Before the advent of the celebrity chef, even the largest hotels had small, intimate restaurants. These were the grand gourmet rooms operated for the benefit of the casino’s most prized customers. The rooms were plush with leather upholstered booths, mood lighting, and clubby décor, all of which underscored their exclusivity. The kitchens served the best food available on property, and most of the diners were comped. Indeed, the customers actually paying out of pocket were subsidizing most everyone else.
For the last decade or so, especially on the Las Vegas Strip, many of the city’s newer restaurants have been ensconced in large, sometimes cavernous spaces. Exclusivity is relative and mostly based on the self-screening dimension of price.
Though the décor and design elements may be simply stunning, conversation is frequently challenging with the chat of patrons three tables distant being more audible than that of your dinner companion. Although the food in these big rooms can truly be world class, any hint of intimacy is largely absent. Add the constant whir of activity, and your epicurean dining experience can disappear in the bustle and the din.
Today, in order to sample the fare of a specific celebrity chef, you might have to accept the less-accommodating aspects of big restaurants. Quiet, intimate, cozy, and romantic rooms, however, still exist, and most of the large hotels have at least one.
A defining characteristic of gourmet rooms (and newer restaurants modeled after them) is that they serve as an inner sanctum, a welcoming island of peace amid the 24/7 adrenaline-driven atmosphere of the casino. Often the contrast between the sanctuary of the gourmet room and the host hotel and casino is breathtaking. Nowhere is this more starkly manifested than at The Steakhouse at Circus Circus. It’s hard to believe this rich, darkly paneled, oil painting-adorned room exists within the loud and gaudy circus-themed host property.
Some good news is that there are still surviving and prospering gourmet rooms from vintage Las Vegas, including some going back more than half a century. There are also freestanding, non-casino eateries that emulate the gourmet rooms. Then, in large hotels, there are the newer restaurants that seek to recapture the feel and vibe of the historic gourmet rooms. Finally, there are lovely larger restaurants that have been designed to offer warm and cozy spaces within.
Whether a vintage or more modern incarnation of a gourmet room, here’s what defines the genre:
- Small, quiet, luxuriously appointed space, usually insulated from the rest of the property as well as from outside
- Self-contained, not a private room in a larger restaurant
- A feeling of coziness
- A feeling of exclusivity and privilege
- Formal linen table settings
- Generous space between tables
- Formally attired waitstaff, often serving in teams
- Waitstaff knowledgeable of all menu items and specials
- Tableside preparations, such as salads and flambé dishes
- None are inexpensive, but some offer better value than others.
If you want to try an authentic, decades-old Las Vegas gourmet room, you have five choices. On the Strip, visit The Steakhouse at Circus Circus (702-794-3767).
Downtown, try the Redwood Bar and Grill at the California (702-385-1222). A block away at Binion’s is Top of Binion’s Steakhouse, situated on the top floor of the hotel. It’s the only vintage gourmet room to offer a bird’s-eye view of downtown (702-382-1600). East on Fremont Street, about a block away, is longtime favorite Hugo’s Cellar (702-385-4011). Literally located in the cellar of the Four Queens Casino, Hugo’s Cellar presents a long-stem rose to each lady dining there. Hugo’s offers a diverse and extensive menu with a continental flair.
It can be argued that Michael’s Gourmet Room (702-796-7111) at the South Point Hotel should be included in the vintage lineup. It was formerly the gourmet room at the Barbary Coast (now the Cromwell) on the Strip. In operation for more than 30 years, Michael’s relocated to South Point (after the Barbary Coast was acquired by Caesar’s Entertainment) and set up shop in a 50-seat room nostalgically similar to the original.
A contemporary of the vintage gourmet rooms is the Golden Steer Steak House (702-384-4470), a stand-alone restaurant established in 1958 on Sahara Avenue just west of the Strip. Though larger than most vintage gourmet rooms, the Golden Steer comports in all the particulars of décor and ambience. Customers over the years have included Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, Natalie Wood, Al Hirt, Nat “King” Cole, Joe DiMaggio, Elvis Presley, and Mario Andretti. A second independent gourmet room is the four-decades-old Pamplemousse Le Restaurant, also on Sahara and serving French cuisine (702-733-2066). Like The Golden Steer, Pamplemousse is a Las Vegas landmark. Though warm and cozy, Pamplemousse is a bit more cramped and noisy than the other vintage rooms described. Diners can order from an à la carte menu, with prices a little less dear than the norm, or select from two prix fixe meals.
Newer small rooms in the tradition of the vintage gourmet rooms are still to be found in the large casinos. A good example is Carbone at Aria, (877-230-2742), specializing in Italian cuisine.
An excellent example of a larger restaurant that has captured the gourmet room feel is the Camelot Steakhouse at Excalibur, (702-597-7449). Formerly a prime rib specialty room, it now serves a variety of cuts and chops as well as seafood. A three-course prix fixe menu is also available. The Steakhouse is less formal than most vintage gourmet rooms but manages a sense of intimacy rare in restaurants of comparable size. Another example is the Fuego Steakhouse at the Fiesta Henderson (702-558-7000). Though breaking the mold in terms of style and décor, Fuego offers one of the coziest and most romantic rooms in town.
In terms of value, The Redwood Bar and Grill and Fuego Steakhouse are my top picks. Reservations are recommended at all of the restaurants mentioned—and necessary at some. Most accept reservations made through OpenTable.com. Be sure to print your reservation confirmation and take it with you. If you reserve by phone, note the time of your call and the name of the person taking the reservation. Also, it never hurts to call back and confirm on the day of your reservation.
For more Las Vegas dining recommendations, check out The Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas by Bob Sehlinger.