There’s more to the culinary scene in Las Vegas than the celebrity-laden Strip. Julie Miller meets some of the people turning America’s gambling mecca into a foodie destination.
Vegas’ Food Revolution
It’s a balmy Friday evening in May, and the place to be in Vegas is poolside at Caesar’s Palace. But it’s not because of the women dressed as mermaids fluttering coyly in the shallows. Unusually, nobody’s paying them much attention at all. Instead, all eyes are on celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who is obliging the selfie-seeking masses with surprising charm and humour. Meanwhile, less recognisable culinary figures such as Michelin-star chef Guy Savoy, award-winning Julian Serrano and TV personality Lorena Garcia mingle nonchalantly among the 2500-strong crowd as they snack their way along pop-up stalls representing the most- lauded restaurants on The Strip.
This is The Grand Tasting, the signature event of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appétit – the premier wine and food festival in Las Vegas. This three-day event celebrates the city’s burgeoning dining scene, with an impressive line-up of high-profile chefs featured in workshops, master classes, tasting events, brunches and picnics.
Uncork’d is recognition that Vegas – the former all-you-can-eat-buffet hellhole – has matured into one of the finest dining destinations in the US. Indeed, every casino now boasts a restaurant fronted by a celebrity chef: Caesar’s Palace, for instance, features Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen – as well as the largest Nobu restaurant in the world. Meanwhile, the cavernous MGM Grand offers an incredible choice of restaurants helmed by notables such as the Voltaggio Brothers, Joël Robuchon and even Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.
However, many of the high- profile chefs are rarely in the kitchens of their Vegas restaurants. Ramsay – whose empire spreads from London to Qatar – has five restaurants in Las Vegas alone. But for the food-obsessed visitors to Las Vegas, the slim chance of spotting their favourite celebrity chef is secondary to the opportunity of tasting their menus. For instance, when it opened in January this year, Hell’s Kitchen took more than 12,000 reservations in just 10 days.
But while the power of celebrity may be driving the vibrant culinary scene on The Strip, there’s a quieter revolution taking place in Downtown Las Vegas. Here, in a former ‘no-go zone’ beyond the neon attractions, a plethora of new restaurants and bars is attracting a different clientele.
Primarily local, they prefer substance over hype. This exciting revitalisation of original Las Vegas began in 2012, after owner and CEO of online shoe retailer Zappos, Tony Hsieh, moved his headquarters into the former city hall.
“Tony wanted a place for his employees within walking distance, as he figures when they have interactions outside of work, that’s how ideas get shared. So he started the Downtown Project,” explains Donald Contursi, president of Lip Smacking Foodie Tours – a local company that runs culinary tours of the downtown area.
Fuelled by “the three C’s: collisions, co-learning and connectedness”, the Downtown Project offered investment loans to tech start-ups, real estate and small business owners, with a view to boosting entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity in the area. The very first loan recipient was chef Natalie Young, who was personally approached by Hsieh in 2012 to develop a breakfast café for the local community.
Other restaurateurs soon followed, including the Hard Rock Hotel’s “rock and roll chef” Kerry Simon, who, in 2014, opened Carson Kitchen behind the original façade of the former John E. Carson Motel. This unpretentious urban eatery is the starting point for Lip Smacking Foodies’ Downtown Tour, which visits four different restaurants and bars on a 2.5-hour gourmet exploration of the area.
Other neighbourhood restaurants on the tour include Therapy, located in a former Dollar Store on Fremont East, and 7th & Carson, who call themselves “a nice little drinking spot with really great food”. We also stop off at the Downtown Cocktail Room (DCR), owned by local personality and partner in 11 other Downtown ventures, Michael Cornthwaite.
A Vegas resident for 23 years, Cornthwaite envisaged a thriving urban environment long before Tony Hsieh’s arrival on the Downtown scene. Opening the discreet DCR in 2007, he also pushed for Fremont East to become an entertainment district with a non-gaming caveat. His pride in Downtown’s transformation is palpable, yet he still relishes the distinction it holds as a hidden treasure. “This is where the locals come, and tourists who have done their research and want to find authenticity. People come into our bar and say, ‘Wow, this doesn’t feel like Vegas’,” Cornthwaite laughs.
“All I can say is, great – we’ve done something right!”