The List 2021 – Vegas on the Rebound

Image(A toast to sanity restored!)

These are the times that try men’s appetites.

And by “try men’s appetites” I mean tempt them unmercifully.

After the trying times of 2020, it seems like nothing but sunshine and rainbows in our culinary world these days. With venue after venue opening (or reopening) to eager mouths and hungry souls.

Downtown is exploding (in a good way), the Strip is awakening like a slumbering giant (or an unstuck freighter?), and the ‘burbs are getting better than ever. Even Tivoli Village has become a destination.

Circa has pumped new life into Fremont Street; Oscar’s now serves the best cheeseburger in town, and we’ve even found a brunch we don’t hate. (High praise indeed!)

For grins and giggles we’ve decided this year to officially keep count of every restaurant in which we eat. In years past we never kept a running total, but generally we averaged around 500/year…for 20+ years.

Covid put an end to that streak — turning us into a soporific shell of our former self.  A somnambulant supper slacker, if you will.

But things have turned around in a big way: It took us all of 2020 to make it to 100 restaurants. This year we did it in a little more than three months.

These are thumbnails of where we’ve been, and why we think you should go there. They are mere sketches, pithy positive platitudes of pontification for your palate’s pleasure, and probably as paired down and word-penurious as our prolific personality can parse.

In other words, they’re short and upbeat and we’ve tried to keep the negativity in check.

And like we at #BeingJohnCurtas always say: you get what you pay for on this website.

So, without further ado, here it is….

THE LIST 2021

THE HEAVYWEIGHTS

Bazaar Meat

Image(Meat me at Bazaar)

It’s been almost a decade since I steaked out the great meat emporiums of the Big Apple, but I’d bet my sweet tenderloin none of them can hold a candle to this pinnacle of prime.

Cipriani

Image(Or as I call it: Friday)

Almost every Friday you’ll find me here at lunch. When someone else puts out a midday repast this elegant, you’ll find me there, too.

Costa di Mare

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As stunning as ever. As expensive as ever. Our splashiest seafood venue is worth a splurge, so don’t complain about the soaking. (You get what you pay for, and ingredients this good, and cooking this precise, are both trés chere. Ivo Angelov, Mark LoRusso and Daniela Santos have this place tuned tauter than the mizzenmast on a ship-of-the-line.

CUT

There are two great steakhouses in Las Vegas and this is one of them. The quality of the meat between CUT and Bazaar is a toss-up (although they source their beef from different purveyors with different philosophies), but on any given night I’d give CUT the edge for the restless inventiveness of Matthew Hurley’s cooking.

Edge Steakhouse

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A real sleeper in the Westgate Hotel. Neither the hotel nor the Yelper clientele quite seem aware of just how great Steve Young’s food is, but if I were forced to rate Vegas steakhouses right now, it would be a strong #3.

Estiatorio Milos

The best Greek restaurant in Las Vegas that isn’t Elia Authentic Greek Taverna. Simply incredible seafood in a stunning new location.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Image(Itadakimasu, Kaoru-san and Mayumi-san.)

Japanese food so authentic you’ll want to start acting like Toshiro Mifune.

Oscar’s Steakhouse –

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(Umani bombs away!)

Ben Jenkins has this place on a roll. His double-cheeseburger (above) belongs on a pedestal of prime.

Raku –

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Image(Hokkaido uni)

Still the best izakaya in the West. Fight me.

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

Ada’s Wine Bar –

Image(Shrimply the toast of the town)

Eclectic list; small menu; fabulous food  by Jackson Stamper; al fresco setting. So good I’ll even brave the depressing empty-ugliness of Tivoli Village to go there.

Big Dan’s Chinese Noodles –

Image(Long noodles = long life)

Inside the SF Market on Spring Mountain Road are Biangbiang noodles so good they’ll scare the Shaanxi into you.

Barry’s Prime Steakhouse –

Barry’s will forever be a war with itself over whether it wants to be a serious steakhouse or a hangout for the rich and beautiful. Celebrities and good food go together like hockey and high tea, but if that’s the way they want to market themselves, who am I to argue?

