The Best Restaurant(s) in the World

Image(Restaurant Guy Savoy, Paris)
If you take it as a given that French restaurants are the best in the world, it only stands to reason that the best restaurant in the world will be in France.
Don’t get your panties in a bunch, I’m not here to dismiss the cuisines of entire countries — only to point out that, like sushi, Mexican street food, and pasta, the places where some food was invented are generally where you will find the highest elevation of the art. And Paris, in case you’ve forgotten, is where the modern restaurant was born in the latter half of the 18th Century.

Of course, the “best” of anything is a conceit and highly subjective. Measuring a “winner” or “the best” of anything — from wine to women — is a nice parlor game, but ultimately a waste of time unless there’s a stopwatch involved.

Whoever wins these accolades usually comes down to who got fawned over the most in a few influential publications — not who objectively gives diners the best food, drink, and experience. Anyone who thinks the several hundred voters who weigh in on these awards have actually eaten at the places they vote for as “the best restaurant in the world” (as opposed to forming their opinions based upon reading accounts of the few who have), has rocks in their head.

“Awards” of this sort are simply a way to give a deceptively false measuring stick to those who don’t know much about a subject. Subjectivity disguised as objectivity, all in the name of marketing to the wealthy with more money than taste. Same as with wine scores and Oscar nominations. The rich need these adjudications to convince themselves they’re doing the right thing, and “The “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” is there for them. As Hemingway puts it in “A Moveable Feast”:

The rich came led by the pilot fish. A year earlier they never would have come. There was no certainty then.

Back when El Bulli was garnering these awards (and I was voting on them), I heard from several colleagues who ate there, and what they described was more of a soul-deadening food slog (an edible marathon, if you will) than an actual pleasant experience.

A close friend (who also happens to be a chef) told me he stopped counting after 40(?) courses of (often) indecipherable eats, and was looking for the door two hours before the ordeal ended. (The trouble was, he said, there was literally no place to go — El Bulli being, literally, in the middle of nowhere.)

But Feran Adrià (like Thomas Keller before him and Grant Achatz and René Redzepi after), was anointed because, as in Hollywood, a few influential folks decided they were to be christened the au courant  bucket list-of-the-moment, and woe be to anyone in the hustings to question these lordly judgments. In the cosseted world of gastronomic beneficence (and the slaves to food fashion who follow them) this would be akin to a local seamstress suggesting Anna Wintour adjust her hemline.

Because of this nonsense, we’ve been saddled with the tyranny of the tasting menu for twenty-five years (Keller, Achatz, et al), disguised foods and tasteless foams (Adria), and edible vegetation (Redzepi) designed more for ground cover than actual eating.

As far as I can tell, neither molecular cuisine nor eating tree bark and live ants has caught on in  the real world — beyond trophy-hunting gastronauts, who swoon for the “next big thing” the way the fashion press promotes outlandish threads to grab attention.

Which brings us back to France. More particularly, French restaurants and what makes them so special. Let’s begin with food that looks like real food:

Image(Surf & Turf: Langoustines au Truffes La Tour D’Argent)

….not someone’s idea of playing with their food, or trying to turn it into something it isn’t. This cooking philosophy alone separates fine French cuisine from the pretenders, and gives it a confidence few restaurants in the world ever approach.

For one, there’s a naturalness to restaurants in France that comes from the French having invented the game. Unlike many who play for the “world’s best” stakes, nothing about them ever feels forced, least of all the cooking.  With four-hundred years to get it right, and French restaurants display everything from the napery to the stemware with an insouciant aplomb that is the gold standard.

You don’t have to instruct the French how to run a restaurant any more than you have to teach a fish how to swim. Or at least that’s how it appears when you’re in the midst of one of these unforgettable meals, because, to repeat, they’ve been perfecting things for four hundred years. Everything from the amuse bouche to the petit fours have been carefully honed to put you at ease with with being your best self at the table.

Image(Gruyère gougeres have been around longer than America)

Having been at this gig for a while, I’m perfectly aware that the death of fine French dining, and intensive care service accompanying it, has been announced about every third year for the past thirty.

I’m not buying any of it. When you go to France (be it Paris or out in the provinces), the food is just as glorified, the service rituals just as precise, and the pomp and circumstance just as beautifully choreographed as it was fifty years ago. The fact that younger diners/writers see this form of civilized dining as a hidebound, time-warp does not detract from its prominence in the country that invented it.

