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This year's dining issue of Desert Companion includes not only the 2022 Restaurant Awards, but also a special section called Street Eats, celebrating both fine dining and everyday eating out in Las Vegas.Read the digital edition

2022 Restaurant Awards

2022 Restaurant Awards 6-photo collage depicting wall art octopus steak mac and cheese mussels chefs
Sabin Orr
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Sabin Orr Photography

Last year, we introduced our annual restaurant awards with guarded optimism that the dining scene was (finally!) back to normal — or, at least, had found a new, possibly better-in-some-ways normal. And here we are. A year later, it still seems appropriate to note that, yep, the world has changed, food has changed, the way we live our lives, including eating out, has changed. So, this feature has, too. Practical matters, such as the labor shortage, led us to nix a couple categories. Hidden Gems got its own full section.

But the most significant change may be in the way our critics nominated and debated winners — the subtle shift in their thinking about what’s important. These awards have always been aspirational; we’re here to honor excellence and innovation. But emerging from our discussions was something else that matters more than it used to. Call it longevity, tradition, even warmth — the impulse to include a place not only because the food is superb, but also, the maître d’ remembers people’s name, asks about their kids.

Group hug, guys! And cheers to all the pioneers, past and future.

Sponsor Message

Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year (tie):  Khoury’s

The hallmark of a good neighborhood restaurant is that sense you get the moment you step through the door: You feel like you’re home. And there’s good reason for that here. The Khoury family has been cooking up authentic Lebanese cuisine from recipes passed down through generations and has been sharing it with the rest of us since 2006. (Previously located in the southwest, Khoury’s has been happily ensconced in the Village Square shopping center on Sahara for a few years.) All recipes are made from scratch in-house, from sauces to pickles to that piping hot-air balloon of a pita that arrives at your table accompanied with a za’atar and olive oil blend. Bring family and friends (of six or more) and dig into the Mediterranean Feast — mezza, salads and meat courses are served family style — or opt for a four-course meal for two on date night. No matter the size of your crew, like a good relative, Khoury’s welcomes all with open arms. GD

9340 W. Sahara Ave. #106, 702-671-0005, khouryslv.com

A Mediterranean sampler platter by Khoury's
Sabin Orr
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Sabin Orr Photography
Khoury's Mediterranean feast, served family-style

Sponsor Message

Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year (tie): Rosa Ristorante

There are money restaurants, and there are passion restaurants. Because of the hegemony of the Strip (and our franchise-friendly suburbs), Las Vegas is full of the former, while the latter are sometimes hard to find. Rob Moore, a Strip veteran who spent 18 years feeding well-heeled tourists at top-flight steakhouses (Prime and Jean-Georges), probably loves money as much as the next classically trained, über-talented chef, but these days he’s more interested in single-handedly challenging the notion that the words “great food” and “Henderson” don’t belong in the same sentence.

Rosa Ristorante is Moore’s passion project — a  sleek, modern space on a busy commercial stretch of St. Rose Parkway, serving, as Moore puts it, “the food I grew up with, cooked the way I like to eat it.” He’s the first to admit that his location is a bit “scary,” and mighty far from northern New Jersey, where he first took to cooking (at age 12). From the day he opened though, early this year, his cuisine has been a hit, featuring the usual suspects (pizzas, chicken parm, etcetera), and other East Coast Italian standards, tweaked and refined with superior groceries and technique. 

In this way, Moore brings a sparkle to a too-often cheapened cuisine, making it taste the way it is supposed to, while reminding you why it became famous in the first place. These are pizzas, pastas, and proteins made with feeling — and commitment to something other than the bottom line. One bite of his cheesy risotto fritters, crispy calamari, or rigatoni with sweet and hot sausages tells you right away you are no longer in franchise land. Moore is putting his food where his neighbors are — a place starved for authenticity — and in doing so gives us high hopes for Henderson’s gastronomic future. JC

3145 St. Rose Pkwy. #120, 702-478-9200, rosaristorante.com

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Other dining from this issue

Asian Restaurant of the Year: Trattoria Nakamura-Ya

Vegas’ diverse Asian dining scene has been buoyed for the last decade (and beyond) by one of the best Japanese food cultures outside of Nippon itself. Its diversity ranges from the ubiquitous — think sushi and ramen — to the more obscure, such as tonkatsu and curry. But possibly the most remarkable Las Vegas Asian cuisine is the wafuu pasta served at Trattoria Nakamura-Ya.