Burgundy Cafe & Bakery –

Image(Missing: a mime)

Our French bakery scene is starting to resemble the Left Bank. To Cafe Breizh, Delices Gourmands, and the newly opened Le Cafe Du Vegas, you can add this gem on West Sahara, built from the floor boards to the mille feuille by Chef Florent Cheveau. Straight outta Paris it is, with pastries so Parisian they ought to come with a mime and an organ grinder.

D’Agostino’s –

Donny Thompson’s makeover of Cafe Chloe is still in mid-stream — waiting for the old regulars to either die off or seek their pre-chewed pasta at some other insipid Italian. There’s lots to love here (Tablecloths! Better wines! True Bolognese!), but also some red sauce holdovers on the menu which are best forgotten. Let Brandi guide you and you’ll eat damn well…especially if you start with the antipasto salad.

8East –

Image(We’re very picanha about our steaks)

Fremont Street’s most fascinating food. Asian-fusion filtered through Dan Coughlin’s American-Thai sensibilities. Open for lunch and dinner. So good it ought to be featured on the Circa Hotel marquee. Get the appetizers — all of them — and that picanha steak (above). On second thought, get the whole menu…except the lobster fried rice. It’s good but not worth the tariff.

Good Pie –

Too many pizzas! That’s what I complain to Vincent Rotolo about: his menu is too damn big. Too many toppings. Too many crusts. Too many options. On the other hand, we have yet to have a bad bite here so I should probably just keep my (pizza) pie hole shut.

Johnny C’s Diner –

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A real, old-fashioned diner, tweaked with just enough cheffy accents to keep the snobs satisfied. Avocado toast may be to savories what cupcakes are to sweets, but Johnny Church’s version is to others what a symphony is to a square dance.

Letty’s –

Image(Toasted Oaxacan cheese-wrapped quesataco at Letty’s)

The best tacos downtown. Don’t even think of arguing with me about this.

Main Street Provisions –

Image(Wagyu eating anywhere but Main Street Provisions?)

They took the ham steak off the menu, and for this I can never forgive them. But they kept the polenta hummus, gonzo babaganoush, the fry bread and the best veggies this side of Sparrow + Wolf, so all is forgiven. P.S. We love the short wine list and the cocktails too.

Osteria Fiorella –

Three previous Italians in this space have all fallen flatter than stale focaccia. Marc Vetri’s troops made it a raging success right out of the chute. I actually enjoyed my brunch there, even if the whole time I was dreaming about dinner.

Pizza Forte –

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Mimmo Ferraro is casting pearls before swine by bringing legitimate, big city pizza to unworthy college kids at UNLV who probably think Little Caesars is an upgrade from Domino’s. They won’t appreciate his cheesy, crusty, New York-inspired pies. But we do, Mimmo, we do.

Rainbow Kitchen –

Image(Dungeness love crab?)

Holy har gow, Batman! The dim sum here is spectacular! And a dumpling or three above its competition. This place had the misfortune to open one month before Covid hit (late January last year), and had been limping along since last summer. Now that restrictions have loosened, it has become Number 1 on every shu mai researcher’s list. A well-heeled Chinese clientele has taken to it like hoisin to spare ribs. Killer deals on Dungeness crabs (above) and lobsters, too. Very Cantonese, but also quite welcoming to gwailo. No carts, you order off a menu, much as you do in the nicer dim sum palaces of Hong Kong. “All of our food stays fresher that way,” says owner Bill Chiang, and he’s right.

Robata En –

Ramir de Castro returns! Bringing his unique brand of Japanese fusion to Spring Mountain Road. Like many of the newbies on this list, he’s had a brutal go of it for the past year, waiting to open, then opening with all kinds of restrictions. If you liked him at Yonaka (where he first made his mark), you’ll love his updated takes on tsukune, kaarage and such. I was always puzzled about why Yonaka threw in the towel after an awesome start, loyal fan base, and plenty of publicity, but whatever the reason, he’s back and Chinatown is richer for it.

Saginaw’s –

Image(Better than…?)

Sex is great, but have you tried “Derek’s Favorite” roast beef and salami sandwich?

YUGA KOREAN –

A pleasant surprise right next door to the Village Theaters on West Sahara. Friendly service. Easy to love Korean ‘cue.

