2021 – By the Numbers

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Before we leave 2021 in the rear view mirror for good, a few words on what will be our last year of eating hugely.

As you can see above, we hit 390 restaurants last year — by our standards a light one, even though we were far busier than in 2020, when the world conspired to put food service permanently out of business and almost succeeded.

During our salad days of 1995-2015, 390 restaurant meals wouldn’t have broken a sweat. Back then, 500/year was the norm, as we hunted high and low for the best grub in Vegas. From 2010-2020, EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants kept us in the game until everything ground to a halt.

Now, we write for ourselves and for fun and for the hundreds and hundreds of you who actually still care about such things as finding the best restaurants (high and low) in which to spend your hard-earned dollars. Our staff told us last week we now average about 1,000 unique views a month. Quite a drop from the “good internet” days of 2008-2014, when 100,000 folks would tune in. No matter, at this point we’ve downsized (voluntarily or not), and starting this year, that’s the way we’ll be eating.

With that said, here are some final thoughts on our weirdest restaurant year ever:

90 Asian meals! This should be no surprise to anyone who follows me on social media. Spring Mountain Road, along the new mini-Chinatown springing up on South Rainbow, is our default setting for eating out. When the question is, “Where should we go tonight?” and the The Food Gal sighs “I dunno,” we head to Chinatown without hesitation and dive in to whatever suits our fancy…BECAUSE its eazy-peazy, inexpensive, healthy, honest food, usually served by family-owned establishments who spend more time in the kitchen than on social media.

Of those 90, almost half were Japanese, with Chinese in second place, and Korean in third. Bringing up the rear were Thailand, Vietnam and (shudders) Malaysian — the charms of which continue to rank somewhere between canned chow mein and Panda Express.

How much Asian do I eat? I eat so much Asian my nickname is Woo-Is-He-Fat. I eat so much Asian my wife calls me a hopeless ramen-tic. I tell her she means so matcha to me, and I can’t stop thinking bao her, and she tells me I’m tofu-rific and she’s crazy pho me. (This causes things to get steamier than a Mongolian hot pot.) Our Chinese friends ask us, “Har Gows it?” while our Korean buddies always want to know, “Sochu wanna hang out?” We eat so much Asian The Food Gal’s favorite sex toy is a Japanese rice cooker. (Wait. What?) Yeah…we eat a lot o’ Asian. ;-)

80 Italians? Are you friggin’ kidding me? We knew it was a lot but had no idea until the totals were run. Of course our regular Friday Cipriani lunch was almost half the total, but even if you back those out, that’s a helluva lot of pasta, pizza, antipasti, primi, secondi and contorni. 80 Italian meals is too much….unless you live in Italy. So you’ll pardon us if we say we’re pretty much over Italian for the time being. The next time we eat this food….I hope to be in Italy, not suffering through another local, oversized/underseasoned version of cacio e pepe.

48 “Casual” meals — included everything from a bagel sandwich to coffee and croissants. Deli comprised almost half of that as we hit everything from PublicUs to Bagelmania to Saginaw’s to Life’s A Bagel with the enthusiasm only a non-Jew-wannabe-Jew like yours truly can have for this food. Our deli choices improved in 2021, consigning Bagel Cafe to an even lower-level of Jewish food suckitude than it already holds .

38 American Bistro — includes everyplace from Main Street Provisions to burger joints to the execrable Taverna Costera — the latter of which was so terrible it coulda/shoulda gotten our “Worst Meal of the Year” major award…but was so pathetic we didn’t deem it worthy of further insult. You could also call these places gastropubs: cozy, food-forward joints like 7th & Carson, Carson Kitchen, Ada’s Wine Bar, and Sparrow & Wolf. All have thrived despite the challenges of the past two years. Sometimes I wish some would dial things back a little more — adding to their menus by subtraction — but if you’re looking for good cooking in the ‘burbs, our home-grown bistros are where to start.

28 Mexicans means mas mucho macho grande burritos and tacos, muchacho. (We probably ate more tacos this year, here and in Los Angeles, than in the previous five journeys around the sun. 2021 also saw our last meal ever at the sad, straight-from-a-can Casa Don Juan. “Never again,” we muttered as we paid a $40 check for a lunch that wasn’t worth half that. Used to be charming service pulled this place through. That’s gone too. Walk down to Letty’s and get yourself a taco. You can muchas gracias me later.

Kinda funny we only hit 21 French meals, considering that it’s our favorite food in the world. Limited hours at many of our famous frog ponds are to blame (Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Le Cirque..), and the merry-go-round of chefs at Marche Bacchus put us off as well. (Side note: We’ve also lost several players — Gagnaire, Boulud, Hubert Keller — who brought Vegas some very serious French cache back in the early aughts. For the survivors, things are still not back to pre-pandemic normalcy, but are improving. MB has also enlisted that old warhorse Andre Rochat to revamp its menu and turn it into what it should be: a serious French bistro. A bold move, long overdue, which we applaud, even if my relationship with Andre has sometimes resembled the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

The home stretch…

We traveled back to the southeast four times in 2021, which explains our 21 BBQ meals.

