HUGO’S CELLAR Dweller

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If you really want to get deep in the philosophical weeds sometime, try thinking too much about what constitutes “good taste.” Objectivity, subjectivity, professional norms, expert opinions, philosophical treatises*— they’re all there to dazzle and confuse you.

There is no accounting for taste, the saying goes, and trying to impose your ideas of such on another is a losing proposition. Some people love Mozart; others favor the banjo. You may be anosmic, your wife may be a super-taster. Many upwardly-mobile types crave the furnishings they see in design magazines, while an Italian countess would scoff at such monochromatic dreariness.

Of course, the best tasting things generally could be said to be in good taste, but the converse might not be true. (See, I’m already confusing you.) You might find the sour, aged pungency of classic Roquefort cheese to be exquisite, and ordering it might be thought of as being in the best of “taste,” but it is easy to imagine that others might find such bracing, cultured gaminess repellent — to their palate if not their less-sensory sensibilities.

I could argue that people like big, jammy California wines because they haven’t learned to appreciate the nuances of Pinot Noir (in the same way a music teacher disdains rock and roll in favor of Miles Davis), but to many, the former taste good and the latter do not. Does this mean I have better taste than they do? I would argue yes, but they could argue just the opposite and they would not be wrong.

Good taste is accumulative. Good taste is experiential and highly personal, and at the end of the day, it is not worth the contentiousness to argue otherwise. Which is why one can view the enduring popularity of Hugo’s Cellar only through the lens of those who love it.

Image(Let’s do the Time Warp!)

To love Hugo’s you have to enjoy getting there. And to get there, you have to negotiate the casino floor of the Four Queens — a joint that’s been around since 1966 and has the decor to prove it.

Saying the Four Queens has seen better days is like saying Rudy Giuliani might have a bit of an image problem.

Many have trod here over the decades — locals and tourists alike — strolling to the short stairwell in the middle of the casino which descends to the “cellar” (top of the page).

What they seek when they enter is not “good taste” but, to their minds, something that simply tastes good. To many, this is what Hugo’s is and always has been: a trip down memory lane. This is what “gourmet” was back in the 80s and this is still how it ought to be, right down to the two sides on every plate. Hugo’s revels in its homage to the Seventies — a glorious ode to the kitschy dining of yore. And it does so without apology and with blissful ignorance of how restaurants have evolved.

Almost as fair warning, the menu is posted at the top of the stairs. Being both very long and difficult to read, it serves as a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks there will be cartwheels done in this kitchen. Along the staircase walls you’ll find the awards, most of which are for a wine list that would’ve been pretty impressive in 1992.

At the bottom of the stairs you’ll find a fake fireplace and the kind of brick paneling that was last in fashion when triple-knit leisure suits were all the rage. There is “art” on the walls too (having nothing to do with food), which provides an ersatz sense of hominess. and a low ceiling (and carpet) to enhance the coziness — the whole effect being to remind you of grandma’s rumpus room, circa 1969.

Thankfully, the carpet isn’t shag, although it really should be.

Image(An LBGTQ conundrum: who gets the rose?)

“Always a Touch of Class” is the tag line for the restaurant, and the promo materials offer “romantic and elegant dining with exquisite service in a casual setting.” We’ll leave it to less generous folks to parse the veracity of these assertions, but be forewarned: there is nothing casual going on when it comes to prices.

When it comes to the cooking, there is not a modern thought on the menu. No tweezer food here, no siree! This is protein, starch and veggie territory, gussied up just enough to justify the tariffs.

Here you will find such stalwarts as a table-side salad carte ($22); Fire-Grilled Chicken ($47); a very good Beef Wellington ($69); and a Chateaubriand for Two ($175).  By comparison, the crab cakes ($22) and escargot ($19) seem like relative bargains. By design, the menu lists all pricing in script (as in “Forty-six dollars” for vegetarian, ricotta-Stuffed Jumbo Shells), presumably to soften (or disguise) the sticker shock.

Appetizers arrive without fanfare and without finesse. Calling the crab meat “lump” is a stretch, but it’s is cooked and seasoned well, with a piquant citrus aioli to spice things up. Those nineteen dollars escargot are topped with a little puff pastry hat, no doubt plopped thereon to convey fanciness. After these, the salad carte arrives (beware any noun with a superfluous “e” attached) and things begin to nosedive.

