The Final List – 2021

Image(Bento lunch at PublicUs lately?)

Try as we might, it doesn’t look like we’ll get to 400 restaurants this year. As of this writing, we’ve hit 333 establishments, and even if we kick it into high gear, it’s doubtful we have 70 more meals in us in the next 50 days.

By way of comparison, back in my halcyon/salad days (ten years ago), 500/year was pretty much the norm…for 20 years in a row.

Now, The Food Gal and I will go two, three, sometimes even four days in a row without eating out. Once unthinkable, now, a concession to the down-sized Strip  and our not-getting-any-younger selves.

But serious ground was still plowed in the past few months….with some new and not-so joints floating our boat in all the right ways.

Compared to a year ago, Las Vegas is now a target-rich environment, but lezbee honest here: it is still a pretty weird place, restaurant-wise.

The Strip has rebounded, but has become something of a shitshow on weekends. There has been a tectonic shift in the food and beverage industry here, but the ground is still moving beneath our feet and I cannot yet opine on just how the dust will settle. Suffice it to say, things are palpably different: options are down, prices are up, reservations challenging, and sourcing a real problem at the epicurean end of things. All of our big-hitter spots want to pretend they have gotten back to their 2019 selves, but they have not and you can feel it.

The newly re-opened Le Cirque, for example, seats only on Thurs.-Saturday nights. If you’re hungry for better restaurants Mon.-Weds., good luck picking your way through the meager offerings available on Las Vegas Boulevard. Things are easier in the ‘burbs, but aside from Italian, very few interesting ideas are floating out there.

And when you run off one of the best Mexican chefs in the world (Enrique Olvera) for a joint called “Casa Playa ” (at the Wynn), include me out.

So, the Strip is mostly a pain (or, even worse, boring), but local eateries are booming, so you would think that would satisfy us, wouldn’t you?

Wrong.

Both have a long way to go before Vegas claims its destiny — which is to be one of the most exciting restaurant cities (for tourists and locals) in the world.

A short list of what we still need (in the neighborhoods):

Some decent French bistros. It seems like every other opening is Italian these days. C’mon frogs! Show the flag! Vive La France and all that!

More affordable wine, less crappy “craft” beer.

A few new interesting Mexicans (to compete with a raft of mediocre places going through the motions for the mucho macho grande burrito crowd).

Who does a guy have to blow to get a decent sandwich shop around here?

Less shitty breakfast joints; more in-house baking.

For all the Insta love for John Arena and friends, there are still only about four places in Vegas to get a decent pizza.

Why isn’t there a ramen shop downtown?

How about a good, retail bread bakery somewhere fer chrissakes?

Or gelato? (There is an ice cream shop on Main Street, but it is terrible.)

It’s time for crepes and fondues to make a comeback.

Outside sidewalk dining….EVERYWHERE!

And finally, what the f*ck happened to good Indian food in this town?

(As usual, all restaurants come highly recommended unless otherwise noted.)

THE LIST

MANGIA MANGIA!

Italian food never goes out of style, but the boom in quality over the past few years has been a little crazy. No longer is Vegas the home to cookie-cutter eye-talian straight from a can. There are so many good ones popping up (and older ones upping their game), that we thought we do homage to Italy by painting THE LIST in the color of its flag.

Milano

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Of all the beautiful Italian food now available in town, this may be the most compelling. Simple, striking dishes that let the elemental flavors of Italy shine through. Great breads, challenging location, reasonable prices. Too hip for the room, but southern Strip foodies, and industry pros (starved for decent, non-franchise food in this part of town) may save it.

Aromi

We need to get back here. Best cioppino you’ll find this far from the Amalfi Coast.

Brezza

Open every night and already a tough ticket. Set to become the worthy successor to Carnevino as our best Italian steakhouse.

Cipriani

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Every Friday for a reason. Northern Italy served by the smoothest crew in town.

Esther’s Kitchen

My last lunch was a disappointment. Covid hangover? Staffing issues? Coasting on reputation? Sadly, I fear my love affair with Esther’s has run its course. Remember that hottie who once fascinated you? The one of whom you could never get enough? The mere mention of her name aroused something primal — passions rumbling deep and seemingly forever, never to be quenched. Then, time, the enemy of us all, came between you. You see her again after you’ve both strayed and what once seemed fresh, so beckoning, now suddenly feels forced and stilted. Both your energies falter at the sight of each other. The sparks that once ignited, the fires that once burned so brightly have been dampened forever. You try, but both of you know you’re just going through the motions.

Yeah, that’s me with Esther’s. Nice new barstools, though.

