The Covid Diaries – Vol. 11 – Survivors

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Day 69, May 24 – Who Will Survive?

This will be our last “Covid Diaries” post.

Where we go from here, no one knows, least of all the person typing these words.

Life is returning to normal in Las Vegas; restaurants are re-opening; and we’ve spent the last two weeks plowing through a bunch of them.

And by “plowing through them” we mean spending beaucoup bucks in support thereof.

Image(Did you mezze me? Oh yes we did, Khoury’s)

As of today, the Strip and all major hotels remain closed, so downtown and the neighborhoods have been where we’ve concentrated. Even when it opens, most hotels will be running at very low occupancy rates, with only a handful of restaurants being re-booted.

The Wynncore has announced five of its venues will resume operations on May 29, but other hotels aren’t showing their cards just yet.

Steakhouses will lead the way in every hotel, with buffets nowhere to be found for the time being.

Here’s the list of places we’ve hit lately in the order we’ve hit them since the quarantine lifted:

La Maison de Maggie

Japaneiro

Kaiseki Yuzu

Khoury’s

Capital Grille

Orchids Garden

Esther’s Kitchen

Marche Bacchus

Edo Tapas and Wine

The Real Crepe

7th & Carson

Carson Kitchen

Pizzeria Monzù

And right there, you have the beginnings of the next edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants 2020. (More on this below.)

Twice we’ve been to the Capital Grille and 7th & Carson, and the cooking at both has blown us away. Even those serving truncated menus in smaller dining rooms are working extra hard. Don’t think for one second that every restaurant in town won’t be busting its ass for months to come, whether it’s a creperie, a Middle Eastern standard, or high-falutin’ gastopub,

You’ll see the same thing on the Strip when it reopens. Every cook, every waiter, every bottle-washer will be on their game. They’re in survival mode now and they know it, and the only way to prevail is to impress every customer so much they will want to come back — and dazzle them so much they’ll tell all their friends to go there — even if everyone looks pretty ridiculous in all those masks.

Image(Brunch, sans mask, at 7th & Carson)

So, you might say in some perverse way that this shutdown will be a boon for restaurant goers.

But it won’t be for restaurant writers.

With the end of phoning it in (Hello, Giada!), indifferent cooking, and poor service (at least for the time being) comes the lack of raison d’etre for a critic to be in the game.

The idea of criticizing a restaurant — even well-financed, over-hyped, under-performing Strip restaurants — will not fit the current zeitgeist of everyone hanging on for dear life.

Entire hotels are being phased out, and in the ones that remain, nothing is certain until the casinos can gauge the level of returning tourism. This could take a year…or longer.

Our gubenator thinks Las Vegas won’t get back to where it was until a vaccine can be found. Experts are saying this could be years away.

As a local, I’ve always hated going to the Strip on weekends or when huge conventions were in town, but now, the idea of wandering around Aria or Caesars Palace when it’s only 30% full seems kind of creepy.

We’re also mindful of the fact that once the shutdown began, our book became more artifact than all-encompassing.

With this in mind, we at #BeingJohnCurtas have been doing some thought experiments in our heads, trying to guess which of our 52 favorites (and others) will survive the #coronapocalypse.

So, for shits and giggles, we’re going to list all 52 of our “essential” Las Vegas restaurants, along with a rating of chances for survival (or eventual resuscitation).

Here’s how we’ve rated the restaurants:

4 **** – a cinch to reopen (or has already reopened).

3 *** – on the bubble, but corks could be popped, sooner or later.

2 ** – outlook is drearier than a Golden Corral steak.

1 * – put a fork in them, they’re done.

As always, these opinions are worth exactly what you paid for them.

Image(Black rice/oxtail risotto at Carson Kitchen)

****

Carson Kitchen

Chances for survival: good to great. Downtown’s popularity and loyal customers will see to that.

China Mama

Future outlook: Rosy. Good Chinese food (even bad Chinese food) could survive a nuclear winter.

District One

This is a tougher call. How Chinatown reacts to the shrinking economy will be interesting to watch.

Edo Gastro Tapas

Small and agile, with a passionate fan base.

Elia Authentic Greek Taverna

It will thrive….IF it can find a new location

Esther’s Kitchen

It came roaring back a week ago. Already, reservations are harder to get than a PPP loan.

Ferraro’s

I have a dream that in the year 2065, long after Gino Ferraro and I have departed this mortal vale, he will still be complaining about his overhead and offering me a sip of Chianti.

Kabuto Edomae Sushi

Will there still be a market for ultra-refined, high-end sushi once this cloud lifts? Only time will tell.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Another tiny gem now threatened by a looming recession/depression. All I know is I’m going to eat here as often as I can as long as Kaoru-san is cooking.

Khoury’s

Our best Lebanese restaurant hit the ground running and won’t look back.

