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."
Things are different today from 1995, when Chicago superstar chef Charlie Trotter closed his restaurant at the MGM Grand within a year and left, citing pressure to make the restaurant bigger. At the time, people weren't coming to Las Vegas for the dining. Now they do. "What's great," says Stratta, "is that people come here and are willing to try anything. We have first-time diners who never saw a sweetbread before, but they're on vacation, they heard that gourmet food is the thing, so they try it and they say, 'Wow, this is pretty good.'"
Julian Serrano notices it, too. "Every day more people are coming to Las Vegas to eat," says the chef of Picasso, rated by Wine Spectator as the top restaurant in Las Vegas and one of the top 20 in the United States. "These are savvy establishments and they are coming here with more expectations these days. That's more pressure on me, but it also makes Picasso a better restaurant."
Stratta and Serrano are rare birds: star chefs who make their homes in Las Vegas and focus all their attention on their restaurants there. At the others, absentee chefs and restaurateurs must divide their time between their original places and their Las Vegas outposts. As a result, most observers agree, the Las Vegas version of a famous restaurant seldom delivers the same experience as the original.
Star Canyon's Stephan Pyles has had to add steak and lobster dishes to his Las Vegas menu, which is also missing some of the more esoteric items ("I can sell corn fungus in Dallas but not in Las Vegas," he chuckles) that give his original menu in Dallas some of its flair. "To really experience Star Canyon you have to be in Texas," he says. "In Las Vegas things are one step removed."
At Aqua Las Vegas, chef-owner Michael Mina intentionally makes things different from the original Aqua in San Francisco. "You can't change the signature dishes that everybody looks for, such as the tuna tartare, the lobster pot pie, the caviar parfait," Mina says. "The other 70 percent, the style is the same but the dishes are different, based on the different mix of fish and seafood we can get in Las Vegas. We want people dining in San Francisco and Las Vegas to have a different experience."
That does not impress such skeptics as Drew Nieporent, whose Myriad Restaurant Group would seem to be a natural for Las Vegas with such hit restaurants as Montrachet and Nobu in New York and Rubicon in San Francisco. "I think the jury is still out," Nieporent says. "It's a good thing and a positive thing that there has been this unbelievable influx of carpetbag restaurants in the city of carpetbaggers. But I don't think you can say it's become a culinary capital, only because there is a dumbing down of the process."
Dumbing down or not, several chefs have hit enough of a jackpot with their first Las Vegas restaurants that they have added others. Todd English has Olives at Bellagio and Onda at the Mirage. Lagasse has Emeril's New Orleans Fish House at the MGM Grand and Delmonico at The Venetian. Wolfgang Puck is the champ with five restaurants, including Spago and Chinois at Caesars Palace, Postrio at The Venetian, Wolfgang Puck Café in the MGM Grand and Trattoria del Lupo at Mandalay Bay.
"Our headquarters should be in Las Vegas," Puck says with a laugh. "That's where most of our business is. For fine dining, Las Vegas represents about 50 percent of our revenue." Puck's four Las Vegas operations (not counting the Café) earn as much as the combined total of his seven other high-profile restaurants (Spagos in Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Chicago and Palo Alto; Chinois in Santa Monica; Granita in Malibu; and Postrio in San Francisco).
Miller, who visits often enough to keep the menus and spice levels of his Southwestern cuisine the same in Las Vegas as they are at the original Coyote Café in Santa Fe, is so enthusiastic that he plans to open two more restaurants in Las Vegas, one serving Caribbean cuisine and the other Asian food.
"Would I rather eat at Arpège in Paris than anywhere in Las Vegas? Of course, but I'd rather be in Las Vegas," says Miller. "It's convenient. It's hassle-free. You have a lot of choices. People are generally happy. I never see people in a bad mood. You never can say that in New York, where just going out to eat means sitting in a cab in traffic for 45 minutes."
Sooner or later, Las Vegas will run out of star chefs and hot restaurant names. What then? Serrano, for one, suggests that the chefs and managers who are laboring under someone else's imprimatur should get the chance to put their own names on a marquee. "These are talented people," says Serrano. "When the hotels give them the support that they gave the star chefs, then this whole fine dining phenomenon will start to put down some roots."
"[Serrano] is dead on," says Goldstein of The Venetian. "You don't need to get the biggest name in the world. You get a talented young guy and set him up with something special. You could do that today." Others are not so sure. "This town is still about show business," says Rino Armeni, marketing director for Southern Wine and Spirits, the wine and liquor distributor. "Some of the homegrown chefs will show their talent, but we need the name appeal. Great talent coming from out of town will always be the most important thing in Las Vegas."
So what's next? The latest rumors involve Daniel Boulud of Daniel in New York and Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Napa Valley. Neither would say anything for the record, but the smart money is betting that older hotels will have to get in the gourmet game if they want to compete with the latest generation of Las Vegas establishments.
