Look back. Think hard. What did you eat in 2019? As another year comes to an end, it's time to put the Las Vegas dining scene into perspective. Most noticeably, Italian fatigue seems to be setting in. There are a lot of new restaurants eager to serve pasta and in a post-Esther's Kitchen era, recent openings like Locale and Ambra don't seem to be getting quite the buzz they deserve. But that's okay. There's nothing wrong with putting a reservation down in your Google calendar for 2020. Meanwhile, Strip openings are still exciting events, although two of the splashiest -- Mott 32 and Best Friend -- actually opened in December of last year.
Ultimately, 2019 might be best remembered for the authentic, ingredient-driven food that emerged in ultra-casual settings. Graffiti Bao and Valencian Gold are proof that great global cuisine can come from a service counter while Ada's and La Monja brought carefully crafted flavor combinations to low-fuss dining rooms and patios. Overall, it was a good year for Vegas dining, and our favorite new restaurants each found a way to make an impression on their own terms.
Downtown Coastal Mexican cuisine with an energetic patio and outdoor grill When it comes to Downtown dining, it's hard to find something so good in such a quick and easy package. La Monja is one of two new restaurants by Dan Krohmer of Other Mama at Downtown Fergusons, an old motel that's been revamped into an event and business space. La Monja is hard to ignore, thanks to the energy of the street-side patio and an outdoor grill that you can smell a block away.
Meats are cooked over Mexican oak and citruswood, making tacos and other south-of-the-border dishes especially fresh and flavorful. Seafood is prominent, cheese is minimal, and ingredients are frequently sourced by small-batch producers. Mexican spirits like tequila, mezcal, and even whiskey are featured prominently at the cocktail bar that separates the main dining room from the outdoor seating. La Monja isn't the kind of place that usually requires a reservation, but it may be your first choice for a cocktail and tostado while wandering around Fremont Street. Stop by for a minute and stay for a couple hours.
West Valley Wolf down some pizza with a shot of gin and a scoop of ice cream After scoring big with Esther's Kitchen in the Downtown Arts District, James Trees moved to the other side of town with Ada’s at Tivoli Village. There's some crossover on the menu -- especially with pasta and the addictive fresh-baked bread -- but the focus at Ada's is on three things: pizza, ice cream, and gin (a combination that should dominate the food pyramid).
Begin with a cocktail from the gin cart and finish with a scoop of house-made ice cream, featuring flavors that frequently change based on seasonal ingredients. But the pizzas are the main event, with a chunky, funky crust that's high in good stuff like olive oil and salt. If Trees wasn't busy enough, he also opened 108 Eats at The Start observation deck, a quick-service sandwich and dessert counter that gives Strip tourists a quick taste of what the chef is all about.
West Valley Fresh, vibrant Italian in a dining room with split personalities La Strega already feels so entrenched as a Summerlin-area locals' favorite, it's almost hard to believe it only opened this year. The restaurant immediately earns points on style, allowing guests to eat in one of two dining rooms -- either bright and energetic or dark and quiet. The mixture of moods complements the menu, which offers dishes covering the disparie regions of Italian cuisine.
Fond touches from Chef Gina Marinelli include honey baked into the pizza crust, preserved lemon in the linguini and clams, or earthy dandelion pesto in the bucatini. Each bite is crisp and vibrant without heavy sauces getting in the way. La Strega is Italian for "the witch" and there's a wickedly feminine touch to the decor, as well as the cocktails on the drink menu. The place is so stellar that this is our pick for one of the best new restaurants in the country.
Chinatown A variety of Thai dishes with a compelling yet affordable wine list It was tough to say goodbye to Chada Thai and Chada Street, but Bank Atcharawan is back with Lamaii, a new restaurant serving a modern take on Thai cuisine. Yeah, you can get Pad Thai and an eat-it-all crab fried rice, but there is greater charm in more delicately plated dishes like a filet mignon tartare with lime, microgreens, and Isaan spices. For something heavier, round out the meal with fried prawn panang with curry or drunken noodles with crispy duck.
The dining room is intimate and more sophisticated than what you'll typically find in Chinatown, while the affordable wine list is loaded with unexpected labels that lean heavy on whites. It's a great date spot, but if you just want to sample just a few things, an overachieving happy hour runs daily 2-5pm and Friday-Sunday from 12-1:30am.
MGM Grand Pastas, steaks, and a speakeasy elevate Italian dining on the Strip At first glance, Ambra might seem like just another Italian restaurant at a big hotel on the Strip, but there's more going on than you might expect. Since opening, Vic Casanova was promoted to executive chef, and he chooses his ingredients carefully, from bright orange California egg yolks to agrumato olive oil pressed with tangerine skins. Cavatelli -- rolled, shaped, and cut by hand -- arrives in a flavorful mix of kale and sausage while the ravioli is a bright combination of citrus, ricotta, and sweet herbs.
