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Dining á Las Vegas

Las Vegas Restaurants
Harvey Steiman
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

A walk along restaurant row at The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas is the gastronomic equivalent of facing the NFL Pro Bowl lineup. You know the famous names, but they're not wearing their home uniforms. Valentino (home base: Santa Monica, California) is right here, Lutèce (New York) over there. Star Canyon (Dallas) beckons down the way, and look, there's Emeril Lagasse's name (familiar from the Food Network and Emeril's, his New Orleans restaurant) on Delmonico Steakhouse and Joachim Splichal's (Los Angeles) on Pinot Brasserie. Upstairs, next to a remarkably accurate re-creation of a Venetian campo, complete with real gondolas in a canal, are Postrio (San Francisco) and Zefferino (Genoa, Italy).  

Down the street, in the Bellagio Las Vegas hotel, the roster includes Le Cirque and Circo from New York, Aqua from San Francisco and Olives from Cambridge, Massachusetts, while Prime, the steak house, carries the name of superstar   chef Jean-George Vongerichten (Jean-George in New York). Nearby, other famous names festoon restaurants, including Wolfgang Puck, Jean-Louis Palladin, Jean Joho, Charles Palmer and Mark Miller.  

Grumpy gourmets may carp that you won't find Lagasse if you duck into Delmonico, and Eberhard Müller will probably be home in New York instead of riding the ranges at Lutèce in Las Vegas. With few exceptions, the star chefs pay only brief visits to Las Vegas to check on their operations.  

On the other hand, that's not the real Eiffel Tower outside Paris Las Vegas, either. It's a one-half-scale replica. And that's an apt metaphor for the dining scene in Las Vegas. What you get is a sort of replica of the real thing. But if that Eiffel Tower is accurate enough to make Parisians do double takes, so is the food at the new wave of Las Vegas restaurants. It's safe to say that more fine dining is concentrated in about a mile of the Las Vegas Strip than in any other comparable piece of real estate in the world.  

This is a long way from the way things were. For most of its existence, Las Vegas has offered inexpensive hotel rooms and cheap, abundant buffets to attract gamblers. Fine dining was a steak or un-trendy Continental cuisine. "Las Vegas continues to reinvent itself," says Paul Pusateri, president of Paris Las Vegas. "The latest surge is the restaurants. It brings business to town, and it raises the bar of what's acceptable for everyone else. The $3 buffet is history."  

Several factors are driving this fine dining phenomenon. First, Las Vegas hotels sprouted shopping malls and became virtual theme parks to attract families as well as avid gamblers. Then came the economic boom of the 1990s, and Las Vegas became America's biggest convention city. Its more affluent guests weren't satisfied with ordinary hotel food. With the number of visitors approaching 35 million in 2000, the newest hotels have gone even further upscale, and so have the dining options.   It started in 1992, when Caesars Palace approached Puck about opening a branch of his West Hollywood, California, flagship restaurant Spago in the hotel's new Forum Shops. Initially reluctant, Puck agreed to the deal in exchange for the financing that he needed for Granita, a seaside bistro in Malibu. Spago Vegas did so well that he added a mid-market Wolfgang Puck Café the following year at the MGM Grand. When he heard that MGM was considering adding a Mexican restaurant, he suggested Mark Miller.  

Miller installed a version of his original Santa Fe, New Mexico, Coyote Café at the MGM Grand in 1993. Shortly thereafter, Jean-Louis Palladin closed his eponymous restaurant in Washington, D.C., and moved to Las Vegas to run Napa at the Rio All Suite Casino Resort on the promise that backers would later finance a new restaurant for him in New York. By 1998 cat suit­clad women were rappelling up and down a glassed-in wine tower in the airy dining room of Aureole at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. (Aureole has developed one of the three biggest wine lists in the country and earned a Wine Spectator Grand Award.) Things were getting interesting.  

Hoteliers and chefs hear their cash registers ringing almost as loudly as the slot machines in the casinos. "There is simply no other place in the globe with so many people coming through every year, people who are saying, 'Entertain me,'" says Rob Goldstein, president of The Venetian hotel. "That's why, when we built this hotel, we decided to dive into fine dining in a big way."  

The Venetian wasn't alone. Sometimes it seems as though every American restaurateur of note has opened a branch in Las Vegas, most of them in the big new hotels that have opened in the past two years. You might think the competition would have them all scrambling for the same diners, but if anything, the audience seems to have expanded along with the number of upscale restaurants.  

"It's amazing," marvels Alessandro Stratta, chef of Renoir at the Mirage. "The more restaurants that open, the more business we seem to do. I don't know how long that can last, but I think it has something to do with more awareness of the fine dining that's available here."  

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