The armada of Spanish (19) in town (EDO, Pamplona, Jamon Jamon, Jaleo, Bazaar Meat), accounts for our Iberian intake, and visiting a Steakhouse (19) about once/twice a month also feels about right…although we’ll readily admit that, as with Italian, we’re getting bored with the genre, and all the by-the-numbers menus of wedge salads salmon, and identical steak cuts. CUT and Bazaar Meat are the only joints that break this mold. Long may their cholesterol flag fly.

Bringing up the rear we have Greek (8), almost entirely at either Milos or Elias Authentic Greek Taverna, and Fast Food (7) which generally consists of Shake Shack, In-N-Out or the (seriously underrated) Double-Del Burger from Del Taco.

Finally, there are Fancy-Schmancy Meals (6). What stuck out for us when we were making our final tally was not only how few there were, but that every one of the year’s most impressive meals was out of state. FWIW: nothing we ate in Vegas, in 2021, held a candle to to our dinner at Providence (L.A.), the precise cuisine of Gavin Kaysen at Spoon & Stable in Minneapolis, and the steaks and sides we had at Totoraku (L.A.) and Manny’s in Minneapolis.

True confession time. What the above meals drove home to me was something I’ve been holding back from saying for years: much of what Vegas’s top restaurants do may be good, but it still isn’t as good as the similar work being done in other towns, and you’re fooling yourself if you think otherwise. There are many reasons for this — from more demanding diners to access to agriculture — but the well-traveled sharp palate can tell the difference. Our Mexicans aren’t in the same league as Southern California’s, our gastropubs aren’t as finely tuned as Washington D.C.’s, and our barbecue and pizza scenes (as improved as they are) still lag far behind those in bigger cities. And and our steakhouses, for all the money poured into them, still feel like food factories compared to America’s classic beef emporiums.

Have I been guilty (for years) of overpraising places in the name of provincial boosterism? Absolutely. But as I get older, and my time and calories become more precious, I want to spend my appetite in places where the cooking is more connected to something other than an Instagram page. It’s one of the reasons you find me in Chinatown so often, enjoying simple Asian fare over the more convoluted cooking being done by the cool kids. Vegas has always been the sort of place where people stay just long enough to make enough money to leave, and too many of our local restaurateurs seem to be in it for the cash, not the passion. Quite frankly, I’m surprised so many young chefs have stuck around once they leave the Strip. But the play-it-safe-and-cash-in mentality remains strong (cf. Harlo, Carversteak), and there’s not enough demand here for simple, sophisticated food. The Japanese and Spaniards get it right….but few others do.

So, that’s the final chapter on 2021. The direction this website takes in 2022 is anyone’s guess. When the muse hits me, I’ll write…because I love to write when she visits. In the meantime, we’re off to France for a couple of weeks to re-calibrate the palate, refresh the mind, and forget about America for awhile. Bon appetit to all and Happy New Year.

Major Awards – 2021

Image 1 - 45 Inch Full Size Leg Lamp from A Christmas Story
“It’s a major award!”

It was a weird year to say the least. Many local places came roaring back from Covid, but the Strip remains stuck in neutral. Only the opening of Resorts World breathed some new life into what is rapidly becoming a very stale hospitality industry. But let us not dwell on the pathetic and the plebeian; let us now consider the “Major Awards” of 2021 — kudos conveyed completely at random, without rhyme but with righteousness and reason — the only infallible, incisive, inviolable and (sometimes) inhospitable trophies we can impart off the top of our head:

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Pizza of the YearRebellion Pizza’s New York slice (above). Like a taste of lower Manhattan in goddamn Henderson. Go figure.

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Get ya Coney Island (pizza?) right here!

Weirdest Pizza – Some oddball concoction called the “Coney Pie” at Guerilla Pizza in the Hard Hat Lounge. Think a Nathan’s chili dog on a Detroit-style pie (see above). Stoner food to be sure, but tons o’ fun when you’re more baked than a brownie factory.

Best Restaurant That’s Closest to My HouseMain Street Provisions

Restaurant I’m Glad Is NOT Closer to My House Burgundy French Bakery & Cafe. Otherwise, I’d be here every day.

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Did somebody say BURGERS?

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Main Street’s chopped champ
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Smashed succulence from Nevada Brew Works

Burger(s) of the Year, Las Vegas Division (4-way tie) – Soulbelly BBQ, Oscar’s Steakhouse, Nevada Brew Works (the thinner single cheeseburger above), Main Street Provisions (above, top with sesame seeds). Fat or smashed, double or single, downtown’s burger scene has got you covered.

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Burger of the Year, International Division – this green chile champion (above) from Dr. Field Goods at the Sawmill Market in ABQ was so good it stopped me in my tracks.

