“Bright light city gonna set my soul
gonna set my soul on fire.”
Elvis Presley, 1973
Viva the delightful Las Vegas. It’s a lively town with a storied past and changing present, difficult to pin down due in part to a spirit of reinvention embedded in its core. The city’s neon lights can distract us from investigating too far off the casino floor, but explorers know that what truly shines can often be found in places less obvious. When it comes to Vegas, finding what shines means navigating the mirage to seek out what really sparkles, and what sparkles now is food and drink.
Indigenous peoples lived here more than 10,000 years ago as evidenced by archaeologists, but the town we know today came to be when it linked Southern California with Salt Lake City by rail. The area made an attractive stop thanks to local water resources in an otherwise arid desert. Las Vegas means the meadows, something one wouldn’t guess by the 21st century expanse of concrete and glass. But this is Las Vegas and anything is possible.
A Look at the Beginnings of Las Vegas
The 1920s was the first area boom and saw enough growth to warrant its first school. Add a population spurt when construction began on the Hoover Dam in 1931 plus Nevada legalizing gambling, and Fremont Street quickly became known as ‘Glitter Gulch’. Casino licenses were issued as the town grew, and with that came all kinds of opportunities of the slightly more shady variety. Enter tall tales and mob stories.
The hotel/casino combinations sprang up in the 1940s with the El Rancho Vegas (the first of its kind), the Flamingo, the Last Frontier, and the Thunderbird. Today only the El Cortez on Fremont Street remains standing as a representative of this iconic era. It also marked the beginning of gourmet buffets, nightclubs, and the visible presence of organized crime.
In those early days it was an open secret that New York mob money was flowing through casino floors, particularly with the construction of The Flamingo by legendary mobster Bugsy Siegel. The 1950s were heady days for Las Vegas, when its bright lights represented glitz and glamor and attracted a moneyed crowd.
Reinvention, again (and again)
The enigmatic Howard Hughes loved Las Vegas enough to buy oodles of properties here in the 1960s, renovating hotels and casinos from Fremont Street to the Strip and really launching the Vegas we know today. By the 1980s, business was good everywhere. Destination vacations, including getaways for families, quickly became the new norm and mainstream convention life began in earnest. Towers were imploded to make room for bigger and even better towers. This city of lights has seen lows and highs, but through every reinvention its core remains the same.
Only in a perpetual incubator like this, one that specializes in continual and accelerated change, could we expect to find such exceptional diversity in culinary experiences. Remember: anything and everything is possible in this desert mirage. Michelin Star dining with an international wine list? Definitely. Hole-in-the-wall pasta joint stuck in the ‘70s offering free jugs of house wine? You bet. Speakeasy? Abso-freakin-lutely.
Step away from the slot machines and get up from the blackjack table, because there’s a rich taste adventure waiting around every corner.
Where & What to Drink
- Yard House for a staggering selection of beers on tap like a Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse, and tasty pub eats (those Wisconsin fried cheese curds were ridiculous)
- Park on Fremont and its patio, for excellent people watching any hour of the day and a delightful sleeve of something frothy – if you have room for a nibble, you must try the mac + cheese balls
- Bound Bar in The Cromwell for late night cocktails, special vintage scotch and whiskeys, ordering off-book, and visual entertainment
- The Laundry Room with its speakeasy vibe and house rules (reservations required, no cell phones, no bringing people you wouldn’t ask to look after your baby or puppy), for classics like a French 75 or newly created artisan cocktails like the Bitter Single Northerner and use of totally obscure too-hipster-to-be-hipster small batch spirits – and it’s located in what used to be the laundry for the El Cortez (no website, because it’s a speakeasy)
- Mercato Della Pescheria on the edge of St. Mark’s Square in The Venetian for a pretty glass of Prosecco and classic Italian bites while catching a glimpse of the opera
- HEXX kitchen + bar to sit on the patio and watch the Belaggio fountains across the street while you relax in comfort and style, glass of champagne in hand
Where & What to Eat
- Eggslut for breakfast despite an inescapable around-the-corner line, because it’s quite likely one of the most simply perfect breakfast sandwiches you’ll find in this town (and that name, amiright?)
- Beauty & Essex because on first glance it looks like and actually is a really nice pawn shop complete with guitars-on-wall and sparkly showcase – then a partially hidden door opens up to reveal a magnificent plush room, dynamic fusion menu of stellar shared plates (those Asian chicken & dumplings), and brilliant wine list
- Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, for as close to southern classics as you can get in a desert – like real fried green tomatoes and an Old Fashioned
- Jaleo Tapas Restaurant for its giant wood-fired open pit with rotating paella pans, shared tapas (the croquetas de pollo), a Spanish sparkling traditional method, and flight of sherry (fino for the win)
- Wing Lei for because it’s the first Chinese restaurant in the US to be awarded a Michelin Star and the a six-course Imperial Peking Duck tasting menu – with wine pairings – is absolutely irresistible so don’t even try