Yu-Or-Mi Sushi –

Is it top-drawer, drop-your-chopsticks sushi of the Kame, YUI, or Kabuto persuasion? No, but it’s a damn site better than most neighborhood spots, with some interesting sakes and Japanese beers.

OLD RELIABLES

China Mama –

Image(The Mamas of China Mama)

Our best Chinese restaurant. Period.

DE Thai Kitchen –

Small but mighty. Small but incendiary menu. The Kua Gling (spicy southern Thai dry curry) separates the men from the boys in the Thai spice brigade.

E-jo Korean –

Image(E-jo banchan, I say, before I do.)

It had been ages since we ate here. One of the first Korean restaurant locations in town that’s still going strong. (Back in the day, there were several in Commercial Center, but all have gone to that great banchan in the sky.) Modest but satisfying, and filled with fellow Korean travelers chattering away in their native tongue the day we visited.

Elia Authentic Greek Taverna –

Jammed every night it’s open, with good reason. Beautiful Greek food even my yia yia would approve of.

Ferraro’s –

Former Chef of the Year Francesco di Caudo was a Covid casualty — which tells me means they’re going back to basics at our oldest and best Italian. But the basics here have always been solid, and the wine list remains an Ital oenophile’s dream come true — now with some beautiful discounts on some of its best bottles.

Kung Fu Thai-Chinese –

There is something delightfully old school about this institution on Valley View at Spring Mountain Road. Most of it is standard issue, but sometimes a body just wants to getta big dish of beef chow mein.

Los Antojos –

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Image(Tacos, tacos, y mas tacos!)

Hadn’t been in almost a decade, even though it was in the early editions of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurant (Max Jacobson was a huge fan). I was alone. Ordered a couple of things. Sat down. Removed the mask; fiddled with the phone. Within minutes the manager came over, dropped his mask to reveal and ear-to-ear grin and shook my hand. Then he pointed to various notices, articles, and awards on the wall (from Saveur magazine to Food Network) and thanked me for all the national recognition they received after our first book came out in 2010. Made my fucking day. P.S. The food is still great (as it has been since 1995), at this ultimate Mexican hole-in-the-wall.

Nakamura-Ya –

Image(I’m urchin you to try this uni linguine)

Japan goes Italian with some creamy, seafood-packed pastas. The real deal that’s also a real deal.

Ohlala French Bistro –

French resilience should never be underestimated. Another mainstay that came through Covid smelling like a rosé.

Orchid’s Garden –

Not the best dim sum by a long shot, but a lot better than it used to be.

Partage –

The Three Musketeers — Vincent, Yuri and Nicolas — have created a following for all things French….in the middle of Chinatown. Their new wine store venture — French Cellar by Partage — has quickly become the in-spot for Burgundian imbibing.  Incroyable!

PublicUs –

This place is so crowded nobody goes there anymore.

The Black Sheep –

Jamie Tran is on this season’s Top Chef. Go Jamie Go! And go you should to hear neighborhood powerhouse that’s soon to be one tough ticket, until she expands, which we hope happens soon.

7th & Carson –

The Irish breakfast is worth a trip all by itself.

Sparrow + Wolf –

Image(Endless pastabilities)

Brian Howard’s seasonal menus are things of beauty. Blink and you’ll miss them. Therefore, we suggest you hit S+W seasonally, if not more often, if you want to thoroughly examine what our most restless chef is rustling up.

Windy City Dogs –

A thing of beauty.

The Italian beef didn’t wow us; the Chicago dogs did.

Yi Mei Champion Deli –

Weird Taiwanese spot tucked deep into a Spring Mountain strip mall. No one speaks much English, service is spotty, decor is mid-century-someone’s-warehouse, but some of the soups will save you a ticket to Taipei.

JURY STILL OUT

Flock & Fowl –

Will be changing its name and concept soon. Good bar food is tough to find, and better-than-average bar vittles is what they’ll be shooting for here. We’re rooting for it.

Milpa

Image(Everything but the location bowls me over)

Beautiful, fresh-ground tortillas, nice tacos, local sourcing, and hard-working chefs with a great idea in the wrong place.

