For years, the food scene on the Las Vegas strip could be largely divided into two categories: fine dining or chain-casual. Screaming Eagle in Zalto stemware or a liter of boozy neon slushy through a sippy straw. Celebrity chefs or mega chains. Joël Robuchon or Hooters.
But as more and more people begin to plan trips around memorable food experiences, Las Vegas' strip has begun to shape-shift around the fact that a huge number of their potential visitors are of a new breed. They can't (or don't want) to drop $445 per person on a tasting menu but they also appreciate good food and want more than just cheese-covered drunk food—except when that's exactly what they want, of course.
They're the type of people who watch Chef's Table and Instagram their food. They're Millennials who are happy to wait in wind, rain, or snow for the cruffins, Nashville-style hot chickens, and top-rated xiao long baos of the world. They're the kind conscientious eaters who think about the politics of the James Beard Awards, the dilemmas of included gratuity, and the demise of Lucky Peach.
For better or worse, if you're reading this, they're you and me.
Not wanting to lose those food-obsessed travelers to the already dynamic and bustling off-Strip dining scene comprised by heavy-hitters like Lotus of Siam, Abriya Raku, or Chengdu Taste (which you should totally go to, by the way) hotels have begun to reestablish the Strip as the "foodie destination" it was when fine dining reigned supreme.
While many hotels are just beginning to bring in new names—Park MGM will open NoMad and Eataly in 2018—resorts like the Aria and the Cosmopolitan have already gone all out. From the sprawling, deep red dining room of New York's acclaimed Carbone to the replica of Eggslut, Los Angeles' egg sandwich mecca, you can now feast your way through some of the hardcore foodie's North American bucket list—all on the same stretch of Las Vegas road.
The Cosmopolitan is arguably at the heart of this change, especially with its recent openings of Christina Tosi's Milk Bar and David Chang's Momofuku. "We've been looking at opening a restaurant [in Las Vegas] for a long time. The biggest hurdle was finding the right partner. We definitely think we've found that in the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas," Chang told Munchies.
In line with the everything-under-one-roof foodie dining atmosphere that the Strip's starting to channel, the new Momofuku isn't a replica of an existing Chang spot but instead an amalgamation of the top hits spanning his restaurant empire. Chang also took inspiration from Vegas' existing dualistic dining scene.
"For me, the best thing about Vegas is that you can have the most insane fine dining experience at Joël Robuchon one night, and then end up at Bund Shanghai the next," Chang said. "I'd like to think that you see nods to both styles of dining at our restaurant and everything in between. People visit Las Vegas for many different reasons, but everyone always wants to just have a good time. We tried to reflect that. The restaurant is Momofuku's version of a Las Vegas restaurant."
Momofuku is notorious for infusing comfort food with gourmet touches (caviar and fried chicken, anyone?) making it the perfect restaurant to represent a new wave of accessible-foodie-insider dining on the Strip. Sure, you can ball out hard at Momofuku on large-format rotisserie five-spice duck, truffle ramen, and Lisboa seafood towers, but you can also tear into a fried chicken bao or slurp Chang's signature Momofuku Ramen for less than $20.
Casual dining is being reconceived on the Strip as well. Take Eggslut, Alvin Cailan's yolky, breakfast temple which opened last year at the Cosmopolitan. It's not revered because it's anything particularly complex (it is an egg sandwich, after all) but because it's executed well and made with quality ingredients.
"I think that the Vegas food culture is changing just as the nation's food culture is changing," Cailan explained to MUNCHIES. "We're pivoting to more exciting food but we want a more casual setting. We're at a point where intimidating and unattainable restaurants are for the birds."
So what's the Strip gravitating toward, according to Cailan?: "Good food, casual-cool environment, and Instagram-ability."
And by "Instagram-ability" Cailan means dishes made by star chefs, usually ones you have to wait for. That wait means exclusivity—especially for tourists who aren't from restaurant hotspots like New York and Los Angeles.
"We wanted to bring Milk Bar to a place that casts a really wide," said Christina Tosi, the dessert maven whose Cereal Milk soft-serve ice cream is the sort of thing for which people are more than willing to stand in line. "Somewhere that's going to capture an audience that we don't already have in New York so we can expand our brand. We thought how can we best expand our audience? And Vegas really is that place for all of America—you get middle America, everybody all in one place. It's a market that's representative of so many other markets in the US."
Cooking in Vegas has also allowed chefs to devise dishes that reflect the city's spirit, like Milk Bar's delicious spiked milkshakes. "There may be nods to dishes that have been in the Momofuku DNA for a while, but we really want to create something new, tailored to the location and time," Chang explained.
In a city that prides itself on indulgence, this new wave of middle-ground restaurants is surely welcome here. Still, there's one thing that will always be true: It really wouldn't be Vegas if the Hard Rock Café and Guy Savoy weren't on the same street.