Spectacles to savor are on the menu at these new Strip restaurants
“Dinner and a show” has been a Las Vegas tradition since Sophie Tucker played the El Rancho. But it can mean so much more, from extravagant decor to tableside preparations to cabaret performances. All of which can be seen (and selfie’d) in the wave of new restaurants, where what’s going on in the room is as much an attraction as what’s going on your plate.
It’s not a new idea. But it is one that’s newly attuned to the hashtag moment, when posting a selfie on Instagram is just as important as being there. And if there’s one thing people like to photograph more than their new haircut, it’s the entrée the server just put on the table. As nightlife tilts away from mega-sized nightclubs with their mega-priced bottle service (thank god!) and the celebrity chef trend tapers off, the glamorous, vibe-heavy restaurant is a likely option to take its place.
An import from New York/Los Angeles, Catch, inside Aria, has an “@ us on Instagram” vibe that flows from the flower-filled tunnel that leads you into the restaurant: Prepare to stop so as not to ruin someone’s photo op. The dining room has vaulted ceilings and touches of greenery — it feels a little like a chic Dispensary Lounge — and is full of tourist couples and conventioneer quartets, as well as a tableful of young women flipping their straightened hair and fluttering their eyelash extensions as they snap solo and duo selfies. The waiters will happily snap a group photo or pause the mini-blowtorch until you’ve got your iPhone poised to capture the moment.
Catch’s cocktails are designed to intrigue both the eye and the palate, though not necessarily both at once. The Ziggy Stardust is pretty, with its lightning bolt of bitters stenciled on a froth of egg whites, but not that exciting to taste; the tequila-matcha combo of the Detox Retox sounds gimmicky but, with the addition of mint and cucumber, its makes for an earthy yet exotic drink.
As the name suggests, the restaurant leans toward seafood in a variety of formats: sushi rolls, shellfish towers, the grilled and the sautéed. The truffle sashimi is a standout, smooth and rich like silk velvet, but the tuna carpaccio suffers from unnecessary yuzu. The sushi specialties have some interesting twists, like the spicy-tuna/sweet pear Hellfire Roll or the Catch Roll, which gets a quick flambé finish at the table. Yes, they apply heat to sushi, but the brief flicker of blue flame actually gives a pleasing hint of caramelization to the miso honey on a salmon roll.
Desserts are intricate creations, such as the Hit Me Cake, which combines look, flavor, and action in a magical tower of a confection. Over layers of ice cream, devil’s food cake, brownie, and chocolate, you pour warm caramel over a Klondike Bar-like oblong of chocolate on top. Then you whack it with your fork, which allows the dulce de leche ice cream inside to melt all over the lower layers. It’s the kind of dessert that makes you forget your manners, as you pull the plate out of your tablemate’s reach and blissfully huff the rest of it down yourself. Try to make sure you’ve wiped all the chocolate off of your face before your exit pic by the giant rose petal butterfly. (In the Aria, aria.com)
Roy Choi’s Best Friend has enough atmosphere to render a small planet habitable — especially if the intended population enjoys Vans and the Wu-Tang Clan. The front is part bar and part souvenir shop with a bodega backdrop: Bottles of Jarritos soda and boxes of saltines line walls hung with pictures of Tupac Shakur, Anthony Bourdain and this year’s K-Pop girl group.The row of frozen drink machines behind the bar does indeed turn out boozy slushies like the Jameson & Ginger or a soju-watermelon-hibiscus concoction — and, yes, you can get them in a jumbo-size souvenir glass. You can buy a beer koozie or T-shirt, or you can glide into the dining room through a portal covered with those plastic flaps that are usually found on loading docks and walk-in freezers. Inside, cheerful murals look down on waiters in tracksuits and bussers in Kangol hats while old-school hip-hop plays in the background.
The menu is a mix of Korean and Mexican flavors, an homage to the restaurant’s Los Angeles origin. Every meal opens with warm, salted Hawaiian rolls, and from there you can choose an assortment of condiments (banchan), small plates, bowls, pots, and for-the-table platters. The Slippery Shrimp is a tasty mix of creamy chili mayo, crispy rock shrimp, and crunchy walnuts, while the sesame-dotted BBQ Spicy Pork is another “clean your plate” option. The multilayered flavors and textures of the Tamarind Black Cod Hot Pot is also solid. Choi made his fusion bones on his Kogi Short Rib Tacos, and they are a delightful mix of Korean barbecue sweetness and East L.A. chili sharpness, but the mild-unto-bland carnitas tacos are a disappointment, especially in a town with so many taco options. (In Park MGM, parkmgm.com)
The more-than-food experience isn’t just limited to high-ticket Strip dining. Drag show diner Hamburger Mary’s had an outpost here a decade ago, and has returned to Vegas to cash in on the post-RuPaul’s Drag Race cultural moment — and, yes, you’ll find cars with Jesus fish in the parking lot alongside those with rainbow flag decals. The food is actually quite good: The burgers are juicy, and the caramel fried chicken salad has a sort of kettle-corn taste that is addictive. But the real attraction, of course, is the drag show. If your Twitter feed needs a snap of a drag queen performing the sacred ritual that is a Madonna lip-sync, here it is.
And the themes keep coming: On the horizon, the minds behind Golden Tiki and Evel Pie are at work on a heavy metal pizza joint in the Arts District that will no doubt be art-directed within an inch of its life. Las Vegas may have drifted away from the themed resorts that made its name, but we’ll always have an appetite for a splashy backdrop.