Whether you’re in Tokyo or Copenhagen, the style and performative aspects of big deal meals still takes their cues from the French. Only elaborate Mandarin banquets or the hyper-seasonality of a kaiseki dinner  match the formality and structure of haute cuisine.

These forms of highly stylized dining follow a path straight up the food chain. There are rules and they are there for a reason, usually having to do with how you will taste and digest what is placed before you. Light before heavy; raw before cooked; simple before complex — you get the picture
You usually begin with something fished directly from the sea. Oysters and other shellfish are a natural match, as is a shrimp cocktail. (A good old-fashioned American steakhouse has more in common, with high falutin’ French than people realize.)  Their natural salinity stimulates the appetite without weighing you down.
Man’s evolution into a more cultivated forms of eating is represented by bread, as is the domestication of animals by the butter slathered upon it. (If you want to stretch the symbolism even further, look at olive oil and the fermentation of wine and beer as representing mankind’s earliest bending of agriculture to his edible wants and needs.)
Image(Early man struggled with the whole pommes soufflé-thing)
From there things get more elaborate, depending on whether you want to go the seafood, wild game, or domesticated fowl route. Vegetables get their intermezzo by using salad greens as a scrub for the stomach to help digest everything that precedes them. (The French think eating a salad at the start of a meal is stupid, and it is.) You finish of course with cheese (“milk’s leap toward immortality” – Clifton Fadiman), and then with the most refined of all foods: sugar and flour and all the wonderful things that can be done with them. A great French meal is thus every bit the homage to nature as Japanese kaiseki, albeit with a lot more wine and creme brûlée.
As I’ve written before, French food is about the extraction and intensification of flavor. Unlike Italians and Japanese, a French cook looks at an ingredient (be it asparagus, seafood, or meat) and asks himself: “Self, how can I make this thing taste more like itself.” All the simmering, searing, pressing, and sieving in a French kitchen is as far a cry from leaving nature well enough alone as an opera is from the warble of a songbird.

With this in mind, we set our sights on two iconic Parisian restaurants: one, as old-fashioned as you can get, and the other a more modern take on the cuisine, by one of its most celebrated chefs. Together, they represent the apotheosis of the restaurant arts. They also signify why, no matter what some critics say, the French still rule the roost. Blessedly, there is no chance of encountering Finnish reindeer moss at either of them.

LA TOUR D’ARGENT

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If experience is any measure of perfection, then The Tower of Money should win “best restaurant in the world” every year, because no one has been serving food this fine, for this long, in this grand a setting.

A restaurant in one form or another has been going on at this location since before the Three Musketeers were swashing their buckles. What began as an elegant inn near the wine docks of Paris in 1582 soon enough was playing host to everyone from royalty to Cardinal Richelieu. It is claimed that the use of the fork in France began in the late 1500s at an early incarnation of “The Tower of Silver”, with Henry IV adopting the utensil to keep his cuffs clean.

Apocryphal or not,  what is certainly true is that Good King Hank (1553-1610) bestowed upon the La Tour its crest which still symbolizes it today:

History, of course, provides the foundation, and the setting continues to provides a “wow” factor unmatched by all but a handful of restaurants in the world. No place but here can you dine with the ghosts of Louis XIV, Winston Churchill and Sarah Bernhardt, all while seeming to float above Paris on this open door to the city’s past — all of it available to anyone with the argent to book a table.
But the proof is in the cooking — that has been, on our last two visits, as awesome as the view. It’s no secret that the glory had started to fade twenty years ago, and that Michelin — the arbiter of all things important in the French food world — had taken notice, and not in a good way.
A reboot of sorts was announced over five years ago, and by the time we visited in 2019, the kitchen was performing at a Michelin two-star level at the very least. Independent of the view, the service, and the iconic wine program, the cooking (and presentation) was well-nigh perfect. It was all you want from this cuisine: focused, intense flavors put together with impeccable technique and an almost scientific attention to detail.
When we returned this past winter, things seemed be have gotten even better. This time we showed up with a party of six. It was a busy lunch, filled with local gourmets and some obvious big business types, but also a smattering of tourists who (like us) had to keep picking their jaws up off the table as spectacle of Paris and its finest French food was spread before them.
I have never been to La Tour at night, but for my money, lunch is the way to go. The food is unchanged (lunch specials are offered, but you can order off the dinner menu and we did), and the sight of the Seine River stretching beneath you and Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite in the distance are worth the admission all by themselves.
I suppose the ideal time to dine here would be arranging for a table at dusk, so you could see the lights of Paris come alive in all their blazing glory. But as I’ve argued before, lunch has always been the ticket for us when we want to eat and drink ourselves silly in a fine French restaurant.
There’s nothing silly, of course, about the food. This is serious stuff, but there’s nothing stuffy about it, despite its pedigree — French service having retired the snootiness thing decades ago. Meaning: if you show up and are well-behaved, they are friendly to a fault.
(Canard au sang with a side of burns, coming right up)
Credit for that has to lie with owner André Terrail, the third generation of the family to be at the helm. (The Terrails have owned the restaurant since 1911.) Since taking over a few years before his father Claude’s death in ‘o6, Terrail has kept all the historical provenance of his venerated birthright intact — upgrading the cuisine while still managing to keep the whole operation true to its roots. No easy feat that. We don’t know what the problems were twenty years ago, but on our last two visits, we didn’t see any missteps, either on the plate or in the service. And what appeared before us was every bit as stunning as any Michelin 3-starr meal we’ve had…in Paris or elsewhere.
You take good bread for granted in Paris, but even by those lofty standards, this small baguette was a stunner:

