How to Get the Most Bang for Your Buck at Vegas Uncork'd

Vegas Uncork'd
Prepare your stomachs. | Vegas Uncork'd
Prepare your stomachs. | Vegas Uncork'd

Vegas likes to eat. This town is full of so many food, wine, beer, and whiskey festivals, it's hard to keep track of them all. (We try from time to time.) Yet the biggest culinary event of the year is Vegas Uncork'd by Bon Appetit. Nothing else really comes close in terms of size and scope.

"It's kind of like the Avengers," says Adam Rapoport, the guy in charge of Uncork'd. "You've got a bunch of big names teaming up to create this festival where the sum is greater than the parts. You've got Caesars, the Cosmopolitan, MGM, Venetian, and Wynn this year."

Rapoport, the editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit, has been overseeing Vegas Uncork'd since 2012, although the festival dates back 13 years now. The concept was inspired by the opening of the Bellagio and other resorts in the mid-'90s that helped usher in the era of the celebrity chef -- big names who wanted to expand their culinary empires to Las Vegas with restaurants on the Strip. It only made sense to bring them together for a one-of-a-kind event, Vegas Strip-style.

"You could do that white tent approach where there's a bunch of chefs cooking in portable kitchens with kiosks," Rapoport says, but that would squander the draw of the resorts and casinos. "Why not bring the people into the properties? Because the properties themselves are such attractions."

So instead of bringing the restaurants to the festival, Vegas Uncork'd brings the festival to the restaurants. This allows chefs and mixologists to put together experiences that are more authentic, unique, and -- with the exception of the Grand Tasting -- more intimate.

"So if you're going to eat Nobu's food, you get to eat food cooked by Nobu himself in Nobu," adds Rapoport. "You get to meet Gordon Ramsay and eat his food in one of his restaurants."

This year, Vegas Uncork'd runs May 9-12, squeezing 25 different events into four days. No, you're not supposed to eat at all of them. These events are pricey, with some running north of $200 for a GA ticket. But idea is to pick your favorites and navigate your way through an experience that works for you. Have a Champagne brunch and truffle making class at the Cosmopolitan with Christina Tosi at 11am, learn about craft cocktails at Electra inside the Palazzo at 3pm, attend a multi-course wine-pairing dinner by Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace at 6:30pm, and round out the night with cocktails and a tour of the Mob Museum's speakeasy and distillery at 9:30pm. And that's just Saturday.

Uncork'd also isn't the only show in town this weekend. There's also Vegas Unstripped, an unaffiliated, but much cheaper, local neighborhood festival fueled by its own formation of top-notch local chefs, some of whom previously worked on the Strip. Read on for pro tips to navigating Uncork'd, its can't-miss events, and how to make the most of that other big food festival happening in Vegas this weekend.

Michelin-starred Chef Guy Savoy himself will feed you.
Michelin-starred Chef Guy Savoy himself will feed you. | Vegas Uncork'd

Use these pro tips to make the most of the festivities

The festival can be a little overwhelming. Keep a few things in mind when checking it out for the first time.

Arrive Early at the Grand Tasting
There's so much food, you'll need the full three hours to make your way around the entire poolside area. The biggest restaurants -- and the biggest names -- tend to be on the east end of the pool. So to get there first, circle left after passing through the main entrance. Most people will be drifting in the other direction.

There's Still Hope if an Event Sells Out
With the exception of the Grand Tasting and Picnic in the Park, most of the Uncork'd events are designed to be relatively small and intimate. So sellouts happen. However, you can still sign up online for a waitlist to any dinner or tasting. Sometimes extra seatings open up at the last minute. Agree to be flexible with your ticket count and your odds will increase.

Don't Overlook Sunday
Sunday typically is the most quiet day of Uncork'd with just a few events early in the day. Yes, the festival is winding down at this point, but you're going to wake up hungry and ready to feast all over again, This year, you can choose between a Mother's Day brunch with Chef Lorena Garcia at Chica or an Italian-style brunch with the family behind Rao's.

Expect massive crowds.
Vegas Uncork'd/The Grand Tasting at Caesars Palace | Expect massive crowds.

The top 5 events for eating and drinking this weekend

The variety of dinners and tastings helps draw in people who love dining for different reasons. Whether you're seeking expert preparation, atmosphere, or exclusivity, there's something for everyone at Vegas Uncork'd. Check out a few of the top events most deserving of your attention this year.