The steaks are the secret weapon, marinated in a hot herb butter bath for hours before being finished on the grill. The process breaks down the collagen and gives a more consistent color throughout the center. Even the chicken Parm is made with organic cuts marinated for 36 hours for a salinity to cut the fat. In the back corner of the restaurant is Privata, a secluded speakeasy. The cocktails are based on classic recipes and are perfect before or after a full meal in the main dining room.
Chinatown An artful Japanese presentation of seafood with extravagant tasting courses If I lived in the new Green Leaf Lotus apartment complex in Chinatown, I'd be tempted to eat at Kame every day. The man behind the operation, Chef Eric Kim, made an impression on us years ago with Yummy Grill & Sushi, a small strip mall restaurant, while quietly building a reputation for next-level omakase. His new Chinatown edition may be a perfect restaurant. Kim has built an impressive team that covers every corner of the Japanese dining experience, including things other Asain restaurants often treat as an afterthought (i.e. cocktails and desserts).
You can choose your experience, from casual bites at a sushi bar to high-dollar special-occasion tasting menus. Omakase is prepared for small groups during two-nightly seatings inside a private dining room, featuring courses-within-courses, including sushi sliced thin and rolled on the spot. Even more indulgent -- and expensive -- is the kaiseki menu. You'll see some crossover in dishes, including a fantastic lobster sashimi served on top of its shell with oysters and caviar, or the appearance of Hokkaido A5 beef (with the certification proudly presented). Go big or go small. You can't go wrong.
Park MGM Roy Choi's LA street food finds a new home in a playful space Most restaurants at Strip hotels feel like part of a checklist -- steakhouse, Italian, French, Japanese, etc. -- but Best Friend is a welcome change of pace. Roy Choi's concept doesn't take itself too seriously, but still feels like an event and an experience. Don't get caught off guard by the liquor store design of the front-entrance bar. You're supposed to loosen up here, even if it's sometimes hard to have a conversation over the DJ in the main dining room.
Choi, who made his name with a food truck in LA, applies Koreatown inspiration to almost everything on the menu -- banchan, BBQ prawns, savory hot pots, and of course, his signature short rib tacos. Heat and spice are almost everywhere, but the flavors still go down easy. As the name of the place suggests, the idea is to kick back with your buds and leave full and happy.
Downtown New adventures in robata dining inside a vintage motel Dan Krohmer makes our list a second time with Hatsumi, which preceded La Monja at Downtown Fergusons. Renovated from old motel rooms, the restaurant is all about Asian flavors, most notably with a robata grill, where charcoal burns at high temperatures to minimize smoke and trap in the juices and natural flavors of the ingredients. Every part of the chicken is fair game -- breast, thigh, wing, heart, liver, skin, or even a meatball buried in cured egg yolk. Stick with familiar stuff like shrimp and eggplant or live it up with beef tongue and veal sweetbreads.
While the skewers are the main attraction, half the fun is working your way up to them with a variety of Japanese-inspired appetizers. The shrimp okonomiyaki is served on a fluffy pancake while the seared beef tataki mixes well with crisp arugula and the salty rayu crunch of fried garlic and shallots. Overall, an incredibly satisfying and complete meal that won't leave you feeling overstuffed -- and won't break the bank.
Henderson A sports bar with an elevated menu helps redefine downtown Henderson The new arch on Water Street says it all. Downtown Henderson is primed for a comeback and the addition of Hardway 8 is speeding things up. The sports bar -- operated by the same team behind Starboard Tack east of the Strip -- is heavy on local pride. The name is borrowed from a UNLV basketball team that made the Final Four in 1977 and the bar tops are built from bleachers used at the old Las Vegas Convention Center arena. There's even a mural on the wall dedicated to Sin City's history as a destination for jai alai.
While the concrete bricks almost make the place feel like a high school gym, Hardway 8 is actually warm and inviting. Shoot hoops, play Skee-Ball, or just hang out and listen to live music. Regardless, you're going to wolf down some of the best bar food in town, thanks to a menu designed by consulting chef Johnny Church. Standouts include fish and chips made from North Atlantic haddock with just a light coating of batter, and a cottage pie stuffed with wine-braised short rib. If cocktails and privacy are more your thing, grab a seat at the speakeasy-ish "trophy bar" in the corner.
Palms Michael Symon hides an upscale supper club inside a BBQ joint Michael Symon delivered a two-in-one deal as part of the Palms' recent culinary revamp. Mabel's is pretty awesome all by itself. BBQ favorites are served in a casual setting with meats smoked 24 hours a day in cherrywood, applewood, and oakwood. Between a savory beef brisket, tender pork belly, and chicken wings smothered in Alabama white sauce, guests are encouraged to build their own platters while navigating a drink menu heavy on beer and whiskey.