Wafuu pasta — Tokyo-style pasta — originated in Japan after World War II, melding Italian preparations with common Japanese ingredients. And Kengo Nakamura cooked in some of Tokyo’s best Italian restaurants before bringing his skills to the States, eventually opening his namesake restaurant, where he delivers dishes that are familiar … yet different.

That means multiple spaghetti preparations: clam-laden and swimming in dashi dotted with shiso, or delivered in a carbonara endowed with the funkiness of miso. It means bruschetta layered with seafaring ingredients such as mentaiko (spicy cod roe), octopus and anchovies, or mussels served escargot-style with sweet miso and even more mentaiko. And in one of the menu’s most memorable dishes, it means tomato cream sauce linguini laced with uni — sea urchin gonads — delivering sweetness and brininess.

Nakamura-Ya has longevity, holding a place in Chinatown’s Seoul Plaza for more than 10 years. Because it’s unique, it tends to fly under the radar, unlike its flashier brethren. There are very few restaurants of Nakamura-Ya’s ilk outside of Japan, and because of this scarcity, Las Vegas diners should know just how lucky we are to have it.

With the recognition of Trattoria Nakamura-Ya, it’s important to acknowledge the man who was instrumental in establishing Vegas’ Japanese culinary scene: restaurant stylist Martin Koleff. Working with Japanese chefs from a variety of backgrounds to establish roots in Vegas, Koleff was at the forefront of our Japanese revolution. And while Martin-san unexpectedly died earlier this year, his legacy lives on in Trattoria Nakamura-Ya and numerous other noteworthy Japanese restaurants across the Valley. JB

5040 W. Spring Mountain Rd. #5, 702-251-0022, nakamurayalv.com

Restaurateur of the Year: John Arena 

John Arena has been called the Yoda of pizza, but he figures he’s more of a Forrest Gump — someone who “managed to be in the room when something happened.”

John Arena, Restaurateur of the Year
Sabin Orr
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Sabin Orr Photography
John Arena, co-owner and -founder of Metro Pizza

The introspective co-owner and -founder of five Metro Pizzas may have been blessed with good timing. But it didn’t hurt that five decades in the industry and a deep well of patience formed a uniquely effective teacher of all things pizza, his wisdom shared with students at UNLV and throughout the world. 

Fresh out of college, Arena and his cousin and business partner, Sam Facchini, left their family of proud New York pizzaiolas for Las Vegas in 1980, as the city was passing out of the mob era and into one of unprecedented growth. They were here when the International Pizza Expo was born in 1985, and their avid participation would eventually bring the world to their doorstep.

And it would be here, in a city of transplants — bolstered by research forays into pizza communities everywhere — that he would learn how universal pizza is, despite what those Brooklyn roots told him.

“Las Vegas was an eye-opener for us,” Arena says. The first customers — regulars today — of their Original New York Pizza hailed from Detroit and Philadelphia. Soon the partners stopped seeing the world like the old New Yorker cartoon, as a wasteland beyond the Hudson River. This increased awareness led to the inevitable evolution of Original New York into Metro and Arena’s welcoming attitude toward competitors.

“If I’ve had any influence at all, it’s been in fellowship,” says the habitually humble Arena. “You can either circle the wagons, or you can open the circle and let everybody in.” This cosmopolitan outlook is reflected in Metro’s menu, where pizzas like the cheese-indulgent Olde New York are joined by The South Side, The Memphis, and The Honolulu.

