The Best of the Worst. Year. Ever.

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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?)

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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.

Image(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

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Image(My usual at CUT)

Titanic Award – Palms Hotel

110 Unsinkable "Titanic" GIFs | Titanic ship, Titanic, Titanic sinking(Actual footage of Palms on July 1, 2020)

Rising Sun Award/Hidden Gem AwardKaiseki Yuzu

Best Restaurant That’s Closest to My House – Esther’s Kitchen

Biggest (Tastiest) Surprise(s) –

Image(Crab roll at 8East)

Newcomer of the Year Award – ELIO guac’d our world in 2020. Unfortunately, it is “temporarily closed” until further notice (sigh).

Biggest Regret – not getting to Saga Pastries + Sandwich more often.

Wet Dream AwardCosta 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.

Outdoor Restaurants in Las Vegas(Gentlemen: if you can’t score after a dinner here it’s time to retire the hardware)

Closed Strip Restaurant We Missed The Least – Eiffel Tower Restaurant

Lifesaver Award (for keeping us well fed during the Spring Shutdown): 7th & Carson/Capital Grille

Bacchus/Dionysus Award – Garagiste

Zorba AwardElia Authentic Greek Taverna

Image(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 AwardEstiatorio 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.

Καλή τύχη
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.

The Raw and the Cooked Award Yui Edomae Sushi/Kabuto

Image(Uni won’t believe the urchin at Yui)

Hotel If We Never Set Foot In Again Will Be Too Soon – Paris Hotel and Casino

Al Yankovic Award for Weirdest Meal of the Year – the “before” lunch at Cafe No Fur for a future episode of “Restaurant Impossible”— vegan food so bad it could make a meat eater out of you.

Rudy Giuliani Lifetime Achievement Award for Biggest Slinger of Bullshit – Eater Vegas

  • Honorable Mention – the R-J’s “Best of Vegas” awards

Phoenix “Rising From The Ashes” Award –  Osteria Fiorella  

  • Honorable Mention – Letty’s

En Fuego Asian Award Toridokoro Raku

Image(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 IngenuityEsther’s Kitchen

Image(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 Year4 days in Mexico City to restore our sanity

Dessert of the Year – “banana cream pie” at CUT by Nicole Erle and Kamel Guechida:

Banana, caramel in elegant Las Vegas dessert | Las Vegas Review-Journal

Dish of the Year – “duck carnitas” at ELIO:

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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.

Image(….and Happy New Year 2021 from The Food Gal® and Thurston Howell III)

 

Eating Las Vegas – The High Water Mark

Image(Mutual admiration society)

Ah…the end of summer. Traditionally when we would be turning in the final copy for EATING LAS VEGAS The 52 Essential Restaurants.

But not this year. This year there is no joy in Mudville. This year the Mighty Las Vegas has struck out. What we once saw as invincible, unconquerable, un-defeatable, has been laid so low as to be in need of resuscitation, not inspection and dissection.

No way can we justify rating or ranking restaurants according to their quality this year. That so many of them are open at all is a testament to the fortitude of cooks, chefs, owners, staff and everyone connected with our hospitality industry.

Even places we’ve disdained in the past now have our undying respect. This is no time for poncy snobs and their persnickety-ness. Effete, elitist, edicts should not elicit during this era of almost endless enervation.

Put another way: it would be exhausting and unfair to critique any retail business struggling to survive in this climate. Our heart’s not in it, nor should it be.

Right now it’s all about survival, and even though a remarkable number of places have re-opened, it’s too soon to tell which ones will make it.

If I had to describe my prediction for the future of local eateries, I’d call it cautiously optimistic. There seems to be real support out there for the neighborhood joints who have weathered the storm (so far). And interest is high in the places on the drawing boards, ready to spring to life in the coming weeks: Main Street Provisions, Good Pie, Yu-Or-Mi Sushi, all have created real buzz, and the public’s appetite for going out seems to be increasing every week. Letting the bars re-open is also a big plus which will boost the business of many. (Restaurants need a lively bar just as much as a bar needs a lively bar.)

The Strip is another beast entirely, as the fates of so many of our favorite cookshops hang in the balance these days, as the beached whales of Las Vegas Boulevard South struggle to find their footing, right the ship, and regain their sea legs. (Mix. That. Metaphor!)

