It’s been at least 25 years since I last set foot in Las Vegas. Frankly, it never felt like a draw to this non-gambling, non-shopping, non-partying, non-drinking (well, almost) food writer. With changes in the restaurant world from a growing Chinatown to a sea of celebrity chefs, it was time to pay a visit. While the “strip” scene remains the same, the “Strip” scene sure has changed.
You don’t have to party to enjoy Vegas. People-watching provides lots of entertainment, and you can enjoy plenty of other over-the-top pleasures as well. To help your planning, I’ve put together this “Three Delicious Days” itinerary with restaurants that range from hole-in-the-wall to elegant, along with activities to consider between and after meals.
Today’s a rather spicy day. Start simple, with a quick but delicious breakfast at Eggslut, in The Cosmopolitan. Well…maybe not quick. The lines can get long at this Los Angeles import, which I should mention serves up its egg dishes all day long. I had their “Slut” (a coddled egg on potato purée, served in a jar) at Feast Portland in the past, but prefer and recommend a sandwich. Their signature bacon, egg & cheese sandwich is a great place to start. The bacon is smoky, the egg is over-medium, the cheddar is melty, the chipotle ketchup is slightly spicy—and it’s all served on a warm brioche bun.
From Eggslut, walk south on the Strip to the Luxor, prepare to be amazed by Bodies… The Exhibition. So, yes, this sounds like one of those risqué Vegas night shows, but it’s not. Though it certainly is provocative. Using a unique preservation process, the exhibit showcases real bodies and organs so that you can get three-dimension views of the human form. And you’ll learn a lot in the process. The exhibit shows the complexity of many of the body’s systems, including respiratory, reproductive, circulatory, and digestive. Before attending, I knew that the average stomach is about the size of a fist, but what I didn’t know is that it could expand to 20 times that size. Beware: Your Vegas eating itinerary may push you in that direction.
But no fear, as chili peppers burn calories, right? On that note, lunch is at another Los Angeles import: Chengdu Taste. (I can testify that Sichuan food is full of heat.) The menu is loaded with tempting dishes, from fuqi feipian to toothpick lamb with cumin to mung bean jelly noodles with chili sauce. I highly recommend the boiled fish with green pepper sauce, which is a perfect demonstration of ma la (numbing from Sichuan peppercorns and spicy from the chili peppers) that’s a hallmark of Sichuan cuisine. Be careful, as you’ll want to drink that irresistible broth, but it will come back to bite you. Also great is the boiled beef in hot sauce, with the more traditional red color from the chilis and chili paste. Get your rice ready to blunt the spicy force.
Your first afternoon is free to do whatever strikes your fancy. You can see what’s happening in nearby Chinatown. Or walk more of the Strip. Shop the Strip. People-watch. Gamble. Grab a drink somewhere. Digest? I won’t tell you what to do. Or tell on you. After all, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
I will tell you, though, to prepare for an early dinner at Lotus of Siam. (Note: You’ll want to have booked this reservation before your arrival to ensure seating.) Like Chengdu Taste, it’s located in a strip mall that as far from the Strip scene as you can imagine. But the food is fabulous. It’s so good (the wine menu as well) that Lotus of Siam is a James Beard Award winner! The menu is expansive, so I’d first steer you to the Northern section for some dishes (or versions of dishes) you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. For example, there are interesting dips to eat with vegetables and sticky rice. I was especially impressed with the khao soi, this version more compelling than others I’ve enjoyed. But the most surprising and enduring dish I tried—and recommend you do as well—is tub wharn: charbroiled beef liver with green onions, lime and chili. Is this the Thai version of New Jersey diner liver and onions? This liver is smoky and tender—and packs a lot of punch from the chili peppers. Lotus of Siam does not shy away from the heat!
Finish your first day the fun way…with a show. And what better show to get into the spirit of the city than “Vegas! The Show” at the Saxe Theater in Planet Hollywood? It’s a thrilling “introduction” to vintage Vegas, with a real feel of the old-time entertainers like the Rat Pack, Elvis, and Gladys Knight, interspersed with a bunch of variety acts. Between the music, dancing, costumes, and comedy, this energetic and uplifting performance will leave you exhilarated and ready to explore more of Vegas.
The middle day means getting away. But first, begin with a major meal: brunch at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, in The Venetian. Start with a pastry assortment, taking bites but setting at least half aside to save stomach space, especially since you should also try the cinnamon-spice beignets, delivered hot with house-made jam and a Nutella sauce. From here, indulge in as much over-the-top decadence as you can stand. Maybe mussels and fries to take advantage of the seafood bar? Foie gras terrine with fresh-baked bread? I know I enjoyed my merguez sausage hash. Hopefully you haven’t forgotten that Bouchon is famous as a bakery (there are two small standalone bakeries on the hotel site), so you should round out your meal with dessert. The crème brûlée bursts with vanilla flavor, while the profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce are pure luxury.
