There was a time when Las Vegas was, even from a distance (in fact, especially from a distance) viewed in a dim light. All that gambling? The Nevada ‘connections’ and associated glitz, grit and glamour? The State of Nevada’s marriage laws that are as loose as a gossip’s tongue? All of this meant that the outward perception of the city was skewed towards the risky and the risqué.
The tired cliché of ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ didn’t help either, with its dubious connotations of no matter what sort of nonsense you got up to it would remain a secret until divorce, death us do part, or whichever came first. Las Vegas, however, has rapidly – and radically – altered in the past five years.
As noted, the glamour of The Strip (now officially known as ‘The Boulevard’, such are the changing times we live in), and the magnetic commotion of the thousands of gambling tables still rake in the tourists and their money, but more recently you will check into resort hotels that are purposefully built without any casinos whatsoever.
In the Las Vegas of right here and right now, you will uncover cultural reference points that you would never have presumed were there. You will also unearth more celebrity chefs than you’ve seen on multiple reality TV shows, and visit more restaurants of such high quality that you will start to suspiciously look around for hidden cameras for fear you are being tricked.
The truth is that Las Vegas now is a long way from the days when the only options gamblers had to refuel between their first game of poker, their final pull of the one-armed-bandit, and the jaded voice of a cabaret jazz singer was second-rate fast food.
Don’t be fooled for a second, however, into thinking that the city’s heart beats any the less faster because of such changes. Indeed, it is within the city’s many quality restaurants (overseen/guided by the likes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Pierre Gagnaire, Joel Robuchon, and Emeril Lagasse) that you can sense a pulse coursing through the city’s veins with just as much commitment and force as from the hopeful high and desperately low rollers gathered around the tables.
Before we dive headlong into the food offerings, here are a couple of nods in the direction of what to do when the hunger pangs have been appeased.
Culture, I hear you ask? Yes, we know that Las Vegas and culture might not be deemed to be compatible. We are going out on limb here by saying that, pretty much, all of the hotel-based high-end shows are more entertaining than culturally enriching (and some no less enjoyable, of course), but if you want to hit a quality cultural note, then pay a visit to The Smith Center for the Performing Arts (thesmithcenter.com), a striking, purpose-built theatre for music acts and touring Broadway shows. As for day trips, there is as much to do out of Las Vegas as in.
Of course, the first on most people’s minds is the Grand Canyon, which is undoubtedly one of the great natural wonders of the world. Thirty miles from the Strip (oops, we mean The Boulevard!) is Lake Mead. One of the largest man-made lakes in the Western Hemisphere, it is a sizeable home to loads of outdoor recreational goings-on such as swimming, jet skiing, hiking, kayaking and fishing.
While the roots of Las Vegas might be built on shifting Nevada sands of chance, there is no such vagueness when it comes to the city’s exceptional high-end restaurants.
It’s quite simple: each classy hotel has incredible restaurants, and the below personal selection includes merely a small percentage of what’s on offer. (I would love to have listed more, but those roulette tables were the ruin of me.)
If for some reason your head is on the weary side, and you feel your body craves reassuring comfort food, then get yourself to the Citizens Kitchen. What you get is 24/7 American comfort food at its best – anything goes here, from Crab Cake Benedict (crisp Maryland crab cakes, breakfast potatoes, creole hollandaise) and Steak & Eggs (grilled cowboy steak, three ‘any style’ eggs, breakfast potatoes, toast) to the Ultimate Breakfast (three pancakes, two eggs and bacon/sausage/ham).
Overseeing the food operations is New York Corporate Executive Chef, Brian Massie, whose creative culinary philosophy is summed up by his description of cooking as a “constant evolution. You have to read, travel, eat, and eat more. Once you stop all of the above, you’re behind the curve.”
For lunch, head to Table 10, The Venetian/Palazzo Resort Hotel. The restaurant is pitched as the intersection between casual dining and superlative food, and as you sit down to eat at Table 10 you totally understand why New Orleans’ chef Emeril Lagasse decided to deliver a menu that steadfastly uses market fresh produce and regional seafood/meats. Compared to the Palazzo’s grandiose Italianate design strategies, Table 10’s décor is decidedly rustic (if not slightly industrial).
The food is sublime, however, as Chef de Cuisine James Richards twirls New Orleans favourites on a nickel via sandwiches such as Shrimp Po’ Boy (crispy fried gulf shrimp, creole mayo, shaved lettuce, fries, French bread) and delectable entrées such as Pan-fried wild gulf flounder (traditional sauce meuniere, Andouille sausage, and blue crab jambalaya).
Brekkie is dead. Lunch is a memory. Dinner options ahoy! We have two for you: the first is the truly wonderful Twist at Mandarin Oriental. Located on the 23rd floor, and a recent winner of the Forbes Five Star 2017 Award, Twist is dinner-only fine dining at its most erudite.
Masterminded by three-star Michelin Chef Pierre Gagnaire, prepare to experience genuine culinary innovation that mischievously pairs textures and tastes with guileless French know-how. In your dreams, go for broke (perhaps literally) and order the seven-course tasting menu, with seven wines, at $777 per head.
Option number two is Jean-Georges Steakhouse, Aria Resort Hotel. This chic elegy to design (and instinctual tribute to food) is guided by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, so expect the best, from Kobe A5 to 42oz Wagyu Tomohawk. The plates, by the way, resemble molten lava – be careful!
Oh, dear, but what if that nasty one-armed bandit has put his hand into your wallet again? What can you do and where can you go? La Salsa Cantina, right on the Strip, that’s where. Sit down, and order a plate of eggs, ham, potatoes and a Bloody Mary (hey – you’re in Las Vegas, baby!).
Sophisticated? No, but La Salsa is as authentic a Las Vegas experience as any of ones I’ve mentioned. And at a cost of less than $10, it’s a bucketful of chips cheaper. Tell them Tony sent you! (Actually, maybe not, I think I might still owe them some money.)
Tony Clayton-Lea is a freelance pop culture/travel writer. His primary aim when traveling is to avoid obvious tourist traps, to make sure an intriguing laneway never goes undiscovered, and to unearth the perfect place for people watching.
Stay up-to-date with Tony’s writing by visiting his website, tonyclaytonlea.com.