Now he and business partner (and longtime protegé) Chris Decker are branching out to Dana Point, California, where they’re developing Truly, “a true expression of who we are as pizza-makers.” This despite an ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease, which Arena sees as “my chance to help someone else, to serve as an example by continuing to keep going with my career.”

That perspective keeps growing. “Now we’re in a renaissance,” Arena said. “Michelin-starred chefs are starting to take pizza seriously — high-end chefs who say they don’t want to go back to fine dining.” HKR 

Hall of Fame (tie): Piero’s Italian Cuisine

There was a time when Italian restaurants, packed with notorious Italians, ruled the roost in Las Vegas. When you would pop into The Vineyard, The Venetian (the restaurant on West Sahara, not the hotel), or Chateau Vegas and see guys with nicknames, such as Big Tuna or Tony the Ant, pounding Jack Daniel’s as they planned their next big score or discussed how to dodge an FBI wiretap. Most of those restaurants (and the the goodfellows who frequented them) now sleep with the fishes, but Piero’s has endured as a bastion of days gone by — a throwback dishing up nostalgia and old-school Italian-American fare — where the only thing you have to worry about over dinner is whether your capo di tutti capi has sold you down the river.

These days, instead of running into Sammy the Bull, you’re more likely to find yourself commiserating at the bar with a Brad, Tyler, or Chip, and the only thing you’re likely to be garroted by is a stray lanyard. Still, Piero’s fairly crackles with an electricity you rarely find in more sedate Italian restaurants. Ginormous martinis, pasta fagioli zuppa, textbook perfect linguine with clams, and an osso buco that sets the standard, round out a menu full of comfort food classics — all served with a big dose of Vegas history by the Glusmans (first dad Freddie, now son Evan), who brought their own brand of buon gusto to town in 1982, and who know their clientele like a loan shark knows percentages. The mobsters may be gone, but being a stone’s throw from the Las Vegas Convention Center means Piero’s is always packed — with expense-account types rubbing elbows with a cadre of locals who wouldn’t change a thing about the joint. Every celebrity who ever got a whiff of Vegas has stopped in for some “Sunday Gravy” or rib-sticking pasta, and everyone from Bill Clinton to Mike Tyson to Robert De Niro (in the movie Casino no less ) has claimed a booth here at one time or another. How much more Vegas can you get? JC

355 Convention Center Dr., 702-369-2305, pieroscuisine.com

Hall of Fame (tie):  Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge

Maserati Omelet from Peppermill
Sabin Orr
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Sabin Orr Photography
Peppermill's Maserati Omelet

If you’ve ever had one of those late nights on the Strip (maybe friends are in town, or a bout of insomnia has got hold of you), and you’re craving a nocturnal breakfast with a side of Vegas history, there’s only one destination that fits the bill: Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge. The 24-hour joint, which debuted in 1972, is the story of our town writ large (in neon, natch, but also on the big screen, in movies such as Showgirls and Casino). As it celebrates its half-century birthday, the Peppermill is showing the rest of us how something gets better with age. And in a town that likes to give its facades a makeover once they get a little long in the tooth, it’s refreshing to see one of the only freestanding buildings on the Boulevard rightfully claim its vintage status, while also evoking that ultramodern lounge vibe. Far from an epitaph, this award is our official statement of hope that the Peppermill will be here forever, because there’s nowhere we’d rather two-fist a 64-ounce Scorpion as we wait for night to turn into day. GD

2985 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-735-4177, peppermilllasvegas.com

Rising Star of the Year: Eric Prato

Eric Prato, owner of Garagiste
Sabin Orr
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Sabin Orr Photography
Eric Prato, owner of Garagiste

Eric Prato chuckles about it now, but two years ago, it was no joke. “No one told us about COVID; a pandemic wasn’t in the business plan,” he grins through gritted teeth when asked about the challenges of opening Garagiste, a boutique wine bar, in the heart of the Arts District.

