This Restaurant Reinvented the McGriddle
Farm-to-table Italian in the Downtown Arts DistrictBetween house-made pasta and fresh-baked bread, Esther's Kitchen is making gluten fun again. The restaurant opened in the Downtown Arts District right after the new year, built buzz quickly, and hasn't slowed down -- even if the air conditioning didn't always work. The menu changes frequently, based on seasonal ingredients from local farmers' markets and the ambitious nature of Chef James Trees, who makes a point to keep prices far lower than what he can get away with. Good example: Every glass on the regular wine menu is just $5. But can one man do too much in a year? Trees is about to open a second restaurant at Tivoli Village and is taking over a concession stand on the 108th floor of the Stratosphere. Screw it. Life is good when you don't have a casino executive committee telling you what to do.
Small bites featuring a bold, international blend of flavors
Here's the cool thing about Chinatown in Las Vegas -- you can do whatever you want. No need to stick to the script for what's typically expected in a district of Asian cuisine and culture. A good example is Khai Vu. After opening District One and Le Pho, the Vietnamese chef continues to mix things up with Mordeo, a wine bar with cuisine inspired from all corners of the globe. Fresh sliced Iberico is served alongside dishes made with Hawaiian salmon, Maine lobster, and whatever the kitchen has in mind on any given day. Ask about the red wattle pig, served on a puffy rice cloud, or the ever-changing steak and whole fish specials. At the the center of it all is a massive bartop with 30-plus seats. It's a great place to hang out and truly be spontaneous about what you order for dinner.
Uncommon pizza craftsmanship brings an East Coast edge to Downtown
For Vincent Rotolo, it's all about the crust. The pizzaiolo puts an artisanal level of craftsmanship into every pie that comes out of his Pawn Plaza kitchen. The hands-on approach takes temperature, humidity, and other variables into account when turning Italian flour into the perfect pizza dough -- fermented in tin pans before being baked in the oven. The pies are finished off with New York mozzarella and local produce from Urban Seed. You get three choices: traditional Brooklyn, square-shaped Detroit, and East Coast cracker-thin with sauce drizzled on top of the cheese. But why choose? Order one of each.
Vibrant dishes stem from a combination of Latin and Asian flavors
Great restaurant. Bad location. Once is a beautiful space that's too often out-of-sight, out-of-mind in a quiet area of the Grand Canal Shoppes. It's not cheap, but the combination of Asian and South American flavors by Ricardo Zarate is one of the most satisfying ways to stretch a dollar for dinner. The oxtail bibimbap, Peruvian pork ribs, and miso sea bass are especially wicked. The cocktails kick ass, too. So, pull up a seat at the bar and impress the staff by already knowing how to pronounce the name of the restaurant. (Study guide: It's "on-seh.")
Library setting is a posh background for big plates and a cocktail cart
Just when we thought there were too many hotels-inside-hotels in Las Vegas, NoMad comes along to give the Park MGM a much-needed luxury element. But instead of going bold and modern, the brand leans more toward vintage character. The style is reflected in NoMad Restaurant, where the dining room feels more like a lavish living room with two levels of bookshelves wrapping around the walls. (You're welcome to start flipping through one if your date is busy snapping photos of the Fruits de Mer.) Other camera-friendly dishes include the signature roast chicken and a consomme simmering under a mushroom cloud of pastry -- both smothered with foie gras and black truffles. While most restaurants keep their bars near the front door, NoMad has theirs in the middle of the dining room; an interesting choice that adds some energy to the Wayne Manor vibe of the place.
Photogenic restaurant where steaks and seafood are best shared
If you walk through the door with a scowl on your face, you're probably not going to have a good time. Catch is designed for happy people who want to sit around a table, socialize, and share plates large and small. And if that bachelorette party can't stop taking selfies, who are we to judge? Of course, Catch would be easier to hate if the food sucked, but you can't argue with the fresh truffle sashimi, filet skewers, and whole branzino stuffed with fresh greens and vegetables. Yes, the prices could be lower, the two-tops are too close together, and the check-in stand carries a level of warmth more suited for stamping the inside of a wrist. But this is Las Vegas, where restaurants are attractions. So lift your head up high, paint a fucking smile on your face, and walk through the long floral tunnel entrance while waving your camera phone around. You're about to eat at Catch: the best restaurant in Las Vegas to enjoy on someone else's dime.
Prime burgers butchered in house with a addictive wings, and a deep beer lineup
The next time someone asks, "Where can I get a good burger on the Strip?," tell them, "Not sure, but BBD's is almost on the Strip, and it's awesome." The name covers the big picture -- beer, burgers, and desserts -- but the real story is how it's all put together. Top example: the in-house butcher shop visible from the dining room that processes prime ground beef from steer shared with a major New York steakhouse. Chances are good your meat was butchered the same day you ate it. Burgers come woodfire-grilled, griddled, or steamed. Wings come soaked in their own delicious chicken fat, and the beer selection is far more interesting than it needs to be. A lot of effort was spent tracking down craft brews you won't find anywhere else in Vegas.
