I won’t go so far as to say I was disappointed by the lack of any physical confrontation, but I wouldn’t have necessarily interceded if Debbie had punched Al in the mohawk. Or maybe if Al had gotten Brock in an incapacitating arm-bar worthy of a UFC bout. Or maybe if Brock had delivered a surgical shin-kick to Debbie under the table. Perhaps it was because their print personae — honest, fiercely opinionated and, of course, always right — are so pronounced that I expected them to, you know, just totally go at it.
However, count it as a credit to their professional restraint that dining critics Debbie Lee, Al Mancini and Brock Radke remained polite and well-mannered throughout our recent critics’ huddle over pizza and calamari. (They even seemed to — gasp — like each other.) For our annual Restaurant Awards issue, I brought them together to discuss the year in dining — the highs and lows, the coming trends, the fads we’re over — and to peek at the menu for 2014. I won’t steal the sizzle of their wide-ranging conversation, “Deep dish” (p. 64), but ready your fork and knife for something lively, unfailingly honest and frequently provocative.
Their opinions vary wildly, but there’s one dominant flavor in the conversation, one that has come to define the dining scene for several years now: casualization. This is more than a blip on the radar. Rather, it’s looking more like a tectonic shift as we continue to adjust to whatever this “new normal” is that everyone is flapping their hands about. But don’t take that to mean Vegas is getting lazy. As we point out in “Party in the back” (p. 42), at its best, the Vegas take on casual fare embodies a playful and innovative spirit that goes well beyond mere remixes of sliders and tater tots. Even ex-Strip chefs with an appetite for adventure are migrating to our neighborhoods with their spin on more approachable fare. In some cases, they’re even overhauling the stereotypical grease bombs on the bar food menu, giving rise to a sort of gourmet populism.
What’s at stake? Perhaps more than we think. If we keep in mind Vegas’ long pivot from selling chance to selling experiences — that magic combo of dining, drinking and dancing gone 3.0 — we’re reminded that our global rep is riding on this shift. We’re clearly doubling down on it. As we note in our critics’ round table, for better or worse, even the leisurely four-hour tasting menu experience seems to have been put on fast-forward.
And then there’s the main course, our 17th annual Restaurant Awards (p. 51). A Nevada Public Radio tradition started on the air in the 1990s, the awards represent our critics’ highest (and hard-earned) esteem for the year’s best places and personalities in Vegas dining and drinking. While casual may be the buzzword in culinary circles these days, that hardly means anybody is slumming. You’ll find that precision and passion are in equal abundance as our city’s top culinary talent continues to deliver not just dishes, but experiences worthy of second and third helpings. Congratulations to all the winners.