If you seek something more formal, look for a hidden door that leads to Sara's. The "meateasy," as they like to call it, has an old-school supper club vibe with an art deco design and tall mirrored ceilings. The prime rib is borderline famous already, smoked in-house by the same Mabel's kitchen team and carved on the spot by a crew in black bow ties and white jackets. Yet the best surprise on the menu is the fried chicken, brined in truffle salt with vodka to pack in moisture while retaining a reliable crispy skin.
Mountain's Edge Italian dining with fresh ingredients in a growing residential corner of Las Vegas As Vegas grows, so does the restaurant scene. Locale is the first dining destination of note west of Interstate 15 and south of Blue Diamond Road, finally giving homeowners in Mountain's Edge a place without video poker where they can bring their friends. The bar and dining room, divided by a set of sliding barn doors that wouldn't look out of place on HGTV, are stylish enough, but it's the Italian-focused menu by Nicole Brisson that makes the place worth visiting from any corner of the valley.
The pizzas can easily compete with the best in Vegas, thanks to a chewy crust that would probably taste just fine all by itself -- although the cracked-egg and guanciale version served at brunch is especially good with those bottomless mimosas. Brisson's dedication to fresh, locally sourced ingredients that holds everything together. The steaks and pastas appear to evolve the most with seasonal menu updates, making Locale a restaurant to keep an eye on as it continues to shape its identity heading into the new year.
Southwest A variety of Asian street market flavors served in a fast-casual setting Marc Marrone put Graffiti Bao together as a combination of the New York-style Chinese food he enjoyed in his youth and the Southeast Asian street markets he explored while traveling overseas as part of the Tao Group. Throw in some dim sum and lightly seared bao buns with the right ratio of dough to filling, and you've got an attractive combination of Far East flavors served at reasonable prices.
The recipes are authentic, whether it's a tart wok-charred Kung Pao Chicken or Singapore-style ramen with the broth added from a separate cup on the side. Marrone actually opened a preview of Graffiti Bao with a counter at the T-Mobile Arena, but the full restaurant version is a more complete vision that taps into the chef's fondness for '80s nostalgia. If the neon signage won't convince you, maybe the loop of Big Trouble in Little China on the corner television will.
Downtown Southern comfort food with a speakeasy-style bar area Chef Natalie Young earned widespread acclaim (and an American Express commercial) for her take on breakfast favorites at Eat. Now, she's steering her vision in a new direction with Old Soul. Inside the World Market Center, the restaurant thrives on an inspired menu of Southern comfort foods. The best evidence is an artichoke dip with collard greens and Cornish game hen with BBQ sauce and jalapeño. You'll definitely want to save room for the peach cobbler, served in a cast-iron pan with ice cream on top.
The restaurant is an abrupt change of pace from the moment you walk through the door -- a dark and moody place with leather couches, lit candles, and heavy curtains. However, the speakeasy-style bar that dominates the back wall puts it over the top. Your Instagram will appreciate a modified Rum Runner that changes color from blue to pink as it's finished off at the table.
Venetian High-end Cantonese in a stylish environment Every big resort on the Strip seems to be opening a fine dining Cantonese restaurant these days, but Mott 32 is a complete package that does more than merely accommodate the booming Asian tourist market. The restaurant has a stylish dining room that crosses cultures with a rugged industrial edge.
The menu borrows from other cuisines, most notably the use of Iberico pork in a number of dishes, from soup dumplings to Yeung Chow fried rice. Of course, there's Peking Duck on the menu -- with the requisite two-days advance notice (although you may score one on the spot if you ask nicely). Between an unusually large bar and lounge area and several compartmentalized spaces in the dining room, Mott 32 may seem different every visit.
Southwest Fast-casual paella that doesn't sacrifice authenticity As far as we can tell, Jeffrey Weiss and Paras Shah are the first guys to turn paella into a quick serve concept -- and they made a point to do it right and not cut corners. The two chefs mastered their craft working at Michelin-starred restaurants throughout Spain and are now putting their experience to good use at Valencian Gold, a small restaurant next to a Smith's grocery store.
Everything is ordered at the counter with choices of paella served in individual portions with added ingredients -- fresh-grilled meats, vegetables, sauces -- added delicately on top. A nice touch is the socarrat (or crispy, burnt rice normally at the bottom of a large paella pan) offered separately as a topping. While the paella is the main focus, the Spanish-inspired sides are worth your attention as well, including some of the best croquetas you'll find at any Vegas restaurant.
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Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas in Thrillist for more than six years. His work has also appeared in Travel + Leisure, Modern Luxury, Leafly, and Luxury Estates International's seasonal publication. He's ordering everything to go. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.