Image(Hail sodden Caesar!)

What may have seemed charming forty years ago, now appears formulaic and metronomic, as the staff** goes through the motions with all the enthusiasm of a mortician embalming his 5,000th body.

At their first “performance” (after bored menu recitations and silverware dropped (literally) on the table), you notice the too-cold lettuce drenched with pre-made dressing (above). Then comes the accoutrements showmanship comprised of the following: “You want anchovies?” Mr. Personality inquires. “Yes, please,” and in they go with all the panache of a cop writing a traffic ticket — all of it to no great effect, other than the oohs and ahhs of other tables. You’re basically at a by-the-numbers salad bar with your own, sullen salad-tosser.

Image(Consider yourself cleansed. Photo courtesy of @VegasSkinny)

At some point a “palate cleanser” shows up in the form of a small scoop of sorbet sitting in one of those sugar cones boasting the structural integrity (and taste) of balsa wood. About the same time, a second bread basket replaces the first and is just as stale.

Image(Meat and 3)

Then, your sixty-nine dollar Wellington arrives (above) and the head-scratching begins. “Who is buying this stuff?” you ask yourself. Are the tables of cargo shorts enamored of sixty dollar steaks? Are the nice, 70-something gray-hairs behind you wowed by fifty buck Raspberry Chicken? Perusing the wine list, you see pages of bottles costing hundreds of dollars, and you’d bet your last Bonnes Mares Burgundy there hasn’t been a three-hundred dollar bottle of Bordeaux sold here in this century.

But the crowds come, oh yes they do. All I had to to was put some pics of Hugo’s on my social media platforms and dozens of “I love that place,” and “so romantic” comments came pouring forth.

What do they love, exactly? And in what “good taste” do they trust? This is where you have to get philosophical. What Hugo’s is selling is familiarity. And memories. And consistency in the service of 1970s banality. The very things a food snob might criticize is what keeps the customers coming back.

Image(Sea bass “Béarnaise” + ubiquitous Brussels)

Sure, the twenty-one dollar prosciutto-wrapped shrimp is way too salty. Of course the fifty-five dollar Maple Bourbon Duck is a bit overcooked and none too crispy. But who cares if the seventy-one dollar sea bass is dappled with a sorry excuse for Béarnaise? Nobody here wants to be challenged or dazzled by their food, they just want to be filled up by stuff they wouldn’t cook at home.

And at that level, Hugo’s fills the bill — this kitchen has churned out these dishes this way for so long, they meet the customers’ expectations like an episode of “Murder, She Wrote.”

If dessert you must, then the nineteen dollars Bananas Foster are flamed table-side for your amazement. The seven dollar Dessert Cart (no “e” necessary when you’re charging less than a sawbuck), looks to be straight from 1983, the first time I ever entered this time warp. They also give every female a long-stemmed red rose upon entering, which apparently also amazes the minions. (Pity the poor hostess who has to handle this transaction with the transgender crowd.)

Is any of this in “good taste” by 21st Century restaurant standards?

Absolutely not, and that’s exactly the point.

Dinner for three (three apps, three entrees, with a split dessert) came to $100/pp.)

HUGO’S CELLAR

Four Queens Casino Hotel

202 East Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.385.4011

>>>>>>><<<<<<<<

*”Subjective universal judgments,” is how Immanuel Kant put it. In Kant’s world (the world of an 18th Century German philosopher – a world without black velvet Elvis “art”), the judgment that something is beautiful or sublime is made with the thought that other people ought to agree with this judgment — a sensus communis if you will — a community of taste, agreed to by a consensus of society. All of which sounds plausible until Slim Jims and Celine Dion are brought into the mix.

**to be fair, our sommelier was charming and helpful. The rest of the staff, when they spoke, acted like they were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at gunpoint.

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The Final List – 2020

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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.

