By Adam Fine
Let’s face it, Vegas is not a town built on foie gras. The history of this desert playground is one of cheap rooms, cheap food and all-night stints at the craps tables. No one came to Vegas to dine, unless it was comped, and then only to pass the time before getting back to those other tables.
Yet Vegas has always marketed its food, as much to draw attention to itself as to establish its inherent difference from the rest of America. One of the best known publicity photos from the bygone era shows a showgirl frying two eggs on the blistering Strip in the height of summer. Later on, surf-and-turf specials, two-buck steak dinners, prime rib buffets and 99-cent shrimp cocktails would be the extent of Vegas food marketing-and, indeed, those things are still available.
There were exceptions, of course. Restaurants that have since entered the realm of legend, alongside the hotels that exist only on postcards. There were the blue martinis at the Sultan’s Table and the mermaid harpist at the Dome of the Sea, both at the Dunes. There was the beautiful Sabre Room at the Aladdin, the Regency Room at the Sands and the Monte Carlo Room at the Desert Inn. Add the exquisite Palace Court and the theatrical Bacchanal to that list, two historic restaurants that recently fell to renovations at Caesars Palace. Even the new wave of star chefs has seen its own spectacular failure, with the closing of the poorly conceived Charlie Trotter’s at the MGM Grand.
But these restaurants were exceptions. By and large, the food history of Las Vegas is one of culinary mediocrity, more famous for the dubious all-you-can-eat buffet than for anything suggesting a hint of haute. And this would be the case until Steve Wynn raised the bar on luxury with the development of The Mirage, and Wolfgang Puck brought Spago to the newly opened Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. The combination of these two events heralded the New Age of Las Vegas, and with its megaresorts and Broadway shows came a new focus on dining that had simply never existed before.
To be sure, every hotel worth its casino has a coffee shop, steakhouse and buffet (except New York-New York and Venetian, which opened without buffets). Their quality of food is generally reflected in the quality of the property-cheap hotels have cheap food. The major exception here are the Vegas “locals casinos,” which tend to have higher quality food and beverage at lower prices than their tourist counterparts.
This list isn’t about those restaurants, although you’ll find two stand-out buffets that deserved to be mentioned for their innovation and quality. Rather, this list is about the best Las Vegas has to offer. These are the 50 restaurants that have made it, quite remarkably, one of the culinary hotspots of the country. It’s also a guide to help you sort through the endless list of names that will bombard you from the moment you get off the plane.
For the most part, these are all expensive restaurants. Don’t expect bargains on this list. And while Vegas is known for its casual approach to all things entertaining, some of these places do have dress codes. And at the star chef restaurants, particularly at places like Bellagio, Venetian, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay and the Rio, you’ll definitely need to make reservations.
So get away from the other tables, at least for a few hours, and get a taste of the New Las Vegas.
Andre’s, Monte Carlo
Long considered the patriarch of the Las Vegas food scene (even before it had a scene), Chef Andre Rochat has enjoyed exclusivity among the Vegas food elite like no others. His little country house French restaurant just off 6th St. near the downtown business district has been popular with locals and tourists for 20 years, and still remains high on the top of food lists for diners in the know. His classic French cuisine is always flawless, and his wine list is legendary.
At the invitation of Monte Carlo execs, Rochat opened his second restaurant at the Beaux Arts-themed hotel, an intimate dining room seating 50, with Renaissance-inspired decor that evokes a French country chateau. The fireplace, painted ceilings, fresh flowers and Versace china all add to the feeling of refined opulence. A winding marble staircase leads to three private dining rooms and the Louis XVI Salon, where guests may conclude their meal with a snifter of fine cognac and a cigar from the stocked humidor.
Andre’s classic French menu changes seasonally, but expect to find foie gras, tuna tartare, Dover sole, Provimi veal, Muscovy duck breast and several presentations of lobster on the menu year round. Call in advance to see if you might be in town for one of his exclusive winemaker dinners.
The idea of fabulous fish in the Mojave Desert sounds ludicrous, but Chef Michael Mina, of the popular Aqua in San Francisco, flies his seafood in daily. And oh, what fish it is! Nothing but fish on the menu, in fact. Well, almost. From simple and austere presentations of lobster and scallops to the incredibly rich stack of ahi tuna, foie gras and fried potato cake, surrounded by a velvety port reduction.
The restaurant is tucked away next to Bellagio’s Conservatory, and has a lovely bar where you may choose to eat, since reservations are tough to come by. This is a high-energy place, with gorgeous, honey-colored wood, expensive tile and canvas lamps that cast a golden glow on the tables. The five-course tasting menu with accompanying wines is one of the most remarkable dining experiences in the city.
Aureole, Mandalay Bay
Chef Charlie Palmer’s extraordinary “progressive American” food has survived the transition from Manhattan to Las Vegas, but the new Adam Tihany-designed interior is so far away from the flower-filled townhouse on New York’s Upper East Side, you won’t believe it’s the same restaurant. With its 42-foot wine tower and multiple dining rooms, including the al fresco Swan Court, this Aureole impresses long before the first dish is served.
Palmer’s cuisine is simple but sublime, with levels of complexity that surprise and tantalize. A spicy tuna tartare appetizer is served with a cucumber relish that incorporates seaweed and black sesame; oak-smoked salmon is placed on a bed of lentils and finished with salmon mousse and a corn cake; and the divine sea scallops, plucked from the ocean bed by trained divers, are wrapped in potato crusts and served with a citrus reduction. Entrees may include a pan-seared veal mignon with honey roasted figs and a caramelized onion potato puree with Cabernet sauce, or a rosemary roasted lamb loin with a braised shank crepe, served with morels and English peas. As in New York, gravity-defying desserts tower over the plate, whether it’s a roasted banana bread pudding or a plum and sweet polenta galette.
Border Grill, Mandalay Bay
Those “Too Hot Tamales,” Susan Fenniger and Mary Sue Milliken, well known to LA residents and TV Food Network addicts, bring their creative interpretations of Mexican cuisine to Mandalay Bay, in a vibrant, beach-side setting that goes perfectly with their bold and spicy food.
