Is it possible to have a good time in Las Vegas when you have no interest in gambling, Cirque du Soleil, or even Cher? If your idea of fun involves eating extremely well in the middle of a desert before catching Mark Ronson’s DJ set, the answer is yes. That’s because the owners of the mega-hotels, who once gilded their ground floors with four-star Frenchmen and Very Big Names from New York (and the Food Network), have realized that the under-40 urbanites they now want to attract have a very different idea of what lives at the intersection of food, fun, and money.
There’s still caviar, but you’re more likely to find it on a tostada or rolled into fried chicken skin by a Korean-American chef from L.A. or New York who believes that the restaurant’s hip-hop or indie-rock playlist is as important as its boldly experimental cocktail list. There’s still plenty of foie gras, too, but chances are high that you’ll encounter it tucked inside a whole heritage chicken by a chef who’s more interested in staying at the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list than in scoring his own show. Gold leaf? After consuming 13-plus meals at the best new restaurants in Las Vegas, I can say with certainty that gold leaf has no place in today’s luxury dining. Unless it was hiding in my bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich at Eggslut.
Dining as entertainment is nothing new in Vegas. Famous chefs began cloning their restaurants in the late 1990s. Waiting in line for a seat at the strip-mall restaurant Lotus of Siam was the thing to do for serious gastronauts after the cult critic Jonathan Gold called it the best Thai restaurant in North America in Gourmet in 2000. But today’s diner wants that strip-mall vibe mixed in with the dress-up-for-dinner options. Ethnic food is now essential—as is a good time.
I experienced both elements at full blast within minutes of stepping out of the Park MGM airport limo into L.A. chef Roy Choi’s Best Friend, located right off the gambling floor, next to an Eataly. Choi, a trained chef who shot to fame serving Korean-accented tacos from his Kogi BBQ truck, has done very cool things with the jackpot he landed. His Vegas-scale fantasy is a larger-than-life re-creation of a ’70s bodega and liquor store from his L.A.
Koreatown childhood. From the clip-art fonts to the trashy snacks for sale behind the counter in the bar serving sneakily off-kilter cocktails (arugula?!) to the dangling plastic refrigerator flaps you walk through to get to the dining room, all the details have the hue and nostalgia of a round-cornered Kodachrome print. In the restaurant, the food and feel alike are vibrant, large-format, and loud. (There’s a DJ booth along the back wall; plan to gesticulate more than talk.) In Choi’s remixed world, lobster is deep-fried in the shell and served kung pao style, kinda spicy but mostly sweet. Korean short ribs are tucked into tacos with chili-soy slaw. And that Hundred Dolla Tostada on the menu that you ordered on a dare? It’s f*$#ing delicious: chopped egg peppered with sturgeon caviar. I instantly wanted another. Or maybe that was the arugula cocktail talking.
There was more caviar for breakfast, this time on my potato latkes with smoked salmon. I was in the Bellagio hotel at Sadelle’s, which I knew from New York as chefs Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi’s fantasy version of a Jewish deli by way of opulent Vienna—or maybe the Russian Tea Room. In Vegas, of course, it’s been cranked up even higher, until you’re in a coffered, gilt-edged, baby-blue jewel box in which Mendl’s bakery from The Grand Budapest Hotel has supercollided with Ladurée Paris. Servers in old-world waiter’s jackets the color of the Financial Times push around a grand trolley loaded with pastries from which you can select a slice of chocolate babka or a black-and-white cookie or, perhaps, a tightly coiled sticky bun to be sliced in half and filled with vanilla ice cream. I ordered Sadelle’s popular grapefruit cocktail just to check off the produce box for the day. I would need it: My next brunch consisted of breakfast nachos (yes!) and crème brûlée French toast at Honey Salt, a farm-to-table restaurant in a mall 20 minutes off the Strip. Seated outside, I inhaled two green-goddess juices as greedily as I did the fresh air and natural light.
Within an hour, I was back in a windowless, highly stylized restaurant off a casino floor, this time at the Venetian, which has begun refreshing its restaurant portfolio (Emeril, Wolfgang, Thomas Keller) with the likes of David Chang’s Majordōmo Meat & Fish and L.A.’s Factory Kitchen. The recently opened Mott 32 is an offshoot of the award-winning Hong Kong restaurant, again supersized and supersexied. The gilt and trick lighting were lost on me: I was too focused on the applewood-roasted Peking duck that I had ordered ahead. Before getting on my flight, I had turned in a book about dishes that had changed gastronomy— Peking duck, naturally, being one of them. Hours spent researching this time-consuming delicacy had instilled an unshakable craving for its shattering skin, rich meat, and translucent pancakes, which chef Alan Ji’s version more than satisfied. The pleasure was enhanced by multiple steepings of reserve pu-erh tea—and some rosé champagne. That’s Vegas for you: When you can’t tell if it’s still light outside, who’s to say when it’s too early to start drinking?