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar

The only reason I don’t eat here more often is I would end up spending my children’s inheritance (we’re talking hundreds and hundreds of $s here) drinking from this wine list.

Matteo’s/Brera

Eduardo Perez does some of our town’s most impressive pastas at these sister restaurants in the Venetian. Great pizzas too. And salads, and carne, and deserts, and…

.Osteria Fiorella

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Our cheffiest Italian. Marc Vetri (above) can stun you with his in-your-face flavor combinations…and the restaurant can stun you with the size of the bill.

FRENCH CONNECTION

We’re light on French food this year — a condition that will be rectified with a vengeance come January.

Burgundy French Bakery and Cafe

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First class French pastries (above) have made a name for themselves off the Strip, and there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle.

Le Cirque

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Love what they’ve done to the place (above). We don’t love the exclusively prix fixe tasting menu (with no a la carte options). At this point, Le Cirque is like the grande dame of Vegas: an aging diva seeking to recapture her past glories. Can she do it? Well, just about everyone is rooting for her, but the applause may dim once they realize it will cost a house payment to eat here.

GO FISH

Good seafood in the dessert used to be harder to find than a hooker who would take a check. No longer. The wonders of air freight have brought the best stuff to the ‘burbs.

Image(Mumbo gumbo at Legends)

The Legends Oyster Bar & Grill

Top shelf seafood in an unlikely location. All-over-the-map menu seems disjointed, but the quality of the cooking (and those groceries,) comes through in the gumbo (above). About the only thing I wouldn’t order here is the beef stroganoff.

Saga Pastries + Sandwich

Image(Shrimply delicious)

There is no better tube steak in Vegas. Or waffles. Or breakfast sandwich. Or the tiny, open-faced shrimp sandwiches (the shrimp not the sandwiches).

Yu-Or-Mi Sushi Bar

Great neighborhood sushi. Great bar too.

Elia Authentic Greek Taverna

Don’t even think of eating Greek anywhere else.

Jamon Jamon

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The name means “ham ham” but the seafood is fine fine indeed. I’d eat here every week if a dozen other restaurants weren’t beckoning me.

WORKING CLASS

Informal eats that have fueled us to a fare thee well over the past six months.

Nevada Brew Works

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The Food Gal® prefers this smashed/caramelized/fromage-filled beauty (above) to Soulbelly’s thicker, juicier patty:

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We’ve almost come to blows debating the issue.

Letty’s de Leticia’s Cocina

…and on the eighth day, the lord invented the quesotaco:

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Black & Blue Diner

Reminds me of the Connecticut roadside diners of my youth. Nothing fancy, but decent eggs, biscuits and gravy, and great service.

Hard Hat Lounge

Image(Get a pizza this!)

The idea of finding me in a joint called the “Hard Hat Lounge” would seem as unlikely as finding me changing my spurs at a rodeo. But the square, Detroit-style (thick, cheese-encrusted crust) pies (found on the “Guerilla Pizza Menu”) have developed a real following in this “upscale dive bar.” It’s stoner food to be sure, but it is good stoner food….even if you’re not stoned.

Soulbelly BBQ

The best ‘cue in town. One of the best burgers, too. ‘Nuff said.

PublicUs

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Coffee, baked good, and breakfasts fit for the gods (see above).

Serrano’s Mexican Food

Nothing fancy, just solid Mexican home cooking with a friendly and appreciative staff. At lunch it is filled with day-laborers who know a good thing and a good deal when they eat one.

Real Donuts

…has re-opened! On West Charleston.

Homer Donut GIFs | Tenor

Saginaw’s

My go-to for deli. Nothing else in town can touch it. Wish it was easier to get to.

Windy City Beef ‘N Dogs

Oh those snap dogs from Vienna beef. The Polish is a winner, and like everything here, is straight from the City of Big Shoulders.

Pop Up Pizza

A nice slice from a place you would never expect to find one.

PACIFIC RIM

It wouldn’t surprise me if one day our Asian food scene surpasses the Strip in gastronomic preeminence. 

Image(Legal eagles bao before me)

Xiao Long Dumplings

There’s a new dumpling in town. Actually, they now seem to be popping up all over. This one is serious about their folds, and its gigantic selfie-magnet mascot (above). Nice build-out of the old Harbor Palace space — so sleek and clean will make you forget how badly the former operation sucked.

Chinglish Wine Bar

The Cantonese food impressed us more than the “wine bar” did. But we’ll go back for the mapo dofu (pockmarked woman’s bean curd) along with a more than decent Peking duck.

8East

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We don’t get here often, but when we do, we kick ourselves for not coming more.

Nittaya’s Secret Kitchen

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New digs, better food, fun place for a full panoply of sweet-hot Thai classics.