Worst Burger of the Year – Victory Burger in downtown’s Circa hotel. Let’s take it as a given that if you’re going to call yourself a burger restaurant, you should know how to cook one. Two visits produced a grey, overdone, mealy patty that could’ve come from a cheapo buffet. Both tasted like defeat.

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Requiem for a seafood dream….

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The Food Gal was happy/sad this last night

Saddest Closing – Costa di Mare. Let us know when a restaurant prettier than the one above opens up. I won’t hold my breath. The Food Gal is still holding back her tears.

Worst Meal of the Year – (toss up) Mint Indian Cafe – terrible service, dirty interior, and food that tasted like it’d been in a steamer tray for a week. On the plus side: at least it was cheap. And then there was Hugo’s Cellar – where the menu, the attitude and the carpet haven’t changed since 1983. It definitely takes the stale cake. On the plus side: at least it’s insanely expensive.

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Ocean trout with ponzu at Garlic Yuzu

Pleasant Surprises of the Year Braeswood Tex-Mex BBQ, Wally’s, Milano, Aromi, Mt. Everest India’s Cuisine. Garlic Yuzu (above)

Never Again Award – Delilah

Destined to Fail Award – Superfrico

Gotta to hand it to Delilah and Superfrico — both convinced me that whatever lies ahead on the Las Vegas Strip will hold little of my interest. My glory days ran out around 2015 (about when the Strip’s did), and I don’t see anything compelling on the horizon. Don’t cry for me, Argentina, it was a twenty-year run with the best seat in the house for the greatest restaurant revolution America has ever seen. But watching the old cows get milked, and restaurants become raucous nightclubs (more concerned with distraction than food) holds as much interest for me as waiting in line for Chick-Fil-A. Las Vegas is about to pivot hard into tour bus/cruise ship territory and yours truly plans to be dining in Europe when it does.

Strangest City Visited – Minneapolis. Vibrant, locavore-driven food scene. Great steakhouses. Thriving warehouse district. Desolate downtown. One giant schizoid metropolis that’s so far from the town Mary Tyler Moore made famous it makes Los Angeles’s wasteland feel like Times Square.

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L.A. excellence….

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Divine dining in LA
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Michael Cirmarusti blew Babs and me away

Fancy-Dancy Dinner of the YearProvidence, Los Angeles. With Barbara “Call Me Babs” Fairchild. ;-)

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May I introduce you to The Proper Lunch Bunch…?

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I’m in the back, drunk again
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My usual at Cipriani
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Lunch(es) of the YearCiprianigrazie to the Proper Lunch Bunch (above), for making my Fridays the best in the business.

Question from a dozen chefs: “Why do you eat at Cipriani so much?”

Me: “You put out a product this good at lunch, with this atmosphere and level of service, and I’ll eat at your restaurant every week, too.” How do you say “feng shui” in Italian?

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Bagels and other beauties…

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Bagels of the YearLife’s a Bagel. Don’t even think of arguing with me (or Kathy Kelly, above) about this.

Breakfast of the Year – “The Irish” at 7th and Carson (sorry, no tasty snap)

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Take Note: Dylan knows you can Bank on these wines

Wino of the Year – Bank Atcharawan at The Patio Wine Garden. Better wine bars (Garagiste, Ada’s, French Cellar by Partage) have now become part of our culinary landscape, but this Bank takes the bubbly with his terrific Thai menu and prices that can’t be beat.

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WTF?

Washed Up, Recycled, Past-His-Prime, Against All Odds Lazarus Award Todd English. I’d like to meet the business brain who said to himself: “Self, you know what Las Vegas really needs? MORE Todd English!” That said, we are rooting hard for his downtown boutique hotel/restaurant to be a YUGE success. To be perfectly candid, we’d be cheering for him if he served nothing but a rehash of the 1990s food that made him famous…which he will.

Restaurant I Won’t Touch With a Ten-Foot Pole…or a three-foot Czechoslovakian – JING. The year I start paying attention to restaurants crawling with MILFS and middle-managers on the make is the year you can hook my big toe to a shotgun and make me eat the ammunition.

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Ya gotta love….

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Hot diggity Danish

Hot Dog of the Year – nothing beats the Danish dogs at Saga Pastry + Sandwich.

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Chinese Banquet of the YearRainbow Kitchen. The most elemental and sophisticated Cantonese food in being cooked these days in the mini-Chinatown that’s sprung up on South Rainbow Blvd. The above was a special banquet, but the daily dim sum and fresh catch offerings are unbeatable.

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Even uber-food blogger So-Chan-san agrees on this Greek

Greek of the YearSaavas Georgiadis

Sticking the Landing Award Steve Young, who jumped from Edge Steakhouse to top toque at Al Solito Posto.

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And now for some negativity….

I’m Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take It Anymore Award – All MGM properties (Bellagio, MGM, etc.).

