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The Evolution of Casino Cuisine

Classic Cool

aku aku

With the growth of the casino industry in the 1950s came a marked improvement in the quality of its dining. Casinos raced to open "gourmet rooms," high-end restaurants that for the first time sought to give patrons something more than steakhouse fare.

At the same time, new dinner theaters and coffee shops opened, and existing ones upgrade to match their new rivals. With more guests arriving each day, casinos also started to branch into new areas, offering seafood, Polynesian, and Chinese cusine, among others, for the first time.

Garden Room

Sands Collection

Among the new generation of hotels that opened along in the 1950s, the Sands stands tall. It was for more than a decade the favorite Las Vegas hangout for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr--the Rat Pack--and one of the best-managed and promoted casinos on the Strip.

The Sands' coffee shop, the Garden Room, orginally featured tropical plants, celebrity photographs, and extensive windows.

Copper Broiler

Sands Collection

Copper Broiler

Sands Collection

The "Copper Broiler" was a big part of the Garden Room. Here, diners could watch their steaks, burgers, and chops being prepared before their eyes.

Garden Room

Sands Collection

Luckily, a layout of the Garden Room has been preserved. The coffee shop was typical for its day, and offered patrons a choice between booth and table seating. There was, however, no counter service.

Garden Room

Sands Collection

When the 17-story Sands tower opened in 1965, the Garden Room was slightly remodeled to reflect then-current tastes. Tweaking and re-launching Strip restaurants has a long tradition, and continues today.

Garden Room

As this a la carte menu shows, the Garden Room had all the usual coffee shop suspects. But there are some items that, though common then, might be rare now: ox tongue sandwiches, tartar steak, and calf's liver saute with bacon are not on the top of most menus today.

At the same time, there are many notable omissions. Mexican-inspired items considered middle-of-the road today, like nachos or tacos, are nowhere to be found.

Venus Room

Keeping with the pace of the Strip, one of the oldest resorts, the Last Frontier, was reborn in 1955 as the space-age New Frontier. The theater restaurant, which boasted a revolving stage, was named the Venus Room. Here is a souvenir menu that shows the new look of the property.

More images: Dinner Menu

Desert Inn

The Desert Inn's Painted Desert Room was not only a fantastic venue for many acts, but also had one of the greatest names in Strip history.

As can be seen in this souvenir menu from a fall 1956 performance starring Guy Lombardo, the stage was definitely the focus.

How the Hotpoint-Graybar Electric Company could have been an appealing appetizer has not been satisfactorily explained, but it seems likely that this was a convention group present at the show that night.

More images: Dinner Menu

Hickory Room

Las Vegas News Bureau Collection

The Hickory Room was one of the restaurants featured at the Riviera at its April 1955 opening. In contrast to the resort's aesthetic, which blended French and Italian influences via Miami modern, the Hickory Room was thoroughly western, paneled in wormwood. Open hickory fires gave the restaurant its name, and a large rotisserie let diners watch their food being prepared.

The stylized buffalo on the walls reflect the best in midcentury modern design.

Moby Dick

Las Vegas News Bureau Collection

As casinos got larger in the late 1950s, they reached out to a broader clientele who began staying longer. Suddenly, lunch at the coffee shop and dinner at the theater restaurant wasn't such a sure bet.

The Stardust was one of the first to leave the terra firma of chuck wagons, steaks, and sandwiches behind--it featured several niche restaurants. One of the them was Moby Dick, a seafood restaurant whose nautical trimmings provided a sea-worthy atmosphere not easy to find in the Nevada desert.

The Stardust also embraced the tiki phenomenon with Aku Aku, a Polynesian restaurant that, like tiki standbys Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber, offered a galaxy of rum-based cocktails with exotic names ( e.g., the Savage Island Pearl Cocktail, the Slightly Bitten, and the Kill Devil Cocktail) and passable, vaguely South Seas food offerings.

 

More images: Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4

Candlelight Room

In 1961, Flamingo manager Chester Simms decided that the resort could support a full-fledged gourmet restaurant. Under his direction, Steve Delmont created the Candlelight Room, which was short-lived (it closed during the casino's renovations in the late 1960s) but quite a trendsetter.

Under the watchful eye of Chef Albert, the Candlelight Room served blue-ribbon steaks and several specialties of the house. Albert made history when he imported the first live Maine lobsters into Las Vegas--they were flown directly from Boston daily.

More images: Menu cover | Menu Interior

Top O the Strip

Following the success of the Candlelight Room at the Flamingo, other resorts began installing their own gourmet rooms. The Dunes' Top O' the Strip restaurant, located on the 24th floor of its Diamond of the Dunes hotel tower, tried to get ahead by "emulating" Paris's La Tour d' Argent restaurant.

 

More images: Menu cover | Inner cover | Menu interior

Dune Dome of the Sea

Another Dunes restaurant, the Dome of the Sea, made an immediate splash upon its opening in 1964. This seafood eatery was originally set in a decorative pool. It was a remarkable statement of modernist architectural design and, sitting in front of the casino, a bold assertion of the growing importance of dining to casino resorts.

 

More images: Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 |Back cover

Frontier coffee shop

Amid the changes on the Strip, some things stayed the same. As this photograph of the Frontier's coffee shop shows, there were still plenty of places where casino patrons could enjoy quick, simple meals in an informal setting.

Casino de Paris

Dinner theaters also continued to thrive along the Strip. This brilliantly-illustrated menu from the Stardust's Casino de Paris shows how even these old stalwarts changed with the times. In addition to old favorites like prime rib, lamb chops, and filet mingon, diners could choose chicken chow mein or salmon steaks.

These changes were only a harbinger of what was to come, however, as a new generation of restaurants would explore the frontiers of the palate.

 

More images: Menu interior | Wine list

NEXT: Stepping Up


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Last modified Tuesday, 10-Feb-2009 14:56:16 PST