Image(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:

Image(Lobster mac ‘n cheese at Barry’s)

THE LIST 2020

  1. Barry’s Downtown Prime – 2 visits down, 1 to go before we take the measure of this new entry in Vegas’s high-end sweepsteaks.
  2. Yui Edomae Sushi – still gets our nod over Kabuto by the thickness of a piece of gari.
  3. Kaiseki Yuzu – a little slice of Tokyo for those who appreciate the real deal.
  4. Letty’s – best tacos downtown. Don’t even think about arguing with me about this.
  5. Good Pie – new digs are impressive…now all they need is the right to use them.
  6. The Black Sheep – another joint we don’t get to enough…because there’s only one of us to go around.
  7. Kabuto – exquisite sushi. Some prefer it to Yui; we think it’s a toss-up.
  8. 7th & Carson – haven’t been in a while but thankful for them feeding us for months during the shutdown.
  9. Carson Kitchen – new menu = renewed vigor for a downtown pioneer.Image(Esther’s is re-intenting itself)
  10. Esther’s Kitchen – we go for the pasta, head for a tent (above), and stay for the wine.
  11. Grape Vine – improved food – better than it was under the old ownership (Grape Street) – the wine program worth a trip all by itself.
  12. PublicUs – saved our bacon during the darkest days of the Covid shutdown.
  13. Los Molecajetes – so good, so far from where most gringos prefer to tread.Image(Chip chip hooray! For Sin Fronteras salsas!)
  14. Sin Fronteras Tacos – northwest Mexican worth a trip from any part of town.
  15. Elia Authentic Greek Taverna – new digs (and an expanded menu) have us more excited than Zorba at a lamb roast.Pin en Other Oldish Films
  16. Yummy Rice – The Food Gal’s® says the unagi rice bowl here is eely, eely good.
  17. Pop Up Pizza – still fave; still under-appreciated.Image(“Blueberries” at Guy Savoy)
  18. Restaurant Guy Savoy – I go here as often as my wallet and waistline will let me.
  19. Rao’s – surprisingly delicious no matter how depressing the Strip gets.
  20. Elio – remarkable, inventive, elevated Mexican, but will it make it?

