Las Vegas's Best Restaurants
There was a time, way back, when Las Vegas wasn't much of a food town. For most of its brief history, this was a land of soggy pancakes and leathery steaks, of flavorless crab legs and tasteless design. Then again, who really cared? There was plenty to amuse us besides eating, let alone eating well.
All that changed starting in the early '90s, when Wolfgang Puck arrived to make the city safe for celebrity chefs and serious diners. Since then nearly every famous toque you can name has set up shop along the Strip—some have become Las Vegas's best restaurants, others not so much, but none sparing any expense. The result? A reshuffling of priorities for the city's hotel and casino developers, and for the (increasingly ravenous) visitors they cater to, for whom grass-fed beef cheeks are likely as enticing as showgirls, blackjack, and Cher. In the culinary candyland that is 21st-century Las Vegas, no respectable megaresort would think to open without a resident cadre of name-brand chefs.
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And now the tables are turning yet again. Today's Vegas is no longer defined only by splashy casino-side restaurants—though there are still plenty of those, a few of them actually worth the exorbitant price tag. For food-lovers the parameters have expanded tenfold, apace with the city itself. A devoted chowhound could spend weeks just eating his way through Vegas's Chinatown, oriented along Spring Mountain Road, jumping from pho shop to boba tea shop, Hawaiian poke joint to Macanese bakery, Taiwanese noodle house to Mongolian barbecue.
Within a taxi ride of the Strip one can find a growing number of Las Vegas's best restaurants, from an authentic Neopolitan pizzeria to a cult-worthy burger joint and a late-night robata grill frequented by all those celebrity chefs. One of the most acclaimed Thai kitchens in America is tucked into an unassuming mini-mall near the Sahara Hotel & Casino. Against expectations, Las Vegas is slowly but surely acquiring—gasp!—a proper local restaurant scene.
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Lest we paint too rosy a picture, let's acknowledge that inspired cooking in Vegas remains the exception, not the rule. For every great meal you'll still find a dozen desultory buffets, boring fast-food outlets, and cynical chefs slinging overpriced comfort food. Which is all the more reason why the following places stand out as Las Vegas's best restaurants—the delectable highlights of a city fitfully evolving into a food town.
Archi Thai Kitchen
It may be hard to believe that Archi's, set in a stucco hut across from a pet-grooming service, would serve great chicken satay. But it's some of the best you'll find anywhere: tender thigh meat marinated overnight in curry powder, sugar, and garlic, deep-fried and then grilled to an ideal balance of juiciness and char. Most satay sauces are peanut-buttery sweet, but this is spicy and dusky.
Bachi’s menu reads as if Harold and Kumar are in the kitchen doing bong hits. Of the six whacked-out burgers on offer, the highlight is an homage to the Vietnamese banh mi, blending beef, pork, shrimp, and pork pâté with pickled carrots and daikon. Fresh lemongrass, mint, and basil add brightness, while fish sauce supplies depth. It is intensely satisfying.
Just as a bistro can be judged by its poulet rôti, a tapas bar is only as good as its pan con tomate. Here, the pan con tomate is terrific: rafts of toasted bread rubbed with tomato, garlic, and grassy olive oil. Pair it with the sangria, which is overly sweet but functional.
Chef Shawn McClain made his name at Spring and Green Zebra, in Chicago, and Sage hews to the same farm-to-table approach—or, in Vegas’s case, FedEx-to-table. Try the foie gras crème brûlée; laced with cocoa nibs and bing cherries, spiked with brandy and Grand Marnier, it sounds ridiculous, but is, in fact, ridiculously good. And a yellowtail crudo, incongruously plated with black truffles and trumpet mushrooms, turns out to be a brilliant mix of ethereal and earthy, ocean and forest floor.
Bartolotta is known for impeccably fresh and shockingly expensive fish, most of it line-caught (very eco-friendly) and flown in every other day from Italy (very not). There's silver-flecked sea bream; spiny scorpion fish; glistening snapper that two nights ago was swimming off the Ligurian coast. You can choose any fish to be grilled or roasted. For an extra $85, the kitchen will shave white truffles on anything.
Starters include marinated anchovies; baby clams sautéed with white wine, tomato, and garlic; Sicilian saber fish that’s charcoal-grilled and rightfully left alone. The Ligurian octopus is so tender you can slice it with a butter knife. The snapper requires nothing more than a splash of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, and a few quick minutes on the grill.
A Neapolitan pizza parlor in suburban Green Valley, Settebello is equipped with a 950-degree wood-fired oven for blistering the crust just so. They use Molina Caputo flour for a chewy, slightly sour crust. And atop the margherita you'll find San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Wisconsin mozzarella, and basil. The result is damn impressive.
With its Moghul archways and amiable staff, Origin is a cut above the typical South Asian restaurant. You could make a fine meal from the street-snacks menu alone: the bhel puri (puffed rice, potatoes, and onions in tamarind sauce) is as tasty as any you’ll find in Mumbai. Tear into plush naan with wild mushrooms and truffle oil, savory biryani, and a phenomenal rogan josh made with New Zealand lamb shank.