Chanko Shabu & Izakaya

Dark and cozy, feeling almost illicit when you enter, like it’s a speakeasy with a secret password. Those feelings evaporate as you’re taken to high chairs around a U-shaped central bar where waiters deliver decent sushi, potstickers, swish-swish (shabu-shabu), and other izakaya fare. Not in the same league as Raku, but fun and informal at a gentler price point.

Shanghai Taste

Still our go-to for xiao long bao and other starchy delights.

China Mama

Every Chinese restaurant in Vegas is judged by a single standard: Is it as good or not as good as China Mama?

Rainbow Kitchen

…is as good as China Mama. Better in some areas (roasted fowl, seafood, dim sum); not as good in others (noodles, soups, stir-fries and such).

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DE Thai Kitchen

On our regular DTLV lunch rotation for a reason. The small menu never gets old and still will kick your ass.

LET’S MEAT

Inviolable Food Axiom No. 26: Every restaurant in Las Vegas would be steakhouse if it could be.

Bazaar Meat by José Andrés

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Someone asked me the other day what was my favorite steak in Vegas and I said the “vaca vieja chuleton” from here. They’ve reduced the menu and the wine list, but I’d still put it up against any steakhouse in America. With Candace Ochoa (above) at the stoves, there’s no doubt it will stay that way.

Main Street Provisions

Justin Kingsley Hall does a lot of things well — from Scotch eggs to hummus to empanadas — but it’s his burger, steaks and (rabbit) boudin that keep us intrigued.

8oz Korean Steakhouse

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A few years ago, in the space of about a year, Vegas went from having like two Korean steakhouses to having ten of them. 8oz. is, far and away, our favorite.

Ricon de Buenos Aires

It’d been years, but then we went back twice in a month. A meat fest at a good price for all the steer muscle you need. Nice service; nice Argentine wines too., but we wish there were more of them.

SW Steakhouse

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God bless Mark LoRusso: he’s one of the few chefs in town who could move seamlessly from upscale Italian seafood (the closed Costa di Mare) to helming a big-hitter American steakhouse without missing a beef. Thanks to him and his crackerjack team, including Michael Outlaw, and Lauren Adkins:

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….this bastion of beef has taken on a whole new level of sophistication.

Vic & Anthony’s Steakhouse

Difficult to get into these days. Don’t even think of showing up without a res. Competes with Oscar’s across the street, and Barry’s down the street for downtown prime supremacy. As our foodie friend JB says: “Solid. Unspectacular but solid across the board.” GREAT wine list chock full of bargains.

Capital Grille

A white tablecloth lunch with a view to boot!

Wally’s

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We are of several minds about Wally’s. We love the wine list, the wine store, the menu, the cooking of Chef Eric L’Huillier (who does the best steak frites in town), and just about everything we’ve tasted (except the pizza). We’re glad it’s open for lunch and staffed by a bunch of old Vegas pros. On the other hand, you’ll easily drop a hundy for two for lunch without whetting your whistle a bit.

FUGGIDABADIT

“Not plain terrible, but fancy terrible. Terrible with raisins in it.” – Dorothy Parker

Delilah

Food and decor by Carnival Cruise Lines. You will be told upon entering that you have two hours to eat and to listen to a lot of dumb music.

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That’s it. My last list of the year. We’ll probably weigh in on these pages in another few weeks with our Best Of/Worst Of year-end “major awards”, but in the meantime, eat out often and eat out locally. And if you eat out more than me, we need to talk.

And remember: Life is short; eat more doughnuts.

Image(You donut want to miss Tonya and her sprinkly cakes of pure pleasure)

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THE END

 

The Speech

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Speaking in public is as natural to me as polishing off a Poulet de Bresse en Cocotte avec Champignons Glacée et Truffes with a bottle of Clavoillon Puligny-Montrachet 2018.

Between my legal career, trial work, teaching gigs and second career as a semi-famous food critic, I suppose I’ve addressed crowds (ranging from a handful to hundreds) at least a thousand times in my life.

In that last capacity, I get asked occasionally to give talks to local groups who want to hear about my career as that food dude who has spent most of his adult life obsessing over restaurants.

About a month ago, I gave such a speech to a nice group of local Rotarians. Wonderful people; nice lunch (at the always-lovely Lawry’s).

It was a version of the same talk I’ve given many times over the years, charting the culinary history of Las Vegas, my food-writing origins, and the state of our gastronomic state….all of it spiced with recommendations and tales of my many tangles with celebrity chefs.

I was sober, not hung over, and plenty prepared (not always the case years ago). But still, I rambled and forgot a few things, and it’s been bugging me ever since.

