The Most Interesting Things in Vegas Are Happening off the Strip
The classic standby has now also become the hip cultural underdog.
If there was ever a time to push your chips in on Vegas, that time is now. In recent years, Vegas has been transitioning in real time from a from that place you might want to visit for a weekend of poor decision making into a fully grown city having one of the most interesting food moments in the country.
As Las Vegas casinos poured money into splashy restaurant openings from the splashiest chefs from all around the world, those chefs brought with them young and talented lieutenants who stuck around in Vegas to actually run the places. That is, until those young and talented lieutenants looked around, saw that they could actually afford to buy houses, put down roots, and open more inventive places on their own -- and the Las Vegas food moment began to take shape.
What you have in Las Vegas today is a city defined by way more than just the Strip, with true sense of community to go with unique, vibrant neighborhoods, and a food and drink scene as dynamic as it is diverse. That’s why we chose Vegas as one of our 20 Places We're Dreaming About in 2020. Use the following three-day itinerary to lead you around -- if you’ve only ever done “Sin City,” get back to Vegas and see it in a totally new light.
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Day 1: Get to know the hip Arts DistrictGet off the plane and, before you even check into your hotel, fill your belly by hitting up nearby Harold Rose Jr.'s Homies Cinnamon Rolls for an original roll, before making your way over two blocks to Sterling Burpee's Zenaida's Cafe for his famous biscuits smothered in sausage and ground-chuck gravy. After checking into your hotel and getting settled, head to the Arts District, right in between Downtown and the Strip. Grab a coffee or tea and empanadas at Makers & Finders and peruse the excellent independent book shop The Writer's Block.
For dinner in the Art's District hit up Esther's Kitchen, Las Vegas native James Trees' Italian restaurant, which has become the go-to spot for the Las Vegas restaurant service community, and for good reason. Get homemade, “Strip-quality” pastas for less than half the price, and check out the patio and great cocktail menu. Then finish off your Art's District hang with a cocktail at Velveteen Rabbit, an eclectic cocktail bar walking distance from Esther's. Or go to the Caribbean kitchen and bar Jammyland and get a drink and some Jamaican patties or their 24-hour jerk wings. Or see what show the local theatre company at Majestic Repertory is putting on that week.
For a nightcap, hop in a quick Lyft ride downtown to Atomic Liquors, an iconic landmark bar so named because folks used to sit on their roof and watch explosions from nuclear testing out in the desert.
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Day 2: OK, do the Strip and make it countToday is going to be all about the Strip, so just embrace it and get weird, starting with Yoga with the Dolphins at The Mirage, in which you do yoga in front of "an underwater dolphin viewing area." Seriously, IT'S SO RELAXING, THEY'RE DOLPHINS! The natural next step from there is a little morning gambling. Though it seems counterintuitive, hitting the casinos in the morning means smaller crowds and cheaper minimums at tables, and also feels weirdly dangerous in a positive way. For lunch, check out Block 16 Urban Food Hall, a newish spot in the Cosmopolitan where you can quickly sample an all-star lineup of joints from around the country. Play your cards right and split a mix of Hattie B's hot chicken (Nashville), sandwiches from Lardo (Portland), and some wings from Pok Pok (Portland again).
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In the afternoon, let’s do a different kind of pool party -- mostly, Las Vegas pool scenes are extremely gross and disconcerting. But the pool at the NoMad -- "inspired by the Majorelle Gardens of Morocco" -- offers a much more refined version of that, with excellent, NoMad-level frozen cocktails. Even the summer pool parties there (called JEMAA) tend to be more-chill, less-crowded affairs that are more heavy on locals.
Kick off the evening at the new Park MGM restaurant from Roy Choi, Best Friend, where you can get his famous Kogi short rib tacos, dumplings, spicy pork BBQ, and very solid cocktails. If the Golden Knights are playing, you should absolutely go. Live hockey is an incredible experience, but live hockey in Las Vegas is its own very special thing. Grab dinner postgame at Majordōmo, new sibling of David Chang's LA hot spot, only this version has tableside smoked prime rib, dim sum, and most importantly, an entire separate slider restaurant, which Chang claims is modeled on Jersey's legendary White Manna.
You're only doing the Strip for one night, so you might as well make it count at the cool, reservations-only Mr. COCO in the Palms. The speakeasy-ish cocktail spot from Francesco Lafranconi is upscale and over the top, but the drinks are excellent and the nightly entertainment is fantastic.
