Vegas hits the jackpot

The city's new restaurants offer a big payout

Lisa Taggart and Sara Schneider

Dining in Las Vegas has been moving from buffet to gourmet for at least a decade, but with the latest round of restaurants, it's vying to become the country's culinary capital.

Westerners can attribute much of this to their own good taste: The hottest new restaurants are led by chefs from Hollywood, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Napa Valley. Menus now are less formal and more fresh, less about showmanship and more about substance.

Las Vegas has become a kind of litmus test of culinary importance ― come here after you've made it elsewhere. "Las Vegas is a headliner kind of city, so casinos brought in recognizable names," says Thomas Keller of the famed French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, California. He opened Bouchon, a French brasserie similar to his Napa Valley eatery of the same name, in January in the Venetian's new tower, Venezia.

The influx of big names means that the Strip is now a smorgasbord of food trends. Along with Keller, in the last year and a half, other chefs who have opened up shop Strip-side include the Lark Creek Inn's Bradley Ogden, Maya's Richard Sandoval, the Bellagio's Michael Mina (who now has three Vegas venues), and Hubert Keller, whose second restaurant here, Fleur de Lys, has just opened. And then, of course, there is the city's original culinary innovator, Spago's Wolfgang Puck, who launched his latest, a bar and grill, at the MGM Grand last summer.

It was Puck who prompted Las Vegas to shed its humble all-you-can-eat beginnings when he opened Spago here in 1992. By the late '90s, with the opening of the Bellagio Hotel & Casino and Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, the city was gaining gourmet heft. Other big-name chefs had followed Puck's lead, including New Orleans' Emeril Lagasse and Frenchman Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The elaborate dining rooms at Le Cirque, Picasso, Prime Steakhouse, Renoir, and Valentino featured classic French and Italian menus, and were pure Vegas, with the over-the-top formality of a Bally's chorus line: fantastic, but full of artifice.

The newest restaurants also showcase celebrity chefs, but in less formal (though stylish) venues. And more than ever, these chefs are focusing on fresh, honest flavors and highest quality ingredients flown in from small producers all over the world.

Even Puck marvels at the city's new character. "I think it's amazing what has happened in Las Vegas," he says. "You can go five or six times a year, for two to three days, and never eat in the same place ― and always have great food. It seems that Las Vegas is a bigger food town than San Francisco or Chicago. Maybe only New York is bigger."

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