Joël Robuchon is located at the MGM Grand, though it does its best not to appear so: guests are picked up by limousine, delivered to a private entrance of the MGM’s exclusive Mansion annex, and escorted through rear corridors, Goodfellas-style, to the sumptuous, 50-seat dining room. Swathed in regal purples and golds, the interior is like a set from Die Zauberflöte. Surprisingly, it is the furthest thing from stiff.
Robuchon’s 16-course tasting menu costs $385 a person. As at so many Michelin three-stars, the opening courses are the standouts, their daintiness and concision whispering a whole evening’s worth of promise: a tin of osetra caviar hiding a layer of crabmeat and fennel cream; airy egg-yolk ravioli with chanterelles and spinach foam. Pairings are equally assured. A minerally white burgundy from Méo-Camuzet drinks beautifully with roasted lobster and sea-urchin flan.
Even the bread cart is amazing, laden with saffron focaccia, Gruyère brioche, olive flutes—plus a nearly five-pound slab of butter, flown in from Brittany.
Tucked in a strip mall on Spring Mountain Road, the heart of Vegas’s Chinatown, Raku shot to cult status soon after opening in 2008. The focus is on robata—charcoal-grilled meats and vegetables—but the real treats are on the daily-changing chalkboard menu: pristine fried prawns; quivering cubes of house-made tofu; a velvety poached egg with Santa Barbara sea urchin; silky custard with silkier foie gras. This is hearty Japanese soul food, ideally paired with sake or beer. Oh, and nobody goes to Raku before midnight—certainly not the chefs who make up much of the restaurant’s clientele.
“Irasshaimase!” shout the cooks as you enter. They’re wearing do-rags and white rubber boots. Opened last May on Spring Mountain Road, Monta specializes in tonkatsu ramen, a nutty pork broth of unfathomable depth, laden with wood-ear mushrooms, scallions, and a boiled egg. To this bowl of id you can add strips of roast pork belly that dissolve on the tongue.
On the 23rd floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel is Twist, the first stateside restaurant from chef Pierre Gagnaire.
Where Robuchon went plush, Twist goes spare, bordering on ascetic. Tiny globe pendants, flickering like distant planets, hang from a double-height ceiling. The room’s pale, chilly lighting is more suited to a museum—or a spaceship. This is not a place to propose.
Gagnaire’s cooking is quirky and cerebral, which doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. The amuse-bouche: shards of cumin flatbread to dip into tuna-infused Chantilly, then into a ramekin of dehydrated shrimp that crackle like Rice Krispies upon contact with the cream. Each course includes three separate dishes on three separate plates, like foie gras–and-fig terrine, studded with Sauternes-soaked apricots and cosseted in speck; rhubarb-and-eggplant mousse; and a salad of pickled chanterelles, pickled onions, and mâche, drizzled in beet syrup.
But the meal peaks early: Hamachi ceviche is served on a chicory-and-grapefruit salad so brassy and bitter it overwhelms the fish; and poached cod is buried in a cloying reduction.
Sure, Society's menu is full of imaginative American cuisine, but it also dishes out late-night comfort food. And even a simple meal can be terrific, like a roasted tomato bisque with a salad of Rosso Bruno tomatoes and creamy, tangy burrata.
Lotus of Siam
You’ve read the decade-old Gourmet article proclaiming Lotus of Siam “the best Thai restaurant in North America.” You’ve heard about its new branch in Manhattan, a rare case of reverse Vegas-NYC migration. And then you finally lift fork to mouth and taste Lotus’s Issan-style deep-fried beef jerky—beef jerky!—and your eyes actually well up, not so much from the heat, though it packs plenty, as from the sheer abundant goodness of the thing. Beneath a crackly exterior, dark as night and dusted with lemongrass, the beef is resoundingly juicy, each bite releasing waves of earthy flavor.
Rao’s 10 tables in Harlem are still the toughest booking in New York, 115 years on. And here it is in Caesars Palace, overflowing with marinara sauce and the whoops of wine-soaked celebrants. The Vegas outpost is four times larger than Manhattan’s, but it’s divided into separate dining rooms, each scaled like the original. There’s a warmth here that’s hard to quarrel with: soft-glowing sconces, burnished plank floors, the obligatory head shot. Waitstaff are prone to laughter; even the busboys slap your back. Rao’s inspires confidence. This is a place where, when they offer grated Parmesan, you say, “Yes,” and when they offer another bottle, you say, “Hell, yes.”
You say “Hell, yes” to a lot at Rao’s. To a zesty insalata di mare—calamari, shrimp, PEI mussels, lobster, and sweet crabmeat. To penne alla vodka and toothsome fiocchetti, stuffed with ricotta and pear, in a sage-butter-cranberry sauce.
One of Las Vegas’s newest foodie destinations, Jaleo is the Vegas outpost of chef José Andrés’s Washington, D.C. restaurant. Like its namesake sister, Jaleo is focused on tapas, but its setting inside the flashy Cosmopolitan Hotel sets it a world apart. Still, you'll find the consistently unique flavors that have made Andres famous, with options like grilled hanger steak with piquillo pepper confit, raw salmon with anchovy-lemon oil, and several different kinds of paellas.