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The Evolution of Casino Cuisine

Stepping Up

With the openings of Caesars Palace (1966) and the International (1969), the Las Vegas casino industry began to grow even more. The new resorts offered even more diverse selections of cuisine, and new signature restaurants, like Caesars' Bacchanal Room, raised the bar for casino dining.

Circus Maximus

When Caesars Palace opened in August 1966, it changed Las Vegas casinos. There had been other themed casinos and themed restaurants before, but the Palace took the idea of the resort as a dramatic space to a new level.

This menu for the Circus Maximus dinner theater shows the level of detail that went into creating the fantasy world of Caesars Palace. The menu had Roman artwork, and a few items had names inspired by Rome. That was nothing new, but the renderings of famous statues and the paen to the sacrificial bull on the back cover let diners know they were somewhere different.

 

More images: Front Cover | Back Cover

Bacchanal

Caesars Palace's culinary center was the Bachhanal, a gourmet room helmed by the legendary Nat Hart. Hart ultimately became the Corporate Vice President of Food and Beverage for Caesars World. In his 20 years with the company, he developed restaurants in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

Hart also directed the Nat Hart Gourmet Cooking School in Las Vegas (and, for one year, in Atlantic City), where he personally taught over 2000 students. At Caesars and later the Desert Inn, he was one of Las Vegas's original celebrity chefs.

 

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Noshorium

Caesars Palace also had a haven for those looking for a quick bite, the "delightfully informal coffee house" called the Noshorium.

Caesars' creator, Jay Sarno, personally invited his guests to nosh on the usual array of cold cuts, sandwiches, and fish. The menu even depicts a cartoon of Sarno as a plump, toga-garbed Caesar proffering a flaming shishkabob.

 

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Poolside

The theming of Caesars Palace even carried over to its pool snack bar menu, where bikini-clad beauties cavorted with the cartoon caesar Sarno, plying him with plenty of food and drink.

 

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Ah'So

The Roman Empire ranged from Britainnia to Parthia (today England and Iran), but the Las Vegas version incorporated Japan as well, with the Ah'So restaurant, which offered teppanyaki cooking amidst a Japanese garden--or, at least, its casino equivalent.

Breakfast Menu

Sarno's next casino, Circus Circus, did not aspire to the same luxury as Caesars Palace, but some elements carried over. In this breakfast menu, one can see an emphasis on value lacking in the sumptuously-illustrated Caesars offerings, but Sarno is present as a whip-waving ringmaster.

Internationale

Menu Interior

The International (today the Las Vegas Hilton) was the world's biggest hotel when it opened in 1969. True to its name, it was home to an array of restaurants reflecting several national cuisines.

This souvenir menu commemorates the International's opening headliner, Barbra Streisand.

 

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Cafe Continental

Menu Interior

The International's committment to pushing culinary boundaries was clear even in its humble coffee shop, where, on each day of the week, a different nation was featured.

The resort's opening lineup of restaurants included German, Japanese, Mexican, Italian, and Continental cuisine. Though German eateries haven't been a fixture in casinos since, most resorts of any size boast a similar selection of Asian, Old World, and American cuisines.

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Menu Interior

The International brought the popular Benihana chain of Japanese restaurants to the casino world. The eatery placed an equal emphasis on culinary excellence and ambience, and was a harbinger of the acceptance of chain restaurants, both fast food and upscale, in casinos around the country.

 

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Don the Beachcomber

Don the Beachcomber

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Benihana wasn't the first chain restaurant to find a Strip home. That honor may go to Don the Beachcomber: one of the Polynesian eateries opened in the Sahara in 1962.

Don the Beachcomber rode the wave of the American fascination with Tiki culture of the 1950s and 1960s to become a national phenomenon. And after downing a few Zombies, no one really cared about the incogruity of a Tiki temple in the midst of the Sahara desert.

 

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Aladdin

After the International, casino hotels continued to get larger, and guests began to spend more time away from the casino floor. Room servce evolved in response to guests' wishes to dine in privacy.

This Aladdin room service menu shows the selection of food and drink available for in-room delivery.

 

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Barrymore's

Kirk Kerkorian's original MGM Grand, which opened in 1973, added the patina of Hollywood glamour to the Strip casino resort. Its restaurants reflected this association with movie royalty.

Here, the menu for the hotel's gourmet room, Barrymore's, features both the available dining selections and a short essay on the influence of the Barrymore family.

Riveria Restuarants

By the late 1970s, most Strip casinos had an assortment of restaurants, giving patrons far bigger choices than before. Instead of agonizing over whether to order the prime rib or the filet, they could choose from an array of specialty restaurants.

This 1980 Riveria omnibus menu showcases its five restaurants: Delmonico's, an upscale steakhouse; the Ristorante Italiano; the Lighthouse seafood restaurant; the Versailles dinner theater; and the Cafe Noir 24-hour coffee shop, which featured Chef Billy Gwon's Cantonese delights during dinner hours.

 

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Frontier

As casinos diversified their selections, they found new outlets for dining. This 1977 Frontier banquet menu reflects the increasing importance of conventions and banquets to resorts' bottom lines.

In a nod to the then-current sci-fi boom (Star Wars had come out earlier that year), the menu's designers featured the vaunted Federation starship Enterprise (or as close an approximation to the original NCC-1701 the copyright attorneys would allow). It would be another 20 years before Quark's Bar, a true Trek eatery, would open at the Las Vegas Hilton.

 

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City Lights

By the mid-1980s, Strip restaurants were far more diverse than they had been only two decades before. Yet among all the new, some traditions remained. This City Lites souvenir menu shows that the venerable dinner theater survived, though it was adapted to reflect current tastes.

Within ten years, a revolution on the Strip would transform casino resorts, and profoundly change the Strip dining experience.

 

More images: Menu Interior

 

NEXT: Celebrity Chic


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Last modified Tuesday, 10-Feb-2009 16:21:08 PST
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