My wife (the long-suffering Food Gal®) was in attendance and gave my speech a “it was fine, you were great” review in the same tone she uses to cheer me up after another mediocre performance in bed.

So….I’ve decided to actually write out the same speech I’ve been giving for 25 years and condense my thoughts into a single 20 minute script.

There may never be a next time. Perhaps my speech-making days are over. (As I told the Rotarians: I’m a dinosaur and I know it. I was Las Vegas’s first real restaurant critic, and I’m probably destined to be its last.)

But if there is another one, if I am asked to give one more, I’ll be prepared, for once.

Image(Thanks, Rotarians, for the bio and the sunburn!)

Intro

The three questions I get asked most often when someone hears I am a restaurant critic are: How did you become one? How many times a week do you eat out? And how do you stay so thin? (turn sideways) The answers are: It’s a long story; ten times a week; and I have the metabolism of a hummingbird.

As for my weight, well, to quote the late, great Los Angeles food critic Elmer Dills (remember him?): I’m not as fat as I could be nor as thin as I should be.

Being a restaurant critic is a lot like being a horse put out to stud: It sounds like a great idea until you have to do it on command, all the time.

Anyway, being a serious critic — one who writes for money about restaurants on a regular basis — you get a lot of dudes (it’s always guys) who’ll look at you and say, “I could do that; sounds like fun No big deal. I like to eat.” It’s the same shit they say when they meet  male porn starts: “Damn dude, that ain’t work. Sign me up!” Well, like a porn star, you look at these fools and say, “No, dude, you can’t. You couldn’t keep up with me for three days.”

Of course, as with sex, the tasting is the fun part; the work is in making it fun for others. But more on that in a minute.

First, let’s talk about how Las Vegas went from “The Town That Taste Forgot” to Gourmet Capital to Celebrity Chef Hell…

So….how DID we go from the Town That Taste Forgot to one of the gastronomic capitals of the world? People like to say it started with Wolfgang Puck at Spago in the Forum Shops in December, 1992, but in reality, it began a few years earlier with a chain steakhouse….and that steakhouse was…

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Ruth’s Chris! Yes, as the story goes, Ruth Ertel — the founder of Ruth’s Chris — loved to gamble in Vegas. Her favorite dealer at Caesars was a fellow named Marcel Taylor. Taylor was an ambitious sort, and sometime in the late 80s he persuaded Ertel (over the objections of her board of directors) to open an outlet in Las Vegas. The thinking then was: Why on earth would anyone ever leave a casino to eat? Every hotel in those times had four different eateries: a coffee shop, a buffet, a steakhouse, and a “gourmet room” serving “continental cuisine.” (From which continent they never really specified.)

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Keeping the customer captured was on every hotels’ mind back then. The thought that people would leave to peruse the dining options at another hotel was ridiculous. The idea they might venture a mile off the Strip to eat was unthinkable.

But in 1989 Ruth’s Chris opened on Paradise Road and within a year it was the best performing venue in the chain. Other prime chain steakhouses took notice, and within a couple of years, Morton’s and Palm (back when both were actually good) had opened outposts here.

The next big moment came in 1994/1995 when Gamal Aziz (a forgotten name but pivotal in birthing Vegas’s gastronomic renaissance), brought Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Trotter, and the Coyote Cafe’s Mark Miller to the MGM. Soon thereafter, a non-celeb chef joint at the MGM –Nob Hill — was the first restaurant in Las Vegas to spend more than $1 mil on its build-out. These days, $10+ mil is more the norm.)

Steve Wynn paid close attention to the the success of Spago, and the MGM. By 1998, when he opened the Bellagio, he was ready to dial things up to “11”. As I’ve said many times: when the Bellagio opened in Las Vegas, the gastronomic ground shook in the High Mojave Desert and the whole world felt the shudder.

People take it for granted now, but the Murderer’s Row in one hotel: Julian Serrano at Picasso, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Prime, Olives, Aqua, and the Maccioni family, with its double-magnum of of Big Apple excellence —  Le Cirque and Circo — was like nothing ever seen, in any hotel, anywhere in America…before or since.

By the turn of the century, every national food and wine magazine, not to mention most major newspapers (remember them?) were sending writers to cover our restaurants.

(If you’ll permit me a slight detour: then and now, the lack of attention paid by Las Vegas’s mainstream media to the culinary explosion going on on the Strip, has been an embarrassment to this town since 1995. And don’t get me started on the lame-ass lip service paid by our LVCVA to our food scene — even though our restaurant scene has been, for over twenty straight years, one of the most famous in the world. Our world class dining became a big deal in spite of our local media, not because of it.)

