There’s a saying in casinos that the house always wins. This is not hard for me to grasp. Last week, after eating dinner at a restaurant inside a Las Vegas casino, I inserted $5 into a slot machine, fumbled around pressing buttons as its bright lights flashed, and watched the bill disappear forever.
The house wins when you’re dining out in casinos, too. Vegas is home to every cuisine you can imagine. But if you’re not careful, much of it can leave you cash-strapped and still kind of hungry.
Along the Strip, I found familiar names like D.C.’s own beloved celebrity chef José Andrés, who operates multiple restaurants in the city, and Marylander Bryan Voltaggio. Hospitality queen Martha Stewart gave her name to the Bedford, designed to look like a replica of her 1925 farmhouse. Want Nashville hot chicken? Head to Hattie B’s inside the Cosmopolitan. Award-winning dumplings? Check out the food court at Resorts World, the $4.3 billion new development north of the Strip.
Unfortunately, high-roller prices are the rule. And big names don’t necessarily equal big value. If you’re planning a trip to Vegas, whether for next year’s Super Bowl, this fall’s Grand Prix, or just taking advantage of Frontier Airlines’ GoWild! Summer Pass like I did, here’s what I think is worth the cash — or not.
Worth it: Shrimp cocktail at Saginaw’s Delicatessen
Nostalgia is hot in Las Vegas, and perhaps the food world at large. During my visit I stopped by Retro from the Voltaggio brothers, a concept that’s billed as a one-year “residency” inside Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. The décor includes an assortment of family photos, old skateboards and a Lite-Brite, while the menu includes high-end twists on SpaghettiOs and pasta shells with what the menu describes as “cheddar cheese whizzzzz.” I went with a generously portioned sole meunière — Julia Child’s first meal when she moved to France.
More vintage treats abound at Saginaw’s Delicatessen, located inside the adults-only Circa Resort & Casino on Fremont Street. I came specifically for the shrimp cocktail ($12), which I read is based on the original recipe first introduced by Golden Gate Casino in 1959. Served in the kind of glass you’d expect for a hot fudge sundae, it included a mountain of fresh shrimp slathered in a spicy horseradish ketchup sauce with a side of saltines. Does that sound like something Grandma used to eat? I’m here to tell you that Grandma was onto something.
Skip it: Dinner at any casino restaurant you haven’t vetted on Yelp
Hotels in Las Vegas have a captive audience in their guests and they know it. Getting around the city, which was a scorching, nearly 100 degrees and snarled by traffic when I was visiting, is far more difficult than just heading downstairs in the frosty air conditioning to the eateries below. But check the reviews before you go. On my first evening, I took the elevator to the trendy-sounding Thai street spot just off the lobby and ordered a meal that was both pricey and underwhelming. I cringed every time the male server called me “sweetheart.” Had I bothered to read the reviews on Yelp ahead of time, the 3.5 stars might have warned me off.
Worth it: Room service
Speaking of captive audiences: My Las Vegas hotel room did not come equipped with either a tea kettle or coffee maker, so saving money on my morning brew was out of the question. My first morning, I ordered a $7 iced tea to-go from the shop downstairs. A plain bagel cost something like $9. I ate a granola bar in my hotel room instead.
The next morning, while scanning through my hotel’s in-room dining menu, I realized that prices were comparable, and in some instances actually cheaper, than at the hotel coffee shop. I ordered scrambled eggs, fruit and tea. My food came promptly, packaged in a paper bag and not on a fancy hotel tray, yet as I gobbled it up in bed with the TV on, I have never felt so ensconced in luxury.
Worth it: Dumplings at ShangHai Taste
If you’re looking for value meals in Las Vegas that aren’t from McDonald’s, your best bet is to eat like a local. If you have a car or don’t mind taking a ride-share, that means steering clear of the Strip altogether and heading to neighborhoods like the city’s Chinatown, home to more than 100 tasty and well-priced eateries where you’re just as likely to see residents as tourists.
A highlight of my short stay was a meal at ShangHai Taste, a small restaurant inside one of the many strip malls that dot the area. Sitting at a counter by the kitchen, I was able to watch staff as they meticulously hand-rolled soup dumplings or xiao long bao ($10) from dough, filling them before placing in a basket for steaming. Even on a hot day in Vegas, the scalding dumplings were worth savoring. A perfectly cooked side of greens was the antidote to the heavy casino fare I’d been eating all week. Afterward, I cooled down with a mango and chile paleta, or popsicle, from a neighboring shop.
Should I return to Vegas, I’ll make it a point to stop by some other off-the-Strip foodie spots like The Black Sheep from “Top Chef” contestant Jamie Tran. And I’m kicking myself for not grabbing lunch at In-N-Out burger, a West Coast burger chain that has Padma Lakshmi’s seal of approval.
Debatable: Pricey tasting menu
Eager for one blockbuster, over-the-top indulgent dining experience while in Las Vegas, I shelled out $372 including tax and tip for a tasting menu dinner at é by José Andrés, located inside his Jaleo branch in the Cosmopolitan. At the start of our meal, chefs said we should look out for more than 20 courses, though some were as small as a single piece of cheese.
I enjoyed the chance to chat with chefs about the preparation of each dish, and to get to know some of my fellow diners, including a friendly couple from Florida who seemed to be having a ball. A mix of high and low, the meal offered some whimsical touches, like a cotton candy empanada filled with foie gras, and Pop Rocks with dessert. There was the foie gras and strawberry sandwich made out of what looked like Wonder Bread but was really a kind of meringue. A miniature slice of pizza came on a replica of a Spanish-language newspaper; an early bite of cured meat with caviar was served in a plaster replica of Andrés’ own hand. (I thought briefly of that Michelin-starred restaurant in Italy that serves foam in a replica of the chef’s mouth).
Foodies with allergies and health restrictions may want to be careful. I don’t drink, and appreciated that the staff went through the effort to sub out the alcohol from several early courses. But there were a few lapses; for example, I was served a “gin and tonic marshmallow” with dessert, and some answers I received about the preparation of the meat and other dishes did not seem to align with the final product.
As chefs brought out dessert, my first thought was: “That’s it?” After all those tiny bites, I was still a bit peckish. The meal was scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. but had started late, and in the end, we hurried out before the next seating at 8:30. For the eye-popping price tag, I expected more time and more food.