If timing is everything in wine, then Prato’s couldn’t have been worse. After taking two years to convince authorities that a by-the-glass bar with off-premise retail sales was a viable idea, he poured his first obscure Tempranillo on November 1, 2019, only to be shuttered four months later. The shutdowns of 2020-2021 may have been a blessing in disguise, though, because faster than you can say “pent-up demand,” Prato’s lifelong dream (hatched years ago when he was a sommelier at Bouchon) has born more fruit than sauvignon blanc in September.

What seemed like a bold experiment in 2019 now looks like a sure thing. Oenophiles from all over the Vegas Valley come to sample wines they can’t find anywhere else — biodynamic, organic, orange, natural — mostly from producers you don’t know made from grapes you’ve never heard of. Prato’s mission is educating customers to try something new, and if the steady stream of younger, adventuresome wine lovers at the bar is any indication (along with his burgeoning online sales), he is succeeding by tapping into (or helping create) a market no one in Las Vegas knew existed.

Had it with Cali cabs? Why not a Priorat? Tired of overpriced chardonnay? Then he has a Vinho Verde in the wings. Garagiste isn’t just a wine store; it is a local wine phenomenon, and Prato is leading us into a new century of wine appreciation. JC

Chef of the Year: Nicole Brisson 

Nicole Brisson of Brezza
Sabin Orr
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Sabin Orr Photography
Nicole Brisson, executive chef and co-owner of Brezza

Culinarians have a particularly mobile trade, but chef Nicole Brisson really has done it all. The upstate New York native went to Italy for work and training not long after graduating from Johnson & Wales University. After a brief foray into Southern California, she moved to the valley in 2005. Two years later she crossed the street to Las Vegas’ answer to Italy, The Venetian. She stayed there for eight years with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s B&B Hospitality Group, eventually rising to executive chef, head of the dry-aging program, and culinary director for the group’s Las Vegas location. 

Following more educational and trade-related trips to Italy, Brisson’s next move was to Eataly at Park MGM, where she oversaw 500 employees as the company’s only female executive chef in the country. A year later she ventured off the Strip to open Locale, a neighborhood Italian restaurant. Her newest projects, with business partner Jason Rocheleau: a return to the Strip with Brezza and Bar Zazu at Resorts World. 

You might notice an Italian thread, which has nothing to do with her heritage. “I always wondered what my career would be like if I didn’t go to Italy” that first time, Brisson says. “Those trips fueled my love for Italian cuisine even more and built strong ties within the Italian culinary community.” HKR

Strip Restaurant of the Year: Brezza

Brezza is the Italian word for “breeze” — an apt name, as executive chef Nicole Brisson and business partner Jason Rocheleau have imbued their Resorts World restaurant with a freshness that seems to drift from the Amalfi Coast.

As has long been Brisson’s way, much of her inspiration lies in her dedication to sustainability and seasonality. But Brezza, which opened in the summer of 2021, is also a product of her love affair with Italy and her gratitude for mentors that represent The Boot.

These influences are reflected in such dishes as heirloom tomato salad with tomato gelée, inspired by Fabio Picchi of Florence, Italy; Tuscan carne cruda, inspired by internationally famous butcher Dario Cecchini of Tuscany; and the restaurant’s aged-meat program, inspired by Cecchini and Mario Batali. Those steaks are finished with white oak and charcoal — and olive branches, in a nod to the Stardust-era trees that surround the restaurant’s patio.

After years spent working for others, Brisson was excited to see her name in lights and appreciates the autonomy the partners were granted for Brezza.

“It’s giving me the ability,” she says, “to be the chef I want to be.” HKR

3000 S. Las Vegas Blvd. #115, 702-676-6014, brezzaitalian.com

New Restaurant of the Year: Scotch 80 Prime

Rarely are sequels as good as the original. The Godfather: Part II, Aliens, and Evil Dead II come to mind. And now we have Scotch 80 Prime.

