The party last Wednesday at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon depressed the hell out of me. All the usual media and publicity people assembled to herald the much-hyped unveiling of a new book by three local food critics that, to accept the emcee’s prediction, would replace Zagat or Michelin as the premier assessment of Vegas restaurants.
It was a display that could happen only here. The critics, the Weekly’s John Curtas, CityLife’s Al Mancini and Vegas Seven’s Max Jacobson, were unveiling mega-book Eating Las Vegas, and the emcee at the event made a show of announcing the trio’s picks for the Top 10, with the honored owners or chefs hugging the authors and posing for photos.
Thus I expected to hate the book. That’s too bad because, as I discovered when I read it, Eating Las Vegas is a fun read loaded with witty writing from three engaging personalities who clearly have really big appetites and opinions.
Y’know what it’s not, though? A guidebook.
The book’s conceit: The authors describe 50 restaurants they all agree are “essential.” Trouble is, in several cases it’s clear they were enslaved by their own gimmick, the nice round number. Example: Jacobson declared he was “too lazy to veto” The Steakhouse at Circus Circus, where diners should wonder “why you aren’t eating down the street at CUT or Prime.” That’s a third of an endorsement for an “essential” experience? Had they simply stopped at the ones they all agreed on, regardless of number, their list would have far more credibility.
But it still wouldn’t be a guidebook. Useful restaurant guides offer a quantitative comparison not just of a group of favored places but of everything. They also must be easy to navigate if I’m looking for, say, inexpensive Mexican food Downtown. Good luck finding that—or almost anything Downtown—here.
In the foreword, Esquire food columnist John Mariani praises the fact that the book isn’t penned by “faceless” critics and “deliberately devoid of personality.” But why, exactly, are those bad traits? People refer to Zagat because it’s the consensus of hundreds of diners. Michelin is respected because qualified experts quietly judge eateries using a standard set of criteria listed on its website.
But our authors want everybody in the Vegas food industry to know who they are. Some restaurant critics, like the Review-Journal’s Heidi Knapp Rinella, prize their ability to visit restaurants anonymously and spend careers shrouding their appearances in secrecy. Frank Bruni, the great former New York Times food critic, would never have imagined personally handing out laurels to chefs and posing for pictures. Nor, for that matter, would his book’s entire acknowledgment section be devoted to publicists.
I’m not saying Jacobson, Mancini and Curtas aren’t serious about their criticism or knowledgeable about their topic. They take many gutsy shots at well-liked restaurants and chefs—some by glaring omission—and I don’t doubt their sincerity. But am I to believe I’m going to get the same kind of service they do at any of these places? Their photos, no doubt, are hung in every Strip kitchen just in case they pop in. By becoming celebrities, they harm their ability to have experiences that make their criticism relevant to readers who don’t get the obsequious attention Mancini describes about his visit to Nove.
Mancini asked my advice earlier this year on this project. I thought what he described—three critics taking on the city’s food scene—seemed far better suited nowadays to an iPhone app. Tourists could carry it with them, tailor searches to their specific hankering and inform the authors of their own experiences. Plus, the authors could update it as places open, change menus or close.
I totally misunderstood. This is Vegas, you see. Everyone wants to be a star, even food critics. And with this book, that’s exactly what these three have become.