(Changing the game at 1228 Main)
Writers take their muses wherever they find them. The inspiration for this post came from James Reza — longtime Las Vegan, once my editor; now a thoughtful observer of all things Vegas — in a tweet about the possibility of the Oakland Athletics moving to town:
Demolishing a historic Strip casino property and abandoning its gaming license to build a partially taxpayer funded baseball stadium is late-stage Las Vegas.— James P. Reza (@AuthenticVegas) May 10, 2023
Which got me to thinking about “late-stage” culinary Las Vegas.
Just where are we now? And what do we have to look forward to?
The Strip — long the economic and creative engine of all things gastronomic in town — has faded into a hangout for Martha Stewart fans and Voltaggio Brothers cash grabs. (For what is a “one-year year culinary residency” but a way to monetize an unusable space (the two-story vacated Aureole cavern) with the unimaginative (“Retro”) from the unimpressive (who?). We couldn’t be less interested if they were serving spaghetti Os and fake Parmesan, which, of course, they will be.
These places will make money of course, but they won’t leave a mark. Swapping an Old Navy for a Gap in a tired old mall is not the same as bringing Neiman-Marcus and Nordstrom’s to town in the first place.
“I am so done with the Strip,” exclaimed another muse for this article. The speaker of those words wasn’t some local jamoke who hates being charged for parking. He has been a fixture on Las Vegas Boulevard South for decades — opening multiple restaurants in hotels going back to the Nineties. Now he envisions a future for his company opening smaller venues for locals who appreciate them — something unthinkable a decade ago.
Strip-quality food coming to neighborhoods is nothing new: You can trace its roots from Other Mama’s premium seafood to our upscale sushi parlors and to the prime cuts now available at 138 Degrees (Henderson) and Harlo (Summerlin). With this quality comes Strip-level pricing, but from where we’re sitting, no one in the carriage trade seems to be balking at $100/pp check minimums.
Chinatown (where a 75 seat restaurant is considered huge) continues to explode, while the southwest seems to be attracting chefs and concepts like eggs to Bearnaise.
All of which bodes well for locals, and marginalizes whatever is happening on the Strip, at least for those of us who used to be in awe of the restaurant revolution that took place there for twenty years.
Will we trundle up to Caesars to see the new Peter Luger when it opens? Sure, if only to compare it to the New York original. (If things run true to form, the menu will be laughably short, the wine list absurdly brief, and the staff comically rude.)
But Luger and the Voltaggios and even Martha Stewart — the octogenarian queen of brand-whoring — pretty much signal that the celebrity chef restaurant has run its course. And if they weren’t enough to convince me, then septuagenarian Martin Yan’s bad joke of a licensing deal should do the trick…and demonstrates how deeply we are scraping the bottom of the celebrity chef barrel.
(Note to self: Yan can’t cook)
You probably have to be over fifty to remember Yan from his “Yan Can Cook” PBS days. Perhaps once he could, but no longer. Now he’s prostituting his brand like a pint-sized Martha Stewart, keeping accountants happy and his rice bowl full at our expense. I doubt any of the low-rollers in this charm-free dining space even know who Yan was, except in a “this guy used to be famous” kind of way. Regardless, he’s been reduced to going through the motions to cash in on a faded name and the cynicism behind the whole enterprise is palpable.
Here is my Instagram rant on the matter and we’ll leave it at that.
As an official old-timer, it is easy to get depressed about the direction in which Vegas is heading. F1! NFL! Super Bowls and Baseball! Late-stage Vegas has morphed before our eyes from a town of gambling, food, and music into the mega-event capital of America. Las Vegas used to be about wicked fun and excess….then it was food and shopping. Its future will be all about advertising.
The idea of a big hotel opening with a lounge and a showroom and six good restaurants now seems as quaint as a flip phone. Old time casino table games don’t count anymore, anymore than washed up brands still trying to cash in.
Perhaps the Fountainebleau will kick start a new dawn in Vegas dining. Hope springs eternal. And there are still many, many legacy restaurants occupying a special place in our hearts (Milos, Jaleo, Robuchon, Delmonico, Savoy, Bazaar Meat…) plus a few new ones which rate a return (Balla, Viva!, Brezza….)…but lord help me if I ever step foot in The Horseshoe again. (True fact: You can put lipstick on a pig and it will always be Bally’s.)
Soooo….long story short, after the Yan disaster, I needed a series of superb experiences to inspire me to post yet another promiscuous purview of my palate pursuits….so here it is, for the umpteenth time in a row, THE LIST: the places in Las Vegas you should be eating in and why. Put another way: the places I’ve been eating and why they give me hope for the future of Las Vegas.
As usual, all venues come highly recommended unless otherwise noted:
(One banana-mint blueberry martini comin’ up!)
How can we be so jazzed about a restaurant before it opens? Easy peasy when it has the pedigree of this one. The folks who brought you Spago, CUT, Lupo, et al are about to change the downtown game in ways unimaginable a half-decade ago: three meals a day; an on premise bakery; world-class desserts; Cal-Ital-French menu (like the one that made Wolfgang Puck famous); remarkable coffee; casual lunches and serious dinners — this will be like nothing Main Street has ever seen.
To be clear: This is not a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, but he is an investor, and his major league kitchen talent is behind the project. We expect this rising tide to raise all boats, and finally turn Main Street into the dining destination it was destined to become. (East Fremont must be watching and weeping.)
