Las Vegas, city of sin. But it's also a city of numbers.
Each year, more than 40 million people visit, bringing with them $50 billion to spend at casinos, clubs, and strip joints. But it's not all sin that rakes it in-in recent years, an increasing portion of that pot is going toward Las Vegas's now-world-class restaurant scene.
There's a good news/bad news scenario. Bad news first: It's undeniably hard to get seats at the most popular places, especially during prime convention time, like when the tech trade show CES hits town. (Chefs say that's the busiest time of all.) The good news: Every year, more exciting restaurants expand beyond the Strip, thanks in part to locally-based businesses like Zappos that have reenergized different areas around the city.
And anyway, in Vegas, there's always someone who knows someone who can get you into a joint if you really want to go (or you can pay). Here are five restaurants to use your connections for, plus seven other spots off the Strip (some recommended by chefs like Mario Batali) that make for an excellent Plan B if in fact you can't get into his restaurant after all.
-- Carbone: If there's a place besides downtown Manhattan that has enough throw-back attitude to evoke the glory days of Italian American dining, where tuxedoed waiters tell bad jokes as they toss your Caesar salad with garlic bread croutons tableside, it's Vegas. The second outpost of the cult restaurant from Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi channels the New York original, at least from the outside with a red neon sign in the Aria casino hallway. There's also the signature favorites, like spicy rigatoni vodka (it's under the Macaroni section) and veal parmesan. But it's Vegas, so things are bigger: Here there are deep banquets, private dining, and a larger menu, including dishes like Bone-In New York Strip and a melt-in-your-mouth lasagna layered with delicate egg crêpes and black truffles.
-- Carnevino: Vegas is a meat-loving town, with more steakhouses than just about any other place on earth. One of the best is Carnevino, from Mario Batali, who opened it in the Palazzo at the Venetian back in 2008. Then, he could have simply rolled out an outpost of his renowned restaurant Babbo, but instead dreamed up a hearty diner's Shangri-La, where you can eat both specially dry-aged, well-marbled steaks and amazing, gut-busting pastas. Not every notable Vegas restaurant is open for lunch, but Carnevino is; it serves a $65 martini lunch ($50 if you forgo the cocktail, but why?) with the choice of tagliatelle bolognese or filet mignon. There's even a beef tasting menu, which runs from carpaccio to rib-eye and ends with chocolate bacon cake.
- Libertine Social: When he opened his first Vegas restaurant, the excellent Sage at Aria, Shawn McClain relocated to Nevada. This marked a big change from the drive-by habits of other chefs. Maybe because the city is his home, McClain is treating his third restaurant, Libertine Social at Mandalay Bay, like a house party, with a vast range of snacks and spreads, from warm Dungeness crab dip to grilled-and-chilled prawns with chorizo vinaigrette to shaved country ham. The bar scene is great, too. Mixologist Tony Abu-Gamin has a selection of from-the-freezer shots and retro drinks such as Golden Cadillac and, yes, Sex on the Beach.
-- Morimoto Las Vegas: In October, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto opened his first restaurant in Vegas, at the MGM Grand (he has almost a dozen locations worldwide, from New Delhi to Mexico City). In Vegas, the Nobu alum highlights his hybrid Japanese cooking like tuna pizza with anchovy aioli, and yellowtail pastrami-as well as a sushi selection that includes the very intricate, oft-Instagrammed Morimoto stained glass rolls. But in the vast space he's also introducing his first ever Teppan tables, where chefs griddle-cook ingredients like A-5 Japanese Wagyu (premium quality), which they turn into sukiyaki, served with a soft-poached Jidori egg (equally fancy). The Wagyu and other prestige cuts of meat are on display in a glass room alongside the Teppan tables for those who want to see their meal progress from start to finish.
- Joël Robuchon: As with steakhouses, Vegas does multi-Michelin-starred restaurant experiences extremely well, sometimes even better than the original. On the list of the world's top chef outposts in Vegas are Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace; Pierre Gagnaire at the Mandarin Oriental; and Joël Robuchon in the Mansion at the MGM Grand. In the marble-floored town house, the chef offers a completely over-the-top 16-course prix fixe menu that begins with Osetra caviar and moves on to choices like foie gras and potato carpaccio covered with black truffles. All this comes at a cost: Eater's Ryan Sutton says it might be the priciest restaurant in America, at $425, not including tax and tip. The less expensive option is L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, which features counter seating and steak tartare with fries.
- The best of the rest: If none of your connections scores you seats at the restaurants above, here are seven places off the Strip that are worth snagging seats at, with selections like fresh oysters, terrific Chinese soup dumplings, and serious rib-eyes.
- Abriya Raku. Like many chefs in Vegas, Batali is a fan of this Japanese grill. "I LOVE Raku on Spring Mountain Road," he said via email. "It's one of my top five restaurants in the entire U.S. You must order: beef liver sashimi, pork ear robata, cold green tea soba with poached egg."
- Lotus of Siam. The most famous Thai restaurant in the Americas, located in a Vegas strip mall, is renowned for its vast menu, which ranges from recognizable chicken satays to potent, well-spiced northern Thai dishes. Recently the restaurant began offering appetizers at the bar, which was kind of it because guests are generally starving after the inevitable wait for seats in the dining room.
- Andiron Steak & Sea. On the outskirts of Vegas is this crowd-pleasing, white-walled steakhouse from noted restaurateurs Elizabeth Blau and Kim Canteenwalla. The menu runs the gamut from avocado toast and cheese fondue to a 20-ounce cowboy rib-eye.
- Bund Shanghai. Momofuku's David Chang* loves this pan-Chinese restaurant so much, he wrote a story about it for Lucky Peach. Among the things he picks out on the picture menu: soup dumplings, pan-fried buns, spicy fish hot pot. And "if I'm dining with my less adventurous white friends, a plate of sweet-and-sour chicken."
- Kabuto Sushi. People say this is the best sushi in Vegas; that's not faint praise. This is a sushi purist pilgrimage spot that makes a point of not serving any maki rolls. At $48, the 10-piece nigiri sushi omakase is a great deal. Helpfully, Kabuto is in the same strip mall as Raku, above.
Other Mama. Favored by Carbone's Mario Carbone, Other Mama has terrific craft cocktails, like the Geraldine with bourbon and grilled pineapple, plus plenty of raw seafood, from oysters to octopus-habanero ceviche. (Another recommendation from Carbone is the "always important to remember" dim sum buffet at Aria, which is served on Saturdays.)
Credit: Michael Nagle
Credit: Michael Nagle
- The Halal Guys. This summer, the famed street food cart that started in midtown Manhattan-the cause of lines that can stretch down the block in the middle of the night-opened in Vegas on Spring Mountain Road. From 10 a.m. to 4 a.m., Halal Guys offer the same sublime chicken and/or gyro platters and sandwiches with the option of their mouth-burning hot sauce.
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