  21. Ferraro’s – closed until February at the earliest (sigh).Image(Prosciutto & figs at Osteria Fiorella)
  22. Osteria Fiorella – started as a pop-up, now firmly ensconced at Red Rock; a hit from day one.
  23. Saga Pastry + Sandwich – the only thing wrong with this place is it’s too far from my house.Image(Pithivier at Partage)
  24. Partage – only went once this year and it was spectacular.
  25. Jaleo – no one does Spain better than a man named José.
  26. Capital Grille – our old reliable; also our best chain steakhouse.
  27. Pizzeria Monzu – there ought to be a line out the door for this food.Image(Dat sum dim sum)
  28. New Asian BBQ – best dim sum on Spring Mountain Road.
  29. Aloha Specialties – I like this place for a white-on-white bite (like Kahlua pig with rice and mac); The Food Gal® loathes it.
  30. Costa di Mare – so good, still stunningly beautiful. The pastas are as great as the fish, which is really saying something.
  31. Weera Thai Kitchen – one of many superb Thai restaurants in Vegas now. We’re really spoiled when it comes to our Asian alimentation. Only LA sports a better array. Image
  32. Toridokoro Raku – stunningly good chicken parts, as only the Japanese can do them.
  33. Raku – Japanese food doesn’t get any better, anywhere but Japan.
  34. Hiroyoshi – it’s so small that capacity restrictions are laughable. Beautiful, finely-wrought Japanese food, less expensive than the sushi heavyweights on Spring Mountain Road.
  35. Bazaar Meat – haven’t been in a while; always drop a bundle when I do.
  36. 8oz Korean Steakhouse – for the Korean steak lover in you. The best of the bunch.
  37. Lamaii – holding on, like a lot of its brethren. Fabulous wine list; inflammatory Thai.
  38. The Real Crepe – galettes, crepes, and a slice of Brittany on the cusp of Summerlin.
  39. La Maison de Maggie – essential when you need a French fix.
  40. Delices Gourmands – they do the most with the yeast here. Bread so fine it will have you Loave-ing Las Vegas.
  41. Rosallie Cafe – as crumby as they come when it comes to baking your day. Don’t get me tarted.
  42. Cafe Breizh – always gets a rise out of us, especially when we’re leaven beyond our means. With Pierre Gatel’s creations, we’re never bun and done. He’s always up to his baguette of tricks, and it’s usually a give and cake proposition, guaranteed to have us leaving in a glaze of glory. Think of it as cream and punishment.
  43. Japaneiro – Kevin Chong was our first post-shutdown dinner. Still the best steak in the ‘burbs.
  44. Khoury’s Mediterranean – every time we eat here I kick myself for not eating here more often.
  45. Weiss Restaurant Deli – good, but not as good as….
  46. Saginaw’s – the best deli sandwiches in town, which, sadly, isn’t saying much…about our town, not the sandwiches.Image
  47. Cipriani – I’ll see you there for lunch this Friday…and almost every Friday.
  48. Ocha Thai – downtown’s most reliable Thai.
  49. DE Thai – downtown’s most convenient Thai, now with a second location!
  50. China Mama – noodles, dumplings, cumin lamb and crispy beef to die for.
  51. Edo Tapas & Wine – now open every weeknight and killing it.
  52. Ohlala French Bistro – if it were in my ‘hood, I’d be here once a week.
  53. Rooster Boy Cafe – ditto.
  54. CUT by Wolfgang Puck –  1-2 with Bazaar Meat when it comes to beef emporium hegemony.
  55. ‘e’ by José Andrés – amazingly, re-opened this fall and is still a tough ticket.Image(2020 drove us to drink…a lot)
  56. Delmonico Steakhouse – now a senior sirloin statesman, still a superb one.
  57. Matteo’s Ristorante – superb pasta, perhaps the best on the Strip. Right now I can’t think of any better.
  58. Yum CHA – our go-to for dim sum in the southwest.
  59. Soyo Korean Restaurant – we go with our Korean friends so they can explain everything to us — one umami bomb after another.
  60. Majordomo Steakhouse – Vegas’s most interesting steakhouse; see, I said something nice about David Chang.
  61. Estiatorio Milos – closed at Cosmo, set to re-open in February in the Venetian. We wish them luck. They’ll need it.Image(Kinnara Thai)
  62. Serrano’s Mexican – nice neighborhood standby.
  63. Marché Bacchus – still the most romantic spot in town. Rosé all day? Better off red? Experiencing growing champagnes? Drawing a blanc? Wine not dine here?
  64. New York Bagel N Bakery – best bagels in town.
  65. Every Grain Sheridan Su can still score.
  66. La Strega – too far from Chez Curtas but mighty tasty.
  67. Trés Cazuelas – difficult location, great food.
  68. Players Locker by Wolfgang Puck – an under-the-radar gem.
  69. Locale – also too far from civilization, but we wish them luck.
  70. Kinnara Thai – eye-popping Thai in an unlikely location.Image(Roll with it)
  71. Cafe Mong – I didn’t think I’d love a rolled crepe (above). Boy how wrong I was.
  72. Bajamar Fish Tacos – good tacos but the bums at the front door drove us away, for good.
  73. Sin City Smokers – love their pulled pork…and the ribs.
  74. Big B’s Texas BBQ – love their brisket…and the sides
  75. The Goodwich – under new ownership. Not a good sign, especially in this climate.
  76. L&L Hawaiian BBQ – strictly for the loco moco lover in you.
  77. Magal Korean BBQ – open for lunch, so we go for the bibimbap at lunch. 
  78. 8East – remarkable Asian fusion, tucked in an obscure corner of an empty hotel (for now).
  79. Victory Burger – big burgers, good beef, slightly overdone.Image(A happy Chutima clan means a well-fed Las Vegas)
  80. Lotus of Siam – both locations now reopened (see smiling Chutimas above)!
  81. Spago – not the superstar it once was, but still in the game.
  82. ShangHai Taste – superb dumplings and other things to numb your tongue.
  83. Pho So 1 – our old Vietnamese reliable.
  84. Shang Artisan Noodle – with Covid restrictions, can only seat a comically small # of people. Image
  85. Oscar’s Steakhouse – sometime this year, we’ll do an Oscar’s v. Barry’s downtown throwdown. You’ll be able to read about it here.
  86. Oodle Noodle – Udon’t need to look any further for your wheat starch noodle fix.
  87. Kung Fu Thai & Chinese – I had a Covid fever dream that when every other restaurant in Las Vegas has closed, Kung Fu (since 1973) will still be slinging yen ta fo and cashew chicken to its loyal customers. God bless them, every one.
  88.  Mg Patisserie – Crust in case, dough yourself a favor, and don’t be a hothouse flour. You’ll only make batters worse by not rolling in here when you knead to.
  89. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi – What’s going on in the Arts District right now is like a little foodie X-mas present for all of Las Vegas: three new restaurants, all within a stone’s throw of each other, have opened in the last three weeks. This gorgeous little bento box is the hidden gem of the bunch.

