Note: This story has been altered and updated from its original version, and the top 20 restaurants have been ranked. (Thursday, March 14, 2013)
What makes a restaurant important? Is great food enough, or does it need to be revolutionary? Does an important restaurant reflect the food culture of its city, or does it strive to elevate local cuisine?
These are all tricky questions, made trickier when applied to Las Vegas, where the dining scene is especially strange. But I was inspired after reading Bon Appétit Restaurant Editor Andrew Knowlton’s “20 Most Important Restaurants in America” in the magazine’s March issue. It was time to make a Vegas list of our own. It seemed inappropriate to use Knowlton’s criteria, which focused on what’s hot in the restaurant landscape right now. Vegas is not right now. Vegas is forever. And dining in my city is all about making memories that will last, at least long enough to draw you back to town again soon.
Of course, everything’s subjective, but this list feels even more personal than most. It’s a tough task, but here goes: my best swing at the 20 most important restaurants in Las Vegas.
1. L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
The defining greatness of Las Vegas dining is this: No matter how fancy and expensive these restaurants can be, they’re still accessible. Being able to sample the cuisine of the “Chef of the Century” in his sleek, cozy “workshop” is a dream come true for me and thousands of other food fanatics. L’Atelier is the epitome of what eating on the Strip should be—elevated cuisine in a non-intimidating environment. Though it’s still fine French, L’Atelier also swings to the edgy side, thanks to a gifted and focused chef, Steve Benjamin. MGM Grand, 891-7358.
Nobody saw chef Mitsuo Endo coming. His small, brilliant izakaya came out of nowhere to become a true phenomenon. It was and is an introduction to a style of Asian eating we didn’t know, every local chef’s favorite restaurant, and a mandatory dining destination that could pull savvy tourists off the Strip. It also started a Japanese restaurant revolution that continues to explode today. Raku has been the most talked-about restaurant in the city for nearly five years. 5030 W. Spring Mountain Road #2, 367-3511.
No single event in history has elevated the Las Vegas dining scene the way Bellagio’s arrival did, and Picasso was the brightest jewel in its crown. It still is. Around 85 percent of the staff has been in place since it opened almost 15 years ago, and it’s still a beautiful room decked with Pablo Picasso’s original paintings and sculptures. The wine list continues to rack up awards, and chef Julian Serrano’s delicate French-Spanish fusion is just as pleasant as it was on day one. Some people say great things don’t last in Las Vegas. Clearly, that’s not the case here. Bellagio, 693-8865.
4. Lotus of Siam
Simply put, Lotus is a local institution. One critic called it the best Thai restaurant in the country more than a decade ago, and the place has been consistently backing up his case ever since. When it comes to dining, Las Vegas is two cities: the Strip and the rest. No off-Strip restaurant has gained more acclaim over the years than Lotus. 953 E. Sahara Ave., 735-3033.
5. Guy Savoy and Joël Robuchon (tie)
The French invented food, sort of. When the masters landed in Vegas—Guy Savoy, Joël Robuchon and then Pierre Gagnaire with Twist at Mandarin Oriental—things got serious. Suddenly, the most elevated culinary experiences on the planet were available on the Strip. Every part of the experience is as good as it gets. Amazingly, neither restaurant is resting on reputation, evidenced last year by a stunning new 13-course menu unleashed at Guy Savoy. It’s hard to say which of these two flawless powerhouses is more essential, but the Robuchon dining room might be the city’s most elegant. Guy Savoy: Caesars Palace, 731-7286; Joël Robuchon: MGM Grand, 891-7925.
7. Metro Pizza
Metro is the quintessential neighborhood family restaurant, that homey pizzeria every community needs. Now with five locations, it has a presence in or near every neighborhood in the Vegas Valley. After more than three decades in business, the Metro Pizza family is truly a part of the community fabric. Odds are your favorite local pizza place has someone in the kitchen who got their start at Metro. Five locations, metropizza.com.
8. Todd’s Unique Dining
Fantastic food in your neighborhood at reasonable prices—those were chef Todd Clore’s goals when he left his casino job to open his own place in Henderson. Almost a decade later, his Green Valley Parkway restaurant is as good as ever, and perhaps more popular than before after fighting through tough times when almost everything around Todd’s shuttered. Kinda like Vegas itself, this favorite has proved its resilience. 4350 E. Sunset Road, 259-8633.
Eating here has always been so much fun we didn’t realize it was an education: Spanish Tapas 101. It seems everyone is doing some version of this food now, tasty small plates perfect for sharing, but in Vegas, Firefly did it first. It’s no wonder the suburban expansions launched by owner John Simmons—another former casino chef—have been a success. Three locations, fireflylv.com.
Thomas Keller is one of the most influential American chefs of all time, and when he opened Bouchon at Venetian in 2004 every chef in the city or coming to the city wanted to work there. Many of them have moved on to pivotal positions on and off the Strip, furthering the development of the local foodscape. And the place still sets the standard for what a classic French bistro should be. Venetian, 414-6200.
CityCenter has been wrongfully maligned since it opened in December 2009, and one of its overlooked features is Aria’s spectacular array of restaurants. Sage is the cream of that crop, bringing a very forward-thinking, modern American, ingredient-driven approach to Vegas fine dining. Aria, 877-230-2742.
Wolfgang Puck is a fine-dining pioneer. He was the first big-name chef to land here with Spago in 1992, but the steady Forum Shops spot is too safe and obvious a pick for my list. Cut is Puck’s best restaurant here today, an innovative, dynamic steakhouse that refuses to be pigeonholed. Of the top rooms on the Strip, Cut and Sage are the most current and contemporary. Palazzo, 607-6300.