Behind the Scenes with the Master Chefs of France
Thursday, May 9, 7pm
It takes special skill to be certified as a Maître Cuisinier de France or Master Chef of France. They may not be the biggest names at Uncork'd, but these culinary professionals are the ones directly in charge of the food at some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world. Watch them in action inside a "secret kitchen" at the Venetian after sipping on classic cocktails at Rosina.
Cost: $275

Behind the Blade with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa
Friday, May 10, 12 noon
One of the most exclusive events at Vegas Uncork'd is a private tasting with Nobu Matsuhisa at his namesake restaurant inside Caesars Palace. It's a rare opportunity to see the chef behind the worldwide brand pick up a knife and prepare sushi on the spot.
Cost: $400 for GA

The Grand Tasting
Friday, May 10, 7pm
If you can only attend one event, the signature Grand Tasting is your best bet for a lot of food in one place. By far the biggest event of the week with 2,500 attendees expected, the dishes are meant to be quick and easy -- and often familiar. As much as we love the black truffle artichoke soup by Guy Savoy, you know you're getting it every year. Yet the poolside environment at Caesars Palace is a scenic outdoor Vegas experience. It's also a good chance for celebrity selfies with the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Giada de Laurentiis, and Lisa Vanderpump.
Cost: $260 for GA

Absinthe Uncork'd
Saturday, May 11, 6:30pm
A performance of Absinthe -- which seems to be everyone's favorite show on the Vegas Strip -- will be preceded by a courtyard reception with cocktails and small dishes prepared by Restaurant Guy Savoy. Soak in the energy and meet the Gazillionaire, the raunchy host of Absinthe, underneath the show's Electric Oak.
Cost: $240 for GA

Dinner Under the Stars at the NoMad Pool
Saturday, May 11, 7:30pm
For the first time, the new NoMad Pool, which typically serves small bites in cabanas, is now preparing a full sit-down dinner hosted by Vanity Fair. Savor the food as well as the views on a rooftop setting at the Park MGM. Expect a few surprises with the experience evolving throughout the evening.  
Cost: $225 for GA

Vegas Uncork'd/Opening Ceremony at The Park
Vegas Uncork'd/Opening Ceremony at The Park | Chef Masaharu Morimoto, with his katana

The legacy of Vegas Uncork'd

Las Vegas isn't a very patient place. Strip restaurants come and go quickly, which means the chef lineup changes from year to year at Uncork'd. Susan Feniger is one of the few who's been a part of the event from day one.

"It's grown and grown," she says. "There are so many more dinners, classes, and experiential things."

Feniger, who boosted her national profile with "Too Hot Tamales" on the Food Network with business partner Mary Sue Milliken, is a longtime favorite in Vegas. The pair opened up the Border Grill at Mandalay Bay 20 years ago -- an astounding run by Strip standards. Yet Uncork'd also gives newcomers a platform to show off their dining ventures.

"Out of all the things we wanted to get involved in, this was close to the top of the list," says Will Guidara, the restaurateur behind the NoMad resort and restaurant brand with Chef Daniel Humm. He believes the Vegas market is uniquely suited for such an expansive culinary event.

"It's a wide variety of people we get to serve," says Guidara. "Locals. People on business. People on vacation. People looking for a quick bite before seeing Lady Gaga. People looking for the full experience. It's a very diverse group. It's a group that knows a lot about great food and great wine."

Vegas Uncork'd
Vegas Uncork'd

Don't sleep on the much cheaper local alternative: Vegas Unstripped

Vegas Uncork'd has a complicated relationship with the local neighborhood dining scene. In the past, lauded Vegas-born independents like Raku and Lotus of Siam were seen handing out food during the Grand Tasting, although their appearances have become less frequent.

"The first year had a really good independent spirit," says Chef James Trees. "It wasn't too crazy. It was almost homey." Trees now owns and operates Esther's Kitchen in the Downtown Arts District, one of the best restaurants in Vegas. He knows Uncork'd well, having worked the Grand Tasting during his time with the Michael Mina team.

"Uncork'd really eliminated any kind of off-Strip presence when they started charging restaurants to participate in the event," he says, noting the added expense of coordinating a crew and serving food to thousands of people in just a few hours. "The return on investment for an independent restaurateur is almost nothing."

To counterbalance the glitz of Uncork'd and shine a spotlight on smaller restaurants, Trees and about 20 other local chefs are joining together for Vegas Unstripped -- a culinary festival of their own in a large outdoor space behind Esther's Kitchen. For the second year in a row, it's being staged -- not by coincidence -- the same weekend as Uncork'd. However, this isn't designed to be a battle between competing festivals. Price-wise, Unstripped is in another league, with a $75 ticket covering a massive night of food and drink, plus live music.

"I think you can do both," adds Trees. "Uncork'd is its own thing. Let it be its own thing."

It would be unfair to say the organizers of Vegas Uncork'd have completely given up on off-Strip dining. According to Trees, the festival reached out to local chefs and offered to drop the participation fee this year. Dan Krohmer of Other Mama and the highly anticipated new Hatsumi took them up on it -- a major score for the event. And Monta Ramen and Japaneiro's are also worth checking out at the Grand Tasting.

In recent years, Uncork'd has made attempts to expand from the boundaries of the Strip with Downtown events at the Container Park and Mob Museum, although the festival's spotlight remains brightest when focused on the big resorts and celebrity chefs. With alternatives like Unstripped picking up the slack elsewhere, that's not necessarily a bad thing. People visit Vegas for glamor and excitement. It's part of the culture. And Vegas Uncork'd is a showcase for that culture that only happens four days each year.   

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Rob Kachelriess is a Thrillist contributor.