Between the parking fees, resort fees, closed restaurants, limited hours, $25 valet charges, corporate bullshit heaped upon more corporate bullshit, etc….we have a hard time getting excited about pulling into any MGM hotel. There’s a reason we mostly hang out at Wynn, Venetian/Palazzo and Resorts World these days, and the reason is the Wall Street ruination of our hotel/casino industry…which explains…

Restaurant(s) I Wish I had Visited More Often…or Even Once – Joel Robuchon, Michael Mina, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Bardot Brasserie, Carbone, Yui Edomae Sushi, Raku.

To be fair (to myself), the year started under the shroud of limited seating and slogged through months of abbreviated hours from which it still hasn’t rebounded. Monday-Thursday were always my prime eating out/putting in the legwork days, and Covid restrictions pretty much chopped that time in half. (Friday is for three-hour lunches, Saturday is amateur hour, and Sunday is for resting the liver.) Despite Vegas’s somewhat “return to normalcy”, it is still harder to find a good Strip restaurant open on Monday-Tuesday than a T-bone at Tacotarian (sigh).

Yawn of the Year – Casa Playa

Yawning GIFs | Tenor

Hotel No One Ever Talks About Anymore Award – Mandalay Bay. Remember when it had the beautiful Shanghai Lilly? Hubert Keller’s equally gorgeous Fleur de Lys? Burger Bar? The awesome Aureole? TWO Rick Moonen restaurants? Most are gone, some are hanging on, but food-wise, this place is a sad shell of its former self.

Opening Most Ignored By Everyone But “Influencers” Who Still Think It’s A Big Deal To Be Invited (“Hosted”) To A Second-Rate Hotel Being Revamped For the Fourth Time So They Can Sell Their Souls For a Free Crab Cake – Virgin Hotel

Worst Reboot of a Second-Rate Retread – Virgin Hotel. Nothing says, “We’re out of ideas,” like sticking a Todd English joint in your joint.

Dumbest Restaurant Names – Superfrico, Night + Market, Boom Bang

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Delicious doings at Resorts World

Most Funnest Opening – Resorts World

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Shameless Plug No. 1:

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Who was that tan man?

Funnest Lunch (other than my usual Cipriani Friday-fest) – Giving a speech to the Las Vegas Rotary Club about Vegas’s food/restaurant history over the past 30 years (see above).

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Miscellaneous Meals of Mixed Emotions…

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Compelling Thai in a curious casino corner

Greatest Asian Least Likely to Succeed Night + Market. Part of me wants to applaud the Virgin Hotel for this move, as it was the best Thai food we had this year. But I’ve looked around this sad place and think the Raiders have a better chance of winning the Super Bowl than a cutting-edge Southeast Asian restaurant (specializing in “orange” and “natural” wines) has of wooing a bargain-hunting clientele who wouldn’t know an orange wine from Tang.

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Risotto Milanese with marrow at Aromi

Ole Sole Mio Unsung Italians AwardAromi, Matteo’s, Brera. Other ristorante get more pub, but this trio can go pappardelle to pappardelle with any of them.

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The Crown Jewel Box of Vegas restaurants

Jury Is Still Out AwardLe Cirque. Like many, we were totally jazzed about its re-opening…until we learned it was now a $388/pp all-tasting menu format ($288 for the “plant-based” option). Whether they pull it off will say a lot about the future of upscale dining on the Strip, but our first impression is they are turning this Maccioni masterpiece into another Michael’s, i.e., a comp room strictly for rubes and high-rollers. We shall see, but in the meantime, Sirio is rolling over in his grave.

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Need a drink?

https://twitter.com/i/status/1440862108619460614

Bartender of the Year – Justine at Yu-Or-Mi Sushi Bar (above). With or without her mask on, she wowed us with her impromptu cocktail creations.

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Make It Stop Power Rangers GIF - Make It Stop Stop Power Rangers - Discover  & Share GIFs
I’m begging you

Make It Stop – Tasting menus, wagyu, octopus, scallops, foam, craft beers, local distilleries, branzino, salmon, “plant-based,” hot chicken, Italian restaurants, kale, weird-ass grains, smoke, “cannabis-infused,” caviar on everything, female chef empowerment, white people making sushi, “woke” restaurant writers, ridiculously long podcasts, in-feasibly large cuts of meat, crudo, chefs with mission statements, knowing way too much (or even anything) about a chef’s sexual identity, gooey food videos, influencers, thinly-disguised promotional events pretending to be about “charity.”

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In the best of taste…

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Nobody beat this meat in ’21

Steak of the Year – Nothing got our heart beating faster than this hunk o’ hunk o’ aged, charbroiled steer muscle from Manny’s Steakhouse’s private herd in Minneapolis. No bull.

That Place Is So Crowded No One Goes There Anymore Award Esther’s Kitchen

Noodlelicious Award – Big Dan Shanxi Taste

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Crystal pork-spinach dumplings at Rainbow Kitchen

Humpty Dumpling/Dat Sum Dim Sum Award – these dumplings never get a bad wrap, don’t gyoza too far, bao to no ones, and have a wonton disregard for the competition:

Xiao Long Dumpling

ShangHai Taste

China Poblano

Rainbow KItchen

China Mama

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We were Korean tears of joy over this beef

Korean Beef of the YearPark BBQ, Los Angeles (above)

Cholesterolfest of the Year – Totoraku, Los Angeles

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Sushi of the YearSushi Hiroyoshi (above)

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Desserts of the YearSweets Raku (pictured); SW Steakhouse (not pictured because our lousy, poorly-lighted pics didn’t do them justice).