Image(Oysters w/ ponzu and chives)

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.

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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.

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Things Will Never Be the Same

Ed. note: The following essay appears in this month’s Desert Companion magazine. Click here to read it in its original format.

We seemed invincible once, didn’t we? Thirty years of ever-expanding prosperity will do that to you. Having survived Gulf wars, dot-com busts, recessions, mass shootings and depressions, it was a cinch the public’s appetite for all things Las Vegas was insatiable. Since 1994, we had seen one restaurant boom after another: celebrity chefs, the French Revolution of the early aughts, Chinatown’s twenty year expansion, Downtown’s resurgence — all of it  gave us rabid restaurant revelers a false sense of security. A cocky confidence that the crowds would flock and the champagne would always flow.

And then we were floored by a Covid left hook no one saw coming. Poleaxed, cold-cocked, out on our feet.  In an instant, literally, thirty years of progress hit the mat. To keep the metaphor going, we’ve now lifted ourselves to the ropes for a standing eight count. The question remains whether we can recover and still go the distance, or take one more punch and suffer a brutal TKO.

There was an eeriness to everything in those early months, as if a relative had died, or we were living in a bad dream. A sense of loss and apology filled the air. Like someone knocked unconscious (or awakening from a nightmare), our first instincts were to reassure ourselves. Restaurants were there to feed and help us back to our feet and the feelings were mutual. Reassurances and gratitude were the watchwords whenever you picked up a pizza or grabbed take-out from a chef struggling to make sense of it all.

Then, as quick as an unseen uppercut, the mood turned surly and defensive. The moment restaurants were given the go-ahead to start seating people again, the battle lines were drawn. It took some weeks to build the trenches, but by July, what began as a “we’re all in this together” fight for survival devolved into a multi-front war pitting survivalists on all sides against each other.  Mutual support evaporated as tensions arose between those needing to make a living and those who saw epidemic death around every corner.  Caught in the middle were the patrons: people who just wanted to go out, take advantage of our incredible restaurant scene and have a good time. Suddenly, everyone felt uncomfortable, and in a matter of a few calamitous weeks, dining out in America went from “we’re here to have a good time” to “let’s all struggle to get through this’ — not exactly a recipe for a good time, which is, after all, the whole point of eating out.

Reduced hours and crowds meant shorter menus, since every restaurant in town was forced to narrow its food options. No one seemed to mind, since anyone taking the time to dine out was simply happy the place was open. But if you sum it all up — the rules, the emptiness, the fear, the feeling of everyone being on guard — it’s a wonder anyone bothered going out at all. But going out to eat is what we do, because it is fun, convenient and delicious, and because we are human.

As Las Vegas’s most intrepid gastronaut, I’ve had to curb my voracious appetite more than anyone. Overnight my routine went from visiting ten restaurants a week to a mere few. Even in places where I’m on a first-name basis with the staff, the experience is as suppressed as the voices of the waiters. Instead of concentrating on hospitality, the singular focus is now on following all the rules. All of which makes you appreciate how the charm of restaurants stems from the sincerity of those serving you — something hard to notice when you can’t see their face.

Nowhere are these feelings more acute than on the Strip. “Las Vegas needs conventions to survive,” says Gino Ferraro, facing the simplest of facts. “If the hotels suffer, we suffer.” He’s owned Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar since 1985 and will be the first to tell you how thin the margins are for success in the business. Restaurants are in your blood more than your bank account, and micromanaging, cutting costs, and (hopefully) another year of government assistance are what he sees as keys to their survival. “Good restaurants will survive, but there’s no doubt there will be less of them.”