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As of this writing, 15 of our 52 Essential Restaurants remain closed. Some are gone for good (goodbye Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Hatsumi, Sage…), others hang in the balance (Le Cirque? Picasso? Robuchon?), while a remarkable number have bounced back (even at 50% capacity) and are doing booming business on the days they’re open (usually Wed.-Sun.).

We’ve also gained new appreciation for some places we’d written off in the past (Costa di Mare), and developed an infatuation for a newcomers (ELIO, Letty’s, Raku Toridokoro, Osteria Fiorella) whose menus have knocked us out at every meal we’ve had. (If we were doing a 52 Essential list this year, all of them would certainly be on it, as would ShangHai Taste, Saga , Japaneiro, and Big B’s Texas BBQ.)

Throughout the summer, beginning in early June right through this past weekend, we hit dozens of restaurants, on and off the Strip, and usually found them teaming with customers. Sure, the mask thing makes everyone awkward, and early on, the feelings of discomfort was palpable between customers and staff, but over time these things have faded…even if the unease hasn’t disappeared completely.

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Looking back, it’s now a safe bet to say the publication of our 8th Edition of Eating Las Vegas was the high-water mark of Las Vegas’s gastronomic scene — not the book itself, but  everything that came before it, everything it represented. Thirty years of progress, thousands of hands working for three decades to bring better food and drink to the High Mojave Desert, in a place where once no one thought it possible. My own personal odyssey of eating, studying and writing about this scene led me and others to our event that evening, and it seemed like nothing but blue skies, handmade pizzas and top-flight champagne was ahead for everyone.

But of course it wasn’t. There was an iceberg looming ahead no one saw coming.

It was a grand night, made all the more possible by chefs like John Arena, Chris Decker, Ismaele Romano, James Trees and Vincent Rotolo pitching in to feed us all so well. Toasts were made; speeches were given; babies were kissed; books were signed. At the end of it all was a lively discussion panel with Kim Foster, Eric Gladstone and Trees weighing in with humor and insight on the future of the Las Vegas dining scene. Little did we know how wrong we would all be proven, only two weeks later.

At the top of the page you’ll see us with Paul — a genial fellow whose last name we can’t recall. Paul has bought every edition of ELV going back to 2011. He and his charming wife came, listened us bloviate, and waited for the discussions to end so we could sign all of his books. One thing led to another, multiple distractions intruded, and before we knew it, the evening was over and Paul and spouse had left without us making good on our promise.

No matter, we thought at the time, we’ll catch up with Paul _____ soon enough. Maybe sometime this year in a restaurant, or maybe at next year’s release party.

How foolish of us to take it for granted — because there may never be another book signing party — because there may never be another Las Vegas like there was on February 27, 2020.

Paul, if you’re out there, I apologize. I’m sorry I didn’t sign your books and I’m sorry I didn’t get your last name so I could hunt you down and return the favor.

Peak Vegas had been achieved that day and none of us knew it. But I’m still here with pen in hand, Paul, ready to be of service, if ever again you need me.

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The Covid Diaries – Vol. 10 – What’s Next?

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Day 57, May 12 – Surveying the Landscape

What’s next? Who the fuck knows.

Trying to figure out what’s next is the question on everyone’s mind.

I, for one, have decided to stop thinking about it.

Fearing for businesses I love, and the futures of people I respect, has (literally) kept me up nights over the past six weeks.

But it’s a “no win” game going on between my ears, because what’s done is done and nothing I think, do, or say will affect what’s going to happen.

All I can do is continue to put my money where my mouth is, and urge you to do the same.

Image(Beauteous bento at Kaiseki Yuzu)

Trying to find a silver lining in the cloud that hangs over Las Vegas is a fool’s game. Nothing good will come out of this.

Most cities are fearful for some peoples’ jobs; Las Vegas has an entire industry that’s been laid to waste.

We’re talking entire hotels going under, not just a few small businesses, or the death of an outdated business model.

Imagine someone telling New York City it can re-open, but Wall Street has to remain closed “indefinitely” and you’ll get the idea. Or Hollywood being told it can’t make movies and TV shows in the foreseeable future.

