What happens when three food critics get together and try to pick the city’s 50 best restaurants? We ask the Weekly’s John Curtas, who teamed up with Max Jacobson and Al Mancini on Eating Las Vegas: The 50 Essential Restaurants, out this week on Huntington Press.
Did the three of you approach the project planning to include 50 restaurants, or did you arrive at that number once you evaluated Las Vegas’ food scene?
I think the 50 kind of evolved. My first top-50 list had 75 restaurants on it, but 50’s a good round number. Vegas probably doesn’t have enough of a broad-based culinary scene to do a top 100.
- Eating Las Vegas’ top 10
- • Alex (at Wynn)
- • Bartolotta Ristorante Di Mare (at Wynn)
- • Bar Masa (at Aria)
- • Cut (at the Palazzo)
- • Guy Savoy (at Caesars Palace)
- • Joel Robuchon (at MGM Grand)
- • L’atelier (at MGM Grand)
- • Picasso (at Bellagio)
- • RM Seafood (At Mandalay Place)
- • Twist (at Mandarin Oriental)
I’m guessing you guys agreed on 30 or 40 fairly easily. How tough was ironing out the rest?
Exactly. The first 35, maybe even 40, were fairly easy to come by. Those last 10 or 12 ... we had several lunches ... knives were drawn ... forks and glasses were slammed down on tables ... people got up and stormed away over a few. Then we just compromised. And at the end we all shook hands and remain friends. We still love to needle each other, but I think we have a lot of respect for each other, too.
How much did you guys consider variety—be it type of cuisine or neighborhood or price range—versus just picking the best food, period?
That’s where our personal prejudices really came into play. I’m more the persnickety foodie among the three of us, so I just wanted it to be the best 50 restaurants in town. I don’t care if all of them are located in one hotel (laughs). Max is enamored of all of these little Asian hole-in-the-walls and real particular restaurants that specialize in one dish or two. And Al is much more of an everyman. He was looking at the reading audience more, like, we should have something for the hip kids to go to, and mom and pop taking their kids out for dinner. We should have something for everybody.
Both of them were more savvy than me when it came to broadening the base of the book. I would have been just about the food. And I compromised and saw it their way. ’Cause I think on one level they’re right. If you’re gonna write a book that’s gonna sell a lot of copies and have a lot of people wanna read it, you can’t just have the top French restaurants and the top Italian restaurants in the hotels. That would be kinda boring after a while.
Were there times you guys simply couldn’t agree, and it came down to a straight vote?
We had two rules that are kind of contradictory. One was, two can always outvote the third. But the corollary to that was, each of us had absolute veto power. And somehow it worked. Sometimes, two of us said, “We want this one in,” and the odd man out would go, “Okay.” And sometimes, when the veto was strong enough, we would say, “He really doesn’t like that one. We can’t in good conscience put it in.”
Did you personally veto anything?
Yeah. We have a veto section in the book, which I think is the most interesting part. One of us will say why a restaurant deserves to be in the top 50, and then the person who vetoed it has to write an explanation of why they hated it. I think of the six I vetoed three.
Martorano’s [Cafe Martorano] in the Rio was the one I put a vehement veto on. I just think it’s a mediocre Italian restaurant. I’ve eaten there twice and didn’t like either one of them. But somehow Max and Al love it. They buy the hype or whatever. But I just put my foot down. I vetoed that and I vetoed Paymon’s [Mediterranean Cafe].
Any other Vegas institutions left out?
Andre Rochat’s restaurants [Alizé, Andre’s]. No one even had to veto them. All three of us said, you know, he’s gonna be apoplectic about it, but time has passed by his food. The kind of cooking you get in these big hotels now is way better than what he’s putting out. So he doesn’t get even a mention in the book.
Was there a place you adamantly championed—and successfully persuaded the others to include?
Mario Batali’s Carnevino. Max and Al thought there were too many steakhouses in the book already—we had Cut in the top 10 and three or four more in the top 50—but I think Carnevino is one of the best steakhouses in America. Batali’s a great chef, and we already had B&B [Ristorante] in, but I went to bat for Carnevino.
What’s one inclusion that might surprise readers?
Los Antojos. It’s a complete hole-in-the-wall, but all of us went there multiple times and the food is just fantastic. Probably the best fresh-made Mexican food in town.
What’s the rough Strip/off-Strip breakdown?
Two-thirds Strip restaurants, maybe even 70 percent Strip. We wanted to give a lot of love to the neighborhoods, but even somebody like Al, who really likes to go out in the neighborhoods and try all these little places, had to admit that the world-class cooking is taking place on the Strip. It’s hard to deny that.
Obviously, chefs and restaurants in Vegas come and go constantly. Do you guys plan to update the list from time to time?
We hope so. The idea is for this to be a franchise. We’ve already got a whole list of things we want to improve and expand for next year. And the pre-sales have been phenomenal. The idea is for this to go on for years and become the go-to guide for Vegas restaurants.
Eating Las Vegas is also the name of your blog. How’d you get the others to agree to title the book that?
Back in May or June we had a meeting about the title. I always thought Eating Las Vegas should be the name, but for the first time in my life I didn’t say a word. And finally, [publisher] Anthony Curtis—no relation—said to me, “You know the name I like?” And I said, “Eating Las Vegas?” And he went, “Yeah.” And it took about 30 seconds for everybody to say that should be it.