Image(Al fresco tables – only for the sober – at Marche Bacchus)

Marche Bacchus

Even with its new table-spacing, none of the charm has been lost and some has been gained (see above).

Lamaii

Incendiary Thai + killer wine list = a long list of food and wine professionals who treat this place like a private club.

Lotus of Siam

Will they re-open both locations or just one? Either way, they’ll be packed.

Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar

Was on its way to becoming a must-stop for serious winos and foodies. Can it re-capture its mojo?

Ohlala French Bistro

Another tiny neighborhood gem. If the landlord cooperates, Chef Richard Terzaghi will be in great shape.

Pamplona Cocktails & Tapas

I love this place, but it’s location was challenging even during a boom economy.

Partage

The well-spaced tables and booths here will need very little adjustment to comply with “social distancing” regulations. The food needs no improvement.

Pizzeria Monzù

Believe it or not, it’s better than ever.

Other Mama

An industry watering hole that has succeeded against all odds. For that reason alone, I’m not worried about it.

Raku & Sweets Raku

Like Lotus, one of our most famous restaurants. It’s worldwide reputation and customers constantly clamoring for a table will sustain it.

Sparrow + Wolf

Brian Howard is set to re-open as we type this — how he re-sets his menu will be most interesting to watch

The Black Sheep

Jamie Tran has a small, nimble restaurant with a minuscule kitchen, and a large following. But the location gives us pause. Fingers are crossed.

Weera Thai Kitchen

Won’t miss a beat.


***

Here’s where things get trickier. Timing, tourists, and multiple tabulations control the fate of (most of) these places. Being on the cusp of summer doesn’t help matters, either. My guess is that each has a strong enough following (and is a critical part of a hotel’s F&B program) not to be considered a good candidate for reopening sooner than later.

Cipriani

Management has told us they may not reopen until after Labor Day. This might be a smart move since summertime is bargain-hunting-time in Vegas, and the Cipriani brand does not appeal to the 2-for-1 crowd.

CUT

Steakhouses will lead the way when high-end restaurants re-open, and there’s not a more famous one in town.

Bardot Brasserie

Aria will no doubt cut back on its strong lineup of top-shelf eateries; either Carbone or Bardot will get the boot, and we’re betting it will be the former.

Bazaar Meat

Along with CUT, our most famous steakhouse. Between the re-branding of the Sahara and the re-booting of everything, it’s bounty of beef and seafood may not fit the current mood. Personally, I wish it would re-locate to a hotel more befitting its brand and quality.

Jaleo

Jaleo is a big, multi-faceted, expensive operation. What might save it is a flexible menu which appeals to multiple price points. Plus, José Andrés may be the only surviving celebrity chef with a big following when this is all over. Several sources have told us “Julian Serrano” (its tapas competition in the Aria) has pitched its last paella.

Le Cirque

The Bellagio without Le Cirque is like Disneyland without the mouse.

Spago

The location alone will keep it alive.

Rooster Boy Cafe

Such a gem. So tiny. So perfect. My fear is Sonia El-Nawal may find catering more profitable than table service. And who could blame her?

Yui Edomae Sushi

My favorite sushi spot. Waiting with bated breath for them to start slicing again.


**

Here’s where a higher level of pessimism kicks in.

Bouchon

Expensive French bistro in this climate? I just don’t see it happening, but god I hope I’m wrong.

‘e’ by José Andrés

The aspirational, 30- and 40-somethings who have coveted a reservation here for nine years are the same ninnies who are cowering in fear of coronavirus. Having to sit within three feet of fellow diners is the type of stress their snowflake brains can’t handle.

Estiatorio Milos

I’m hearing rumors they might be moving. I’m not hearing anything about The Cosmo’s re-opening plans. Neither is a good sign.

Hatsumi

The seating is naturally “social-distanced” (at least in the booths), but Dan Krohmer’s going to have his hands full with Other Mama.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon

Again….high end French comes back? I just don’t see it.

Matteo’s Ristorante Italiano

A real sleeper in the Venetian that serves incredible pasta. Having to compete with 40 other restaurants (6 of which are Italian) might be too much to ask.

Michael Mina

Will top-notch hotels need multiple “fine dining” venues? My heart wants MM to stay, but my head tells me his restaurant group is in for a thinning.

Mott 32

No conventions. No Asian tourists. No more superb Peking duck.

Old Soul

Great cooking, but a tough sell in the best of times.


* Put a fork in them, they’re done…

Mabel’s BBQ

More done than a twelve-hour brisket.

Guy Savoy

I’m weeping as I write these words, but I think I’m going to have to go to Paris to eat Guy’s food again.

Joël Robuchon

On any given night, the best restaurant in America. Certainly in the top 5. But it’s a big deal meal restaurant, perhaps the biggest, and too many of its customers are not coming back to Vegas in the foreseeable future.

