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The Evolution of Casino Cuisine

Celebrity Chic

Flavors

In the past two decades, Las Vegas casinos have been completely transformed. They are larger and more lavish than ever before. In addition, their restaurants have profoundly changed. On the balance, earlier restaurants emphasized value and quantity over quality. But in the 1990s, a new wave of celebrity chef designer restaurants made Las Vegas into one of the world's most famous cities for food.

In addition to the names now etched above eateries, existing venues changed. The venerable buffet, once a low-cost nirvana, has been reborn as a near-gourmet attraction itself.

Perhaps the most significant development has been the proliferation of internationally-recognized restaurants helmed by renowned chefs. Once a loss leader, casino restaurants are now an integral part of the resorts' appeal. In the late 1990s, some tourists began planning trips to Las Vegas not to gamble or see shows, but just to visit the famous restaurants.

Today, then, Las Vegas has taken a place in the world's culinary capitals on the strength of its casino restaurants. Looking back at the evolution of casino cusine, one can only wonder what the next course will bring.

Kokomo's

Mirage Promotional and PR File

The new era of casino dining opened with the debut of Steve Wynn's Mirage in 1989. The Mirage was the first major new casino to open on the Strip in 16 years, and the first casino anywhere with its own volcano and rain forest.

Kokomo's, a steak and seaford restaurant, showcased the new luxury of casino dining. Set in the heart of the Mirage's enclosed rain forest, diners at Kokomo's enjoyed their food while surrounded by banana trees, royal palms, and sparkling waterfalls.

Surf Buffet

MGM Mirage Corporate Archives

In the midst of the new, elements of the old Las Vegas dining scene remained. The casino buffet, which was reaching its 50th year, was reinvented.

The new casino buffet had multiple stations reflecting a greater variety of tastes, including classic American, Italian, Asian, and Mexican.

This photo shows the now-departed Surf Buffet, which graced the Boardwalk casino and hotel.

Cafe Spago

Kirvin Doak Communications; Wolfgang Puck Promotional and Public Relations File

Buffets were the past of Las Vegas restaurants, but the future became apparent in 1992, when Wolfgang Puck's Spago opened in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. It is fitting that the same resort that broke new ground with Bacchanal made history again.

Spago was Puck's first restaurant outside California, and the first of many celebrity chef-inspired signature restaurants to open on the Strip. Puck was soon joined by some of the dining world's most famous names, including Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Alain Ducasse, Bradley Ogden, Nobu Matsuhisa, Thomas Keller, and Daniel Boulud.

Spago menu

Kirvin Doak Communications; Wolfgang Puck Promotional and Public Relations File

Spago's menu reflects the influence of gourmet dining on casino restaurants. The days of ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch and prime rib for dinner have given way to a new era of organic sweet corn soup, seared rare yellowfin tuna, and Wagyu Kobe rib eye.

After the success of Spago, Puck opened a string of Las Vegas casino restaurants, including Chinois, also in the Forum Shops; Postrio, at the Venetian; Trattoria del Lupo, at Mandalay Bay; and Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill, at MGM Grand. In addition, Puck has helped bring celebrity dining to Atlantic City: at that city's Borgata casino, he was recently joined by fellow Strip restaurateurs Michael Mina and Bobby Flay.

More images: Dinner Menu | Cafe Menu

Dishes

MGM Mirage Corporate Archives

With the proliferation of higher echelon dining options, even buffets began to spruce up. Casinos created exciting new spaces by renovating their old, value-oriented mess halls into fashionable, even opulent, gastronomic temples.

This Treasure Island's Dishes buffet, has updated the classic casino buffet for contemporary travelers.

Picasso

MGM Mirage Corporate Archives

Like the Mirage, the Bellagio eclpised its own high expectations when it opened in 1998. Part of its appeal was its lineup of fine dining, now an accepted part of the modern casino resort.

Picasso, featuring Julian Serrano's French-Mediterranean cusine, gained kudos not only for its outstanding food, but also for its unparalleled design. Set off the landmark Bellagio fountains, it features an original collection of original Pablo Picasso paintings and ceramics.

The restaurant has become a perennial AAA five diamond award winner, and one of the most popular in the competitive Las Vegas dining scene.

Bradley Ogden

Harrah's Entertainment Corporate Archives

As casino restaurants became more impressive, they started to achieve the kind of renown once reserved for San Francisco and New York eateries. Bradley Ogden, the eponymous restaurant the chef opened in March 2003 at Caesars Palace, won the 2004 award for the nation's best new restaurant from the James Beard House, the first time a Las Vegas restaurant had been so recognized.

This is one of the food world's highest honors, and it speaks to the growing sophistication of casino cusine on the Strip.

Restuarant Guy Savoy

Harrah's Entertainment Corporate Archives

The elevation of the casino dining experience continues, with new dining stars opening up casino restaurants. In 2006, Restaurant Guy Savoy, the famed chef's first eatery outside of France, opened in Caesars Palace. Offering patrons a choice of meal options (including a 90 minute "Experience" for those with theater plans), Guy Savoy is establishing itself as one of the finest restaurants in the country.

Like others in the new generation of casino culinary wonders, Restaurant Guy Savoy provides more than just refined dining--it gives its guests an unforgettable experience.

 

More images: Dinner Menu | Dessert Menu

Restaurant Guy Savoy

Harrah's Entertainment Corporate Archives

The correct ambience enhances the appeal of the modern casino dining experience. Whereas diners once ate at crowded tables while waiting for the show to start in a dinner theater, they now await a succession of dishes in a theater dedicated to the presentation of food.

Guy Savoy's Caesars Palace restaurant, designed by Jean-Michael Wilmotte, is a perfect example of the attention paid to every element of the dining experience. The restaurant itself is outfitted in deep tones, and even the silverware and dishes are customed-designed, making the restaurant a unique experience.

Joel Robuchon

MGM Mirage Corporate Archives

MGM Grand scored a coup when the "chef of the century," Joel Robuchon, came out of retirement in 2005 to open his only fine-dining restaurant in the United States. His eponymous restaurant features 6- and 16-course tasting menus, and has been hailed as one of the finest in the United States. Even the lounge area is tastefully-appointed and intimate, as seen in this image.

Though that claim is becoming almost common along the Strip, there is nothing commonplace about the profusion of world-class dining options in Las Vegas casinos.

In less than fifty years, casino operators transformed their restaurants from stomach-stuffing loss leaders to some of the world's finest establishments. There is little doubt that, in the future, casino cuisine will continue to evolve along this path, and that Las Vegas will long remain a center for not only gaming and entertainment, but for fine dining.

 

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Last modified Tuesday, 10-Feb-2009 16:23:58 PST