Image(Face it: you knead this)

Perfect in every respect: a twisted baguette of indelible yeastiness — perfumed with evidence of deep fermentation — the outer crunch giving way to ivory-pale, naturally sweet dough within that  fought back with just the perfect amount of chew. It (and the butter) were show-stoppers in their own right, and for a brief minute, they competed with the view for our attention. We could’ve eaten four of them (and they were offered throughout the meal), but resisted temptation in light of the feast that lay ahead.

Soon thereafter, these scoops of truffle-studded foie gras appeared, deserving of another ovation:

Image(Home cooking this is not)

From there on, the hits just kept on coming: a classic quenelles de brochet (good luck finding them anywhere but France these days), Then, a slim, firm rectangle of turbot in a syrupy beurre blanc, or the more elaborate sole Cardinale:

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….followed by a cheese cart commensurate with this country’s reputation.

The star of the show has been, since the 1890s, the world-famous pressed duck (Caneton Challandais) — served in two courses, the first of which (below) had the deepest-colored Bèarnaise we’ve ever seen; the second helping bathed in the richest, midnight-brown, duck blood-wine blanket imaginable. Neither sauce did anything to mitigate the richness of the fowl, which is, of course, gilding the lily and the whole point.

Image(You can never be too rich or have too much Béarnaise)

We could go on and on about how fabulous our meal was, but our raves would only serve to make you ravenous for something you cannot have, not for the next ten months, anyway.

Yes, the bad news is the restaurant will be closing today, April 30, 2022 for almost a year — until February 2023 — for renovations. This saddens us, but not too much, since we don’t have plans to return until about that time next year. In the meantime, the entry foyer probably could use some sprucing up (since it looks like it hasn’t been touched since 1953), and we have confidence Terrail won’t monkey with the sixth floor view, or this skinny little pamphlet he keeps on hand for the casual wine drinker:

Image(Not found: 2-Buck Chuck)

If the measure of a great restaurant is how much it makes you want to return, then La Tour D’Argent has ruled the roost for two hundred years. (Only a masochist ever left El Bulli saying to himself, “I sure can’t wait to get back here!”) Some things never go out of style and La Tour is one of them. We expect it to stay that way for another century.

À Bientôt!

RESTAURANT GUY SAVOY

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If La Tour represents the old guard of Parisian dining at its finest, then Guy Savoy — both the man and his restaurant — provides the connective tissue between haute cuisine’s past, present, and a future where new chefs will take up this mantle and teach the world what elegant dining is about.

The Adam Platts of the world may decry the “irrelevance” of the “old gourmet model”, but I stand with Steve Cuozzo in maintaining that the call for luxury and refinement in how we eat (admittedly at rarefied levels of expense), will never go completely out of fashion. Quoting our friend Alan Richman, Cuozzo writes:

As critic Alan Richman eloquently expressed it in the Robb Report a few years ago, fine dining is more than “a demonstration of wealth and privilege . . . It is an expression of culture, the most enlightened and elegant form of nourishment ever devised. Without it we will slowly regress into the dining habits of cave people, squatting before a campfire, gnawing on the haunch of a bar.”

All I can say to the Adam Platts of the world (and younger food writers who echo the same sentiments) is: If you think “the old gourmet model” is dead or dying, plan a trip to France, where formal restaurants are poised to come roaring back, indeed if they haven’t already done so.