According to Gourmet, Border Grill is the “waterfront café you never managed to find in Mazatlan.” The decor of the main dining room may be a bit too fiesta-inspired for some, but the patio under the palms is dreamy. Appetizers include must-have fresh mashed guacamole, plantain empañadas and “panuchos,” little black bean-stuffed tortillas topped with achiote citrus chicken, pickled onions and avocado. The garlicky skirt steak entree is a must for beef lovers, as is the traditional “ropa vieja,” a Cuban lamb stew. The pan-seared halibut with caramelized pearl onions, jalapeños, Kalamata olives and fresh oregano and garlic broth is perfect for fish lovers.
For a quick bite, Border Grill’s take-out tacqueria is just a few steps away from the beach, and bathing suits are welcome at the casual cantina tables.
With its airy design, wood floors and windows overlooking Rio’s extensive pool area, Buzio’s feels like an exclusive cabana, the sort of place you’d find in an upscale beach resort. The restaurant serves all variety of fresh seafood, but the real winners here are the giant bowls of steamed clams and mussels, served with a bottomless basket of fresh sourdough bread to sop up the juices. Pan roasts are also popular, and the wine list has a great variety of whites from all over the world to compliment the menu selections. Solo diners will enjoy Buzio’s raw bar and its extensive list of wines by the glass.
Charlie Palmer Steak, The Four Seasons at Mandalay Bay
Sublime and refined, Aureole Chef Charlie Trotter took over the lackluster Grill Room just off the lobby of the ultra-posh (and nearly unknown) Four Seasons. This is a hotel-within-a-hotel concept; the Four Seasons is actually comprised of several floors of Mandalay Bay, with entirely separate facilities (which means you don’t deal with the crowds, the casino or crowded elevators-the Four Season has its own). Charlie Palmer Steak isn’t Aureole, but its marvelous presentations are wonderful. Coupled with the quiet exclusivity of Vegas’ most hidden steakhouse, not to mention a great wine list, this place is a winner.
China Grill, Mandalay Bay
Mandalay Bay’s China Grill is imbued with a sort of high-energy techno-funk that seems to be something of a design rage here in Las Vegas at the end (or is it the beginning?) of the millennium. Diners are seated in a soaring, almost pagoda-like setting, with swirling ceiling lights, dancing video images and an exhibition kitchen framed by what seem like enormous bamboo curtains. A covered Chinese bridge with a fiber optic water lily garden leads into the place, and there’s a great lounge just outside the main dining room.
Food receives communal, if not militant, treatment. Dishes are brought to the table when they’re ready, period. It’s done, you eat. Dishes are also expected to be shared by everyone at the table, preferably with chopsticks, but concessions are made. It’s an unusual way of eating, great with friends, but potentially awkward among strangers.
Thus forewarned, you’ll find the food sublime. The complex menu tends a bit to the “world cuisine” trend, but preparations and flavors are distinctly Chinese. Expect such enticing dishes as lamb spareribs, dry-aged soy-infused beef, lobster and shiitake bolognese risotto (huh?), lobster mashed potatoes and crispy duck, always with artful, unusual sauces. Definitely not your grandma’s take-out Chinese restaurant.
Chinois, The Forum Shops at Caesars
Wolfgang Puck’s second restaurant at the Forum Shops opened in late 1997, as part of an expansion that literally doubled the size of the popular mall. But unlike Spago, Puck’s revolutionary restaurant, Chinois is a bit more serene, eclectic and true to its Asian roots. The restaurant is almost environmental, with its bamboo walls, antique Chinese artifacts and watery murals. There’s also a sushi bar on the ground floor level for fast snacks and California rolls, imperative between shopping jaunts. Go for the noodle dishes, the whole sizzling catfish, the lobster with coconut curry sauce, or the sesame-crusted pork loin.
Commander’s Palace, Aladdin
The most historic restaurant in the country, the 120-year-old Commander’s Palace makes its way to Vegas in the city’s newest casino, the Aladdin. Long known as the New Orleans flagship of the powerful Brennan restaurant family, Commander’s Palace is a bastion of elegant, refined Creole food, set in a rambling old house with an endless number of dining rooms. This is where Emeril Lagasse honed his skills for seven years before branching out on his own. The mantle is currently worn by Jamie Shannon, who started under Emeril as a saucier in 1984 and has worked his way up to the top spot in the kitchen. How well the Commander’s Palace will make the transition remains to be seen, since its opening is so recent. But with the power duo of Jamie Shannon and Ella Brennan at the helm, you can bet Commander’s Palace will easily take its place among the city’s restaurant elite.
Coyote Café & Grill Room, MGM Grand
Mark Miller’s foray into Las Vegas is really two restaurants-there’s the brash, funky Coyote Café outside, and the deliciously earthy Grill Room tucked behind the Coyote. Both places exemplify Miller’s interpretations of American Southwestern and Mexican cuisine, with their subtle Native American, Texan and New Orleans influences.
The Coyote Café features plenty of hand-painted coyotes, and with all the terra cotta and stone, has the feel of a Santa Fe restaurant. Dishes are a bit simpler here, with such items as blue corn enchiladas, Cuban sandwiches, jerk chicken tacos and a variety of creative burritos. The bar serves up wonderful infused rums, and, of course, plenty of tequila-related concoctions.
It’s in the Grill Room where you’ll really get to examine Miller’s signature style, with such dishes as a smoked rainbow trout tostada with saffron cream, chipotle marinated gulf shrimp with sweet buttermilk corn cakes and avocado relish, tamarind coffee seared pork tenderloin with mashed celery root, black-eyed peas and chayote mango slaw (the menu changes seasonally, so you never know what you’ll find), and Miller’s legendary Cowboy Steak, a giant rib eye with barbecued black beans, red chile onion rings and blackened tomato chipotle slaw that’s always on the menu.