Sage

Was already on the ropes.

The Kitchen at Atomic

Ditto.

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire

Ditto.

Vetri Cucina

We love Marc Vetri, and he tried to put a game face on things, but announcing “we won’t be opening this year, maybe in 2021” is the same as saying we’re history.

Wing Lei

The only type of food more endangered than high-end French in Las Vegas is high-end Asian.


My hearts weeps for each of these uncertain futures, and I hope I am wrong about all of them.

No matter who opens, the reopening will be the easy part. Staying open in a depressed economy is going to be the real struggle, and who is still in business a year from now is anyone’s guess.

One thing is certain though: there won’t be any new restaurants opening on the Strip for many, many months to come. You have a better chance of catching me at a Garth Brooks concert than you will of seeing any new concepts springing up in 2020.

Which brings us back to our book. If we do one, it’ll be probably be so stuffed with neighborhood eateries that it’ll be more useful as a local’s guide than something for tourists.  At this point, that might be its final legacy.

Anything we can do to help the restaurant industry bounce back from this idiotic, force-fed oblivion, the better. And if that means forgetting about the big hotels until they’ve had time to re-adjust, that’s what we’ll do.

I don’t know if our local food scene can sustain itself without all those Strip dollars being pumped into our economy, but we’re about to find out.

Life was so much easier when all we had to do was compare the Dover sole presentations.

Image(Social distance dining at Edo)

 

San Francisco

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The coldest winter of my life was the summer I spent in San Francisco – Mark Twain

Isn’t it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there? – Herb Caen

Is there anyone who doesn’t love San Francisco?

Yes, but most of them live in Los Angeles.

Los Angelenos hate ‘Frisco because San Franciscans have spent the last 150 years looking down the state and their noses at them.

San Franciscans see their bigger, richer, more politically powerful younger sibling the way a Boston Brahmin sees a Jewish mobster: tacky and money-grubbing, bereft of class.

Angelenos think of their northern relatives as a bunch of cloistered snobs.

Both have a point.

I’ve spent so much time in each city that I feel a kinship with these two Californios with nothing in common. Next to New York City, they  are where most of my urban education has taken place, and after dozens of trips to both (for business and pleasure), I feel comfortable walking or driving the streets like a native. (Driving in ‘Frisco is not for the faint of heart; driving in L.A. causes afflictions still being catalogued by mental health professionals.)

(BTW: I call it ‘Frisco, especially when I’m in ‘Frisco, because San Franciscans are a bunch of insufferable elitists who hate their precious city being referred to with a slang term.)

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My memories of San Fran go back to 1960, when we froze our asses off on Fisherman’s Wharf ….in July. We ate Dungeness crabs out of little paper cups and went to DiMaggio’s (when Joe DiMaggio was still a big deal) and screamed as our dad navigated the steep hills in our three-seat Ford station wagon — like the one above, only in red. It had a seat in the way, way back that pointed backwards.

With every incline, we were sure our car was going to tip over backwards. To this day, it takes a bit of trust in the laws of physics to point the nose of your sedan straight up Hyde and gun it…when the only thing(s) you can see is blue sky and the nose of your car.

Then, there was the walking, up and down Powell, Mason, and Taylor streets: trekking so angled it felt like we could touch our noses to the pavement while standing up. I have no idea how many precipitous hikes we took that first day, but I’ve taken many since, and these elevations still fascinate me. The only other city I’ve seen with such abrupt ascensions is Lausanne, Switzerland.

The Food Gal® and I will be taking off for San Francisco this morning. We’re going there for a day trip to celebrate our birthdays. (It’s a big one for her, just another in a long march towards oblivion for moi.)

It will be 12 hours of walking in the fog and rain and straining our calves and trying to touch our noses to the pavement, and no doubt freezing our asses off the whole time.

We’re going to love every minute of it.

A Random List of Favorite ‘Frisco Food Memories

Image result for Dungeness Crab fisherman's wharf

That crab meat in 1960.

DiMaggio’s – sadly Joe was nowhere to be seen. Like Joltin’ Joe, it’s long gone.

Fournou’s Ovens – shuttered in 2008, it was way ahead of its time in 1981.

The Mandarin – Celia Chiang’s seminal restaurant taught America there was more to Chinese food than chop suey and egg foo yung.

Fleur de Lys – being wined and dined by Hubert and Chantal Keller – when this place was at the top of its game – is a food memory I will never forget. Closed in 2014.

StarsJeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. What a crock of shit.

Chez Panisse – the first time (in 1983), it was a study in simplified perfection; by meal #3 (two decades later) the place bored me to death. Alice Waters is still boring me to death.

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Tadich Grill – Calvin Trillin sent me here in the late 70s; I’ve been a dozen times since. “The Original Cold Day Restaurant,” serving the best sand dabs and tartare sauce on the planet.

