As with all things in the West, it started with a few brave pioneers. They came to Las Vegas as young chefs and restaurateurs seeking work with the icons of the culinary world. They spent years in the kitchens and dining rooms of the city’s top restaurants. And now, they’re defining the next generation of the Las Vegas food scene. But they’re not doing it on the Strip—they’re taking their creative visions and their quests for authenticity to the neighborhoods of Las Vegas.
Vegas has become, in the last decade or so, an up-and-coming oasis of exceptional food. That evolution has attracted what John Anthony—who worked on-Strip at Comme Ca and now co-owns Grinders Pizza Lounge—calls “a massive talent pool with acute palates.” And, says Sheridan Su—formerly of Joel Robuchon and now of his own restaurant, Fat Choy—after years of realizing the visions of some of the world’s most famous chefs, “it’s natural for some of them to settle down, realize their dream, and create something for the community.”
But the move from well-funded mega-restaurants to scrappy kitchens is not without its challenges. Megan Romero, former head pastry chef at Mandalay Bay and owner of Chocolate and Spice Bakery in the west of Las Vegas, says, “On the Strip, you might be working for a restaurant with the best linens, the best china, and all the acrobatics that go with Las Vegas fine dining. But when you can’t afford that, you have to find something authentic and compelling.” And that’s at the heart of this new trend: superheroes of gastronomic spectacle shrugging off their glittery capes and finding new homes closer to the people, the food, and their own culinary roots.
Vegas itself has also fostered the trend. As the city’s economy rebounds, real estate continues to lag slightly behind, offering aspiring independents opportunities to get restaurant space affordably. Cheaper leases and the ability to move quickly—a perk not lost on those who worked in huge casinos on the Strip and spent years navigating the corporate structure—has allowed for the proliferation of new ventures by this new crop of food professionals.
In Las Vegas, where many residents rarely go near the Strip, this culinary expansion benefits locals first and foremost. But as big-name chefs continue to assert Vegas’ place on the culinary map, and more visitors come expecting to eat well, it’s clear that the off-Strip trend is one that visitors can and should take advantage of as well.
Reflecting on his own journey, Su says, “Since moving to this city, my goal had always been to add to the local food culture. It was the right time to give my vision life.” And as more chefs filter off the Strip and find an eager audience among both locals and visitors, the Vegas food scene gains a new, accessible, and creative middle ground between ultra-haute-dining and cardiovascular-destruction-bent chains.
The off-Strip food culture has been slowly coming into its own over the last decade. “A few years ago,” says Romero, “it would have been a struggle to name five chefs that had left the Strip to open up their own place. But now, without much trouble, I could rattle off twenty.” Su agrees: “Now you can find chef-driven restaurants in almost every neighborhood, fantastic spots to grab a drink, butcher shops, food festivals.”
Ready to taste the trend? Here’s a sampling of places to start:
Fat Choy: American diner meets Asian comfort food from Chef Sheridan Su.
Chocolate & Spice: Classic artisan bakery from Mandalay Bay alum Megan Romano.
Grinders Pizza Lounge: Pizzas, sandwiches, and more from John Anthony and Rick Hollinger.
Bratalian: The “Neopolitan Cantina” of Chef Carla Pellegrino, former executive chef at Rao’s Las Vegas.
Honey Salt: Seasonal American favorites with a desert twist from the team of Blau and Canteenwalla.
Soho Sushi: Former Social House chef John Chien Lee’s Asian fusion and sushi-focused restaurant.
Todd’s Unique Dining: Former Bally’s chef de cuisine Todd Clore focuses on fresh and creative offerings.
Firefly: A “tapas kitchen and bar” from former Mon Ami Gabi (at Paris Las Vegas) chef John Simmons.
MTO Cafe: Former Charlie Palmer’s Aureole (and a host of other big names on the Strip) chef Johnny Church’s downtown breakfast and lunch spot.
Eat: A “breakfast and lunch joint” from former Strip chef Natalie Young.
Truck-U: Former Border Grill executive chef Mike Minor’s BBQ-meets-Mexican food truck.
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(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)