Thus it was written in The Book of Ruth’s Chris (any biblical scholars out there?) that one steakhouse begat another and the MGM begat the Bellagio and Bellagio begat Mandalay Bay which begat the Venetian, which begat Caesars upgrading its dining options, as well as begatting all sorts of bar raising for new hotels like Aria and the Cosmopolitan.

The early aughts were the halcyon days of the celebrity chef  — Ogden, Palladin, Palmer, Batali, Flay, English, Keller (both of them), Mina, Lagasse, Andrés — when casinos would throw money at anyone famous if they’d agree to slap their name on the door. This regrettably led to to the Giadas, Ramsays, Changs and Fieris showing up (who were not, let’s say, as dedicated to quality as the original pioneers), but as with any fad, you have to take the good with the bad.  On the whole, though, it was a net gain for all concerned, and going to Vegas just to eat (something else that was unthinkable in 1995), became a trend in its own right in the first ten years of this century.

A word or two about celebrity chefs: I’m of two minds about famous chefs: on the one hand, they made this town. On the other, most of their restaurants are a joke, the culinary equivalent of an Elton John picking up a fat paycheck for a show where others sing his songs for him. Without celebrity chefs we’d all still be swooning over the Circus Circus Steakhouse; now that they’ve made their mark (and their cash), most of them should slink back to whatever TV studio keeps them employed. Just the other day, I had a colleague ask me about Bobby Flay’s new Italian restaurant, because, he said, “My wife likes Bobby Flay.” (eye roll) Summoning all the tact I could muster, through clenched teeth I muttered: “Bobby Flay is to Italian food what Chef Boyardee was to noodles.”

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Famous chefs (most of them) are just brands. They don’t cook; they don’t even run businesses. They just sell their names for cash. Cash that you pay. For the privilege of them not cooking.

What started as the raising of the bar in a few huge hotels, got taken to the Stratosphere (the atmospheric one not the pathetic one), when the French Revolution took hold between 2005 and 2010. In short order, we saw three of the world’s greatest chefs — Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy, and Pierre Gagnaire — plant their flags, directly from Paris, and our gastronomic revolution was complete. By 2010 even snooty New Yorkers and imperious Parisians were taking us seriously.

Now, let’s be honest here: did all this fame show up because of our wealth of natural resources? Our verdant food culture? Amber waves of grain and pristine seafood? Nope, they came because there was gold in them thar hills and every one wanted a nugget. 40 million mouths are a lot to feed, and unlike Orlando or Branson, MO, the Vegas tourist is flush with cash and ready to spend it on experiences they can’t get there or in Paducah. (I don’t know what people spend their disposable income on in Branson and Paducah, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t overpriced caviar and champagne.)

These fancy schmancy restaurants weren’t for everyone, but they represented an aspirational level of hospitality you couldn’t find anywhere but Vegas! Baby! And it was available to all! Unlike intimidating New York, snooty Paris, or self-impressed ‘Frisco.

And talk about the pendulum swinging: in about a decade (95-‘o5), we went from 99 cent shrimp cocktails and cheap buffets to being the most expensive high-end restaurant city in the country. Not to harp on the sex thing again (but it is fun isn’t it?), but some Vegas menus (and wine lists) should be served by a proctologist with a side of K-Y Jelly.

The trouble with reaching the top is, like the New England Patriots, you have nowhere to go but down….and that, ladies and gentlemen, is where we find ourselves today. To be sure, the rising tide has raised all boats, but staying afloat, will be harder and harder in the coming years. Big deal meals are not the big deals they used to be, and the quadruple whammy of aging Boomers (who fueled the 90s boom), fading celeb chefs, the Great Recession, and the past two pandemic years have made the future of fine Strip dining very uncertain…and that’s where our local dining scene has stepped up to the plate.

While the Strip may be in a slump, new things are constantly happening in Summerlin, Chinatown, and Downtown. And I’m happy to report there are now even good things to eat in Henderson, of all places (Saga, Rebellion Pizza). Where there used to be only a sprinkling of local spots and miles of franchises, now you have locally-owned, affordable, chef-driven restaurants making big splashes all over the ‘burbs.

Even if peak Vegas has passed, we still boast the best steakhouses in the world of any city that isn’t New York or Tokyo; our Chinatown is a bang-for-the-buck gem; and female chefs (like Jamie Tran, Gina Marinelli, and Nicole Brisson) are dynamos powering our local restaurant resurgence. And at the drop of a hat, I can start waxing poetic about our French bakeries, coffee scene, gastropubs, and pizzas galore.

And you can criticize Millennials, Gen-Xrs and the Instagram/Tik Tok generations all you want, but they’ve been raised to demand better ingredients and better eating and that genie ain’t going back in the bottle.

