The Dish: Feast for the senses
Off to a big show at The Smith Center? Graba bite in the neighborhood
During the six months it’s been open, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts has already lured much traffic — and many diners — downtown. But that was something of a test drive, as The Smith Center fine-tuned its performing spaces and its programming mix. Fall brings an air of greater formality, marked by season openings for the Las Vegas Philharmonic and Nevada Ballet, not to mention the first order of business: Tony Award-winning “Wicked.” September has been given over entirely to this tentpole attraction, which will provide downtown restaurants with many more mouths to feed.
But, with the arguable exception of Mundo, there’s no place to eat within Smith Center walking distance. The $470 million performing-arts temple is literally on the “wrong” side of the tracks from downtown. Unlike other Symphony Park developers, the Smith brain trust got its job done — and thoughtfully provided a Starbucks just off the main lobby. But the dearth of dining means you’ll need to venture deeper into downtown or the Arts District — or even the fringes of the Strip — to sate that pre-curtain appetite or slake a post-performance thirst.
First, let’s take that theoretical stroll over to Mundo (495 S. Grand Central Parkway A-116, 270-4400, mundolasvegas.com), which bills itself as Las Vegas’ only “chic” Latin eatery. The sconce-studded restaurant, entombed in the World Market Center, could have been a white elephant, but the arrival of The Smith Center and its amenity-starved crowds has given Mundo a new lease on life, increasing its weekend business tenfold. Reservations are all but mandatory. Chef Robert Solano is much praised for working creative twists on staples such as enchiladas and quesadillas, generously employing chiles and offbeat spices. Most of the exotica is to be found in the populous appetizer selection, while entrées run to relatively mainstream items such as wagyu skirt steak. Progressively minded, Mundo offers a liberal number of vegetarian dishes, too. Co-owner George Harris’ own Alien Tequila is the restaurant’s signature beverage, although some find it insufficiently otherworldly. If you prefer something robust, Harris stocks an open-border repertory of beers. One can easily dine here for $20-$30 but dinner hours (3-10 p.m. weekdays) make this almost strictly a pre-curtain play. It’s also an option before Saturday matinees (5-10 p.m.) or before Sunday ones (brunch is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.).
Vegetarianism is all well and good, but Las Vegas are notoriously fond of their steakhouses. One of the most venerable and beloved is the former Roberta’s Steakhouse at the El Cortez, now redubbed The Flame (600 E. Fremont St., 385-5200, elcortezhotelcasino.com). Open 4-10 p.m., week-round, its high-backed chairs and ochre-based color scheme are a time machine to Rat Pack-era Vegas. The menu also has a distinctly retro feel — oysters Rockefeller, iceberg-wedge salad, Steak Diane — classic steakhouse fare that’s withstood the decades. It’s a bit pricier than Mundo but has more of the old “night on the town” ambience and the check won’t feel as burdensome after you’ve sampled some of The Flame’s dozens of wines, heavy on California varietals.
Should you be in the mood for poshness — but perhaps not a full dinner — happy hour at The Barrymore (99 Convention Center Dr., 407-5303, barrymorelv.com) beckons. It’s just off the Strip, so best approach it from the Paradise Road side. It’s in the Royal House, formerly the half-forgotten Royal Resort, now reinventing itself as a hep hangout. Whether you take your libation by the al fresco fire pit or in the bar, you can enjoy both The Barrymore’s whimsical design scheme and its “50 under 50 (dollars)” wine list. For $9-$14, you can partake of many of those same vintages by the glass. For something stronger, try the alluring lineup of martinis or the “Dark & Stormy” (rum, ginger beer and lime), some of which are $5 during happy hour. And if you really want to get your Don Draper vibe on, preface those cocktails with lobster deviled eggs garnished with caviar, or oysters Rockefeller. The Barrymore closes early (11 p.m. on weekends), so indulge here before staggering to The Smith Center. After a few Barrymore belts, any performance will sound magnificent.
If you don’t feel like putting on the dog, just want a solid (but piquant) meal, head back toward downtown and pull in at Florida Café Cuban Bar & Grill (1401 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 385-3013, floridacafecuban.com). As might be expected, there are a plethora of Cuban sandwiches on offer — 10, to be precise — as well as pages of mouth-watering delicacies, although the highly praised Cuban beef hash appears to have been put out to pasture. Entrées start around $8 and top out at $20 for a big bowl of mariscada, teeming with mussels, scallops, clams, shrimp, calamari and more. Not only is the atmosphere casual, you’re served with alacrity, so you needn’t worry either about missing curtain time or being out of pocket.
For those whose affinities run more toward Cajun than Cuban, the obvious choice is Lola’s (241 W. Charleston Blvd., 227-5652, lolaslasvegas.com). However, this beguiling nook on the northern fringe of the Arts District is no longer the secret it used to be. Smith Center patrons swelled business by 30 percent, but then Guy Fieri featured Lola’s on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Now, says chef Lola “Beth” Pokorny, the DDD fandom is elbowing aside the Smith Center one. Again, consider reservations mandatory. Not only is service speedy, the staff will make you feel like family. You can choose from 10 iterations of poboy (including fried oyster), served on bread flown from the Big Easy. Crab cakes, especially spiced, are the ideal starter, perhaps en route to the catfish with grits or red beans and rice. To conclude, choose either the sweet potato-and-pecan pie or the bananas Foster bread pudding. Lola’s Saturday hours (noon-10 p.m.) are particularly amenable to the Saturday-matinée crowd.