Opening at the end of the month. Now if we could only remember the address…
Further good news arrived in the form of Bradley Ogden’s ongoing overhaul of Marché Bacchus‘s kitchen, and a single bite of his steakburger gave me hope for the future:
(Obligatory #BeingJohnCurtas burger pic)
Bouchon is still the place to go for vichyssoise, boudin blanc and Le Cirque-worthy crème brûlée:
…not to mention sweetbreads. Bouchon is also the only place we know of in Vegas, with the cojones to serve them. You know these glands gotta be good if we head there directly after spending two weeks in France. In business almost twenty years now, Bouchon has endured because its food is….wait for it…thymus:
(Sweet puns are what I was bred for)
Caveat: As much as we love the Big B, its ‘ersters were unimpressive, in size and selection. We’ve always called them best in town, but that crown has been usurped by another slurper — Water Grill — where even late in the season, the bivalves were clearly bigger, better, and fresher:
Since we’re in a seafood mood, when the hankerin’ for fish and chips arises, the malt-battered ones at 7th & Carson are coronation-worthy:
And don’t sleep on the incroyable desserts at Osteria Fiorella:
As long as we’re remembering superior succulence over the past three monts, this “Secreto Pork” at Edo Gastro Tapas & Wine stands out:
…as do the life-affirming/health-giving properties of Khoury’s Mediterranean practically perfect puffy pita:
Naxos Taverna restored my faith in off-Strip casino eating …by bringing Milos-quality seafood to the ‘burbs. Gorgeous swimmers, pretty room, beautiful apps, and finally, a restaurant with a chef (Mark Andelbradt) who knows how to cook a f**king artichoke:
The restorative powers of Szechuan cuisine are well known, but be advised: at Chengdu Taste , they must be sampled with a fire hose in tow:
(Spicy is an understatement)
When it comes to breakfast, The Daily Bread stands apart. It’s fresh-baked goods are shockingly good, and this banana cream croissant was the definition of scrumptious:
Did someone say “Conchinita Pibil?”After three weeks in France, the one thing we craved was the spark of good Mexican, and Leticia’s Cocina & Cantina always fills the bill.
Speaking of sparks, the contrast of rich and sharp is the elemental appeal of good Thai, and Lamoon had us over the moon with its comfy build-out (in an old Dairy Queen!) and a luscious duck khao soi:
Everything we tried was a head-turner, both in presentation and taste. Just the palate resuscitator we needed after weeks of organ meats and stinky cheeses. Nice wine list, too, as befits the Bank and Bon Atcharawan brand.
In a more traditional vein, we returned to Cipriani for the pasta, but stayed for the gelato:
One of the ways we keep our girlish figure is by walking to Cipriani for lunch on Fridays. This is not an option at Hola Mexican Cocina+Cantina which serves these fabulous blue corn grilled fish tacos at the far reaches of the southwest valley:
Truth be truth, Hola is so far from the palatial Curtas abode:
(Landscaping is my passion)
…that it took a Sherpa guide, Two Conestoga wagons, and a degree in dead reckoning to find it. But the payoff was in those tortillas and even the spicy fideo — which got our attention more than any Mexican side dish in recent memory.
Closer to home is Patrick Munster’s brilliant steak tartare at Main Street Provisions:
Anything and everything at Anima by Edo:
Yes, that’s two mentions of Oscar Amador Edo’s food…which, as our hottest local chef running two of our hottest restaurants, he deserves.
Now, for the home stretch, some old reliables and newcomers which rang our chimes over the past few months:
Yukon Pizza is simply fabulous no matter how you slice it:
(Pizza be with you)
Sea Salt Live Sashimi …is delicious, but not as pristine as Japanese, and definitely not for the squeamish. Pro tip: bring your favorite Korean to help you navigate the menu which is not exactly limited:
Any pie at Good Pie always floats our boat:
Nobody fries chicken like the Koreans, and no Korean in Vegas fries it like Ssoju Korean Pub:
Soulbelly BBQ’s beef brisket taco are life-affirming…for everyone but the steer:
And let us not forsake the bread and dips at Esther’s Kitchen:
All of these meals restored my faith in humanity….at least as it relates to my taste buds. They also got me to thinking…
What will late-stage Vegas be? I expect the Strip to get dumber and locals to get smarter. Chef-driven restaurants are so 2010. “Name” chefs are gradually being replaced with corporate restaurant concepts like the ones that brought Tao, RPM, and Mott 32 to our shores(?). Next up will be the LPM Restaurants bringing “music, art, people and bonhomie [and] outrageous harmony in the room” — when it takes over the old Milos space in The Cosmo. More and more, new joints will prioritize a party vibe over the food, and the sports-loving crowds will eat it up. The restaurant-cum-nightclub is here to stay, and will make me long for the days when I thought the music at B&B Ristorante was a little too loud.
The Strip hotels once aimed high and hit their target, and brought world renown to our restaurant scene in the process. But the visionaries who changed that game are long gone, replaced by executives who view Vegas as one gigantic advertising platform masquerading as a sports bar, shoveling $100 steaks into the gaping maws of fanboys and show-offs.
With this change went any hope that the Strip’s restaurant scene will ever again be taken seriously, at least in my lifetime. It’s no coincidence that we have three finalists for James Beard Award this year and each of them — Oscar Amador Edo, Kaoru Azuechi, and Garagiste Wine Bar — plies their trade miles from Las Vegas Boulevard.
And miles from LVBlvd is where, with a few exceptions, you’ll find me these days. Because if there’s one thing I don’t want with my meals, it’s “music, art and outrageous harmony.”