Steve’s Pig Pickins BBQ –

Good ‘cue. Terrible location. We shall see.

NEVER AGAIN

Hugo’s Cellar –

Read this and weep.

Mint Indian Bistro –

Vegas once boasted a host of outstanding Indian eats….or at least a half-dozen addresses of acceptable sub-continent alimentation. What the hell happened?


That’ll do it for the first quarter of the year. As bullish as we are about Vegas’s restaurant future, it won’t truly be “back” until the great Strip dining palaces are open more than 3 nights a week. Fingers are crossed; breath is being held.

In the meantime, find someone who covers more territory than I do, and I’ll buy them dinner at Restaurant Guy Savoy.

If you’re interested, here are the restaurant meals I’ve had since January 1st of this year, in order:

  1. Jack Pots – Circa
  2. Cipriani
  3. Saginaw’s
  4. D’Agostino’s
  5. PublicUs
  6. Vegas Test Kitchen
  7. Cipriani
  8. The Tap House
  9. DE Thai Kitchen
  10. PublicUs
  11. Hugo’s Cellar
  12. Cornish Pasty
  13. Goodwich
  14. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  15. Cipriani
  16. Orchid’s Garden
  17. Financier – Winter Park, Florida
  18. Hamilton’s – Winter Park, Florida
  19. Boca – Winter Park, Florida
  20. Croissant Gourmet – Winter Park, Florida
  21. Bosphorous Turkish – Winter Park, Florida
  22. Rocco’s – Winter Park, Florida
  23. Financier – Winter Park, Florida
  24. FARM – Bluffton, South Carolina
  25. Skylight Inn – Ayden, South Carolina
  26. Sam Jones BBQ – Ayden, South Carolina
  27. Rodney Scott BBQ – Charleston, South Carolina
  28. Lewis BBQ – Charleston, South Carolina
  29. Waffle House – Somewhere in Georgia (Birthday Breakfast!) Image
  30. China Mama
  31. Main Street Provisions
  32. Cipriani
  33. Oscar’s Steakhouse
  34. Yi Mei Champion Deli
  35. Kaiseki Yuzu
  36. E-jo Korean
  37. Ferraro’s
  38. Robata En
  39. Cipriani
  40. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  41. Barry’s Prime
  42. Cipriani
  43. Johnny C’s Diner
  44. Good Pie
  45. Good Pie
  46. Cipriani
  47. Oscar’s Steakhouse
  48. YUGA Korean BBQ
  49. Steve’s Pig Pickins BBQ
  50. 8East
  51. 7th & Carson
  52. Elia Authentic Greek Taverna
  53. Saginaw’s
  54. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  55. Milpas
  56. Cipriani
  57. Burgundy Bakery & Cafe
  58. Bazaar Meat
  59. Windy City Dogs
  60. 7th & Carson
  61. Kung Fu Thai-Chinese
  62. Raku
  63. Main Street Provisions
  64. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  65. Esther’s Kitchen
  66. Cipriani
  67. Big Dan Chinese Noodles
  68. Ohlala French Bistro
  69. Saginaw’s
  70. Osteria Fiorella
  71. 8East
  72. Saginaw’s
  73. Edge Steakhouse
  74. Cipriani
  75. Big Dan Chinese Noodles
  76. Estiatorio Milos
  77. Letty’s
  78. Partage
  79. Los Antojos
  80. Del Taco (Yes, Del Taco.)
  81. Yum Cha Dim Sum
  82. Mint Indian Bistro
  83. Osteria Fiorella (Brunch!)
  84. Milos
  85. Nakamura-Ya
  86. Papa Noodle
  87. Los Antojos
  88. Saginaw’s
  89. Cipriani
  90. Costa di Mare
  91. Flock & Fowl
  92. Good Pie
  93. Sparrow+Wolf
  94. The Black Sheep
  95. Main Street Provisions
  96. Cipriani
  97. Pizza Forte
  98. Ada’s Wine Bar
  99. CUT
  100. Cipriani
  101. Rainbow Kitchen
  102. Letty’s
  103. Milos
  104. Main Street Provisions
  105. Cipriani

Image(Big Dan Shaanxi Noodle Shop)

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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