Informal dining and an outstanding tapas menu with a Mediterranean orientation are just across the street at the Arts Factory. Slide into a booth at Bar + Bistro (107 W. Charleston Blvd., 202-6060, barbistroaf.com). The 11 a.m. opening time makes this perfect for relaxed, pre-matinée noshing, while the Friday-Saturday 11 p.m. closing means you stand a good chance of getting just under the wire after the curtain has fallen. Chef Beni Velasquez’s myriad dishes emphasize sustainable fishing practices (reflected in the Scottish salmon slider, for instance) as well as a cosmopolitan variety of ingredients, as in the alcapurrias (heavily garnished Kobe beef). Or perhaps long-stem artichoke hearts in curry are your fancy? The costillas, or little pork ribs, are commendable. For the truly hardcore, Velasquez deploys an extensive vegan-only menu, too. B+B’s repertoire of whiskeys and tequilas will make you reel just looking at it. One can simplify matters by trying one of several whiskey flights (three to a flight, $14-$18) and any evening ends well with the gin-based cucumber lime swizzle on the rocks.
After-hours dining isn’t downtown’s forte, although The Smith Center’s drawing power may change that for non-casino-based restaurants. Navigating the gauntlet of schlock shops and weekend-tourist mishegas of Glitter Gulch is insanity before a performance and only slightly less stressful after one. For ease of ingress and egress, as well as a broad choice of dining options, the Golden Nugget is the prohibitive favorite. Casino owner Tilman Fertitta made his fortune in eateries and has installed several of his signature brands at the Pépite d’Or. The seafood fare at Chart House (129 E. Fremont St., 386-8364, goldennugget.com) is absolutely standard and unsurprising, but the restaurant is open until midnight most days and till 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. The finny inhabitants of Chart House’s 75,000-gallon aquarium add an offbeat touch to the dining experience. If you want something lighter and can make it by 11 p.m., Red Sushi (goldennugget.com) has an endless menu of undersea critters for your delectation.
Those who don’t mind being kept up by spicy food could head to Fremont East for the wallet-friendly Le Thai (523 E. Fremont St., 702-778-0888, lethailasvegas.com). Arguably the hottest new dining spot in town, it keeps hours for night owls, open until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, and to midnight the rest of the week. Staples like pad Thai and ga pow can be had for less than $9 apiece, washed down with any of a septet of sakes.
But the place that really does after-hours dining right is so inconspicuous you’d easily miss it in the dark. If possible, it’s even more penumbral in the vestibule of Herbs & Rye (3713 W. Sahara Ave., 982-8036, herbsandrye.com), a fine-dining experience disguised as a grind joint. During happy hour (5-8 p.m.) and from midnight to closing, prices are halved on steaks and ribeyes, deliciously bathed in bleu cheese and fine sauces — as well as on selected appetizers (mussels and clams). Deals can also be had on well drinks, if not on the retro cocktails that are Herbs & Rye’s star attractions, such as “Remember the Maine” (rye, Italian vermouth, cherry brandy and absinthe). But they’re worth paying full freight. Bargains include a Bloody Mary ($5 during happy hour) that’s tart, tasty, garnished with a big, juicy olive and goes down fast. Given the laid-back service culture of Herbs & Rye, a pre-performance dinner could well be your undoing. But for unwinding after a show and savoring the art of mixology, it’s perfect.
Should you prefer to skip the meal and simply imbibe, both the Arts District and Fremont East offer several beguiling choices. One standout is Bar + Bistro neighbor Artifice (1025 First St. #A, 489-6339, artificebar.com), a lounge that doubles as a gallery: Every objet d’art on display is available for purchase. A 60-year-old warehouse has become a brick-and-knotty pine hangout for the artsy set. The designer-cocktail menu emphasizes “boutique wines” and is long on names like “Alice in Wonderland” and “Taming of the Shrew” (Hendrick’s Gin, plus cucumber and floral infusions). If it’s beer you seek, only a half-dozen are in stock at any one time. Artifice is not only a good jumping-off point for The Smith Center, it’s cheek-by-jowl with brand-new Art Square Theatre, lair of the durable Cockroach Theatre ensemble.
Local movers and shakers also get their cocktails stirred at Downtown Cocktail Room (111 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 300-6268, thedowntownlv.com), where the atmosphere is dark, intimate, almost secretive. The ingredients of some of the blends are as exotic as their names, like “Orthodox Caveman,” composed of Zucca, Cachaca and scotch. To get in touch with your inner Ernest Hemingway, try his eponymous daiquiri. (Isn’t that kind of a girly drink, Papa?) Or, to feel like a true artiste, sample one of the six absinthes kept in store … although we don’t recommend showing up at The Smith Center feeling as bawdy as Baudelaire.