Delmonico Steakhouse, Venetian
Those of you looking for food that more closely resembles what Emeril Lagasse cooks on the TV Food Network will find it here, at his Delmonico Steakhouse at the Venetian. While Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House at the MGM is excellent, it sometimes lacks the firepower that Emeril has become known for-not just cayenne pepper and pork fat, but his “Emeril-izations” of classic Creole dishes.
But make no mistake, this is foremost a steakhouse. What you’ll find here are excellent prime cuts, dry aged and flavorful, with several other menu options that raise Delmonico beyond “classic steakhouse” fare. And since this is Emeril Lagasse, expect plump crawfish in the buttery mashed potatoes, Cajun and Creole appetizers, and oddities like the Delmonico Chicken, carved tableside for two.
The Delmonico is a large, attractive room, more Manhattan than New Orleans, with austere white walls and brown velvet seating that suggest New York in the ’70s. Definitely one of the “power restaurants” on the Strip.
Drai’s, Barbary Coast
As traditional as the Barbary Coast’s classic Michael’s is, the opposite holds true for the innovative Drai’s, a sleeper of a restaurant a floor below the Strip in what used to be a fast- food outlet. Not so today, with four beautiful, if quirky, dining rooms that play host to a great menu of part-California, part-Provence dishes.
Start with ahi sashimi, layered on phyllo dough with enoki mushrooms, daikon and ginger, or soft-scrambled eggs with a generous dose of caviar, served in the egg’s own shell. It’s little touches like this, or the glazed Chilean sea bass served with perfectly fried yams, that make Drai’s such a treat. Lamb lovers will go crazy for the seven-hour leg of lamb, served with nothing but its own juices. The crispy duck confit with morels and fava beans exemplifies the surprisingly authentic French influence (as does a flawless steak frite).
Jazz aficionados will want to make note of live jazz in Drai’s sophisticated library lounge, complete with leopard sofas, modern paintings and a fireplace. High Tea is available, too.
Eiffel Tower Restaurant, Paris
Located on the 11th floor of the replicated monument, the Eiffel Tower is certain to become one of Las Vegas’ premier gourmet rooms. With a decor that is best described as metropolitan chic, the restaurant offers a magnificent view that stretches from the MGM to Treasure Island. The metal structure of the Tower is integrated into the design, joining modern urban construction with warm lighting and velvet fabrics. A piano bar with Deco-style sofa seating is a fantastic spot to soak in the view before dinner. (Martinis, anyone? Two? Three?) The menu is comprised of such delicacies as chilled lobster with a creamy garlic sauce, succulent braised quail and a medallion of beef served in a sauce that will have you happily dragging your bread across your plate. Mon Dieu! Reservations are a must.
Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House, MGM Grand
Before he was crowned King of the Food Network, Chef Emeril Lagasse was at the MGM Grand, expanding his Big Easy restaurant empire into the desert. Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House, the chef’s first venture in Las Vegas, was a welcome addition to the food scene in 1994. Looking like an import from the French Quarter, with wrought iron gates and vine-covered brick columns, the specialty here is obviously fish, as evidenced by the large oyster and fish bar that greets guests as they enter (a great spot for lunch or a fast bite).
Emeril has stayed close to Cajun tradition in developing the menu, featuring fresh oysters, pan-fried Louisiana crab cakes, and his famous barbecue shrimp. Entrées continue along a similar path. Pan roasted Gulf snapper on herbed new potatoes with tomato and fennel confit, steamed mussels and Kalamata olives is delicious, as is the andouille crusted redfish served on a bed of creamy grits with an oyster-artichoke cream sauce and fried spinach leaves. Hilda (that’s Emeril’s mom, as any Emeril addict knows) makes her appearance with Portuguese steamed clams simmered with spicy chorizo sausage, garlic and onions. Decadent desserts, too (think praline crème brulee, or Emeril’s signature banana cream pie).
The first of the Rio’s restaurants to go all out was Fiore, a sophisticated, metropolitan grill with floor-to-ceiling windows, an exhibition kitchen, bowls of spicy cracked olives on the bar, and a cigar terrace. Although the grilled fare clearly dominates the menu, it offers several Mediterranean-inspired surprises, such as pheasant ravioli in porcini and wild mushroom sauce, or a wonderful roast rack of lamb, crusted and perfumed with rosemary. Intermezzo arrives with a spray of expensive champagne, and a thorough, well-chosen wine list completes the picture. One of the earliest appearances on the “new” Las Vegas culinary scene, and still one of the most appealing.
“East meets best” for an ultra luxe celebration of gourmet Chinese food, accessible from a discreet elevator near the Rio’s high-end gaming area. Applying contemporary concepts to Hong Kong and Cantonese dishes, chef Chi Choi has created some wonderful dishes, from pan-fried sea bass in soy sauce to his crispy crab claw appetizers. Expect to sit among high rollers here, but don’t let that intimidate you (there’s no dress code). This is a wonderfully welcoming restaurant, although it’s clear that the Rio’s Chinese clientele are the main reason this place exists. That said, this may be the finest Chinese food in the city, even if no one knows about it.
Gatsby’s, MGM Grand
The wonderful Deco cocktail lounge and piano bar at the entrance to Gatsby’s is only a preliminary attraction to what is arguably one of Las Vegas’ top dining rooms. Chef Terry Fong may have departed the restaurant’s company, but that doesn’t mean his influence is gone. Fong’s native Hawaiian, Pacific Rim-focused food has always been excellent, and there’s no reason to assume the menu will change (yet). His tower of perfectly crispy sautéed sweetbreads and meltingly soft foie gras with mango Sauternes reduction and dashes of aged balsamic vinegar is still absolutely stunning. The macadamia nut-crusted escolar, served with ginger-cilantro pesto and teriyaki sauce, is wonderful. Likewise for the marinated sea bass with miso-soy glaze and fiery peanut oil. Rumor has it that Gatsby’s will soon go classic French, but here’s hoping Fong will stay with the menu, at least in spirit. Keep an eye on this one.
