(Walla Walla, Washington)
(Walla Walla, Washington)
There were no winners this year, only survivors.
“Best of” awards seem frivolous now. They may have always been so, but it feels unseemly to play favorites when everyone is adrift in a sea of uncertainty, clinging to leaky life rafts being periodically punctured by clueless bureaucrats.
But good times were had, and excellence deserves recognition.
Even amidst all the despair, the restaurants of Las Vegas — especially off the Strip — surprised us, day after day, dinner after dinner, with their recuperative powers. Three month shutdown – 50% occupancy – 25% occupancy – Reservations Required – Table spacing – No parties of more than four – Closed bars – Ridiculous rules (at Circa bars, they make you put your mask on between sips of your cocktail) – none of which deterred hundreds of intrepid restaurants (and thousands of service workers) from soldiering on.
Any other businesses put through this ringer would’ve folded their tents long ago. (Can you imagine an insurance agency, bank, or plumber being told they could only service 25% of their customers and keeping their doors open?)
None of them have thrived, but survive they did. And a remarkable number of them opened in the midst of all this — all serving food and drinks that astounded us with its consistent awesomeness. It is a testament to the depth of Vegas’s kitchen talent that so many restaurants — on and off the Strip — have maintained their excellence throughout this year of trials and tribulations.
So, as a final recap, we at Being John Curtas thought we’d entertain you with some highlights of our year in dining. As you may have seen from the previous post, we were busy, even during the pandemic. Probably a third less busy than we would be normally in covering the Las Vegas culinary scene, but still pounding the pavement every week, looking for a noteworthy nosh.
And pound we did. One hundred restaurants were visited at last count (up a few since we pegged the number at 97 two weeks ago), and most of them were more than worthy of attention. Of course, being who we are, we can’t leave this kidney stone of a year without a few pointed barbs at some less-worthy venues, but we will try (as we have all year) to keep the snark to a minimum.
So, here they are food fans: The Best of the Worst. Year. Ever.
(Smiling Siamese eyes foretell fantastic Lotus Thai revival)
Audacity Award(s) For Gallantry Under Fire:
Against All Odds Award(s) (Hi Falutin’ Division) –
Chowhound Award (for feeding us the most (and the most exquisite) meals in 2020) – Cipriani
You Can’t Beat This Meat Award – CUT
(My usual at CUT)
Titanic Award – Palms Hotel
Rising Sun Award/Hidden Gem Award – Kaiseki Yuzu
Best Restaurant That’s Closest to My House – Esther’s Kitchen
Biggest (Tastiest) Surprise(s) –
(Crab roll at 8East)
Biggest Regret – not getting to Saga Pastries + Sandwich more often.
Wet Dream Award – Costa di Mare – which simultaneously takes home the coveted Go Fish Award, for feeding us the best seafood in the most romantic setting in Las Vegas.
Closed Strip Restaurant We Missed The Least – Eiffel Tower Restaurant
Bacchus/Dionysus Award – Garagiste
Zorba Award – Elia Authentic Greek Taverna
(You don’t eat meat? That’s okay, we’ll have lamb!)
St. Jude Lost Cause Award – the Green Valley/Henderson food scene
Honest to Christ, it is a mystery how anyone who lives among these stucco farms (ringed by franchised dreck) weighs more than 140 pounds. My advice if you want to lose weight: move to Hendertucky.
José Can You See Award – Sin Fronteras Tacos
WTF Award – Estiatorio Milos closes at Cosmo, moves to Venetian….where now it will compete with 47 other restaurants at a location where many have fallen flatter than a fold of phyllo.
Kalí týchi ("good luck" in Greek - they'll need it)
Cassandra Award – to us for forlornly forecasting the future fatalities facing our fanciful frog ponds.
(Uni won’t believe the urchin at Yui)
Hotel If We Never Set Foot In Again Will Be Too Soon – Paris Hotel and Casino
Rudy Giuliani Lifetime Achievement Award for Biggest Slinger of Bullshit – Eater Vegas
Phoenix “Rising From The Ashes” Award – Osteria Fiorella
En Fuego Asian Award – Toridokoro Raku
(Endo-san is one bad mother clucker; we suspect fowl play)
En Fuego Neighborhood Award – The Arts District in downtown Las Vegas
Life Support Award – Sahara Hotel (What’s keeping this joint open is anyone’s guess…)
Frank Lloyd Wright Medal for Architectural Ingenuity – Esther’s Kitchen
(Nowhere are flavors more intents than at Esther’s)
Best Intentions (Sorry We Didn’t Get There This Year) Awards –
Wine(s) of the Year – 4 days wallowing in Walla Walla, Washington wines
Trip of the Year – 4 days in Mexico City to restore our sanity
Dessert of the Year – “banana cream pie” at CUT by Nicole Erle and Kamel Guechida:
Dish of the Year – “duck carnitas” at ELIO:
Rigor-Mortis Award – to food writing, which already had its one good foot on a banana peel before Covid hit. The pandemic has effectively ended food writing from any perspective other than that of a public relations lapdog, and turned what few media outlets are left into sniveling seekers of approbation (see “Rudy Giuliani Award” above). When the typist at this keypad retires (and it is not far off), you will be left to your idiots, sycophants, and influencers to guide you where to eat. As the Greeks would say: Kalí týchi with that.