Put another way: get your goddamned head out of that bowl of ramen or whatever Nigerian/Uzbekistani food truck you’re fond of these days and wake up and smell the Sauvignon Blanc.

Or just go to Guy Savoy.

(Savoy at his stoves)

If the world’s best restaurant can’t change your mind, nothing will. Before you accuse me of bandwagon-ing, let me remind you that I’ve been singing the praises of Savoy’s cuisine since 2006, and have even gone so far as to travel between Vegas and Paris to compare his American outpost with the original. Back then (2009), the flagship got the nod, but not by much.

Since its move to the Monnaie de Paris (the old Parisian Mint) in 2015, Savoy’s cuisine and reputation have attained a new level of preeminence (which is all the more incredible when you consider he has held three Michelin stars since 1980).

With mentors like Joël Robuchon and Paul Bocuse having departed to that great stock pot in the sky, and Alain Ducasse having spread himself thinner than a sheet of mille-feuille, Savoy now rules the French gastronomic firmament as a revered elder statesman. The difference being that he and his restaurants haven’t rested on their laurels, but are every bit as harmonious with the times as they were thirty years ago. To eat at Guy Savoy overlooking the banks of the Seine from a former bank window, is to experience the best French cooking from the best French chefs performing at the top of their game. There is something both elemental and exciting about his cooking that keeps it as current as he was as the new kid on the Michelin block back in the 80s.

Dining in the dead of winter can have its challenges. Greenery is months  away, so chefs go all-in on all things rooted in the soil. The good news is black truffles are in abundance; the bad news is you better like beets.

The great news is: in the hands of Savoy and his cooks, even jellied beets achieve an elegance unheard of from this usually humble taproot:

Image(Savoy heard we hated beets, so he tried to hide them from us)

As mentioned earlier, a French chef respects an ingredient by looking at it as a blank canvas to be improved upon. Look no further than this beet hash (Truffes et oefus de caille, la terre autour) lying beneath a quail egg and a shower of tuber melanosporum, both shaved and minced:

Image(Beet-i-ful)

Neither of these would I choose for my last meal on earth. Both gave me new respect for how the French can turn the prosaic into the ethereal –food transcending itself into something beautiful.

Which, of course, is what Savoy did with the lowly artichoke so many years ago, when he combined it with Parmesan cheese and black truffles and turned it into the world’s most famous soup.

There’s no escaping this soup at Guy Savoy, nor should you want to. Regardless of season, it encapsulates everything about the Savoy oeuvre: penetrating flavor from a surprisingly light dish, by turns both classic and contemporary:

Image(Nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen)

We may have come for the truffles, but we stayed for the filet of veal en croute (below), once again lined with, you guessed it, more black truffles.

Image(Filet de veau et truffes cuits en croûte is French for: the most delicious meat dish in the history of the world)

From there we progressed through a salad of roasted potatoes and truffles, a bouillon of truffles served like coffee in a French press, then a melted cheese fondue over a whole truffle:

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…and even something that looked like a huge black truffle but which, upon being nudged with a fork, revealed itself to be a chocolate mousse. All of it served by a staff that looked like teenagers and acted like twenty-year veterans.

Suffice it to say the wine pairings were as outstanding as the food, all of it meshing into a seamless meld of appetite and pleasure — the pinnacle of epicurean bliss — high amplitude cooking where every element converges into a single gestalt.

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We then went nuts with multiple desserts, including a clafoutis (above) and the petit fours carte (like we always do), and rolled away thinking we wouldn’t be eating again for two days. This being Paris, we were at it again later that night, taking down some steak frites at Willi’s Wine Bar

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I write these words not to convince you that Guy Savoy is the greatest restaurant in the world, or even that such a thing exists, but rather to persuade you of the transcendent gustatory experiences you can have at places like it. Until I’ve been to every restaurant in the world, I won’t be able to proclaim one of them “the best.” Even then, the best would only be what best fit my mood, my likes and my expectations at the very moment I was there.

Adam Platt was right about one thing: “the best restaurant in the world” doesn’t have to be fancy. The best restaurant in the world can be something as simple as a plat du jour of boeuf bourguignon , studded with lardons and button mushrooms in a run-down bistro smelling of wine sauces and culinary history. It can be at a tiny trattoria on the Amalfi Coast or a local diner where everyone knows your name, or that little joint where you first discovered a dish, a wine, or someone to love. But your favorite restaurant, no matter where or what it is, owes an homage to the place where it all started.

