With Chef Geno Bernardo, who unfortunately for R-J readers does not cook at Olive Garden.
It’s a rite of nearly every publication to do both “Best of”s and Readers’ Polls, but few seem as equally anticipated and dreaded as the Review-Journal’s “Best of Las Vegas,” a readers/staff/celebrities selection, that never fails to engage yet enervate the community. Of course, as long as it’s talked about, it’s a success for the R-J (let me pause to note that I consider several staffers there friends and colleagues), which is probably why the two-decades-plus old poll’s enduring flaws are never cured, and possibly get worse.
No portion of the poll seems to get heads scratching so much as the “Food & Drink” section—restaurants, basically—whose categories are as random as the choices made. The R-J seems to choose genres as they suit them (or perhaps advertisers?), neither reflecting accurately the full breadth of eateries in the valley (and virtually ignoring the “drink” in “Eat & Drink”) nor bothering about how many overlaps there are in the ones they chose (both “Best New Restaurants” choices this year belong in other categories). Why the R-J staff and readers both tend to shun the Strip like a quarantine zone baffles me. It’s the center of the city. Nine out of ten times, casino resorts offer the best eating in town. And no, it is not all priced to gouge tourists.
I “get” that the readers of the R-J are not the same as restaurant critics, and I also get that there’s a great deal of food in the affordable range worthy of praise. What I don’t get is why R-J readers—and staff members, who are presumably more informed—continue to make uninspired or even embarrassing choices at least 50% of the time. I don’t buy the “what ordinary folks like” theory: go on yelp.com and you’ll see all kinds of intelligent, informed reviews by “normal” people about all kinds of eateries in town. (Let me add an extra thumbs-down to the design of the Best Of Eat & Drink page, which makes you click and click back on every category. Is the R-J trying to snub the Sun’s award winning design by being the worst designed website possible?)
Every year, those in the know groan over the choices but rarely put any reactions in print. This year, I decided enough was enough. I’m posting on my personal site so as to be clear that this is my position, and mine only. Feel free to RT, share, Digg, etc..
Trolley du Pain at Guy Savoy
I can’t fault the choice of Freed’s, a Vegas stalwart responsible for great whimsical creations, but when it comes to savory breads, both Wynn’s general baker, and the baker for Guy Savoy’s Trolley du Pain make many remarkable creations (unfortunately neither available at retail).
Best Bar Food
I confess I haven’t sampled the myriad chicken wing creations of many Vegas Pubs, so I might have to beg off this one. But the happy hour menu at Society in Wynn holds many pleasant surprises, and the seared tuna burger at Brasserie Puck in Crystals, City Center is also remarkable for the price, with perfect fries. That’s right, I used the word “perfect.”
Tuna Burger at Brasserie Puck...it's on a bar. Does that make it "bar food?"
I have been warned away from more delis in Vegas than I’ve tried, but Earl of Sandwich in Planet Hollywood makes fine toasted sandwiches—and Enoteca San Marco makes their own deli meats on premises, so how much better can it get than that?
The choice of Cheesecake Factory here just makes me realize how little most Las Vegans get to sample what their city has to offer. There are several award-winning pastry chefs making miracles on the Strip. Those at Sage, Guy Savoy, American Fish and Aureole are just a few that come to mind right now. M Resort’s buffet desserts are also fantastic, to a one. And again, the dessert trolley at Guy Savoy? It isn’t better in heaven, I’m sure of it.
Nutella filled donuts at Stratta, Wynn. Hate me later.
Dunkin Donuts? Winchell’s?? WTF? The category isn’t “biggest” donuts. At least please pick Ronald’s, a Vegas legend that still holds its own with creative (and vegan) choices. Though really the best donuts in town are the the fresh-made nutella-filled ones at Stratta in the Wynn. Go try them and tell me I’m wrong.
Best Family Restaurant
This is a tricky category—not all restaurants ideal for families necessarily bill themselves as such, Having said that, R-J’s staff pick Red Robin is actually a solid choice, but in reality, any of the Station casino’s buffets, Seasons at Silverton Lodge or the buffet at Main Street Station are better family pleasers (especially if they let the under-six kids in free)
Best French Restaurant
I was scared to even peek at the choices here. There are no shortage of restaurants attemping fine French food in Vegas, though few are inspired. It’s been a while since I’ve been to Marche Bacchus, and I’m happy for them getting the attention, but really, in a town where Guy Savoy, Joel Robuchon, and Pierre Gagnaire are plying their trades, be serious. On a more traditional level, Mon Ami Gabi and Bouchon both deliver solidly
Best Gourmet Restaurant
Far too vague a category. I abstain.
