Tasting Table editor-in-chief Kat Kinsman is here to set the record straight: Your notions of Las Vegas as a cesspool of gaudy filth unworthy of your time and money are completely misguided. That’s not to say, of course, that Sin City is without its tawdry temptations. “I lost my vegetarianism on a $3.99 steak-and-egg special at the Tropicana’s coffee shop within an hour of the first time I landed, and I thought I was rolling pretty high.”
Kinsman has been prowling the Strip since 1999, when she says a new era of Vegas dining and drinking began to take shape with the opening of the Bellagio. “I’d argue that it’s turned into one of America’s great culinary destinations, based on sheer number of killer culinary opportunities per square mile. Now some of the world’s finest chefs and bartenders boast outposts that they *gasp* actually show up or cook/mix drinks at on a regular basis—AND mere mortals can get a reservation.”
Based on many years of trial and error, Kinsman gave use the inside scoop on her fool-proof guide for eating and drinking in Las Vegas. With her commandments, you too may experience one of the “sharpest juxtapositions of grotesquerie and bliss possible.”
1. Don’t roll the dice.
Kinsman says: “The first few times I went to Las Vegas in the late ’90s, the buffet at Bellagio was the new kid in town, a real upgrade from the troughs of gristle and dubious shrimp that were the norm. I took a lap and noticed that rather than the carefully rolled sushi, sliced-to-order prime rib, smoked fish, and monster crab legs, people around me were loading up their plates with rolls, mashed potatoes, plain rice, dull-looking turkey, iceberg lettuce, and other cheap, fill-up foods. If that’s what you dig, then that’s what you dig, but we were all paying the same. Think of Vegas as a giant buffet and explore your options online or with a Strip stroll before you fill up on something that’s not quite special enough. Pace yourself and choose carefully. The price you pay isn’t always in money.” (Photo: abieleanor.wordpress.com)
2. Fear not the celeb chef restaurant—mostly.
Kinsman says: “I have personally spotted Mario Batali, Matthias Merges, Jean Joho, Rick Moonen, and Susan Feniger within the physical confines of their Las Vegas outposts, and it shows. Their restaurants (along with Jose Andres’, Julian Serrano’s, and Joël Robuchon’s) are not just “good for Vegas”—they’re a big part of why I make the trek in the first place. They’re not just cashing an endorsement check; it’s evident in the food and the experience that they consider these places calling cards for their restaurants in their respective cities. (Plus, they’re pretty easy to get into.) Do your homework before you spend cash and stomach real estate on disappointing dining.” (Photo: venetian.com)
3. Go off-Strip.
Kinsman says: “You can eat well up and down the Strip, but you can eat distinctively if you venture off juuuuust a little bit. Revel in the Rat Pack history of the Golden Steer (308 W Sahara Ave; 702-384-4470). Slug an Ass Juice or a Fat Elvis any hour of day in the darkened, dingy haven of the Double Down (4640 Paradise Rd; 702-791-5775). Tuck into the best Thai food of your life at Lotus of Siam (953 East Sahara Avenue Suite A5, The Commercial Center District; 702-735-3033) and tipple at Badlands (53 E Sahara Ave #22B; 702-792-9262), the super-friendly gay cowboy bar across the strip mall. Bend an elbow at Atomic Liquors (917 Fremont St; 702-982-3000), Vegas’s oldest freestanding bar. Have a cab drop you off at Raku Grill (5030 W Spring Mountain Rd #2; 702-367-3511) or Sweets and eat elbow-to-elbow with off-shift chefs from around the city and the world. You’ll get home safely and sated.” (Photo: Yelp/Derek S.)
4. Get high.
Kinsman says: “Altitudinally speaking, that is. Las Vegas is a miracle of modern architectural design, perhaps best experienced from a few dozen stories up. It may take some advance planning to nab a reservation for sunset-hour window seating at Eiffel Tower, Top of the World, VooDoo Steakhouse (50, 3700 W Flamingo Rd; 702-777-7923), Mandarin Bar (3752 S Las Vegas Blvd; 888-881-9367), or Twist (not to mention sky-high prices in some of those cases), but they do offer a jaw-dropping view of one of the most surreal cities on this planet. Or you could just opt for the open-bar car on the High Roller (3545 S Las Vegas Blvd; 866-328-1888) observation wheel and spend 30 minutes in a clear glass pod trying to swig your money’s worth before it descends from its 550-foot apex. Your call.”
5. Skip the novelty cup.
Kinsman says: “No good can come from a yard-long cup or casino-shaped drinking vessel filled with high-fructose corn syrup, food coloring, and bottom-shelf liquor. None. Plus, it won’t fit in your luggage. (Not that I’ve tried….) (Photo: aaavegas.com)
6. Tip well and in cash.
Kinsman says: “Vegas is perhaps the hospitality and service worker capital of the Western world, and maaaaaaan, do they have to put up with some crappy customer behavior. If you believe in karma at all, make sure you have plenty of small (and large…large is good, too) bills on hand, and deploy them with a generous heart. You might see immediate return in the form of buybacks or extras, or you might see your reward at the pearly gates. But there will be rewards.”
7. Take a nap.
Kinsman says: “The disco nap is key. You *will* day drink, so give that a little time to wear off before you show up to dinner. Your server will thank you. Your friends will thank you. Your internal organs will thank you. Vegas is a marathon, not a sprint. And marathoners also don’t forget to HYDRATE.” (Photo: bsulife.com)
8. Embrace breakfast.
Kinsman says: “In Las Vegas, ‘morning’ and therefore ‘breakfast’ are relative. It’s a 24-hour town, and that’s reflected in the culinary options. Breakfast is almost inevitably plentiful and excellent—and nary a soul will raise an eyebrow if you decide to pair your French toast with a French 75. Or so I’ve seen.” (Photo: travelsort.com)
9. Stash a bottle in the room.
Kinsman says: “But perhaps not like this. Base for the rest of your boozy exploits. Hair of the dog. The nightcap that beckons you upstairs rather than staying out for one last ill-fated round. Whatever your reason, it’s a great safety net to have. Pro tip: The prices at the Liquor Library at McCarran Airport are comparable to or less than the options at the liquor stores and drugstores (oh yes—the drugstores on the Strip sell booze), so you might as well get it out of the way while you’re waiting for your luggage to show up.” (Photo: thecavenderdiary.com)
10. Go big for at least one meal.
Kinsman says: “This is the safest bet you’ll make while you’re in Vegas. You could throw your money away at the gambling table (or on a $1K bottle of ‘ultra-premium’ vodka and a dancer who ‘really likes you’), but if you sit down to a fancy-schmancy feast at one of the pricier food palaces, you know exactly what you’re getting, and with very few exceptions, it’s been worth it to me. Perhaps I dig the bombast and pageantry of a petit-four cart, live swans, or bungee-ing sommeliers, but I look at a big Vegas meal as dinner and a show, all in one and I’m willing to pay for the ticket.” (Photo: endoedibles.com)