We owe the brainiacs at Brookings Mountain West a nice dinner. If Southern Nevada manages to crawl into the 21st century as anything more evolved than a place to feed some slot machines and catch a little Cirque, it’ll be thanks in large part to their ceaseless wonky prodding. Every so often, Brookings births another lap-crushing, tough-love report into the inboxes of scholars, policymakers and journalists, telling us Nevada needs to do better. Brookings says: Become a renewable energy hub, a global nexus for online gambling, a top-tier medical cluster serving the nation’s aging population. Something! These reports are the closest thing Brookings comes to shouting, “HEY NEVADA! HERE’S YOUR CHANCE TO SAVE YOURSELF!”
Are we listening? I’m not sure, but maybe that’s just the fate of a think tank in a city not very given to thinking about the future. (I mean, look at how that whole unchecked-growth-as-economic-engine thing worked out.)
But Brookings isn’t all Deep Thoughts and Bold Visions — and that’s good. In their latest report, “Unify, Regionalize, Diversify: An Economic Development Agenda for Nevada,” more modest game lope among the woolly mammoth ideas, proposed tactics that are small but smart, doable but effective, nips and tucks to shape the Vegas economy into something that doesn’t resemble a drunk construction worker perched on a two-legged stool in front of a video poker console. One idea: culinary tourism. The study points out that one in six Americans who vacation make food a feature of the trip, whether it’s in the form of cooking classes, restaurant crawls or something else. And whaddya know: Over the last 20 years, Vegas has just happened to string together a necklace of some of the world’s best eateries. That development has even more gravity when you consider that, in recent years, fewer tourists who visit Vegas are gambling — and those who do gamble are spending less. However, visitors are still spending solidly on food — about twice as much as they do on shopping. Couple this with a growing, informed suspicion there’s an untapped market of jet-setting foodies out there, and you have a recipe for a bit of economic diversification.
“Big-box gaming may just go the way of the big-box bookstore,” Mark Muro, Brookings Mountain West’s Washington D.C. research director, tells me. “Meanwhile, high-end culinary tourism represents a fresher, new line of engagement for the state economy. Fine dining is an industry that continues to grow, but it seems like it’s not as forcefully marketed as a nongaming reason to visit Las Vegas.”
Tom Kaplan, senior managing partner of the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, has been giving this some thought as well. He tells me, “In fine dining, we’ve got the largest concentration of skilled, recognized chefs in the world that, to me, rival London, New York and L.A.” He envisions Vegas foodie tours that involve restaurant visits, cooking classes and even courses in how to throw a killer dinner party. The first step, he says, is getting the casinos, the convention authority, state tourism officials and chambers of commerce to come up with a plan.
But culinary tourism should be more than just an appetizing thought. So, when you turn to page 34 and drool over our picks for the best restaurants of 2011 — from suburban gems to crown jewels of the Strip — plan your next meal out with this bonus in mind: You’re doing your part for economic diversification too. Nom!