All of the newest hotels upped the ante in different ways. Mandalay Bay included Aureole, Border Grill, China Grill and a Wolfgang Puck enterprise, Trattoria del Lupo, in the mix. Then came Bellagio, which, in addition to lining up brand-name luxury restaurants, took the extraordinary step of setting up a star chef, Julian Serrano, with his own, Picasso. The Venetian, instead of signing the big names to management contracts, leased them the space and let them manage their own enterprises. Aladdin installed Commander's Palace of New Orleans, Anasazi of Santa Fe and upscale restaurants that already had cloned themselves in other cities, such as Italy-based Bice and Chicago-based Macanudo Steakhouse.
Paris Las Vegas took a different tack. In the planning stages, president Pusateri says, the hotel sought marquee French chefs, including Alain Ducasse, but opted instead to create its own restaurants with consulting chefs who already were familiar with operating from afar. "We didn't need a big name because big names in the other hotels were already drawing the fine dining crowd to Las Vegas," Pusateri explains. "Everybody in the world knows the city of Paris. We knew we could market ourselves if we could make it feel traditionally French."
The hotel approached Rich Melman, whose Lettuce Entertain You group includes Everest and Ambria, two of Chicago's top-rated restaurants. Melman delivered chef Jean Joho of Everest to focus on the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, Paris Las Vegas's fanciest dining room, and Gabino Sotelino of Ambria to work with Mon Ami Gabi, the hotel's brasserie.
"The other restaurants we manage ourselves," Pusateri adds, noting that the hotel hired all the chefs from France, and contracted with Gaston Lenôtre to run the chocolate and pastry shop. (Lenôtre has patisseries all over France, and in 1980 he was among the first French culinarians to make a foray into the United States when he supervised the French bakery at Epcot Center in Walt Disney World.)
All this adds up to a sea change in the way hotels approach food, not just in Las Vegas, but everywhere. In Las Vegas, a snazzy new hotel needs to put a name up on the marquee, just as it does to woo guests into the nightclubs. It can't just open a dining room with the hotel's own chefs, as most hotels and resorts elsewhere do. As Goldstein of The Venetian says, "The days of running it yourself without having some kind of identification are gone."
For all the drawbacks of absentee chefs and once-removed concepts, the payoff is that dining in Las Vegas is several leaps above what it was, and it keeps getting better.
Harvey Steiman is the editor-at-large of Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.
LAS VEGAS' HAUTE SPOTS
ANASAZI Desert Passage at Aladdin Resort & Casino, 3667 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/836-0989 Cuisine: Southwestern
AQUA Bellagio Las Vegas, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/693-8199 Cuisine: Seafood
AUREOLE Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/632-7401 Cuisine: New American Wine Spectator Grand Award Winner
BORDER GRILL Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/632-7403 Cuisine: Eclectic Mexican with Southern California influence
CHINA GRILL Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/632-7404 Cuisine: International
CHINOIS LAS VEGAS The Forum Shops at Caesars, 3500 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/737-9700 Cuisine: Asian Wine Spectator Award of Excellence
COMMANDER'S PALACE OF NEW ORLEANS Desert Passage at Aladdin Resort & Casino, 3667 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/892-8272 Cuisine: New Orleans
COYOTE CAFÉ MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/891-7349 Cuisine: Modern Southwestern Wine Spectator Award of Excellence
EIFFEL TOWER RESTAURANT Paris Las Vegas, 3655 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/948-6937 Cuisine: French
EMERIL'S NEW ORLEANS FISH HOUSE MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/891-7374 Cuisine: New Orleans Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence
FIORE'S ROTISSERIE & GRILL Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, 3700 Flamingo Road Tel. 702/252-7702 Cuisine: Northern Mediterranean Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence
LE CIRQUE Bellagio Las Vegas, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/693-8100 Cuisine: French
LUTECE The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/414-2220 Cuisine: Modern French
MON AMI GABI Paris Las Vegas, 3655 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/944-4224 Cuisine: French
NAPA Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, 3700 Flamingo Road Tel. 702/247-7961 Cuisine: Eclectic French Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence
OLIVES Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/693-8181 Cuisine: Mediterranean
ONDA The Mirage, 3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/791-7223 Cuisine: Italian
OSTERIA DEL CIRCO Bellagio Las Vegas, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/693-8150 Cuisine: Tuscan
PARIAN The Regent Las Vegas, 221 North Rampart Tel. 702/869-7777 Cuisine: American
PICASSO Bellagio Las Vegas, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/693-8105 Cuisine: French with a Mediterranean influence
PIERO SELVAGGIO VALENTINO The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/414-3000 Cuisine: Italian Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence
PINOT BRASSERIE The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/735-8888 Cuisine: French
POSTRIO LAS VEGAS The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/796-1110 Cuisine: Seafood
RENOIR The Mirage, 3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/791-7223 Cuisine: Contemporary French Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence
SPAGO LAS VEGAS The Forum Shops at Caesars, 3500 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/369-6300 Cuisine: California Wine Spectator Award of Excellence
STAR CANYON The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/414-3772
CUISINE: TEXAS Trattoria del Lupo Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Tel. 702/632-7410 Cuisine: Contemporary Italian