Becoming a Critic/Doing the Work

Okay, you’ve had your history lesson, but who’s this fellow giving it to you?

To answer the first question I posed at the top of my remarks, I’ve been covering the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. When I started I was it: there were no others writing about food with any regularity or even the pretense of journalistic objectivity. I’ve never been especially prescient in anything (as my ex-wives can tell you), but one thing I did see coming down the pike was the sea change about to envelope our food and beverage industry.

As they say: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. So I started knocking on doors and asking media outlets if they were interesting in having someone cover/critique all these fabulous new eateries that were invading our humble burg…first in a trickle, and then in a tidal wave. No one was interested except Nevada Public Radio. I aced the audition (and already had a face made for radio), so I started my radio commentary years with a tongue-in-cheek admiration for Martha Stewart telling me what size tomatoes to buy.

 My first gig on KNPR radio was a sweet one for 15 years. From there I moved into segments on our local CBS and NBC affiliates, wrote for every publication in town except the Review Journal, and eventually ended up writing 8 editions of Eating Las Vegas – The 52 Essential Restaurants, which published its last edition in 2020.

Basically, I got into food writing because I wanted to be a consumer advocate. At their core, that’s what any critic is. When it comes to food, we want to guide you to where best to spend your hard-earned cash, and at our best, we teach you something while we’re doing it.

You may not like my advice on tuna tartare or tacos, but I share it from a storehouse of experience going back decades now, and from trips to Tokyo to Tuscany. To be a good food critic you need to eat a lot, read a lot, cook a lot and travel a lot. Thankfully, I’ve been able to do all four. (That hummingbird thing really helps). Comparison might be the root of all unhappiness, as Cicero said, but it’s also informs every good critic’s opinions.

Food writers are dinosaurs and we know it. Once people could take and access high quality pictures of potential meals on their phones, our goose was cooked. But we still bring something to the table. When you peruse social media for pretty pics or recommendations, all you get is crowd-sourced opinions based upon personal preferences. All taste is subjective, of course, but having done the work, traveled the globe and eaten everywhere (especially in Vegas), what I offer is the same thing Anton Ego did in the movie “Ratatouille”: perspective. An Instagrammer will only tell you if they liked something; a good critic will tell you why you do.

At this point I’m pretty much the professor emeritus of Vegas food writers, and I content myself being an influencer, occasionally writing blog posts at www.eatinglv.com (like this one!) and spreading the love for all the worthy eateries I can find.

I’ve been very lucky: I’ve had a front row seat for the biggest culinary revolution ever to happen to an American city. In spite of my prickly opinions and prejudices, I have enormous respect for people who work in restaurants. To be a good critic you have to be in love with your subject and I am. I have been in love with restaurants since I was eight years old and my passion has never waned.

I am in love with them and always will be because a good meal, shared with family and friends, is the loveliest expression of our common humanity that I know. As the great food writer Alan Richman once said: “Food is life itself, the rest is parsley.”

standing ovation oscars GIF by The Academy Awards

Gone With The Wind

Joël Robuchon Restaurant Las Vegas | Centurion Magazine

“Actually, the true gourmet, like the true artist, is one of the unhappiest creatures existent. His trouble comes from so seldom finding what he constantly seeks: perfection.” – Ludwig Bemelmans

I think I’m going to miss the butter most of all.

Because this was no ordinary butter. No, this was a smooth, oblong, silky obelisk the size of a football, stood on end on its own trolley, waiting to be shaved and savored to your heart’s content throughout the meal.

Bordier butter it was, and we shall not see its like again. Not in a Vegas restaurant; not in my lifetime anyway.

Bordier Butter - - Picture of L'Avant Comptoir, Paris - Tripadvisor

The irony of me missing the butter most of all should not be lost on you, since the chefs did precious little to prepare the soft, spreadable, sunshine yellow sculpture for your table. It probably represented the least amount of work, skill, and creativity of anything on the menu at Joël Robuchon. But it also represented a level of sublime decadence and luxury unseen in these parts before Robuchon planted his very very French flag here in 2005.

And now it is gone. No one has announced its permanent exit from Vegas — the suits running the show are too crafty for that. They will keep everyone in suspense, hoping against hope that Las Vegas will return to its former glory and slabs of sunshine yellow, smooth as silk, milk fat will once again magically appear at your table .

But our best guess is the butter, like the Robuchon restaurants, have departed, never to return.

Have I been told this by someone? Yes and no. Some employees of the restaurants were given their walking papers back in September, and asked not to make a big deal about it. Will the MGM announce that JR is gone for good? Not anytime soon, even if the decision has already been made.  Good luck with that, MGM!