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Tacos, tacos y mas tacos…and more!

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Carnitas tacos at Sin Fronteras

Tacos of the Year, Las Vegas Division: Braeswood Tex-Mex BBQ, Birria El Compa La Cruda, Sin Fronteras Tacos

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Ditroit chicken tacos
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Taco crawl, LA-style. Eating street tacos the LA way

Tacos of the Year, California Division:

Carnitas El Momo

Ditroit Taqueria

Mariscos Jaliscos

Sonoratown (above, feeding our friend GT off the hood of an SUV)

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Best Reason For Going To Henderson: Rebellion Pizza (above)

Best Neighborhood to Eat In – Chinatown

Worst Neighborhood(s) to Eat In – North Las Vegas, where gringos fear to tread. Runner-up: Southern Highlands – filled with folks with more money than taste. At least NLV has an excuse: its residents aren’t 1/100th as wealthy as the corporate bigwigs counting their bitcoins on the SH golf course.

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Best Addition to the Vegas Food Scene Featherblade English Craft Butchery. Need proof? Here ya go:

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Finally, a veally veally good butcher in my ‘hood

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And this little piggy….

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We went whole hog in 2021

Low and Slow Award(s):

I love smoked meat like Oscar Goodman loves a martini. This year we traveled back East three times to sample pork shoulder (aka Boston butt) and whole hog in the Carolinas and Georgia, the way it was meant to be. Once pigs cross the Rockies, something seems to happen to them: they all end up tasting like a cross-over country song – the bland leading the bland into Taylor Swift land. Getting that ethereally sweet, moist, tender, finely-grained, fluffy, slightly smokey delicacy on a bun is an art, and like sushi, the gradations are subtle but important. And, as with the best raw fish, once you’ve tasted the real thing, ham-handed attempts hold no currency for aficionados. Many thanks to Brandon and Mary Coleman Smith for giving us the Carolina ‘cue tour of a lifetime.

Skylight Inn BBQ

Smiley’s Lexington BBQ

Soulbelly BBQ

Speaking of pork…

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Pork Chop of the Year – the above piece of pulchritudinous porcine perfection at Osteria Fiorella

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Dive Bar of the Year Chez Jay, Santa Monica, CA

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We didn’t know what to call them, but boy did we eat a bunch of these this year…

Muffin/Scone/Cookie Award – Whatever this chewy blueberry-infused beauty is at PublicUs (above), we couldn’t get enough them.

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So-Chan-san’s English is far better than my Japanese

Food Vlogger of the Year – So-Chan-san, whose So-Channel on YouTube and Instagram covers our Asian food scene in more depth than I ever thought possible. Looking for insights on the inscrutable? He’s your man. Is it all in Japanese? You bet your sweet yen it is! But it comes with subtitles, of course. That’s why it’s so interesting! If you don’t get hungry after watching one of his videos, you need to check your pulse.

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Fabulous Faces of 2021:

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Spaniard of the YearRafael Salines-Catala (above), whose Jamon Jamon is a hidden gem so good it reminds us why god gave us taste buds.

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Celebrity Chef of the Year (coincidentally, also a Spaniard) – Jose Andres, because he still shows up and talks to everyone like an old friend when he does.

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One busy gal in 2021

Hit the Ground Running Award Nicole Brisson. Opening one Brezza or Bar Zazu at Resorts World would be extraordinary. Two is practically unthinkable. Along with Caviar Bar, Wally’s, and Carversteak, her two new venues have given this hotel a murderer’s row lineup not seen since the Cosmo came online over a decade ago.

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The best, Jerry, the BEST!

Best New Restaurants of 2021 –

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Brezza

Caviar Bar

Wally’s Las Vegas

Jamon Jamon

Le Cafe Du Val

Aromi

Milano

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Mapo dofu at Chinglish

Chinglish Cantonese Wine Bar

Soulbelly BBQ

Ada’s

Al Solito Posto

The Legends Oyster Bar & Grill

Rainbow Kitchen

Win Kee HK BBQ & Noodle

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Legendary jambalaya

States visited – 8 -Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, New Mexico, Minnesota, California

Foreign countries visited -0- for the first time in 10 years. ;-(

Restaurants visited – 380

Cheapest sit-down meal (not including fast food burgers and tacos eaten off the hood of a car) – Waffle House (somewhere in Georgia), where twenty bucks smothered and covered us in southern-fried goodness.

Most expensive mealn/naka, Los Angeles, where we dropped a cool $1,100 for two on a Japanese kaiseki dinner.