Hugo’s Cellar, Four Queens
Considered by its loyal following to be the best restaurant in Las Vegas, and one of only two on this list that predates the food revolution of the past ten years, Hugo’s Cellar at the Four Queens still knows how to put on a show. The menu may not be terribly haute or culinarily explosive, but the decor, quality and, above all, great service, keep Hugo’s somewhere near the top, even if it’s gotten a little lost in all that star chef glare.
The restaurant is indeed located in a cellar, or at least a room that pretends to be a cellar. One flight below the chaos of Fremont Street, Hugo’s is dark and discreet, with brick walls, wood trim, beveled glass partitions and plenty of soft candlelight. The menu is Continental, a good mix of steaks, chops, fish and fowl-recently upgraded a bit to include “newer” dishes like monkfish and Chilean sea bass. But the salad cart, a veritable salad bar on wheels, is still there, as is the sorbet intermezzo, and the double-tiered tray of chocolate-dipped strawberries and truffles that arrives with coffee. As always, hostess Jean Isbell and sommelier Jon Simmons make you feel like family.
Il Fornaio, New York-New York
Forget the mozzarella-smothered foods of Little Italy’s Il Fornaio. The New York-New York version goes straight to the Tuscan heart of Italy, with a well chosen wine list and a great, airy environment. Most of the entrees are grilled or spit-roasted, often served with garlicky sautéed spinach, Tuscan white beans and roast potatoes. A nice selection of pastas and pizzas round out the menu. The snazzy marble bar area is a good choice for solo diners, or couples when the cafe is booked. There’s also a lovely patio outside, for “al fresco” dining overlooking the casino.
PS: There’s a wonderful bakery right next door, Il Fornaio Panetteria, where restaurant chefs bake their ciabattas from scratch. It also serves as a coffee bar, with long lines during the morning rush for caffeine.
Isis is a lush, intimate and completely original little restaurant, actually one of the better-kept dining secrets in Las Vegas, and certainly deserving of more attention. Guests approach Isis along a colonnade walk of Caryatid statues and enter through gold-embossed glass “Wings of Isis” doors. Inside, golden stars sparkle on a midnight blue dome, with gilt statues of Egyptian goddesses placed in the center and at the corners of the room.
The food is essentially Continental, though concessions are made to the updated flair of the resort. Appetizers include smoked salmon and buckwheat blinis with creme fraiche and caviar, or poached oysters served over creamed spinach with Pernod. From there, move on to the crispy breast of duck with cassis and ginger, lobster tail baked en croute with seafood mousse in white zinfandel sauce, or a classic veal loin sautéed with sorrel in vermouth. Very romantic, but small enough that reservations should be made well in advance.
Not only is this one of the most stunningly beautiful restaurants at Bellagio, with its European decor and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the fountains, but Chef Philip Lo’s interpretations of Hong Kong Cantonese food makes this one of the most incredible Chinese restaurants in the gaming industry. Nominated as one of “America’s Outstanding Chefs,” it was Lo who introduced San Francisco to the idea of nouvelle Hong Kong cuisine, rooted in tradition but with a distinctly modern flair. Start with tender lobster dumplings or spicy phoenix tail prawns, move on to braised belly ribs, grilled pork chops marinated in rosedew bean sauce, Chinoise scallops with pine nuts and fried sun-dried scallops, or golden crispy chicken stuffed with savory glutinous rice. Sublime from start to finish.
La Louisiane, Orleans
A shock, a surprise and a delight is La Louisiane at the Orleans, a locals casino known more for loose slots and video poker than gourmet food. But Coast Resorts owner Michael Gaughan is obviously onto a trend here, with a family of restaurants that includes Michael’s and Drai’s at the Barbary Coast, and Primo and Via Veneto at the new Suncoast. Under the competent hand of Executive Chef Selis Bowser, an affable guy who likes to hang out with diners so he can watch their reactions, La Louisiane offers an inspired selection of gourmet Cajun food, updated with subtle French and California preparations. Located in the former buffet, the restaurant is scheduled to undergo a lengthy renovation that will bring the decor up to the level of the food. Keep an eye on this sleeper.
Le Cirque, Bellagio
When it came to Manhattan in the anything goes, three-martini ’80s, nowhere were the legends more legendary and the beautiful people more visible than at Le Cirque, Sirio Maccioni’s circus-frescoed landmark at the Mayfair Hotel on E. 65th St. Now located at the Sultan of Brunei’s New York Palace Hotel on E. 50th St., the new Le Cirque 2000 traded in its ’80s insolence for dynamic millennial intensity, in an Adam Tihany-designed interior that is as bold, daring and creative as the menu itself.
To start at the end, there is the legendary crème brulee, a dessert that has become inseparable from Sirio Maccioni, and a point of contention for foodies across the country. There is the paupiette of black sea bass in crispy potatoes with braised leeks and barolo sauce, and the “black tie” sea scallops, layered with black truffles and wrapped in spinach and puff pastry. There is the lobster risotto and foie gras, lamb filet mignon with crushed Yukon gold potatoes, and perfect roast chicken with black truffles under the crispy skin, served with porcini mushrooms and roasted potatoes. And there is the wine list, not as extensive as New York’s, but still an impressive collection. Another contender for the “Best in Vegas” crown, and recipient of Casino Player’s Reader’s Choice award for Best Gourmet Restaurant in Las Vegas.
Le Village Buffet, Paris
In the city’s most unique twist to the buffet concept, Le Village Buffet is comprised of seven stations, five of which represent the culinary regions of France. At Provence, for example, guests may select roast duckling or seafood bouillabaisse. At Alsace, veal breakfast sausage and venison stew is served. Beef Bourguignon can be found at Burgundy, while Normandy offers black mussel salad and steamed mussels poulette. Brittany features Camembert cheese mashed potatoes, along with made-to-order dessert crepes, served with fresh berries and whipped cream. At the salad bar, you’ll find Alaskan king crab legs, along with an assortment of cheese, fruit and wild mushroom bisque. And at the dessert station awaits French pastries and bananas Foster. Even the seating is innovative. The central area offers a garden theme, while individual salles, themed after the five regions, split the tables into private dining chambers, complete with fireplaces and dedicated servers. The result is a gourmet menu, served in an intimate atmosphere at prices that are just slightly higher than the average Strip buffet.