Is there a scenario whereby, a year or two from now, a set of circumstances will come together to re-open one of the best restaurants in the world because Vegas has rebounded so much that gastro-tourists and high-rollers are (once again) clamoring to eat at the mega-expensive, namesake restaurant of a chef who died two years ago? Yeah….but don’t bet on it.

L'Atelier De Joel Robuchon - Best Restaurants in Las Vegas

If a Robuchon restaurant is resuscitated, it will most likely be L’Atelier (above) — a more modest link in the JR chain, and certainly an easier one to re-attach. So many more of our temples of gastronomy will soon suffer the same fate. But more on them in a moment.

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I was once married to a gal who had once (in the 1970s) been married to a Vegas casino executive. She told me tales laced with incredulity about how hotels would decide their restaurant lineups back in those leisurely leisure suit days. Everything was fungible; nothing but the coffee shop was sacred. In the blink of an eye and snap of the fingers, an under-performing Italian might be plowed under for a tiki lounge; or some bigwig’s wife would get a craving for kung pao chicken and pow! — in a matter of weeks, in would come a Chinese eatery.

Casino money back then was spent fast and loose; restaurants were amenities; they had to be good, but they didn’t have to be important.

Sometime in the early 21st Century, the restaurants here started to be important. Important to tourists, high-rollers, the reputation of Las Vegas and the bottom line. With importance came quality (Robuchon, Savoy, Gagnaire, Boulud, Andrés, Batali…), with quality came pressure to succeed, and maintain that success. In retrospect, it is a wonder we sustained it for so long.

Back in the day, this storm would’ve been weathered much more easily. International reputations and 30 page licensing/profit-sharing deals weren’t part of the equation. There were no public relations minefields to navigate, nor the gaze of the food world to deflect. Eating out wasn’t entertainment, it was something you did when you weren’t home to stay alive.

Opening and closing casino restaurants was no big deal in 1980. There were no prying eyes or oversized egos to contend with. All you had to do was keep the gamblers happy.

Closing restaurants in the early months of 2021 is going to be a very big deal for Las Vegas. It will signify a sea change in how we eat and how the world perceives us. Like old rock stars, some of the “name brands” will hang around, cycling through their old hits, but one by one, they will slowly be put out to pasture.

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 This is how you do it. (Mon. Bordier with his beauteous beurre)

Back to the butter. It was glorious: rich, fresh, deeply creamy, sweet — like no butter Vegas had ever tasted. In summer it had a savory lilt; in winter, a sweeter one.

Waiters in fine French restaurants talk about such things: such things as butter that takes days to make and is delivered in 50 kilo sizes to the most expensive restaurants in the world so people can swoon over ivory-yellow towers of football-sized thickened, cultured cream to slathered on the best baked goods in the business….or just eaten with a spoon, which is what I did.

The butter was only the beginning at Joël Robuchon. After it, the courses cascaded down, one after one, until the the food and wine and service converged into a single gestalt of gustatory perfection. Food so perfect it would take your breath away. A meal so special only a handful in the world could compete with it.

Las Vegas did not get these restaurants and their fancy butters because we were a town of appreciative gourmets. We got them because for thirty years the world treated us as its playground, servicing all of its seven sins, ready to serve a clientele flush with cash and eager to part with it.

They stood like beacons to the  hungry and starstruck once —  these outposts of Puck, Lagasse, Flay, Trotter, Maccioni, Mina, Ramsay, the Michelin stars, the gastronomic gods — like nowhere else on earth, crammed together, right in our own backyard.

But no more. Those days are gone with the wind. The winds of change, of Covid, of a recovery that will take years. This will not be like the Great Recession of 2008-2012. Then, people retained their hunger for Vegas, their yearning for sin, their eagerness to unleash their ids in defeat of all superegos.  All they lacked back then was equity, or corporate expense accounts — the two things our economy relied on to keep the hotels full. But all of those were in reserve waiting to be unleashed when the economy loosened up. And loosen up it did. And Vegas came roaring back stronger than ever. Until 2020 hit.

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Somehow the butter — from French cows that traveled 6,000 miles to be here — represents all that we have lost. Of course, neither it nor the meals it preceded were for everyone: How many people don’t blink at spending $500/pp on dinner? We’re talking rarefied air here, something even the most dedicated, well-heeled fresser might only indulge in occasionally. (No one appreciates fine French more than yours truly, but even in my haughtiest, haute cuisine heyday, too many supercilious meals in a row would have me craving a burger or pizza.)

But the Robuchons, Savoys, Minas, Ducasses and Maccionis represented something that transcended their super swanky settings: they meant Las Vegas had arrived on the big kitchen stage and deserved to be there.