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New York’s loss was Minnesota’s gain

Meal of the Year Spoon & Stable, Minneapolis. Sorry Las Vegas, despite all the self-aggrandizing, mutual back-slapping going on around here, none of you put out a product as jaw-dropping as Gavin Kaysen in the great white north. Even his simple squash soup (above) gave us a woody. Note to chefs: When’s the last time you took the time to put out a superior soup? Kaysen is a chef’s chef who is in his restaurant every night, content to live where he works, and leave the empire-building to glory-seekers. His was also the best wine list I saw this year — hefty (but not too), eclectic, fascinating, and fairly-priced. Our dinner there reminded me of one we had in Toronto a few years back at a tiny, unassuming place called Edulis. The food was simple and stunning, riven with technique and flavors that penetrated your rib cage. And it was casual and a la carte, and half the price of the equally spectacular (if much more formal) Providence. Not fer nuthin’, but all of my exceptional meals in 2021 took place out of town. Las Vegas still has a lot of growing up to do.

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And finally, let’s get to the really important stuff…..

Shameless Plug #2:

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After 27 years of writing about food, I’m officially something

Podcast (shameless plug) of the YearWhat’s Right Sam with Sam & Ash – Perhaps I’m slightly biased, but this is the only podcast in Vegas that actually gives you good info on where to eat (every Friday when a certain aging boomer grabs the microphone).

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Eat at the restaurants featured above and you will eat very well, indeed. So tune in every Friday, and have a happy holiday from all of us in the #BeingJohnCurtas orbit!

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Desert Companion Restaurant Awards 2021

DESERT COMPANION AWARDS 2021

Ed. Note: The Desert Companion Restaurant Awards came out a couple of weeks ago, citing our most worthy eateries for their contributions to our dining out scene in the past year. As there were no awards in 2020, they are slightly expanded this year, with multiple winners in a few categories. Click on this link to read about them in their entirety, or scroll below for the ones yours truly wrote (for the 25th year in a row). Bon appetit and congrats to all the winners!

RESTAURATEUR OF THE YEAR

Gino Ferraro

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You don’t know the truffles Gino has seen

To be a great restaurateur, one must be perpetually in a bad mood, or at least a world class worrywart. Gino Ferraro certainly fits the latter bill, and one suspects he is always seconds away from the former – continually bracing himself against some imminent operatic tragedy about to befall his restaurant, be it a service misstep, or anything he doesn’t think is up to snuff. This is not to say he is never happy. To see him touching every table, decanting an aged Barolo, or advising customers what to order, is to see a professional at the top of his game, albeit one who knows how vigilant he must be to stay there.

Like all Italians, his passion for food and wine runs deep. What began as a wholesale/importing business in Las Vegas in the early 1980s, quickly became a tiny trattoria/retail store on West Sahara, then a full-blown Italian ristorante, replete with wine and piano bars, then to its current digs on Paradise Road, where he and his family have flourished since 2009. Three versions of the same restaurant in thirty-five years, each one bigger and better than the last, is a feat almost unheard of in this industry. Ferraro’s has always been classic without being stuffy and old school without being hidebound, with a formula based upon hospitality first, and a menu of old favorites (a legendary osso buco) and Italian standards (a simply perfect spaghetti alio e olio), along with lighter fare (a gorgeous Caprese salad), guaranteed to satisfy the old guard and adventuresome gastronomes alike.

To pull off this feat for a decade takes the soul of an entrepreneur, the stamina of a bricklayer and the discipline of a drill sergeant. That Gino and his family – aided by wife Rosalba and chef/son Mimmo – have kept Ferraro’s at this level of excellence, never losing a step, and surviving the rigors of Covid, is a feat as impressive as his world-beating wine list. Come any night and you’ll see Gino on the prowl, eagle-eyed, surveying his guests like a paterfamilias looking after his flock. Look a little closer and you’ll see a twinkle in those worried eyes – a sense of satisfaction from knowing he and his staff have done all they can, since 1985, to ensure your happiness.

HIDDEN GEM OF THE YEAR

Saga Pastries + Sandwich

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Scandinavia and Las Vegas have as much in common as pickled herring and high-stakes poker. To be blunt: the words “eat like a Viking,” do not exactly roll tripping-ly off the tongue when it’s 110 degrees outside.  But there are enough Norsemen in town (and lovers of all things Nordic) to keep  this sleek and gleaming breakfast/lunch spot on Eastern Avenue humming with a steady stream of regulars — folks who lust for Swedish waffles, insanely good “Danish Dogs” (Denmark’s unique contribution to the tube steak ouevre), and what may be the most unique sandwiches in Vegas.

Those waffles come either flat or folded, stuffed with savory fillings, or dripping with berries and sour cream. One bite and you’ll see why chef/owner Gert Kvalsund proudly displays his “best waffle” accolades, and has pretty much retired the award. He also does classic pancakes, various pastries, and good Lavazza coffee, but what keeps us returning are his Saga Smørbrød: open-faced sandwiches overflowing with your choice of lightly-cured ham, salmon and/or the sweetest Arctic shrimp you’ll ever taste. (First timers should try all three.) No matter the season, they’ll fuel you for whatever conquering and pillaging comes to mind.

