A legacy of spirited growth and boundless energy fuels a colorful dining scene anchoring the sprawling desert oasis that is Las Vegas. Like just about everything else, food, beverage and the famous folks who chef it up with legendary panache must be imported. The result is a wildly imaginative menu created around a grown-up, round-the-clock theme park.
While the “What Happens in Vegas” campaign may well be the most successful in the history of tourism marketing, consider a more descriptive catch phrase: “If you build it, they will come, and they will arrive hungry.”
“There’s way too much going on here to try to bump into the right fit on the Internet,” cautions Bill Pattison, senior vice president of Baskow & Associates, one of the city’s oldest destination management companies and the preferred provider for many of its major hotels. With some 3,800 meetings and conventions annually converging upon 2,700 (and counting!) brick and mortar restaurants, the event-to-establishment ratio could feasibly near one-to-one.
“Even if you do your homework, the restaurants are always changing to try to stay relevant,” adds Pattison. “When we have clients looking to create an out-of-the-box experience, we sit down and explore what is hip and hot and different. In Las Vegas being creative means blowing your clients’ minds.”
Given the sheer volume of those mind-blowing options, hitting the right note can be harder than it looks. With so many eponymous chef-restaurateurs basking in the glow of Michelin stars, the city’s food scene knows fewer limits than its craps tables.
“Start with the money and work backwards,” Pattison advises with the time-tested authority of a high roller with some very fancy friends in the back room. “How about a backstage buffet with Celine Dion?” he asks. “In this business, it’s always about the price tag. The difference here is you can buy pretty much anything.”
Baskow not only offers typical DMC services such as advance registration, transportation and onsite meeting management, but it also operates an A-list celebrity talent agency.
“We know some people,” Pattison says, declining to name names. “Let’s say we can give any meal that extra ‘wow factor.’”
He describes a recent gourmet picnic for a hundred visiting executives in Red Rocks Canyon, with lunch delivered via hot air balloon and accompanied by the sounds of Bella Strings—four young women who play violin.
In a field dominated by superstars—from the venerable Wolfgang Puck to Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Gault Millau’s “Chef of the Century,” Joël Robuchon—the headliner of a show-stopping Las Vegas event isn’t necessarily with the band. Given the crowded landscape, it’s not enough to offer even the casual foodie a mere brush with greatness.
“The watchword is ‘experiential,’” Pattison says, pushing organizers to look beyond the meal as the centerpiece of a given event. “There has to be more than a chafing dish with food on it, even if that food is very, very good. Our clients are looking for theatricality and interactivity, for a specific environment that’s as elaborate as Las Vegas itself. A well-staged effort makes guests feel like they’ve walked into another world.”
For extra high-end clients, Pattison recommends tacking an unforgettable meal on the tail of a uniquely Las Vegas pursuit, such as drag racing exotic cars. “Put them in Ferraris and Porsches, and let them take a few laps around the NASCAR track while a name chef gets dinner going back in the pit.”
If that’s not enough adrenaline-fueled teambuilding, there’s always zip lining and dessert in Red Rocks, followed by a gourmet breakfast bar flown into the floor of the Grand Canyon.
“Vegas is its own animal,” concludes Pattison. “It’s different from all other places, meaning the experiences you present have to range as dramatically. Maybe it starts with the food, but it definitely doesn’t end there.”
BUFFETS GO GOURMET
The inexorable connection between schmoozing, boozing and value on the plate is cyclical in nature, suggests Dawn Christensen, director of communications for the Las Vegas CVA. She offers up a fresh take on the old story about the traditional all-you-can-eat Las Vegas buffet.
“We’re seeing a total reinvention of that concept as an extremely lavish experience,” she says. Initiating this trend, not surprisingly, the über trendy Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas introduced high-end, tapas-style dining in its chic Wicked Spoon Buffet. Total seating capacity is 1,045.
Christensen says the response was overwhelming, appealing to sophisticated diners after a renewed sense of artistry. The Buffet at Bellagio responded with all-you-can-eat caviar, offering up a bounty of traditional Ikura and Tobiko selections. Seating capacity is 600.
Not to be outdone, in the hands of James Beard award-winning chef Shawn McClain, ARIA Las Vegas’ brand-new pizza bar concept becomes haute cuisine. Anchored by a central bar, communal tables and a walk-up counter, the Five50 restaurant caters to groups of all sizes.
UPDATING THE THEME SCENE
While theme dining is a longtime draw arguably invented here, two especially extravagant items—cognac and champagne—are getting the Vegas treatment at Caesars Palace. Restaurant Guy Savoy has debuted the Cognac Lounge, where connoisseurs and novices alike dine on a custom “cognac menu” while sipping paired selections so rare they can only be found here. Maximum seating capacity is 75.
For more intimate groups, there’s the restaurant’s six-seat Krug Chef’s Table, offering a birds-eye view of the performance inside the kitchen while enjoying a tasting menu curated to complement Krug’s prestige cuveé Champagnes.
On the other end of the size spectrum, Caesars has recently re-vamped its enormous, $17 million Bacchanal Buffet. Exploding with exotic cuisines from kitchens as farflung as the Chinese province of Guangzhou (inspiring its awesome selection of dim sum), the snaking buffet literally circumnavigates the world with more than 500 authentic regional dishes. Total seating capacity is 600.
“Of course you’re always going to see quantity here, but that’s such a small part of the picture now,” Christensen says. She cites Bon Appetit’s “Vegas Uncorked,” an epicurean festival of epic proportions overrunning The Strip every spring.
“Chefs, sommeliers, mixologists, food critics; it’s about everything bright and new, but there’s a sense of establishment, too,” Christensen says of the star-studded spectacular that’s become to the culinary world what Sundance is to Hollywood.
“It’s not happening in New York or San Francisco. It’s happening in Las Vegas.”