Chef Eberhard Müller’s greatest claim to fame was replacing the legendary Andre Soltner at New York’s Lutèce after almost 40 years. Lutèce was one of those places with a sense of awe about it, a historic grandeur, like a wartime landmark or jewels in a crown. What makes Müller so remarkable is that he actually improved on it, bringing the menu up to date and refining the look. New Yorkers still can’t get over the change.
The Lutèce that opened at the Venetian last year follows in the footsteps of Aureole. The food makes the transition intact, but the design flies in the face of the original. The original Lutèce is, like Aureole, in a flower-filled brownstone on the Upper East Side. The Vegas version is, like Aureole, in a totally modern, ultra-trendy, Adam Tihany-designed room. And, like Aureole, the new version has outdoor seating by the water-but at Lutèce, you’re overlooking the Grand Canal, Venetian style, with that infamous volcano across the street exploding every 20 minutes.
Look for classic dishes like poached oysters with caviar and champagne sauce, lobster medallions, smoked duck breast… all the usual suspects. Dinner might involve sautéed sea scallops on a black truffle and celery remoulade with mashed potatoes, crispy black bass with lobster sauce and herbed pasta, or a classic chateubriand for two. Heady food for serious gourmands, who don’t mind the frivolity of the design. Sit outside in the cooler months.
Luxor Steakhouse, Luxor
This great steakhouse opened recently, and with so little fanfare that you might stumble onto it and wonder where it came from. There are no surprises on the menu, but the interior is a dream. The walls are all cherry with glowing paintings of Egyptian sunsets, and the faux leopard-upholstered chairs and lighting fixtures look like they came right out of a Colonial British manor. The bar might have been plucked from a luxury 19th Century train car. Naturally, the steaks are all USDA prime, and a few accompaniments-the cream of watercress soup and the stuffed portabello mushroom-are standouts. A beautiful steakhouse.
Michael’s, Barbary Coast
Even as the Strip around the tiny Barbary Coast has morphed into a fantasyland of volcanoes, gondolas and pyramids, little has changed at Michael’s, one of the last of the classic Vegas restaurants. And don’t expect it to vanish any time soon-there may be no other restaurant in Las Vegas whose devotees are so loyal, almost to the point of fanaticism, who would sooner stop coming to Vegas at all than see their favorite restaurant fall to the axe of star chefs and themed chains.
And that’s what sums Michael’s up. It hasn’t bowed to trends or changed its menu (much) in the 20 years it’s been around. The stained glass dome still casts a golden glow over the small room, and the plush red velvet banquettes and wood-paneled walls still reflect candlelight from the linen-covered tables. Guests are treated like royalty by tuxedoed hosts, tended to and pampered in a classic style that has mostly been toned down or eliminated in modern restaurants. It’s all a bit sycophantic, but that’s an integral part of the restaurant’s decades-long appeal.
The menu is rooted in classic culinary tradition, with Coquille St. Jacques and baked escargot in pastry as starters, along with several salads, including hearts of palm and Caesar. Entrees range from filet mignon and lamb chops to broiled Maine lobster and Dover sole, prepared tableside, of course. Desserts are of the flaming variety-think cherries jubilee and bananas Foster, served with chocolate-dipped fruit. Forget the star chefs, folks. This is Old Vegas as it’s best remembered.
Mon Ami Gabi, Paris
All-day dining and the only Strip-side outdoor seating immediately qualify Mon Ami Gabi at Paris (where else?) as a standout. Inside, a dark bar lined from floor to ceiling with bottles of wine opens into a casually elegant, oh-so-Parisian dining room. Under the direction of award-winning chef Gabino Sotelino, the menu supplements traditional steakhouse fare with such varied items as omelets prepared with French-cured bacon, crepes and quiche. Naturally, there are steaks as well, with the signature dishes served Bordelaise or au poivre in a brandy peppercorn sauce. Open a bottle of wine, order one of the deliciously sauced Steak Frites and linger long enough to catch Bellagio’s fountain show several times over.
Napa, The Rio
Jean-Louis Palladin’s top-notch gourmet at the Rio is another restaurant that could easily vie for the “Best Restaurant in Las Vegas” crown, with its tranquil, creamy decor, lovely floral murals and gorgeous lighting. An extensive list of wines by the glass is a result of Napa’s association with the wine cellar and tasting room two floors below, but those who prefer to order off the menu will find some 600 selections.
Napa is ostensibly a California-France hybrid, but Palladin’s French roots are clear in his presentation and choice of ingredients. A celery root risotto with lobster broth is topped by medallions of grilled monkfish. Corned duck breast is served with a ragout of green lentils, and a roast suckling pig tenderloin is surrounded by young leeks and truffles. And if you’ve ever ventured to wonder what a venison osso bucco would taste like, now’s your chance, although be forewarned, the menu changes frequently. Truly one of the best in town.
Nobu, Hard Rock Hotel
Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s groundbreaking temples of Japanese cuisine with “Peruvian influences” have already set unmatched standards of excellence in Los Angeles, New York and London. The 1999 opening of Nobu Las Vegas has been widely hailed as a major coup for the Hard Rock Hotel. From squid pasta to miso-infused black cod to creamy, spicy cracked crab and all the usual (and unusual) sushi, Matsuhisa has fashioned a completely original dining establishment. This is fascinating food, but beware-there’s a relatively difficult menu to decipher, and the LA/Hollywood/Hard Rock attitude can really get under your nerves. That said, Nobu’s dishes are astonishing. The road to paradise may be a bit shaky, but once you get there, you won’t look back-you’ll only look at the menu to see which direction to head next. Hint: Let your server be your guide.