Emile Zola’s “The Belly of Paris” describes the markets of Les Halles as “…some huge central organ pumping blood into every vein of the city.” Those markets may be gone, but their soul lives on in the form of Parisian restaurants, which remain, one hundred a fifty years later, its beating heart. To eat in the great restaurants of Paris is to be inside the lifeblood of a great city, communing with something far bigger than yourself. To be in them is to be at the epicenter of the culinary universe and the evolution of human gastronomy — where the sights and smells of the food, and the way it is served, reflect the entire history of modern dining.

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.”

standing ovation oscars GIF by The Academy Awards

Seymour Britchky

Except for a brief interlude in the 1940s, the Japanese have always enjoyed a reputation for graciousness and hospitality.

Stay away from the Kipper Paté — it looks, smells, and (one guesses) tastes like cat food.

Nothing about this restaurant is as remarkable as its reputation.

Seymour Britchky

He has been dead for seventeen years,  yet his ghost haunts my prose like the specter of Antoine Careme over a chocolate sculpture.

Acid-tongued, razor-sharp, narrow-eyed wit defined his prose. A curmudgeon through and through, his reviews are works of art unto themselves, untethered from the prosaic, dismissive of something so pedestrian as evaluating a sauce or a piece of fish. For him a restaurant was a holistic experience — an encounter he dissected from the front door to the petit fours.  Calling him acerbic is like calling water wet.

New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent once described him as a Larry David-type writer, seeing things in a restaurant no one else saw. And he did so with precision and barely a wasted word. True, some of his sentences were longer than Tolstoy but, as food writer Regina Schrambling put it:

“What he did was so pared down. You got such a rich sense of the place in so few words. These days I’ll read a review, and I’m just reading and reading and reading and, oh, my god, I’m just trudging through this. You don’t have to tell us about every forkful, and you don’t pull back enough to give us a sense of a place.”

I think about him whenever I read some sad attempt to describe a dish by a too-eager amateur (and quite a few professionals) of what I call the “I liked how the flavors of cardamon and tarragon played off the crunchy spaghetti bathed in vindaloo foam” school of food over-writing.

When Seymour said “they get good produce here” you believed him, there was no need to detail the tomatoes.

Part of the needlessly flowery descriptions that have plagued food writing for the past decade can be laid squarely at the feet of chefs — to whom writers ceded the high ground of food nomenclature when they let them get away with logorrheic elucidations like:

Carpaccio of Maldivian long line caught yellow fin tuna’ – fanning an island of Rio Grande Valley avocado creme fraiche, topped with young coconut, with a splash of Goan lime, coriander and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds

Chefs love to pad their menus with fancy descriptions like these (so they can charge more), and invariably, food writers rise to the bait and think they have to follow suit. (Mix. That. Metaphor!) Do we need to know the limes are Goan, the line was long, and the coconut young? Only if you require reminding that the fish were once swimming.

What we are left in the 21st Century is the overwrought and the under-baked. Flowery, meaningless prose, or spoon-fed pablum in pictures, videos, and Tik Toks — infantilizing our tastes as they numb our brains.

What made Seymour so entertaining was he had humor and a point of view. Good luck finding either in food writing these days.

Food writing has gotten so boring (and political) it is no surprise that videos and influencers have stepped in to fill the void. True, a picture is worth a thousand words, and our societal attention span now rivals that of a housefly, but in the end, internet influencing is just another marketing wolf aimed at those in sheeple’s clothing.

Instagram does not inform or compare. There is no depth; there is no substance. The only point of view is that of the camera’s. Thus, in less than a decade, has food journalism been reduced to a visual — no imagination needed — a two-dimensional enticement requiring nothing more than a blank stare. To paraphrase Frank Lloyd Wright: restaurant writing has devolved into chewing gum for the eyes.

If you’re in a charitable mood, you might say our communications about food have come full circle. People have always eaten with their eyes, and forever have trusted others to tell them what was tasty. It was only in the latter half of the 20th Century, when the printed word was king, economies were booming, and photojournalism was in its infancy, that paragraphs were used to convey what used to be done with a grunt.

Britchky may not have been everyone’s cup of mead, but he made you think. And he put you right there, in the place where he had sat, and let you know what to expect and whether it was worth your hard-earned cash. His only filters were his own sensibilities, and that’s what made him so much fun.