The five dollar Binion's Snack Bar burger. Which you can't buy at In N Out. (courtesy Binion's)
This category drives me crazy. I spent more time than I’d want to admit last year trying burgers around Vegas. I know what I’m talking about. There are at least a dozen burgers served in town that are far, far, far better than In N Out at its very best (see my Top Ten Burgers here), but I will spare the snootiness. Just go get a fresh-ground five dollar burger at the snack bar in Binion’s. Eat it next to an In N Out. What are you afraid of?
Best Hot Dogs
Well there’s nothing wrong with a Costco hot dog, especially for the price, and toppings aside, I haven’t found anything in town that necessarily beats them. Although really, considering this consistent winner just makes food to feed its shoppers, is this category necessary?
Best Ice Cream
Do we have to reserve choices to only ice cream, by technical definition, or are we allowed to include fro-yo, gelato, custard, and other frozen options in town? Because frankly, I couldn’t begin to list the things that beat Cold Stone.
Best Indian Restaurant
Haven’t sampled enough Indian in Vegas to comment, but I have had a very fine lamb shank curry with all the proper sides at MOZen in Mandarin Oriental.
Best Italian Restaurant
An even bigger category in Vegas than French—and one with a significant tradition. So that’s why folks chose Olive Garden? Sigh. I could get angry, but really, what I feel is closer to pity. Please—PLEASE—go to the Palms, get on an elevator, and eat at Nove Italiano. It’s really not that expensive. If not there, the Grill at Valentino, Fiamma at MGM, Lupo in Mandalay Bay or Stratta in the Wynn. Olive Garden doesn’t love you. Olive Garden doesn’t need you. They do. (see my Top Ten Italian)
Best Japanese Restaurant
Yellowtail sashimi around warm foie gras at Sushi Roku
Another massive category, especially when you include sushi, robata, and everything else. But certainly neither R-J’s staff pick Raku or celebrity pick Ichiza can be slighted. In a more Americanized vein, I’ve also had a very good meal at Sushi Roku recently.
Best Meal for Less Than $10
Considering the tradition of amazing Graveyard Specials in Vegas, one would have to choose one of those, right? Oops, guess that would require some thinking. The Flamingo’s Burger Joint gives you a burger and fries for ONE DOLLAR after midnight. It’s not the best burger in town (even at midnight) but guess what: It’s just as good as In N Out! Buy ten of them for your friends, big spender.
Best Mexican Restaurant
Elote at Hussong's Taqueria
So… we’re supposed to distinguish this from taqueria, I imagine (see below)? Unfortunately, that’s difficult in Vegas, but Dos Caminos and Diego are solid choices—and Hussong’s delivers on many levels. Get the elote. (also see my Notes on eating Mexican)
Not a lot of choices here, but along with the R-J staff, I’ve been impressed with the quality of several brews by Chicago Brewing Company. Color me shocked that I’m agreeing with them in more than one category.
Best Middle Eastern Restaurant
I’ve yet to try an Middle Eastern in Vegas that’s worth remarking upon. Not saying there isn’t any that’s good, just saying I haven’t found anything. I’ll defer to my favorite Greek, John Curtas.
Another category I confess might deserve more of my attention (there’s a few funky places on my to-do list), but for the moment, I’ve never been disappointed by Memphis Champs. And the pulled pork sandwich at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill is one of the best I’ve ever had—even in Memphis proper.
Best Other Ethnic Restaurant
I don’t really know where to go with this category… how does someone compare Cuban to Cajun or whatever “Ethnic” is supposed to include or exclude? So I’m going to go with the Hawaiian specialties at the Californian Hotel café. Just Because.
Thankfully the customers at Metro Pizza aren't insulted by offerings like the mushroom and truffle Bosco pizza at Stratta.
A pyrrhic victory at best—I’m sorry to tell everyone, as a East Coaster, that even the best Vegas pizza is only passable by serious standards. But those best pizzas are found at the obvious choices—Settebello, Grimaldi’s, Anthony’s (R-J’s staff pick) all have their strengths—as well as Stratta at Wynn and Grotto at Golden Nugget. Particularly memorable: the Paul & Young Ron at Anthony’s, the Bosco at Stratta.
Best Place for a Power Lunch
By my definition, a Power Lunch spot is a place where atmosphere and service dominate over food itself, which shouldn’t be too distracting. With that in mind, I can’t think of any place better than Country Club at Wynn, Verandah at Four Seasons or Olives at Bellagio. Unless it’s a catered meal by Wolfgang Puck in Steve Wynn’s villa (unlikely, I know).
Best Place for Breakfast
Maybe I should’ve saved that last snarky answer for this one… the best breakfast I’ve had in Vegas was at Tableau in Wynn when Mark LoRusso was still running it. Nowadays? It’s probably Verandah.
Best Seafood Restaurant
The restaurant is very specific—all Italian pesci–but how can you compete with the one-of-a-kind Bartolotta in this regard? Or all-sustainable RM Seafood? Or so many places in Chinatown? I guess you do that by putting coupons in the newspaper, right Red Lobster?
Best Thai Restaurant
The Archi’s vs. Lotus death match must soldier on, but without slighting either, I personally don’t get the obsession with heat over ingredient quality in this cuisine… Lemongrass in Aria certainly does some nice dishes.
No strong opinion here—I think really excellent coffee is more and more rare actually—but I have had very fine coffee at Verandah in Four Seasons, and have a soft spot for Coffee Bean on Maryland Parkway.
Gosh, this Craftsteak dry aged ribeye couldn't possibly compare to a filet at Outback, could it? (courtesy MGM/Mirage)
My only reaction to Outback winning the Reader’s pick this year is to breathe a sigh of relief that the serviceable but uninspiring Circus Circus did not win a 21st year. For a chain, I’ll admit Outback is edible, if only. I also researched this category extensively within the last year (see my Top Ten!)—there are many fine choices, to which I would add most recently Jean-Georges in Aria. On a more reasonable level, you’ll get a solid slab at Binion’s Ranch, the Carmel Room at Rampart, or The Flame in El Cortez.
Best Sub Sandwich
I don’t even want to see what was chosen, but the most authentic, savory and satisfying tacos I have had recently in town are actually at Hussong’s in Mandalay Place. Really. Los Antojos obviously has some satisfying options as well (particularly the chicken mole).
Los Antojos' mole tacos
Best Asian Restaurant
Would this be best Asian, except for Chinese, Thai and Japanese? Nice categorization, editors. Anyway, can’t argue much with Wazuzu, the R-J staff choice, since it’s literally an “Asian” i.e. fiercely pan-Asian restaurant, with a strong chef at the helm.
Best Soul Food Restaurant
Speaking of categories, why this gets one and Wine Bar, or Tapas, or many other growing categories do not, is beyond explanation.
Best Chinese Restaurant
…that you didn’t vote for in the “Asian” category, that is. I doubt even the owner of P.F. Chang’s would say he serves the best Chinese food in Las Vegas. But he’ll take your money.
Best Diner/Coffee Shop
Since we’ve already been asked to vote on best breakfast, best burger, best meal under $10, best coffee…what role does this category serve? I don’t know many places in Vegas that would even classify in my concept of a traditional Diner/Coffee Shop (besides the fact that there’s a decent one in every single casino, but so what?). So I’m going to be “that guy” and pick the Vegas-adjacent Peggy Sue’s in Yermo, CA. Hey, they’ve got a bobble head of Oscar Goodman over the pie case. And some damfine fried chicken.
Best Restaurant With a View
This would have been a different choice before Top of the World significantly remade their menu in December, but they are now the obvious pick weighing the view and food equally. Mix, Voodoo Steak, Sushi Roku, Eiffel Tower, Veloce Cibo, Binion’s Ranch Steakhouse and Panevino are also all solid food-and-view selections.
Best New Restaurant (Opened in 2009)
Goat Cheese Gnocchi at Sage
It’s Sage. Period. No, you’re wrong. It’s Sage (opened December 16, 2009)