Now the stage will shrink and with it, our reputation. This isn’t the 80s: we can’t just throw up another in-house concept and keep the customers satisfied.

Chefboyardeepic.jpg
Fifty years ago, a gambler didn’t care who the cook was; neither he nor his wife gave a hoot who was tossing the pasta at the Desert Inn. The only chef any of them could name was probably Chef Boy-Ar-Dee.

And then we became known for such things: for outposts of celebrities we had seen cooking on TV; for the stars who were then gracing the covers of food magazines, appearing on cooking contests, hobnobbing with the cool kids. From anonymity to superstardom in 30 years — it happened to chefs, and it happened to Las Vegas’s food scene, almost on parallel tracks. And it all culminated with that tower of butter in a 40-seat jewel box tucked into a corner of a mega-casino: ruining us forever for other luxury meals — because everything looks like a valley once you’ve been to the mountaintop.

There will always be a place for super-posh ultra-refined dining. The best-of-everything crowd will demand it, and world capitals like Paris, London, New York and Tokyo will provide it. And for a glorious quarter-century, so did a tacky tourist town in the middle of the High Mojave Desert.

Culinary reputations aren’t built solely upon ethereal ingredients, intensive care service, and wallet-bending meals fit for a king. But remove that level of excellence and what continues will be barely an echo of a time when the world took us seriously, we seemed to have it all, and we could boast of being among the best.

Gone with the Wind Movie Review —

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The following represented our gastronomic scene at its peak. These were the important ones; the ones that put Las Vegas on the map. A few will make it; most won’t. (My crystal ball tells me the Vegas of 2030 will resemble Branson, Missouri more than an ersatz Paris.)

Restaurant Guy Savoy (Against all odds, has reopened and is thriving; I’d eat here weekly if my bank account and waistline would let me.)

Le Cirque (If you think I’m sad about Joël Robuchon….)

Michael Mina (Has always been an underrated gem.)

Jaleo (Still sets the Spanish standard.)

‘e’ by José Andrés (Amazingly, has also re-opened. Having only 8 seats helps.)

CUT (Packed five nights a week.)

Emeril’s (Still busy; still good; still a bitch to get to.)

Bazaar Meat (Steakhouses will be the only survivors of the coming gastronomic genocide.)

Spago ( Spago 2.0 has scaled back its ambitions and is still solid, if unspectacular.)

Twist by Pierre Gagnaire (“Temporarily Closed,” but they’re not fooling anyone. I was told it was on the chopping block two years ago.)

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (see above)

Joël Robuchon (see above)

Picasso (For its first decade, as pitch-perfect as a restaurant can be. For its second, a little stale. Those paintings though.)

Hall of Fame

Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare (Still doesn’t get enough credit for the excellence it brought to our burg.)

ALEX (Spectacular, but in so many ways, destined for failure.)

Aureole (Lost its fastball after five years and never recovered its form.)

Bradley Ogden (Was like one of those ensemble movies where the young cast all go on to be big stars. Amazing talent; incredible food. A shooting star.)

Carnevino (If only Mario could’ve kept his dick in his pants. I know Mario, it’s hard when you’re a sex symbol.)

Circo (I treated it like a private club in its early years; Vegas will never again taste Tuscan this good.)

Boulud Brasserie (The original in the Wynn was something special….for about 3 years.)

miX (Ditto, just substitute Mandalay Bay for Wynn in the above sentence.)

B & B Ristorante (Best. Pastas. Ever.)

Valentino (Terrible layout; wonderful wine; never got the traction it deserved, despite awards and accolades.)

Spago (The original; the granddaddy; the restaurant that started our revolution. )

Fleur de Lys (One of the most beautiful restaurants anywhere….until Mandalay Bay ruined it.)

Mesa Grill (Yes, Mesa Grill. You’re welcome, Bobby.)

RM Seafood (Along with Bartolotta, Rick Moonen brought heavyweight chops to our shores, and made us take seafood seriously.)

Charlie Trotter (Charlie was too early (’94) and too late (‘o9) to the Las Vegas restaurant party.)

Coyote Cafe (Was too good for Vegas’s knuckle-dragging hordes. Too authentically southwestern; too spicy; too excellent. The Food Gal® and I had our first kiss at this bar. Sigh.)

Sage (Like Fleur de Lys, an eye-popping design with food to match.)

Napa (Jean-Louis Palladin’s last stand)

Renoir (Alex Stratta’s first Vegas foray)

Vetri (Gone for good, but its progeny – Osteria Fiorella – is packing them in at Red Rock, for good reason.)

…and a few I’ve probably missed.

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