He got put out to pasture in the early 90s — a relic of a time when reading about food was almost as much fun as eating it. To this day I think about him every time I sit down to chronicle any meal I’ve had, and to my dying day I will appreciate this:

Mamma Leone’s has been called the most underrated restaurant in New York, which tells us more about the ratings than about the restaurant. There are worse restaurants in New York, but those are the ones which cannot be described in words, the ones that can only be rendered by example or anecdote. The English language can cope, however, with Mamma’s place – it is stunningly garish and ugly, the food is decent, the service automatic, the customers contented and unliberated cows with bulls and broods in tow.

…over a worthless word salad like this:

A wild array of textures—the shattering, airy crunch of meringue at the edges, and the softer one of toasted almonds, with rolling bubbles and pockets skittering across the surface. They’re more relaxed than a Florentine, more lightweight than a brittle. And they’re altogether really lovely over a cup of coffee with an old friend.

One tells you everything you need to know without mentioning a single dish; the other tells you too much and nothing at all at the same time.

As an ending tribute: a poem about him written after his death by an admiring young woman who was once his neighbor. It captures the essence of Mr. Irascible more than my words of praise ever could. Like me, Bolt is a fan. Unlike me, her view of Britchky’s world is refracted through the prism of New York reality, as well as a gimlet gaze.

Seymour Britchky

Appetite of a Dead Connoisseur

by Julie Bolt

Memory:
When I was nine I rang Seymour Britchky’s
downstairs apartment asking for
an egg. He retorted:
“Egg? Me?
Food critic for The New York Times?”
and turned brusquely, slamming the door.
I stood there stunned for minutes.

Fact:
My husband is frustrated
by my ongoing predilection for ordering
and eating out, much like Seymour Britchky;
I never have an egg.

Fact:
Seymour once wrote,
“Sardi’s most famous dish
Is its cannelloni,
Cat food wrapped in noodle
And welded to the steel ashtray
In which it was reheated under
Its glutinous pink sauce.”

Memory:
When I sold Girl Scout Cookies,
Seymour intently purchased
six boxes of Thin Mints
and fourteen Peanut Butter Patties.
I met my Girl Scout goals.

Reflection:
Beard and bowtie,
Belly bordering on the rotund.
But only bordering, since Seymour
walked, walked everywhere, swiftly.

Memory:
Seymour sneered at my friends
hanging on our Greenwich Village stoop.
With tallboys, hidden joints, and bad posture.
He seethed to my mother: they are thugs.
Embarrassed, she tried to shoo them away.
Did they not know we were hungry and hopeful?

Factoidal Evidence:
1) In New York Seymour was known for:
a) Literary flourish and acerbic wit
b) Pissing off chefs
c) Really, really pissing off chefs
2) In June 2004, Seymour died of pancreatic cancer at age 73.
3) Despite his constant presence on paper, in the city streets, and his name clearly placed in our building directory, Town Hall has no record of any persons in New York by the name of Seymour Britchky.

Reflections:
I’m back to my vacant childhood home
after a decade of desert, ocean, mountain, sky.
Back to the simmering souring city I love;
I expected to see Seymour weaving through streets
Sneering and smiling; greeting, rebuking
Because he is this building, this block,
All the contradictions of this place.

Memory:
Seymour beamed each time
he passed our sheltie, Skippy.
On those rare days, he greeted us:
“Flight of angels!”

Defense
Seymour’s dead and so is my youth
But oh we are both hungry, greedy, hungry
For words, brioche, provocations, trout almondine
Cruelty and soufflé aux fruits de mer,
Peanut butter patties and beauty
Angels in the form of smiling dogs
Hungry for roast squab and squabbling
Greedy for the name in print
Even when it?s a pseudonym and upon death
There?s no proof of existence, only footprints
From Mojave to Café Loup on West 13th
Where I just passed, and Seymour Britchky,
or whatever his name was, often drank alone.

———————————-

Postscript:

Oh Seymour, could you ever have guessed, as you were hunched over your Olivetti, pecking out some lacerating putdown forty years ago, that an aging food writer in Las Vegas, in 2021, would be penning his own homage to your words? I like to think you would be slightly flattered, but from what I’ve read of you, I doubt these adorations would raise even a smile. There were no awards for Seymour Britchky. No television appearances, national recognition, public feuds or fawning fans. All you got was a poem — a poem that I like to think would’ve amused you. Only two chefs showed up to your funeral. Something tells me that would have amused you, too.