13. Marche Bacchus
Once a simple, charming bistro and wine shop, Marche Bacchus has grown into the role vacated by Rosemary’s—our best neighborhood restaurant. Its owners and chef Dave Middleton wanted to compete with the Strip’s finest cuisine—bold ambitions considering how much money goes into those places—and they got it done. 2620 Regatta Drive #106, 804-8008.
Bon Appétit’s Knowlton included Kabuto as one of his top 50 new restaurants last year when the tiny, authentic sushi house was just a few months old. Any time an off-Strip restaurant earns national recognition, it’s a big deal. Kabuto is the most unique sushi experience in the city, including the best Las Vegas Boulevard has to offer. 5040 W. Spring Mountain Road, 676-1044.
15. Comme Ça
If you’re thinking there are too many French restaurants on this list, you obviously haven’t eaten at Comme Ça. It may be one of the less flashy restaurants at Cosmopolitan, but it’s also one of the most thoughtful, boundary-pushing kitchens on the Strip, where coloring within the lines is practically mandatory. Cosmopolitan, 698-7910.
Combining restaurant and nightclub seems to be the hottest trend on the Strip today, and Tao is the mold, doing it big since 2005. Nightclub operations keep it ranked as the highest-grossing restaurant in the country, overshadowing stellar Asian fusion cuisine. Tao is a standard-bearer. Venetian, 388-8338.
Can a comfy breakfast-and-lunchery bring Las Vegans to a neighborhood they’ve ignored for decades? Will the Downtown Project business plan produce success? Can a veteran casino chef find satisfaction doing her own thing in her own place? Eat is in the process of answering all these questions. Pretty important stuff. 707 Carson St., 534-1515.
18. Naked City Pizza Shop
This one may surprise you. Every great food city has those little dives that just happen to serve up the best whatever you ever tasted. Naked City, hiding out inside Moon Doggie’s bar, is that place, and frankly, Vegas needs a lot more of these. Our fine dining is killer, but our “lowbrow” food is, well, too low. Naked City is one of few local treasures in this category. 3240 Arville St., 243-6277.
19. Bachi Burger
Las Vegas is a mecca for burgers. We’ve got trend-setting gourmet shops, favorites from around the country and everything in between. Bachi Burger, with two popular locations on opposite sides of town and fantastic Asian fusion flavors, might have the best chance to take a homegrown concept to success beyond Vegas (a third edition is set to open in LA) and become our city’s signature burger. 470 E. Windmill Lane #100; 242-2244 & 9410 W. Sahara Ave. #150, 255-3055.
The food is straight-up coffee shop fare but somehow always hits the spot, and the swanky, old-school cocktail lounge is one of the last great old-Vegas stops. Peppermill is an icon, one of the only free-standing restaurants on Las Vegas Boulevard, and a must-do for locals and tourists. 2985 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 735-4177.
VIP picks: Chefs and restaurateurs who made the Top 20 pick their most important restaurant
Steve Benjamin (executive chef, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon) “Despite my obvious connection and love of French cuisine, I have found similarities between the high expectations upheld at L’Atelier and Raku. Each dish at Raku demonstrates the knowledge and passion chefs have for producing perfection in both flavor and presentation. A must for any foodie passing through Las Vegas, Raku epitomizes fine-dining cuisine in an unlikely location, and it’s my favorite place to enjoy a meal when I’m off the clock.”
Chris Palmeri (chef/owner, Naked City Pizza Shop) “My first instinct, coming from [working at] MGM, is Robuchon. It really changed the landscape in terms of Las Vegas having a lot of Food Network chefs to having one of the most respected chefs in the world opening his first American restaurant here. But in terms of something off the Strip, someone doing things his own way, Todd’s Unique Dining. That’s somebody who is not conforming and just plugging away. [Todd Clore] really inspired me to do my own thing and try to do something extra to blow people away.”
Todd Clore (chef/owner, Todd’s Unique Dining) “I was being pursued by Bally’s management in 1992 when Wolfgang Puck took the leap and opened Spago. It was a real eye-opener for Vegas and one of the restaurants that inspired my transition here. The Review-Journal ran an article about the new chefs in town and I was the second one featured after Wolfgang, so it has always held a unique place in my culinary past.”
Jeff and Rhonda Wyatt (owners, Marche Bacchus) Rhonda: “We kicked around some ideas, but for us, Spago, for its longevity and consistent quality, has to be the one. Wolfgang Puck was the first celebrity chef to do something here, and it’s still a place everyone goes.” Jeff: “We’ve eaten at Spago hundreds of times and never had a single thing that wasn’t high quality. That’s a long time to be doing something so well. Most restaurants have a shelf life, but this one just keeps humming along, and [executive chef] Eric Klein is one of the hardest working guys in town.”
John Simmons (chef/owner, Firefly) “Vintner Grill is, in my mind, the most important restaurant in Vegas. It brought a level of cuisine and sophistication that most would have thought had no chance to succeed in the suburbs. Of course, the now-defunct Rosemary’s was the original vanguard in this regard, but Vintner helped to pave the way for independent restaurateurs like myself to challenge the insipid chains and mall-staurants that dominate the culinary landscape.”
Mitsuo Endo (chef/owner, Raku) “Bartolotta, because of the inspiration and innovation of [chef Paul Bartolotta’s] style in ordering his fish, and so many options to enjoy his collection.”