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Shrimply delicious

NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

Elia Authentic Greek Taverna

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Like Italy and Mexico, the cuisine of Greece is a victim of its own cliches. If you ask most Americans to define a Greek restaurant, they will describe a sea blue and white room, reeking of garlic and bouzouki music (including “Never on Sunday” played at least four times an hour), along with boring gyros, wet cardboard souvlaki, and baklava so dense it could be used as a doorstop. Elia challenged all those tired tropes when it opened a few years ago, and in doing so, immediately became our best Greek restaurant,  right down to the indecipherable Greek lettering and unpronounceable names on the menu. (Not to worry – translations are provided.)

The aim is to make you feel like you’re on a side street in Athens, sipping Retsina and eating at a local taverna, and boy did it hit its mark. Right from the jump, customers responded to the straightforward cooking, even as it was served in a modest, tiny space on south Durango. Then, when everyone else was simply trying to survive 2020, owners Savvas Georgiadis, Alexadros Gkikas, and Keti Haliasos made a bold move to a larger location, tucked into a corner of west Sahara, and never missed a beat. If anything, the new digs, complete with bar and outdoor patio, have given their cooking a larger stage — serving fresh roasted lamb, salt-baked fish, fried zucchini chips, and spicy tyrokafteri (cheese dip) to fellow Greek-Americans, and others eager to learn what a proper mezze platter and galatoboureko taste like.

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Go Greek and go fish

Thus has Elia become a taverna to call our own (and practically a club for the local Greek-American community), but also an education in how real Greeks eat (more fish and veggies, less pita bread and chickpeas). Las Vegas has taken to these lessons like an octopus to sea water. There is nothing by-the-numbers here; it is cooking from the heart, by Greeks eager to share their country’s food and wine. “Authentic” may be an overused (or frowned upon) word in some food circles these days, but this is the real Greek deal, and Elia wears its name like a point of Hellenic pride.

PASTRY CHEF OF THE YEAR

Florent Cheveau, Burgundy French Bakery Café 

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A chef you knead to know

You might be sensing a theme with many of these awards: people who have survived and thrived through the worst economy for restaurants in over a decade. If necessity is the mother of invention, then this pandemic has surely been the genesis of revolution — specifically a gastronomic uprising — affording major kitchen talent a chance to strut their stuff in the suburbs. Lovers of French pastries could not have been happier when seemingly out of nowhere,  Florent Cheveau (former MGM executive pastry chef and World Chocolate Master), opened the Burgundy French Bakery Cafe on West Sahara early this year, at a time when the prospects for success looked as sunken as a fallen souffle.

Taking over a fast food smoothie space across from the Village Theaters, his timing turned out to be as perfect as his croissants. People were hungry for handmade food, and anyone who bit into one of his macarons or cinnamon roll knew they were in the presence of something special. These were baked goods on par with the best restaurants in the toniest hotels, and here they were, for taking home or eating in, seven days a week. His savory quiches, croque Monsieur, and sandwiches are just as compelling as his sweets, but what keeps us coming back is a mille-feuille (“thousand layers”) of incomparable buttery-lightness, woven into breakfast pastries that take us straight back to Paris


STRIP RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

Bazaar Meat by José Andrés

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You can’t beat this meat

When he isn’t out saving the world, José Andrés oversees a galaxy of restaurants that are the envy of every chef in America. He is more of a philanthropist than a working chef these days, but his ThinkFood Group has been running four gorgeous eateries in Las Vegas for over a decade, and their excellence continues to impress, from the molecular (‘e’ by Jose Andres), to tapas (Jaleo), to the Mexican-Chinese mashup that is China Poblano.

As good as each of these are, the one restaurant that is sui generis and without peer is Bazaar Meat. It is all about meat, of course, but also a tour de force of Iberian cuisine — from the wacky (foie gras cotton candy) to the sassy (chicken croquetas served in a shoe) to the substantial (haunches of some of the best beef on the planet). Calling it a steak house doesn’t do it justice, since you can compose a meal here any number of ways — from completely vegetarian to nothing but raw fish — and it is the go-to place in Vegas for all those iterations of Spanish pork.

Spaniards know ham like a Korean knows cabbage, and here you can indulge all your cured meat fantasies like nowhere else. Covid put a crimp in this restaurant’s style as it did all up and down the Strip, but Bazaar’s bounce-back has been impressive. Even when lay-offs were everywhere and everyone was struggling with seating restrictions, José’s showplace soldiered on and thrived in its back corner of the Sahara hotel, enduring more hardship than any gastronomic restaurant deserves, much less one that is easily one of the top ten steakhouses in the country. (Who knows what records it could set if its constantly-in-flux hotel ever gets its act together.)