Boston import Todd English has brought his critically acclaimed Olives restaurant to Las Vegas, and placed it in a cunning little spot between Armani and Hermès, in the heart of Bellagio’s shopping district. Widely regarded as the most irresistible restaurant in Beantown, Olives specializes in what English calls “Interpretive Mediterranean,” which means it isn’t authentic, but will probably feature any combination of seafood, garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, prosciutto and lemon, most likely on a bed of sautéed greens or next to a twirl of pasta.
Still, his Boston roots come shining through in his luscious white clam pizza and his fondness for Yankee vegetables like butternut squash. Try the cod cake with lobster remoulade and baked beans, or the incredible grilled sirloin with shiitake mushroom glaze, served over bruschetta with country ham, Vidalia onions, fresh peas, Roquefort cream and more of that delicious sautéed spinach.
Whether you choose Provence or Provincetown, you’ll be fully energized to return to the rough outside world of Prada, Gucci and Chanel. Great for lunch.
Onda, The Mirage
Chef Todd English has been a hit at Bellagio with his Mediterranean-inspired Olives (see above), and here at Onda, where he consulted in the development of both the restaurant and the menu, he goes straight to the rustic heart of Italy, with great Tuscan concepts. Simple and straightforward, Onda is at its best when the powerful simplicity of perfectly grilled meats and garlic-infused pastas shine through. There’s definitely an American twist to some of the dishes, but it all works well in this comfortable, casual restaurant. Make sure you get some of those foil-wrapped vegetables (the French call it en papillote), slit open at the table and cooked in nothing but their own juices.
Osteria del Circo, Bellagio
This is the Maccioni family’s loving interpretation of Tuscan Italian food (along with some of Mama Egidiana Maccioni’s recipes thrown in for good measure), a direct import from Manhattan’s busy midtown location, with a varied menu featuring grilled antipasti, pizzas, pastas (try the papardelle with braised duck and porcini mushrooms, or potato gnocchi with wild mushroom ragout), grilled entrees, tiramisu for dessert, and a daily prix fixe lunch special. Adam Tihany’s garish design is loved by some and despised by others, but the food is universally enjoyed. Besides, the view of Bellagio’s lake is stunning. Ideal for lunch, since after trying Circo, you’ll want to have dinner at Le Cirque.
Oxo, The Regent
The upscale, spa-themed Regent (formerly the Resort at Summerlin) continues to struggle valiantly along, adding new machines, opening high-end gaming areas and trying desperately to make a success of its casino. Yet even with several restaurants having shuttered, a couple of others have achieved tremendous acclaim-particularly Spiedini, a funky, high-end Italian by renowned chef Gustav Mauler. Now, Mauler has moved across the hall and taken over the closed Nevada Nick’s Steakhouse, redesigning it, brightening it up, opening up the stunning bar area and developing an entirely new menu. The result is Oxo, a steakhouse and lounge trendy enough to enter the new millennium with ease, but decadent enough to suggest the “old days” of cocktail culture.
Oxo’s menu features a combination of superb steak and fresh seafood, all prepared with Mauler’s signature creativity. Menu highlights include wood oven-baked jumbo shrimp with a Creole beurre blanc, peppered seared ahi tuna served with a smoked tomato vinaigrette, a wonderful smoked salmon pizza, and a marvelous wine list. Detractors have cited Oxo’s limited presentation, but frills are kept to a minimum-it’s all about the food at Oxo, which is nothing short of stunning. And, like Spiedini, the service here is flawless.
It must be hard on Julian Serrano to play second fiddle to all those Picassos on the wall, especially when for over a decade, his beloved Masa’s was widely regarded as the top restaurant in San Francisco. And it’s not just the paintings he has to contend with. The restaurant has a stunning lakeside patio that guests rush out to every half-hour or so, to witness Bellagio’s spectacular fountain show.
Yet even through all these distractions, Serrano manages to shine. There’s only one way to eat here, and that’s to experience the tasting menu, with its paired wines. Start with the warm lobster salad, served with potatoes and crispy leeks, a signature dish from Masa’s, or the roasted scallops in a saffron beurre blanc. There’s a buttery rich foie gras in Madeira sauce with roasted autumn vegetables, a magnificent veal mignon with fresh morels and asparagus, and a truffle encrusted loin of lamb. This is arguably the finest restaurant in town.
Note: Have after-dinner drinks on that exclusive little patio. Even when the fountains aren’t going off, you’ll have a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower reflected in the water. One of Vegas’ most romantic spots.
Pinot Brasserie, Venetian
Joachim Splichal is one of the most celebrated chefs of the Los Angeles area, with his famed Patina consistently ranking at the top of the Southern California restaurant scene. Pinot Brasserie at the Venetian is his immaculately designed version of an authentic Paris bistro, with nearly all of the decoration imported directly from France-including the wooden French door façade from a hotel in Lyon, the copper pots, mirrors, kitchen utensils and Coq d’Or, the large, weathered cast-iron rooster that stands guard at the entry. The food is classic bistro fare, from the French onion soup to the shellfish platters and homey cuts of beef, poultry and game, all prepared with Splichal’s impeccable finesse. Pinot Brasserie also features an oyster bar, “al fresco” cafe dining, and a beautifully designed, seductively urbane bar.
Wolfgang Puck does it again, this time in a more sophisticated environment named after his San Francisco restaurant. However, the similarities stop there. Postrio is located in the Piazza San Marco area of the Venetian’s Grand Canal Shoppes, with an outdoor patio that’s even better than Spago for watching crowds-with the added benefit of entertainment from strolling Venetian musicians, who wisely keep their distance from the restaurant. With all this Venice stuff going on, you’ll be totally unprepared for the luxurious interior, with its plush seating, deep jewel tones and smoky beveled mirrors, all of which still manages to maintain a sense of unlimited energy. How do Puck and his wife, Barbara Lazaroff, keep coming up with these wonders?
