stars. Amazing talent; incredible food. A shooting star.)

Carnevino (If only Mario could’ve kept his dick in his pants. I know Mario, it’s hard when you’re a sex symbol.)

Circo (I treated it like a private club in its early years; Vegas will never again taste Tuscan this good.)

Boulud Brasserie (The original in the Wynn was something special….for about 3 years.)

miX (Ditto, just substitute Mandalay Bay for Wynn in the above sentence.)

B & B Ristorante (Best. Pastas. Ever.)

Valentino (Terrible layout; wonderful wine; never got the traction it deserved, despite awards and accolades.)

Spago (The original; the granddaddy; the restaurant that started our revolution. )

Fleur de Lys (One of the most beautiful restaurants anywhere….until Mandalay Bay ruined it.)

Mesa Grill (Yes, Mesa Grill. You’re welcome, Bobby.)

RM Seafood (Along with Bartolotta, Rick Moonen brought heavyweight chops to our shores, and made us take seafood seriously.)

Charlie Trotter (Charlie was too early (’94) and too late (‘o9) to the Las Vegas restaurant party.)

Coyote Cafe (Was too good for Vegas’s knuckle-dragging hordes. Too authentically southwestern; too spicy; too excellent. The Food Gal® and I had our first kiss at this bar. Sigh.)

Sage (Like Fleur de Lys, an eye-popping design with food to match.)

Napa (Jean-Louis Palladin’s last stand)

Renoir (Alex Stratta’s first Vegas foray)

Vetri (Gone for good, but its progeny – Osteria Fiorella – is packing them in at Red Rock, for good reason.)

…and a few I’ve probably missed.

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