LAS VEGAS HAS ALWAYS HAD THE REPUTATION of being a town where money could buy you anything—except a great meal. This was the last place in America to let go of the belief that the essential component of a gourmet dinner was a huge steak. Quantity rather than quality has long been the hallmark of Vegas dining. In the land of the freebie and the home of the buffet, complimentary cocktails and cafeteria cuisine nourished the illusion that you could beat the house—if not at the gaming table, then at the dinner table.
But traditions here are as impermanent as the hotels on the Strip, built up in one generation only to be torn down in the next. In the nineties Las Vegas has broken free from its past to emerge as a culinary capital. Its cuisine is worthy of the best and most inventive restaurants in the country, such as Spago in L.A., Emeril’s in New Orleans, and Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe—and for a good reason. You can now find each of these restaurants in Las Vegas. Lacking a culinary heritage of its own, Vegas has imported one. The new arrivals have turned Las Vegas into a national food court. New York contributed the Palm; Chicago, Morton’s steakhouse; San Francisco, the Fog City Diner. Nicky Blair’s is in from the Sunset Strip, and McCormick and Schmick’s Seafood from Portland, Oregon, is due next year. Every kind of food and every price range have benefited from the imports: Chinese (L.A.’s Plum Tree Inn), Southwestern (Austin’s Z’Tejas), kosher (New York’s Stage Deli), burgers (California’s In-N-Out chain), even ice cream (Vermont’s Ben and Jerry’s).
Most of the top imports are part of the big hotels’ strategy to remake Las Vegas into a something-for-everyone destination, a place where visitors can have a great time (and spend a lot of money) even if they come only to eat, shop, people watch, and play a little video poker. In the old days, the top-of-the-line hotel restaurants were designed to reward high rollers, who ate for free. Michael’s, at the Barbary Coast, remains the epitome of old-Vegas restaurants, with its red velvet wallpaper, traditional dishes like chateaubriand and rack of lamb, and smothering service. The rule at such places was, The higher the prices, the lower the likelihood that most diners were actually paying for them. For the masses, the hotels provided bargain buffets. (The one at Circus Circus serves 12,000 people a day, more than any other restaurant in the world.) What was missing was something for people who wanted more adventurous fare than roast beef and fried fish. That’s the gap that the out-of-town restaurants have filled. Now let’s go eat.
The three best restaurants in Las Vegas are Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House (at the MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Boulevard South), Napa (at the Rio Suite Hotel and Casino, 3700 West Flamingo), and Spago (among the Forum Shops, at Caesars Palace, 3500 Las Vegas Boulevard South). If you are going to eat at just one top-ranked restaurant on your trip, make it Emeril’s. Ignore the crowded conditions (be thankful you have a table) and the faux French Quarter atmosphere; just concentrate on the contemporary Creole cuisine. During my visit, the creations were so imaginative, both in flavor and presentation, and the passing of plates back and forth between the four members of our party was so constant that I gave up taking detailed notes for fear of not getting my fair share. Thus my notepad is full of terse scribblings like “oysters!” The aforementioned were lightly pan-fried and served on a bourbon-spiked sweet potato purée with shiitake mushrooms and a Creole meunière sauce. This appetizer is typical of Emeril’s unexpected combinations, and it was so successful that I lamented having to divvy it up. For an entrée I chose sweet barbecued salmon served with andouille-sausage-and-potato hash and slender fried onions. It too provided tastes with which I was previously unfamiliar. Each dish had such a surprise. My wife’s steamed Portuguese littleneck clams were served over mashed potatoes that were richer than Bill Gates. Set your expectations as high as you like here; they will be reached.
Napa is unique among Las Vegas’ top dining spots because it has a resident owner: Jean-Louis Palladin, the former owner of the Watergate Hotel’s acclaimed Jean-Louis’ Pavilion in Washington, D.C. Palladin closed that restaurant, headed west, and in February opened Napa, which has the look (and the prices) of an elegant East Coast culinary shrine. Sculpture and large canvasses by name artists are on display—and on consignment, though not in a league with the bottle of 1924 Mouton-Rothschild that can be yours for $200,000. You know that Napa takes food seriously from the moment that the bread basket hits the table, with its assortment of pretzels, olive bread, French rolls, sourdough, and focaccia. The crab cakes were the apotheosis of crustacean cookery—no breading, just a giant hemisphere of pure lump crabmeat held together by a miracle. And the flavorful wild mushrooms in the rich brown sauce that accompanied my wife’s artistically arranged duck may have been the single best morsel that has ever reached my taste buds. For all its brilliance, however, Napa can go bland on you, which I suppose is a hazard of nouvelle cuisine. The bouillabaisse terrine was nice to look at but flat on the palate, and an alleged pepper-crusted cod was too subtle for me. That is enough to place Napa just a notch below Emeril’s.
Don’t even try to have a conversation in Spago. Like its L.A. cousin, founded by the celebrated Wolfgang Puck, the Vegas version is engineered to achieve a high decibel level—hardwood floors, tiled balcony facades, copper-clad columns, and in case a stray sound wave should escape upward, metal reflectors suspended from the ceiling. Until your food arrives, there is nothing to do but watch the comings and goings of the clientele, which the staff choreographs by directing parties with stunningly dressed women up a dramatic staircase to be seated in the balcony. Fortunately, the food was worth the risk of damage to the cochlea. The crust of my soft-shell crab appetizer disintegrated at first bite, leaving only its basil pesto flavor to accent the succulent meat. The prize entrée was a companion’s blue crab risotto with grilled sea scallops, sweet peas, and cherry tomatoes; it was the peas, astonishingly fresh and robust, that elevated the dish to greatness. Had there been less bedlam, I would have urged someone to try the whole fried catfish with spicy bok choy, noodle cake, and ginger-miso aïoli, simply because I think that the number of continents and countries represented would have set a record. Alas, no one did. Not a whole-fish fan myself, I opted for a safe grilled beef tenderloin with wild mushroom tortellini, fava beans, and pearl onions. It was splendid but not transcendent.
If you plan to eat at one of Vegas’ top restaurants, be advised that they are full from the time that they open, usually around five-thirty, to the time they close, usually around eleven. For weekends, make a reservation several days in advance or you’ll find yourself eating just before closing time (I learned the hard way). Emeril’s and Spago have cafe sections where you can choose from an abbreviated menu. Attire is casual: Aside from the few high-roller havens, no hotel restaurant in Las Vegas requires that men wear jackets at dinner. Typical appetizers run $10 to $15, entrées $20 to $30; with wine, dessert, tax, and tip, expect to pay $50 to $60 a person at Emeril’s and Spago and up to $100 at Napa. Service is excellent but fast. Don’t expect to linger; one course follows the other in rapid order. Finally, remember that the restaurant scene in any city can change overnight, and this is especially true in Las Vegas, where so many ambitious restaurants have absentee owners. For now, though, the imports are the best thing that has happened to Las Vegas dining—and are about to get better. Next month Wolfgang Puck will open Chinois, a Pacific Rim restaurant with a Japanese emphasis, a few steps from Spago. I can hardly wait.