After a swim and a nap, it was time for dinner. Because I was staying at the NoMad Las Vegas, a plush new hotel-within-a-hotel at Park MGM, I didn’t have to go far to NoMad the restaurant. New Yorkers and Angelenos are familiar with chef Daniel Humm and impresario Will Guidara’s hotel-restaurant combo, a clubby, retro-fabulous world that is on the winkingly louche end of the spectrum from their proper World’s 50 Best Restaurant, Eleven Madison Park. Of all the theatrical, blatantly expensive dining rooms I visited in Vegas, this was the most fully realized and breathtaking: Shelves with books from David Rockefeller’s estate line the walls from floor to soaring ceiling. (And I literally gasped when I was told that the books near the top had been cut in half to maintain the visual effect.) In a city where the consulting celebrity chef’s food can taste like a fax of a Xerox of the original (to use a really outdated metaphor), the NoMad’s food, too, was the closest to its chef’s in its vivid flavors, meticulous technique, and top-notch sourcing. Clearly, the opening chef, whether he’s from New York or L.A., is still in the kitchen. I delighted in a playful seafood platter, a tableside steak tartare, and a light branzino with yogurt and citrus. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the addictive Milk & Honey dessert that had duct-taped over my off switch, I would have left the table feeling sprightly, which isn’t really the point of Vegas dining. But hey: I couldn’t bring myself to order the famous foie gras–stuffed chicken for two. The cocktails were so creative that I stayed on at the bar to see what else I could learn before dancing like no one was watching while Mark Ronson spun at On the Record, Park MGM’s intimate little music club. (Because I was the only person there over 28, no one was watching, so I totally went for it.)
You know what Vegas is doing exceptionally well right now? Millennial hangover food. The next morning(-ish), I dragged myself over to the Cosmopolitan to hop around its hipster food court. The experience at the breakfast-sandwich shop Eggslut is identical to that at the L.A. original: First you wait in line, then you Instagram your chosen variation on a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich (I tried the Gaucho, with sliced steak and chimichurri), then you wipe the yolk off your forearms and wonder if you should get back in line. Soon I was waiting at nearby Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, the Nashville restaurant popular for its take on hot—as in blistering— fried chicken. A crunchy thigh and leg later, I can say that their “Hot!” is not as hallucinatory as that served at Nashville’s Prince’s Hot Chicken, so opt for “Damn Hot!!” or even “Shut the Cluck Up!!!” and get those exclamation points working for you. A side of mac ’n’ cheese and some banana pudding will extinguish any flames. And then, well, Pok Pok Wing was just a few feet away, so my tray was joined by another, which was filled with truly incredible wings (sticky, crispy, sweet, fish-saucy) and coconut rice with something magical that I can only describe as caramelized pork.
I returned to the Cosmopolitan for back-to-back dinners at José Andrés’s Jaleo and David Chang’s Momofuku, and I would return a third and fourth time. Jaleo is straight-up Spanish food, and to be honest, at that moment I wasn’t craving paella and jamón ibérico, nor was I certain that the ingredients and technique would make the translation to the desert. But the tortilla española was expertly runny in the center, the patatas bravas and their two sauces could have held their own in a San Sebastián tapas bar, and the quality of the cheeses and ham was just-off-the-Concorde good. Not that the Concorde ever flew from Madrid to Vegas. (See outdated fax metaphor, above.)
Momofuku had a similar look and vibe as Chang’s New York restaurants—white oak slats on the walls, Echo & the Bunnymen on the playlist— not to mention some greatest hits on the menu, of the pork-belly bun and bo ssäm variety. But Chang, the grumpy, antiestablishment genius, is having fun messing with Vegas. Here, he welcomes high rollers with ramen topped with black truffle or a $248 dry-aged côte de boeuf that feeds two to three bros, complete with marrow butter, Wagyu fried rice, and chili jam. You can also be very happy with Szechuan beef noodles with five-spice ragù and a cocktail of rye, carrot, ginger, and sherry or a $65 bottle of Albariño from Spain. Then again, what am I thinking? This is Vegas: Those noodles would be great with an $800 bottle of Jay-Z-sanctioned Armand de Brignac Ace of Spades champagne.
Because my addiction of choice is not gambling, high-end shopping, or scoring tickets to Lady Gaga’s piano-jazz spectacle but tracking down a great meal, I had my third dinner of the evening in the Las Vegas Arts District, a thriving area of cool design and vintage stores, cocktail bars, and restaurants. Everyone I trust had raved about Esther’s Kitchen, a young mom-and-pop spot dedicated to farm-to-table pasta and pizza. Chef James Trees, a born-and-bred local, has cooked for the likes of Eric Ripert, Gordon Ramsay, and Michael Mina and has done his time in the big-name kitchens of Vegas hotels. But when his great-aunt Esther left him some money to open his own place, he opted, like others of his generation, for a humble, authentic kitchen. His serves what he calls Italian soul food. Along with excellent house-made pastas that range from rye tagliatelle with braised duck and cracklings to cacio e pepe brightened with Tellicherry peppercorns and pizzas with chef-y little twists (one features Scamorza, squash cream, prosciutto, and sage), there are also, like, vegetables and salads and snacky things. This is where all the food-loving locals eat, so be sure to make a reservation. On the Sunday I went, the room seemed to be filled with chefs and staff from hotel restaurants, happy to have some soul with their food. Afterward, they probably walked over to the reggae bar Jammyland to drink craft cocktails on the patio and eat 24-hour jerked wings and smoke-braised oxtail and talk about all those crazy people from New York and L.A. they’d had to deal with all week. If I hadn’t had to wake up in a few hours to catch a flight back to NYC, I would have set down my three bags of world-class leftovers and settled in to eavesdrop.