Pack up any leftover pastries (perhaps get more to go) and get out of town. It’s easy to spend all your time on the Strip, but it’s good to break up the intensity of the noise and lights with a journey into nature and its fresh air. Las Vegas is in a beautiful part of the country, so take advantage of it. Close to the city but feeling far away is Red Rock Canyon, where you can tour the Red Rock Loop Road to explore the dramatic desert landscape. Jump out of the car for a hike, rock-climbing, or a picnic. Awaiting are waterfalls, wildlife, and terrific views. Or venture a little further to Hoover Dam, on the Nevada-Arizona border. Anchored to the Black Canyon walls, the dam towers more than 700 feet over the Colorado River, and is truly a sight to see.
Come back to downtown Las Vegas in time to stop by the Mob Museum, a catchier name than the official National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement. It’s open until 9pm, and an hour or so will give you enough time to quickly learn some history of organized crime and law enforcement. One highlight: sitting in the actual courtroom for one of many nationwide hearings led by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. There you’ll watch a film exposing connections between mobsters, politicians, and businessmen. These 1950-1951 hearings had a television broadcast audience, captivating the country.
Once you escape the mob, dinner is at downtown’s Carson Kitchen. The sleek but casual setting away from the Strip offers opportunity to mingle with locals at one of the communal tables or the chef counter. Most of the food is meant for sharing; you’ll see a lot of crispy chicken skins, “devil’s” eggs, and burnt ends coming out of the kitchen. My top recommendation: veal meatballs with sherry foie gras cream that are absolutely rich. I also enjoyed expertly seared sea bass with charred lemon and herbed greens.
After dinner, be sure to stroll the Fremont Street Experience, with live music and a unique musical light that plays on a 1,500 foot-long screen. It’s a party on the street.
For your final day in Vegas, wake up in time for breakfast at GIADA, in The Cromwell Hotel. If you’re lucky, you’ll score a window seat overlooking the action at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road (you might even get a view of the Fountains of Bellagio show), though every seat is a winner in this pretty, naturally lit dining room. The Giada branding might feel a bit excessive, but breakfast is nice, with lots of Italian-influenced sweet and savory selections. The chopped tricolore salad is a filling meal unto itself, packed with prosciutto, dates, and gorgonzola dolce to go along with kale, endive, and radicchio. The tasting menu is also a good choice, complete with pastries, an antipasti plate, choice of entrée (the Italian chicken and waffles is fabulous—both the cacciatore-spiced chicken and the polenta waffles are wonderfully crispy), and a choice of dessert.
Next, make your way to Madame Tussauds Las Vegas, at The Venetian. If, like me, you’ve never been to a wax museum, you might be skeptical. But you’re in for a treat. There’s a Hollywood celebrity room, a room full of musicians, and a sports room that will give you plenty of chances to pose for pictures with your crush object. Plus there’s a 4-D movie to finish the experience.
Lunch is at Flock & Fowl. Don’t go late if you want to be sure to sample their signature Hainanese poached chicken. You get a quarter of a free-range chicken with rice (cooked in broth), plus marinated cucumbers and preserved mustard greens. The various house-made dips are fun: ginger-scallion sauce, chili sauce, and soy sauce. If no poached chicken, the roasted version is a fine fall-back. The chicken wings are also worth a try, but pass on the over-fried chicken skins.
Your afternoon is free for gambling, more shopping, a spa visit, another attraction, or relaxing after the onset of your food coma. Did I mention that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?
The grand finale of your trip is an evening is at The Palazzo. First, it’s showtime. If “Vegas! The Show” represents the old, then “Baz – Star Crossed Love” at the Palazzo Theatre represents the new. Set in a modern and intimate cabaret setting, the show is a mash-up of music and moments from director Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, and The Great Gatsby. It’s an evening of song and dance, with “new” music (think Madonna, Prince, and Elton John) enriching classic stories—telling the tale of love and death.
Post-production, celebrate your last meal in Las Vegas steps away at Carnevino. You can call this a steakhouse and enjoy dry-aged steaks with big, bold wine choices, but that’s just part of the picture. Seafood is also special here, from salmon flatbread to crudos to grilled octopus. With Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich at the helm, you can’t help but expect superb pasta; the rich bucatini all’ Amatriciana is a shining example of this. But, yes, the steak is special. My New York strip carved tableside, kissed gently with olive oil and a little Maldon salt (nothing more needed), then served with sides like mascarpone mashed potatoes topped with a soft egg, was a treat. Such decadence, executed with thoughtful, classy service. A fine finish to three delicious days in Las Vegas.