Upscale Italian dining with rustic dining room and awesome, awesome views
A lot of chefs have a bucket list that includes "open a restaurant in Vegas" -- and the latest example is Marc Vetri of Philadelphia. In a year stacked with new Italian restaurants, Vetri Cucina has found a few ways to stand out from the pack. First with killer Strip views from the 56th floor of the Palms. Next with a menu that takes inspiration from Northern italian regions. Not a lot of red sauce here. And no Neapolitan pizzas. Fresh handmade pastas steal the show, along with simple crisp salads. Don't feel guilty about ordering a roasted baby goat for your main course -- I'm sure the little guy was a cutie before winding up here -- but the mesquite-grilled seafood plate has everything you want and more.
Off the Strip
We found the best chicken sandwich in Vegas, thanks Shaq
Everything is branding in Las Vegas, so this new concept by Shaquille O'Neal could've skated by on celebrity-factor alone. But Shaq likes to eat. So, he got Vegas chefs Matthew Silverman and Matthew Piekarski to reinvent what's possible with a chicken sandwich while crisscrossing the country for the best possible ingredients. The signature sandwich, made with an all-natural Wayne Farms chicken breast with a delicate 20-ingredient breading, may be the most satisfying bite of white meat you'll have all year. Big Chicken makes a point to keep prices reasonable and portions at hefty Shaq-size levels. Add in a long, flat cut of french fry that nobody else is doing, mac n' cheese topped with Cheez-It dust, and banana pudding ice cream sandwiches, and you've just found the best place in Vegas to spend your lunch break.
Palms reinvents its steakhouse with vintage inspiration and a modern touch
It was important for Scotch 80 Prime to come out of the gate strong. Named after a classic Old Vegas neighborhood, the steakhouse was the first fine dining restaurant to be revealed as part of the Palms' multimillion dollar renovation. The results scream "Las Vegas" -- mixing modern style with vintage character and a few of those tableside presentations that everybody seems to love. (Everything's better when it's #interactive). You also have kobe beef that's actually certified and $3 million worth of Scotch. Don't say you weren't given options.
Breakfast, lunch, and brunch with sweeping views from Henderson
Do you believe in bad luck? The former home to Standard & Pour and Firefly appeared to be a cursed space, despite its second-level valley views and busy location near affluent areas of Henderson. However, the Stove has now moved in and is putting those bad vibes to rest. The joint venture between Scott Commings and Antonio Nunez serves a daily breakfast and lunch menu that has the right combination of familiar favorites, clever mashups, and seasonal selections -- all done with a focus on fresh ingredients and expert preparation. Want formal tea service in the Twisted Tea Room? Or pancakes that look like a birthday cake? Or tableside Bananas Foster for breakfast? The choice is yours. A s'mores-style "Christmas Graham" pancake was introduced for December, which complements your holiday list of things to do quite nicely.
Red Rock Resort
Chef Scott Conant puts a woodfired oven to good use in Summerlin
It was a good year for Italian restaurants in Las Vegas. If Vetri Cucina was the best in casino fine dining, and Esther's Kitchen was the best in neighborhood dining, then Masso Osteria falls somewhere between the two. Scott Conant's latest Vegas venture has a home at the Red Rock Resort, but already feels like a neighborhood favorite, especially to the older Summerlin crowd looking for a place to call their own. The menu makes the most of its woodfired oven and casts a wide net with a variety of price points. The daily social hour, 5-7pm, is a particularly good way to save a few bucks while sampling fun bites. A new brunch was recently introduced, in which a main dish is included with buffet-style stations around the dining room. Come hungry.
Quaint and character-rich cafe serves breakfast all day
Sonia El-Nawal likes breakfast so much, she's now serving it all day. The chef took her experience in private catering and working in restaurants throughout the world, and opened her own vision by the water at Desert Shores. Pretty much everything at Rooster Boy Cafe is made in-house, from bread and pastries to killer, flakey galettes. The chef's own line of granola can be used in a breakfast bowl or taken to go. And if you want to spice up your life, shove a spoonful of the shredded chicken chilaquiles in your mouth. The restaurant is so cozy and intimate, it probably didn't anticipate all the buzz and attention it's getting. Fair warning: Seating is tight. Most of it's on the patio, where heat lamps will do their best to keep folks warm during the winter months.
A journey to Spain via the west Las Vegas Valley
There's a lot of places serving up "tapas" out there. For some, it's an excuse to charge higher prices for smaller portions. But for Pamplona, it's a totally different ballgame (eh, bull run). The restaurant is on a mission to present the most authentic Spanish cuisine in Las Vegas. People who appreciate this kind of stuff will notice the small touches, like the pan cristal -- a chewy bread that serves as the base for some of the appetizers -- and six paellas, including a true Valenciana version with rabbit and quail. Occasional dancing and DJs keep the atmosphere upbeat. That's cool, but you're really here for the food.
Remote and rustic escape with fresh air and fresh pizzas
The story behind Cottonwood Station is nearly as good as the food. Despite resistance from some of the longtime local residents, it became the first-ever restaurant in the historic, isolated mining community of Blue Diamond. The couple behind the venture succeeded by going about things the right way, building the restaurant from the ground up with reclaimed materials -- and adding a photo gallery -- that reflected the history of the neighborhood. No flashy exterior or noisy music. There's charm to spare, not just in the setting but in the menu, which serves fresh pizzas and pastries alongside beer, wine, and coffee. (The latter especially valuable to the early morning bikers and hikers visiting nearby Red Rock Canyon.) So bring your dog, grab a seat by the outdoor firepit, and breathe in the fresh elevation. Cottonwood Station is a welcome quick and easy escape from the congestion of metropolitan Vegas.