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.

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

The Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming a Critic/Doing the Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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