Oh, yes, there’s also the food, which is classic Puck, albeit a bit on the conservative side (for him). When you’re tired of all that multi-culti, Italian-Asian stuff, come over to Postrio for garlic infused steaks, potato pancakes draped with an obscene quantity of smoked salmon, foie gras three ways, and fantastic Austrian Weiner schnitzel. If you’re in Vegas for a convention, this is the place to go after a long day at the trade show. There’s nowhere better to impress clients.
Prime is an absolutely stunning restaurant, one floor below Bellagio’s grand parade of shops, sharing the lakeside view with Picasso. The seductive room is swathed in cornflower-blue velvet curtains, rare azure marble, and rugs that look like Aubusson tapestries stolen from Buckingham Palace. This is Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s first steakhouse, an idea relatively untested by the otherwise diverse chef, whose restaurants range from classic French bistro to Thai fusion. The menu looks a little limited at first glance, but the idea here is to build your own meal. Following a chilled shellfish platter or a dish of carpaccio, guests choose a cut of meat or fish with any of ten different sauces and potatoes. The bar is a Deco delight, one of the best places in town for a martini (or, in honor of Vongerichten’s restaurant empire, a Manhattan).
Located a flight above Vegas’ newest casino with an absolutely incredible view of the Strip and Vegas valley is the hot new Primo Steakhouse. If you can tear yourself away from the view, you’ll find a clubby, English decor, with plenty of wood trim and soft lighting. There’s also a nice bar near the entrance, raised up a bit to appreciate the view. The menu is straightforward steakhouse. Rib eyes, sirloins, chops and filets, all heavy seasoned and beautifully charbroiled. Sides such as sautéed mushrooms, baked potatoes and steamed asparagus are ordered a la carte, and seafood lovers are limited to salmon or a pair of lobster tails. But the real gems here are the view and the new casino’s plans to turn this steakhouse into one of the finest in the city (no one’s complaining, they’re already nearly there).
The Range, Harrah’s
Steakhouse fare is treated with Southwestern flare at The Range, Harrah’s signature ode to all things beef. Bagel chips (!) and salsa are brought to the table when guests are seated, and oversized steaks are served with an intriguing mix of sauces and chiles. In addition to the excellent surf and turf, The Range offers one of the best dining atmospheres in Vegas. Though the use of rich, heavy wood is a staple of steakhouse decor, the Range details it with ranch-style brands. And you can’t beat the view: Every night, as the sun goes down, the blinds on enormous picture windows are lifted, revealing the glittering Strip in all its glory. Adjacent to the restaurant is the Range piano bar, a chic place to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail. If you’re a fan of martinis, be sure to ask for the vanilla one, a signature mix at the bar. Classic Harrah’s service levels, too.
Renoir, The Mirage
Chef Alessandro Stratta, formerly of the ultra-posh Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, AZ, has set up shop at The Mirage at Renoir, a superb gourmet room that attempts to duplicate the success of Picasso at Bellagio with a room dedicated to the Impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Stratta’s cooking is contemporary French, with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients. Starters may include foie gras ravioli with red wine braised ducks and caramelized leeks, or a spicy seared ahi tuna with salad Nicoise and black olive vinaigrette. Braised shortribs are served with horseradish potatoes, shallots and red wine, and roasted baby lamb is accompanied by a vegetable fricasee, almonds and spiced apricots. Reserve enough time for the multicourse degustation menu, served with accompanying wines.
Second Street Grill, Fremont
Pressed to identify the biggest sleeper hit of the Vegas food scene, it would have to be the Second Street Grill at the recently remodeled Fremont. While not exclusively a seafood restaurant, Second Street Grill definitely focuses on finned fare, in delightful Pacific Rim flavors. The restaurant is comfortable and airy, with an attractive blend of woody earth tones and funky lighting. Start the meal with seared scallops or Peking duck and shrimp tacos, and move on to the spicy whole Thai snapper, seared mahi mahi in sesame seeds, or pan-seared Chilean sea bass with spicy peanut crust and soba noodle salad. And then run outside to catch one of the dramatic light shows on the multimillion dollar canopy above the Fremont Street mall.
Another astonishing restaurant from Bellagio; this time it’s Japanese food, with Chef Naoki Sakamoto commanding a sushi bar that seems to float on blocks of ice. Behind the bar is a surreal trio of ceiling-high tanks holding nothing but large, gossamer jellyfish, floating and undulating against an inky black background.
When it comes to Japanese food, there isn’t much leeway for creativity, so perfectly merged are the flavors of Japanese cooking. Where else but Shintaro can you get lotus root in vinegar miso sauce, or grilled fish with shiitake mushrooms in a clear soup of dashi broth with sake and guzu peel? Sakamoto doesn’t disappoint on the traditional Kaiseki menu either, which features several courses of clear soup, sashimi, tempura, grilled meats, Japanese pickles and dessert. A wonderful experience.
Spago, The Forum Shops at Caesars
It’s hard to imagine Las Vegas without Spago, but prior to May, 1992, that was exactly the case. When the Forum Shops opened at Caesars, Wolfgang Puck’s Spago opened along with it. But even the famous Puck himself had no idea that Spago would be so successful, such a hit with tourists and locals alike, that it would spark a dining revolution that would change the culinary face of Las Vegas. Since Spago opened, some two dozen of America’s top chefs have opened restaurants in and around the Strip. Puck has also expanded his desert dining empire, with additional restaurants at the Forum Shops (Chinois), MGM Grand (Wolfgang Puck Cafe), Mandalay Bay (Trattoria del Lupo) and the Venetian (Postrio). But it all started right here, at Spago.
The restaurant hasn’t aged a bit, either. It’s still as popular as the day it opened, and the food is just as deliciously creative as ever. Accordingly, it’s still one of the toughest spots to get a reservation, so book well in advance. The artsy Spago has a cavernous main dining room, a small balcony and a somewhat more laid back “outdoor patio,” with a menu more or less limited to Puck’s famous pizzas and pasta (the patio is also a great spot to watch the Forum crowds).