Unlike the free-standing Ferraro’s, the Strip is different. There, the restaurants are amenities — like stores in a mall if you will — and from Sunday-Thursday (when the conventions arrived) they used to thrive. These days, like Ferraro’s, they still pack ’em in on weekends, but almost all are closed Monday-Wednesday. This doesn’t mean the food or the service has suffered, far from it, only that everyone is hanging on by their fingernails, and this anxiety is palpable when you walk through the doors. The staffs are almost too welcoming, which is nice, but you can sense the fear and it’s not pretty, and it is not going away for many months to come.

As Vegas slowly re-opens, one thing you can no longer take for granted is that each hotel will have a full compliment of dining options, from the most modest to world famous. If I had to make a prediction, it would be that a year from now, some hotels may field a smaller team of culinary superstars, and their bench will not be as deep, and those stars will have another season of wear and tear on them without any talented rookies to come along and take their place.

Long before the shutdown, there were signs we had reached peak Vegas and things were starting to wane. Some fancy French venues were showing their age, the Venetian/Palazzo (with its panoply of dining options), seemed overstuffed, and rumblings were heard that even the indefatigable David Chang had lost his fastball. The same could be said for the whole celebrity-chef-thing, which was starting to feel very end-of-last-century by the end of last year. The Palms’ murderer’s row of newly-minted sluggers was mired in a slump, and our gleaming, big box, pan-Asian eye-candy (Tao, Hakkasan) were not shining as bright as they once did.

The stakes are much higher when you consider the reputation of Las Vegas as a whole. Survey the landscape these days and all you can ask is, how much of this damage is permanent? It took from 1989-2019 to take Las Vegas from “The Town That Taste Forgot” to a world class, destination dining capital — a claim to fame like no other — where an entire planet of gastronomic delights, cooked by some of the best chefs in the business, was concentrated among a dozen swanky, closely-packed hotels. Now, what are we? A convention city with no conventions? A tourist mecca three days a week? Can we recapture this lost ground, or is some of it gone forever? Everyone is asking but no one has the answers.

Perhaps a culling of the herd was already in the works and all Covid did was accelerate the process. Are the big money restaurant days over? Certainly until those conventions return, and no one is predicting that until next year, at the earliest. If that’s the case, it will be a leaner/meaner gastronomic world that awaits us down the road — not the cornucopia of choices laid before you every night, no matter what style of food struck your fancy. The fallout will include the casinos playing it safe; not throwing money at chefs like they once did, and sticking with the tried a true for awhile.  Less ambitious restaurant choices? Absolutely. It is impossible to imagine a single European concept making a splash like Joël Robuchon did in 2005, or any Food Network star getting the red carpet treatment just for slapping their name on a door. The era of Flay, Ramsay, Andrés and others is over, and the “next big thing” in Las Vegas dining won’t be a thing for a long time.

If the Strip’s prospects look bleak (at least in the short term), locally the resilience has been astounding. Neighborhood venues hunkered down like everyone else, but now seem poised for a resurgence at a much faster rate than anything happening in the hotels.  If the Strip resembles a pod of beached whales, struggling to get back in the water, then local restaurants are the more nimble pilot fish, darting about, servicing smaller crowds wherever they find them. Four new worthwhile venues are popping up downtown: upscale tacos at Letty’s, Yu-Or-Mi Sushi and Sake, Good Pie and the American gastro-pub Main Street Provisions, all in the Arts District. Off the Strip Mitsuo Endo has debuted his high-toned yakitori bar — Raku Toridokoro — to much acclaim, and brew pubs are multiplying everywhere faster than peanut butter stouts.

Chinatown — with its indomitable Asians at the helm — seems the least fazed by any of this, and Circa will spring to life before year’s end on Fremont Street, hoping to capture some of the hotel mojo sadly absent a few miles south. Going forward, some of these imposed restrictions will remain in place to ensure survival (more take-out, smaller menus, fewer staff), but the bottom line is look to the neighborhoods if you wish to recapture that rarest of sensations these days, a sense of normalcy.

Watching my favorites absorb these body blows has been like nursing a sick child who did nothing to deserve such a cruel fate. In a way it’s made me realize that’s what these restaurants have become to me over decades: a community of fledgling businesses I’ve supported and watched grow in a place no one thought possible. As social experiments go, the great public health shutdown of 2020 will be debated for years, but this much is true: Las Vegas restaurants were at their peak on March 15, 2020, and reaching that pinnacle is a mountain many of them will never again climb.