Chef(s) of the Year – All of them
Waiter(s) of the Year – Anyone who served us so much as a cupcake in 2020
Restaurateur of the Year – God bless them everyone
….and let’s leave it at that.
Good Riddance, 2020.
(….and Happy New Year 2021 from The Food Gal® and Thurston Howell III)
A man cannot be too serious about what he eats. – Confucius
I can’t stand people who aren’t serious about their meals. – Oscar Wilde
We’ve spent the past week quizzing friends (many of whom we’ve dined with over the past year) about how many restaurants they thought we had been to during the pandemic. Some guessed as few as 5; most hovered in the 20-30 range; while a few put the number at around 50.
It was amusing to point out to them how wrong they were.
Care to guess?
Consider this before you do: A popular notion now holds that you have to do something 10,000 times before you get really good at it — be it hitting a baseball, knitting, or playing chess. When it comes to eating out, I eclipsed that number twenty years ago. Now, it’s too many to count. Even in an off year, I accumulated restaurants like some people do bad habits.
(Tempura lunch at Kaiseki Yuzu)
Yes, even in this down year (the understatement of the century), the number — according to my records (receipts, social media postings and such) — was almost 100 (96 to be precise), and I’m probably missing a few.
Many of them were visited more than once. Cipriani I probably went to 25 times; Esther’s Kitchen a dozen; Guy Savoy twice; and Kaiseki Yuzu at least 5. We finally got back to an old Mexican friend in the northeast (Los Molecajetes), discovered a great wine program in an old haunt (Grape Vine), and gained new-found respect for some superior Italian seafood (Costa di Mare).
We have mourned the death of our great frog ponds (Robuchon, Gagnaire), swelled with pride at the resilience of Chinatown, and marveled at the resurgence of downtown.
Through it all we’ve been battling the soul-crushing weight of America’s obsession with Covid. With that obsession has come wave after wave of regulations, each a cruel blow to small business owners, none more ravaged than the hospitality industry.
The irony of Covid hitting right when America’s participation in eating out was at an all time high is not lost on us — a “market correction” which was neither inevitable nor necessary. Restaurant-going was not a stock market/real estate bubble. It was an enjoyable human activity from which everyone profited.
And then we killed it, or at least let it be killed — ruining the lives of many in service of the few.
But the Curtas household couldn’t/wouldn’t let groupthink take over our lives. We certainly didn’t let it prevent us from supporting the restaurants of Las Vegas which we hold so dear.
I don’t bother with mediocrity anymore. I’ll leave exploration of the obscure to the intrepid, and of the absurd to Instagram influencers. What goes into my pie hole is the best food Las Vegas has to offer. So it has been for thirty years, and so it was over the past 12 months.
As usual, all places are randomly listed and come highly recommended unless otherwise noted. Our restaurant bills this year would choke a horse, but was money well spent and I’m proud to have spent it. You should consider parting with some of yours at one of these as soon as possible:
(Lobster mac ‘n cheese at Barry’s)
THE LIST 2020
Also Visited This Year but Closed for Good
Cucina by Wolfgang Puck
Santos Guisdados Tacos
Mordeo Wine Bar
Flock & Fowl
Hall of Shame
Eiffel Tower – went here on my birthday. Two bites in I regretted it. Never again, even if it reopens.
Mon Ami Gabi – when management will treat yours truly as a pigeon to be plucked, you know they have no shame. “Keep your hand on your wallet,” as my dad used to say. You have been warned.
Final one to visit before the end of 2020…
97. Main Street Provisions – looking forward to trying it as soon as their shakedown cruise ends.
Someone recently asked me why I go to so many restaurants. I answered by saying I’ve become the (un)official, upaid publicist for about 60 of them.
It is a role I will gladly embrace until we retire all this restricted dining nonsense…and I can get back to the role I’m best know for: being a lovable curmudgeon.