The celebrity chef capital has staked its claim as a serious food city, with the best chefs in the world convinced what happens in Vegas is a sure bet for new concepts.
Las Vegas is back. Perhaps prognosticators are fearful of making such bold statements, but it’s hard to ignore the evidence that Las Vegas has moved past the recession and is ready to return to prosperity and growth. With 40 million annual visitors, 22,000 conventions every year, and an approximate 84 percent occupancy rate over more than 150,000 hotel rooms, the city—and the four miles of Las Vegas Boulevard that make up the Strip—doubled down with a huge year in 2014.
A squadron of new resorts and attractions came to life on the Strip for the first time in four years, suburban developments that stalled during darker days were reignited, and decades-long revitalization plans for downtown Las Vegas began to bear fruit. New success looms large, but this is not the same Vegas.
In the past, restaurants in casinos were a signifier of how Vegas was doing. Today, restaurants are helping Vegas do better. Food is a major driver, not a loss leader, and the city’s dining scene has become more diverse, dynamic, and competitive than anyone outside its massive local industry recognizes.
For today’s Vegas visitors, where to dine is as big a decision as where to stay, what show to see, and how much to wager at the tables. According to demographic stats from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the average food and drink expenditure over a typical three-night trip is $278.95—almost twice as much as spending on shopping and shows. Seventy-two percent of visitors attend a show, 71 percent gamble, but everybody eats. And the Strip has transitioned into a dining destination that truly has something for everyone, from the most elegant fine-dining experience available anywhere to comfort food concocted by celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Bobby Flay.
“Vegas has been evolving,” says Sebastien Silvestri, vice president of food and beverage at the Venetian and Palazzo, two of the Strip’s biggest resorts. “When I came here 12 years ago to work at Bellagio, that was the benchmark. Bellagio was the first casino [in 1998] to have a truly great restaurant program. Well, it’s been contagious. Every single property that has opened since then wants that kind of program.”
Silvestri’s resorts certainly demonstrate the pattern. The Venetian alone contains restaurants from Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Keller, Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, and now, Daniel Boulud. Internationally acclaimed chefs and restaurateurs like these first started arriving in Las Vegas two decades ago, with Puck and Lagasse among the earliest pioneers. The post-Bellagio boom helped create a perception that these restaurants were just outposts, that the operators were looking to capitalize on a huge, hungry, captive audience for an easy score.