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Candace Ochoa is en fuego

But Bazaar Meat is more than a steakhouse: it is also a wine bar, a ham bar, and a raw bar all under one roof. It announces its brilliance from your first look at the meat locker (behind a wood-fired grill the size of a small truck), and keeps the magnificence going from one course after the next The menu is shorter than it was two years ago, and the wine list is now two pages long, not twenty, but the precise cooking (now headed by veteran executive chef Candace Ochoa), impeccable service and super-sharp management remain intact. Like the entire Strip, Bazaar Meat has weathered quite a storm, and still operates in choppy seas, but through it all, José has kept his Spanish flag flying high.

HALL OF FAME AWARD

Restaurant Guy Savoy

Guy Savoy Fine Dining Las Vegas
Haute dining on a whole different level

Since opening in May, 2006, Guy Savoy’s straight-from-Paris masterpiece, has loomed like a chapel of fine dining over the Las Vegas Strip. Its splendor announces itself from the huge double doors that greet you at the entrance, leading to a dining room with a ceiling reaching even higher, resulting in muted conversations and hushed tones meant to show proper respect to the surroundings and not give offense to the food. The cathedral metaphor is apt since the French treat their cuisine as a religion, and their greatest restaurants (even in offshoot form) are temples of the culinary arts. There are only a handful of restaurants in America where reverential attention is paid to what’s on the plate, and Restaurant Guy Savoy, in Caesars Palace, is one of them.

What Guy Savoy meant to our dining scene cannot be overstated: When he arrived with his brigade de cuisine fifteen years ago, it confirmed Las Vegas stature as a world-class dining destination, one that even the supercilious French had brought to their bosom. In planting his flag here, he, along with compatriots Joël Robuchon, and Pierre Gagnaire (two other titans of gastronomy), recognized our tourist industry as an eager market for their impeccable cooking, with a restaurant scene (and talent) on par with much larger cities with much deeper culinary traditions. Even if you have never eaten here or can’t imagine doing so, having the world’s best in our own backyard created a climate of excellence that raised everyone’s eyebrows and standards.

The significance of their arrival was felt for over a decade. International acclaim, national media, food festivals, awards, and other world-renowned chefs followed. Suddenly, people from all over the world were coming here just to eat, and our very own French Revolution from 2005-2009 was the reason for it. Savoy’s influence has been unmistakable, but what garners him Hall of Fame status is doing it so well for so long. Through the Great Recession and now a pandemic, this dining room has never faltered, turning out food very close to what you will find in France, albeit without the cost of a round-trip plane ticket. When everyone was still on their heels from shutdowns in mid-2020, Caesars Palace made the bold move to reopen this dining room, and was rewarded with an avalanche of reservations — pent-up demand for one of Las Vegas’s most expensive meals — cooking that sets a world standard, the ultimate haute cuisine experience, from one of the world’s greatest chefs — proving how important this restaurant has been, and will continue to be, to Las Vegas’s culinary reputation.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

Cipriani

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Cipriani is neither new nor cutting edge nor unique to Las Vegas. Nevertheless, it represents something very special to our restaurant scene: an outpost of a luxury brand displaying a style of dining that seemed in danger of extinction just a few years ago. In an era overrun with casual gastropubs, a retro-chic restaurant trading in classic Venetian recipes might have seemed as out of place as Dolce & Gabbana at a beer bash. But open it did, in late 2018, appealing to locals and tourists alike looking for something more refined than formulaic Italian. Then Covid hit, and Cipriani (pronuounced CHEEP-ree-ah-nee), became more than just a restaurant — it was a lifeboat and a beacon to all seeking a good meal on the Strip —  a lunch and dinner stalwart, open every day, keeping hopes alive that Las Vegas might yet return to its former glory.

For a restaurant tracing its origins to 1931, the cuisine is remarkably timeless: simple, sophisticated northern fare with nary a garlic clove in sight. In place of tomato sauce and cheese you get refinement: top-shelf salumi, carpaccio (invented by founder Giuseppe Cipriani in 1933), spoon-tender baby artichokes, baked tagliolini with ham, and pastas in celebration of rich noodles, not in disguise of them. The unsung heroes of the menu are the meats (including the elusive fegato alla Veneziana – a liver dish so coveted by organ eaters it is almost mythical), pizzas (expensive but worth it), and vanilla gelato so good it ought to come with a warning label: “in case of addiction, don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

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Tiramisu

And then there is the service: snappy barkeeps (always ready with a Bellini), crackerjack waiters, and sharply-dressed managers, all at the top of their game. The staff does everything from cosseting celebrities (yes, that was Jay-Z and Beyoncé making an entrance) to boning fish, dividing up desserts, and speaking multiple languages (the Cipriani brand is huge with international gastronomes).  Here it all flows effortlessly — old school attentiveness, done with understated flair in synchronicity with the posh surroundings.

More than anything else, this ristorante signifies a return to a time when atmosphere and elegance went knife and fork with good food. When classic cooking was the rule, and meals were something to be celebrated with family and friends in high style. Everything old is new again, the saying goes, and Cipriani is taking us back to the future with the most stylish Italian in town.

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Vincenzo il Grande