Nearly every celebrity chef in the country — early adopters like Nobu Matsuhisa, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, joined more recently by Joel Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, Michael Mina, Alain Ducasse and Tom Colicchio — has a flashy restaurant in Sin City.
But what happens when every knife-wielding celeb on the planet throws his toque into the ring in Vegas and then the economy tanks?
On the way back from the West Coast several weeks ago I stopped off for a solo culinary jaunt in Nevada's paean to neon. I didn't buy it when Vegas tried to position itself as a family destination in the 1990s and I'm not going along with the "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" mantra. I'm going to eat and tell.
Before departure, I called Leslie Frisbee, editor of Las Vegas magazine and Vegas2Go, to uncover the greatest culinary deals in Las Vegas. She's been following goings-on in the city for a few years and says that it continues to host amazing new restaurants, but that there has been, essentially, a saturation that has caused celebrity chefs to dicker on the price. In places that two years ago had a nearly $100 per-person bill and a full reservation list, fewer people are dining, and when they do they are spending less.
Thriftiness in vogue
On my last visit, Vegas was still Vegas. By that I mean, Diamonds Are Forever Vegas, Casino Vegas, with an ostentatious show of bling and crisp Benjamins. If you weren't a high roller, you at least wanted to look like one. People were ordering the $360, 16-course tasting menu at Joel Robuchon's and restaurants routinely flaunted their extravagance (e.g., the wall of 3,500 live roses at Hubert Keller's Fleur de Lys in Mandalay Bay). Now diners not only aren't in the mood to eat the $360 menu, they aren't in the mood to be seen eating the $360 menu. Thriftiness is the new black.
I rolled into town and got a $50 room rate in the pyramid at the Luxor, with a $25 food and beverage credit. This is one among many ways casino hotels are trying to keep guests on property — make it work for you, and always ask about food credits or discounts when booking a room. Planning my gustatory attack, I turned to the Web: Vegas.com lists deals and coupons, as does www.lasvegasadvisor.com. Most of the casino Web sites also list their restaurants' deals, and Vegas megastars such as Wolfgang Puck (I counted five fine-dining restaurants and many more casual Puck-stops in casinos) may list special promotions on their Web sites.
Still, the best route is old-fashioned shoe leather. I walked the casinos on the Strip and found a couple of trends. The all-you-can-eat buffet is alive and well, but with a twist. Pay one price (usually around $30) and eat all day, for breakfast, lunch, dinner and all those meals in between. Yep, another way to keep you gambling happily on property all day long.
And just about every restaurant has a banner out front proclaiming a $30 to $45 three-course seasonal menu (many offered just in the "early bird" hours before 7:30 p.m.) Once seated, though, customers are often only offered the regular menu. You have to ask for the prix-fixe deal. In fact, even in the absence of any prix-fixe evidence, it behooves you to ask if there are any special deals.
I had a stunning meal for $45 at the drop-dead gorgeous Michael Mina Nob Hill Tavern in the MGM Grand: a classic Caesar with plush white anchovy fillets; then a kurobuta pork chop with bacon lardons, braised Swiss chard and a toasted farro pilaf I'm still thinking about; and finally a childlike fantasy all grown up, a pecan praline sundae. My second-best meal was at China Grill in Mandalay Bay, with sesame-plum-sauce-glazed lamb spareribs and a plate of spicy-gingery beef dumplings, then a barbecued salmon with punchy Chinese mustard sauce and stir-fried Asian greens, and finally a hazelnut chocolate torte. Total damage? $39.
Real economic hardship
The top-grossing U.S. restaurant in 2008 was Tao Las Vegas, with food-and-beverage sales of $68.4 million. In fact, according to a Restaurants and Institutions report, seven of the top-grossing 25 restaurants were in Vegas.
Even so, there's real economic hardship here. Since Steve Wynn started all the madness in 2005, more than 80 hotel, condo and high-rise projects have risen on or near the Strip — hulking, unfinished behemoths like the stalled Fontainebleau are reminders of better times. Gaming revenues are down nearly 15 percent and new projects like CityCenter threaten to cannibalize business in the city. Even cabbies have it bad. On the way back from the Stratosphere one night, I asked the young Russian driver about business. "Lady, I waited an hour in the taxi line for your fare."
I tipped big.
But in some senses, Vegas' top restaurants are "too big to fail." Every luxury casino needs a stable of top-shelf chefs to add luster. Those chefs are offered outrageous deals to set up shop. So, with very little outlay of cash, celebrity chefs have a venue for introducing new customers to their signature styles, essentially lavish advertisements for their flagship restaurants back home. And right now they have to work harder to woo the customer. For once, in Vegas, the odds are in our favor.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining.