For a long time, Vegas was considered an epicurean wasteland, a place where prime rib that cost more than $4.99 was considered haute cuisine, and all-you-can-eat buffets dominated the landscape. Then the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. It got to the point where you couldn’t swing a delicately seasoned roast leg of lamb with a honey-mint jus without hitting a celebrity chef and their fancy, very expensive restaurants. Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Joël Robuchon, Thomas Keller, Julian Serrano, Gordon Ramsay, Alain Ducasse, Charlie Palmer . . . the list goes on and on, and so did the bills that came at the end of the meals.
Now, things have sort of settled in the middle. Fine dining continues to be more than fine in Vegas, but the good news for folks with less adventurous palates, or less extravagant budgets, is that there is plenty to eat here for everyone. All-you-can-eat buffets still abound, cheap eats can still be found if you know where to look, and moderately priced restaurants are making a big comeback. We hope you’re hungry!
There's also the drinking scene to explore. Back in the day most people got their libations for free from a cocktail waitress while playing blackjack. These days, the nightclub scene rivals Ibiza for its scope and grandeur, and watering holes abound where the lowly "bartender" has been replaced by a "mixologist."
The Dining Scene
Take a look at some of the famous names attached to Vegas restaurants: Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsay, Bobby Flay, Todd English, Hubert Keller, Bradley Ogden, Joël de Robuchon, Thomas Keller, and Julian Serrano. It's a veritable Who's Who of the culinary world. Dining in Las Vegas is now one of the top reasons people want to visit the city.
Almost every cuisine imaginable is available somewhere in Las Vegas. In some mega-resorts, you can dine on American, French, Spanish, Mexican, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian cuisine without ever leaving the building. Go farther afield and you'll find world-class Thai, barbecue, Cuban, and other regional tastes all without having to use up your airline miles to visit their countries of origin.
Although the global recession that started in 2008 has driven down prices and even sent some restaurants packing, high-end dining experiences still dominate the scene. In this guide, the average price of an entree with more than $35 is classified as Very Expensive, $25 to $35 as Expensive, $15 to $25 in the Moderate category, and Inexpensive covering those that offer main dishes for less than $15 apiece. When you get there, you'll note that there are more in the high-end categories than in the more affordable ones, especially when you're talking about places that have one of those celebrity chefs guiding the menu.
But the affordable restaurant is making a comeback. While most don't offer the level of food quality that will win them epicurean awards, it is easier these days to find a good meal for a price that won't bust your budget. And of course, the all-you-can-eat buffet is still a mainstay with virtually every major hotel offering at least one of them.
Plus, if you look hard enough, you can still find the cheap meal-deal and graveyard specials that used to be advertised on the big marquees outside the hotels. In the mood for a $5.99 steak and eggs meal at 3am? You may not see them on The Strip, but they are out there.
The Drinking Scene
Walk into almost any major Las Vegas hotel and you'll find at least one example of each of the following: a high-end, high-energy nightclub with droves of young, pretty people trying to get inside; a swank ultra-lounge with throbbing DJ music and the casually sexy vibe of a Hollywood hipster hangout; a lounge with live entertainment and an inclusive party atmosphere; a bar that treats the creation of cocktails almost as a science or one that treats the making of them as a show; and a place where you can get a free beer while you are head's down in a video poker machine. Shortly put, the bar and club scene in Vegas has grown to the point where having a simple drink is no longer simple.
Nightclubs are the big draw, especially for the younger set. Mega-clubs like PURE at Caesars Palace, XS at Encore Las Vegas, and Marquee at The Cosmopolitan pull in droves of the young and beautiful (or people who think they are or people who want to be around them) who do not seem to be deterred by the eye-popping high prices ($20-$50 cover, $10-$15 drinks), long lines (expect to wait at least an hour), and lack of personal space. It's a see-and-be-seen scene, where you better dress to impress or expect to be relegated to the darker corners (if you get in at all).
Ultra-lounges are slightly less competitive but no less intimidating, especially if you aren't a size 2 or have an age that starts with a 2. Smaller and more intimate than the nightclubs, ultra-lounges usually have makeshift dance floors instead of formal ones and more space to sit and try to converse over the loud music. Examples of the form include ghostbar at The Palms, Surrender at Encore, and Tabú at MGM Grand.
But don't worry if you aren't one of the young and pretty types; there are still plenty of places for you to go dance and drink. Check out the hotel lounges where you can usually find terrific live entertainment, rollicking dance floors, cheaper drinks and cover prices (if they have one at all), and a much more friendly vibe.
If you want more than just a drink, you can get them at places like Petrossian at Bellagio or Rock & Rita's at Circus Circus. These two couldn't be farther apart in terms of attitude with the former being an upscale "mixology" establishment known for award-winning cocktails that are almost scientific in construction, and the latter staffed by "flair bartenders" who toss bottles, balance glasses, and basically turn the pouring a drink into something worthy of putting in a Vegas showroom.
Get away from the Strip and you can probably find a bar that suits your tastes somewhere in this town. From the low-down dives to the swinging singles-style hipster joints to gay bars of all types, Las Vegas has a little bit of something for every drinking taste.