Spiedini, The Regent
This excellent restaurant is Chef Gustav Mauler’s signature dining room at the Regent. One of the top Italian chefs in America and long-time Mirage Resorts exec, Mauler draws on Milanese cuisine for inspiration. Entrees range from Costoletta alla Milanese to classic osso bucco. This appreciation for the sophisticated side of Italy is carried over in the restaurant’s decor. You won’t find checkered tablecloths or candles stuck in empty bottles of Chianti here. Instead, the room is appointed with artistically displayed examples of colorful Murano glass. Even the chandeliers are hand-blown works of art. The risotto starters are a must, and the wine list, like the service, is fantastic. A bit of a drive from the Strip, but worth the extra miles to see how the well-heeled locals eat.
Star Canyon, Venetian
Dallas star chef Stephan Pyles is widely credited with creating what is now referred to as “New Texas” cuisine, which ostensibly raised lowly “Tex-Mex” cooking to new gourmet heights, while remaining true to its regional roots. Like his culinary compatriot Mark Miller’s reexamination of “Southwestern food,” Pyles has studied the historical impacts of Mexico, South America, Native America and Louisiana Cajun/Creole on what evolved into “cowboy cuisine.” By separating these varied elements and then focusing on them individually, Pyles has introduced inspired food possibilities that had been either overlooked or simply not respected before.
Pyles’ Star Canyon at the Venetian re-creates much of his Dallas menu. He offers spit-roasted chicken with Tehuantepecan mashed potatoes, red chile posole broth and creamed rajas, as well as a sublime tamale tart with roasted garlic custard and Gulf Coast crab meat. Paying homage to Texas-sized cuts of beef, one of his signature recipes is a bone-in rib eye with pinto bean and wild mushroom ragout, served with a pile of red chile onion rings. This is among the most exciting, innovative food in the country right now, and the Venetian is fortunate to have him.
Star Canyon is a large restaurant, seating 300 in a festive but upscale “cowboy setting,” right down to themed cowboy china, cacti and yellow Texas roses. The ranch style combines contemporary Western decor with a bit of cowboy whimsy to create one of the most unusually designed restaurants in Las Vegas. Combine that with the food, and you’re set for a heck of an experience.
Terrazza, Caesars Palace
As Caesars quietly continues its years-long overhaul, two of the more historic names in the Vegas restaurant world have fallen to the axe of renovation: the venerable Palace Court and the theatrical Bacchanal. Most likely, the popular Bacchanal will be back in some form, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying Terrazza, which replaced Primavera at the same location a few years ago.
All Tuscan tile and wood-burning ovens, Terrazza specializes in rustic Italian bistro fare, from pastas and pizzas to grilled meats and seafood. Best of all is the stunning view overlooking the Garden of the Gods, with a lovely glass-enclosed pavilion that allows for al fresco dining when the weather permits. A plush lounge spotlights jazz bands Wednesday through Sunday evenings.
Top Of The World, Stratosphere
The Top Of The World, a 360-seat revolving restaurant located more than 800 feet above the Strip, offers an unforgettable dining experience. The menu is a collection of salads, steaks and seafood, but you don’t really come here for the menu (although the food is quite good). Simply stated, the view is awesome. From up here, the Strip is seen in proportion to the rest of the Vegas valley, which has, over the last decade, become home to over a million people. It is only from this vantage point, looking out toward the Flamingo Hilton, that you can understand why Bugsy Seigel was considered a lunatic to think he could operate a casino in this vast desert wilderness-a wilderness now occupied by tens of thousands of homes, strip malls, movie theaters, a major state university, the largest hotels on earth, and at least a dozen Starbucks.
Note: A reservation will get you right to the top of the Tower, without having to deal with lines. And there’s an equally lovely cocktail lounge located on the level above the restaurant. Talk about high spirits!
Veteran restaurateur Piero Selvaggio, known for cultivating one of the finest wine cellars in the world, has brought his famed Los Angeles restaurant Valentino to the Venetian, featuring an innovative menu that nonetheless remains faithful to the Italian culinary tradition. Valentino focuses on fresh ingredients and revisits traditional recipes. Many of the ingredients are imported from Italy, including white truffles, fresh porcini mushrooms, burrata cheese from Puglia, and fish from the Mediterranean and Adriatic. The degustation menus are intriguing-the “extravaganza” offers fried squash blossoms stuffed with gorgonzola, pickled beef tongue with beets and black truffles, roasted quail and foie gras with polenta flan and Marsala sauce, lasagna with wild mushrooms, and roasted Muscovy duck breast with butter, garlic and honey-pollen extract. Wow! Plenty of fish, as entrees and also as a separate degustation menu. Nestled at the front of the restaurant is Piero’s Wine Bar & Grill, which serves simple, quick and lighter-styled foods, particularly grilled pizza and pastas.
Village Seafood Buffet, Rio
The Rio broke culinary tradition with not one but two excellent buffets, the Carnival World and the Village Seafood. And unless you have a line pass or a comp, be prepared to wait a while to get into either of these popular buffets.
The Carnival World was the first Vegas buffet to establish the “action station,” a simple concept that involved preparing small amounts of food at a time, with a chef always present to cook more-or even cook to order. Not only did this eliminate the traditional “steam table,” it assured that all food was freshly cooked. This “action” buffet idea has been copied at many places, but the Rio’s Carnival World is the original.
With the opening of Rio’s Masquerade Village came another revolutionary buffet, one that hasn’t been copied by anyone (yet). The Village Seafood Buffet has just what you’d expect-plenty of seafood, in all shapes, sizes, temperatures and preparations, every day of the week. Fresh lobsters, oysters, clams on the half shell, king crab legs and jumbo shrimp are all mounded on beds of ice, with a multitude of chefs sautéing, boiling, roasting and frying at “action” stations all around. The lines for this one can be up to three times longer than the Carnival World’s lines, but no one seems to mind the wait.