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Day 3: Explore Red Rock Canyon, then explore ChinatownShake off the cocktails with a hike in Red Rock Canyon, which is only 20 minutes from the Strip and features dozens of hikes at all different levels, plus the opportunity to run into iguanas and, if you're lucky, a common side-blotched lizard -- a species that relies on a rock-paper-scissors mating methodology.
Gain back all the weight you lost on the hike when you take the rest of the day to explore Chinatown -- a culinary hotbed where the most interesting things are happening in the Vegas food world. You’ll find Chinese restaurants, of course, and cuisines from all over Asia, in addition to destination-worthy restaurants of all varieties and price points. For lunch, try Chengdu Taste, an old Chinatown staple -- try the spicy pig stomach with Chinese celery and the house special beef, or go for the toothpick lamb with cumin if you’re more cautious. Between meals there are hundreds of great shops and spots to wander into among Chinatown's many strip malls. Take some time, ask around, or go where your eye and nose lead you. For happy hour hit up The Golden Tiki, a locals' hot spot for strong drinks and kitsch.
MORE: All the best restaurants in Chinatown
Finally, go all in on dinner at nearby Forte Tapas. Bulgarian-born Nina Manchev's tapas restaurant is unlike any other you'll visit, with murals and other art Manchev herself painted, plus a front bottle shop featuring booze along with insanely good caviar. The menu skews Eastern European but goes everywhere, and if Manchev or her mother Mimi are there, just let them steer you.
The night will steer you to The Sand Dollar Lounge, an iconic Vegas bar since the '70s. Great place for a beer and a shot. Great place to hear blues and other live music. Great local scene. End it by belting out karaoke at Champagne's Cafe -- if you leave Vegas before you hear folks singing karaoke backed by a live band while you try to decide whether you should do a "Red Pill Shot," you will regret everything.
MEET THE WRITERKevin Alexander is Thrillist’s National Writer-at-Large, Food. His book on the unique mix of people, places, and circumstances that led to the last decade of eating/drinking in America, BURN THE ICE: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End, was published in 2019 by Penguin Press. He is a 2017 James Beard Foundation Award winner.
When was the last time you were in Las Vegas?
A month ago. And I think I'm going back in a month. I'm usually there four or five times a year, though last year I was there so much, it felt like it made financial sense to get a time share. (Author's note: it did not.)
What has been the biggest thing that has surprised you about Vegas?
Just how incredibly deep the roster of cooking talent goes. In some ways it shouldn't surprise me -- so many talented chefs come to Vegas to start working on the Strip, but I was shocked by how many stayed and how many natives come back. The place has an unexplainable pull, and it has very little to do with British songwriter Robbie Williams finally getting a music residency.
What's your number one can’t-miss recommendation?
To spend at least two meals eating in Chinatown. With something like 150 restaurants over three square miles, it is by far the most incredible, compact dining experience, and much more affordable than the Strip. And you can mix and match. You can go to Chengdu Taste for Sichuan, and Raku for Japanese, and District One for Vietnamese, and EDO for Spanish tapas, and Partage for French, and Sparrow + Wolf for new American, and The Golden Tiki for painkillers and bad jokes from mechanical parrots, and it's all glorious.
What’s a low-key Vegas hidden gem that visitors don’t usually consider?
Artisha Hall's Soul Foo Young in West Vegas. Absolutely worth seeking out. And The Black Sheep out in Rhodes Ranch.
When are the best times to go?
You may want to avoid times when there are massive conventions in town -- check this Vegas convention schedule, where you can easily see each convention hosted there through the year, and how many people are attending.
What’s your best tip to a visitor?
Spend at least two days off the Strip. And go to a local bar, grab a beer, and talk to the folks who live there. Vegas is a city of expats, and because of that people who live there tend to be incredibly open and proud and eager to show off their city. Embrace that. And then sing karaoke with them at Champagne's much later in the night.
What's a trip that you're planning for 2020 that you're excited about?
I'm planning to get back to Arkansas. I know that's not on most people's lists, but I've had a simmering fascination with Arkansas for a long, long time, and I just started to dig into that last year, and I'm craving more. I'm going to eat a lot of chocolate gravy.
What place is on your big travel bucket list that you're dying to go to one day?
The rest of Nevada. It's going to happen. Reno better watch the f*** out.