Similar in name and space alone, the venue reopened earlier this year as a part of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians’ reintroduction of the Palms — the tribe’s first Vegas resort. Originally opened under chef Barry Dakake as a part of Station Casino’s lavish revitalization, the venue closed with the property less than two years later, following the onset of COVID.

At the helm now is chef de cuisine Marty Red DeLeon Lopez, a Vegas veteran who previously served as the executive chef of Aria’s Herringbone, among other Strip positions. Scotch 80 marks Lopez’s return to the Palms — he previously worked upstairs at Alizé in the current Vetri space — but now it’s his opportunity to showcase his abilities. And it’s his attention to detail that sets him apart.

As steakhouses are a Vegas casino staple, it can be difficult to differentiate one from another. But Lopez manages do so in the details. He highlights his heritage in his tiradito with the inclusion of traditional Filipino ingredients such as jackfruit, pickled papaya, and taro chips. His kitchen takes risks with burrata topped with uni and Osetra caviar, pairing seafood with cheese, and the sweet sea urchin assuming a role normally reserved for fruit. 

He offers A5 Wagyu from a half-dozen prefectures throughout Japan, even allowing diners to order wagyu flights in the ultimate form of decadence. And even more indulgent is his butter wagyu — loin wet-aged in butter for up to nine months. As if wagyu weren’t already buttery enough, the aging process imparts even more fattiness. It is an epiphany and one of the single most memorable bites in town. 

Like a good sequel, Scotch 80 Prime builds upon the original and continues a story. It will be a thrill to see how the story continues, as Lopez and his team develop the restaurant further. JB

4321 W. Flamingo Rd., 866-942-7780, palms.com/dining

Restaurant of the Year: Anima by EDO

Some restaurateurs just get it, succeeding regardless of the circumstances in a difficult industry. In Vegas, Roberto Liendo and Oscar Amador are among that group. And their latest venture, Anima by EDO, is our Restaurant of the Year.

The duo first partnered on the Boqueria Street food truck before opening their acclaimed EDO Gastro Tapas & Wine, which tied with Ester’s Kitchen and Partage for our 2018 Restaurant of the Year, on the outskirts of Chinatown. And now, they have their second brick-and-mortar at The Gramercy Las Vegas, offering a meld of Italian and Spanish cuisine — fitting since anima is both Italian and Spanish for “soul” — while still dabbling in the amorphous, where Amador excels, seamlessly intertwining aspects of cuisines from even Japan, India, and France.

Anima was thrown a curve when their Italian opening chef departed earlier this year, forcing the Spaniard Amador to take over day-to-day kitchen operations. A testament to his talent: The restaurant didn’t miss a beat; in fact, with the larger venue, Amador has more creative freedom with daily specials than at the matchbox-sized EDO. 

Very few of the dishes are solely Italian or Spanish, instead drawing from each and even other cuisines. Earthy, umami-laden truffle cavatelli, finished tableside with bone marrow, is strewn with salchichón, a Spanish summer sausage, while Roman cacio e pepe is stuffed inside the tapas menu-staple croquetas, and eggplant parmigiana is showcased in a manner befitting Spanish molecular gastronomy. The infamous bikini sandwiches — one of a few interlopers from EDO’s menu — are basically Spanish, while the playful tasting menu fixture of Kaluga caviar and eggs is an amalgam of Japan, Russia, and Greece.

All of this while front-of-house operates with clocklike precision under Strip-veteran Liendo’s watch. Particularly gleeful is sommelier Paolo Uccellatori, keeping you socially lubricated with an expansive wine selection heavy in both Italian and Spanish selections, along with what is likely Vegas’ most expansive amari selection.

EDO hinted at Amador’s chameleon-like cuisine with a menu dotted with Asian dishes paying homage to the Chinatown area. Anima is where he gets to capitalize on his adoration of world cuisine, branching out across the globe. And the Valley is better for it with a restaurant befitting the Strip. JB

9205 W. Russell Rd. #185, 702-202-4291, animabyedo.com