The Sinking of the RMS Titanic (1912)(Las Vegas, say hello to your leetle friend)

Every city’s economy will feel a ripple effect from this shutdown; in Vegas, it is more like a tidal wave, soon to be followed by another tidal wave…as Titanic after Titanic sinks.

If/when a place like Mandalay Bay goes down (with its thousands of employees), it’ll be more like an aircraft carrier sinking.

To keep the maritime metaphor going, turning around Las Vegas’s shattered economy will be like asking the 7th Fleet to change course.

The word is MGM Resorts is going to open only two hotels in its portfolio: Bellagio and New York New York. The Palms has been shuttered until a buyer can be found — taking with it a star-studded lineup of restaurants, including Vetri, Mabel’s BBQ, Shark, and Scotch 80 Prime. The exquisite Mr. Coco is also history.

The Wynn/Encore group is making noises about re-opening everything (including all restaurants) this summer, but its statements feel more like a p.r. gambit than reality.

Venetian/Palazzo is a more unwieldy beast, with dozens of eateries leasing space in both the hotels and the Grand Canal Shoppes. Still, props to both hotel corps for being aggressive in trying to make themselves attractive to vacationers again — even if a quarter of all their customers have indicated they won’t return to Sin City until a vaccine is found.

Nothing about the numbers looks good for the hospitality industry. The Nevada gubenator has mandated a 50% reduction in seating in all restaurants — as if businesses operating on 10% margins can make a go of it with their revenue stream cut in half.

Locally, Tivoli Village (a restaurant black hole in the best of times) is losing Brio and Hampton’s, with perhaps more on the way. Unless some free rent deals are figured out pronto, expect others to follow suit.

Image(Maggie the Magnificent)

The only good news I’ve been able to discern in all of this, after speaking with numerous chefs and owners over the past month, is this: small, personal, low-overhead joints may be able to weather this storm. Places like Japaneiro (top of page) La Maison de Maggie (above) Kaiseki Yuzu, The Real Crepe, Elia Authentic Greek Taverna, or Saga Pastry + Sandwich, might survive, with a little help from the government and their landlords.

These eateries are simple operations — little more than a chef/owner at the helm and a helper (often a family member) in the dining room or kitchen. I like to think of them as speedboats, rather than the behemoth battleships of the Strip. They can get by with less because their operations are so bare bones. This was a major part of their charm before, and it’ll be what drives customers to them now.

Re-booting won’t be so easy for chef-ier joints like Esther’s Kitchen, Partage, Honey Salt, Sparrow + Wolf and Other Mama. Don’t kid yourselves — for all the laid back vibe they project, these are sophisticated operations with lots of moving parts. The good news is they have loyal followings of diners just itching to return; the bad news is you may find a restaurant that, for the time being, is 50% of what it used to be in more ways than one.

Image(Hiro-san slices heroic sushi)

If I was a betting man, I’d be betting on Chinatown. And by “Chinatown” I mean our pan-Pacific panoply of Asian eats all over town.

Never underestimate the resourcefulness of Asians, I say!  They’ve been bucking the odds in this country since the 1850s. Their restaurants, almost by definition, are lean and mean family operations. They expect less and have centuries of experience doing more with less, cooking-wise.

For a taste of Vegas like it was a couple of months ago, you can’t go wrong with  Shang Artisan Noodle, Hiroyoshi, Monta Ramen, or China Mama, or scores of other joints up and down Spring Mountain Road.

Yes, nothing is coming up roses right now, but worrying about it accomplishes nothing. (Easy for me to say, I know.)

How quickly people forget that the reason for the lockdown in the first place was to “flatten the curve” and keep our hospitals from being overrun. Guess what? They never were, and the curve flattened long ago.

This is what happens when you turn public policy over to germaphobes, public health ninnies*, and fraidy-cat politicians. They’ve ensured that the picture ahead isn’t pretty — but it might be pretty tasty if you know where to look.

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* Pardon my snark, but if pro-shutdown advocates are going to continue to treat Covid deaths (most of which are the very sick and old) as tragedies of biblical proportions, then I’m going to (continue to) to play the cynical skeptic.