Jack’s – best sourdough ever. The place made you feel like a Barbary Coast freebooter.

Aqua – where the world, and yours truly, first discovered a young Egyptian-American chef named Michael Mina.

Michael Mina – where that not-so-young Egyptian chef still rules the waves.

Le Centralcassoulet to die for; it’s been bubbling since 1974.

Postrio – my very nice, very good, very not-heterosexual waiter tried to pick me up here. Not many men have tried to pick me up, but when it’s happened (the attempt, not the pick-up) it’s happened in San Francisco. Closed in 2009.

Sam’s Seafood Grill – like Tadich, a classic. Get the petrale sole.

Image result for Trader Vic's San Francisco

Trader Vic’s (above) – long before anyone had heard of Asian fusion, Vic Bergeron was mixing and matching his food metaphors.

Mike’s Cantonese Cuisine – back in the day, New York and San Fran were the only places in America where you could find anything approaching real Chinese food.

Campton Place HotelBradley Ogden single-handedly rejuvenated hotel dining back in the 80s with his destination restaurant here.

Masa’s – ruled the roost of San Francisco dining in the 80s and early 90s. The founding chef —  Masa Kobayashi — was murdered. I’m not sure the crime was ever solved. Julian Serrano took over the kitchen and was considered San Fran’s best chef until he was lured to Sin City by Steve Wynn in 1997. The restaurant adjoined the Vintage Court hotel. It was way better than the hotel.

Nob Hill Restaurant – the first place I ever had nouvelle cuisine. In the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Salmon with vanilla sauce anyone? Anyone?

Cafe Mozart – tiny and exquisite. Sadly, gone.

Caffé Sport and Trattoria – loud and colorful….and apparently still in business serving food I fear I have long outgrown.

JardinièreTraci Des Jardins blew me away, back in the day. Two lesbians (at the adjoining table) wanted me to go home with them. I was either too drunk or too sober to go along with the plan.

Greens at Fort Mason – America’s first famous vegetarian restaurant, staffed by real cooks, not people with fear of food.

Boulevard – I’ve never had a bad meal here, and I’ve had lots of meals here.

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Pabu – Mina does Japanese! And does it extremely well.

Acquerello – Italian food the way its supposed to taste. Fabulous wine list.

Image result for State Bird provisions

State Bird Provisions (above) – an early acolyte of the small plates revolution.

Tartine Manufactory – good, but, like a lot of things these days, not as special as it thinks it is.

The Slanted Door – made Vietnamese food safe for white people. Which means it’s a lot more impressed with itself than it ought to be. They have threatened to come to Las Vegas. They were supposed to open 6 months ago. Yawn.

The Ferry Building – we were there when it first opened as a foodie mecca (in 2003), and have returned many times since. The last time (a couple of years ago) it was mobbed and filthy. I liked it a lot better when every tourist in the world didn’t want to be a food expert.

Swan Oyster Depot – no frills west coast seafood worth waiting in line for.

Farallon – stunning undersea fantasy decor; designed by Pat Kuleto; was there when it first opened (a client dinner if memory serves), haven’t been back since.

Kuleto’s – right off Union Square. Closed two years ago. Like all Pat Kuleto restaurants, it never disappointed.

John’s Grill – when I want to feel like Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon.

The Cliff House (below) – stunning views, lots of tourists, surprisingly good food. Literally perched at the far western tip of the United States. How cool is that?

And those are just some of my faves, pulled off the top of my head, after 5 decades of eating everything in sight. There are scores of bistros, bars, destinations and dives that have faded from memory. There’s one bachelor party in the early 80s I wish I didn’t remember, and birthday parties, a wedding or two, and multiple business meals forever suspended in the recesses of my taste memories, waiting to be revived as soon as I see those beautiful hills.

I love San Francisco the way some people love Las Vegas: as a playground, full of sights and sounds and tastes and smells no other city in America can match.

I love all of those taste memories, but what endears San Francisco to me most is what set it apart from other western cities a hundred years ago, and what sets it apart today: it is civilized. Existing in a very special sphere of its own sophistication that other western cities can only dream of.

‘Frisco may have a world of problems, and be filled with snobs and terrifying streets, but San Franciscans know how to live.

And they know how to eat.

Image result for Cliff House restaurant san francisco
P.S. When we get off the plane tomorrow morning, we’re heading straight to Swan Oyster Depot. Happy Birthday Food Gal!
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I’m Tired of Hearing That JULIAN SERRANO Isn’t a Good Restaurant

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It happens every time. As soon as I started live-posting on Facebook and Instagram about a meal I’m having at Julian Serrano, the comments start pouring in:

“Overrated.”

“Phoning it in.”

“Wanted to like it but didn’t.”

“Not a fan.”

These opinions come fast and furious from a fount of foodie friends every time I mention I’m dining there.

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