the urbanist

A Chef’s Guide to Las Vegas

Off-Strip dining, a secret downtown speakeasy, and a neon-sign museum.

Fremont Street in Las Vegas at dusk. Photo: Jonathan Olley/Getty Images
Fremont Street in Las Vegas at dusk. Photo: Jonathan Olley/Getty Images

It’s commonly understood that the best way to explore a new place is to go straight to the locals. Each week in the Urbanist, we take that wisdom one step further by seeking out not just locals but local experts — those who are especially well versed in their cities’ newest and most noteworthy scenes — to give us insider tips. This week, we asked veteran Las Vegas chef Gina Marinelli, the chef and owner of newly opened La Strega,  for her recommendations in Nevada’s biggest city.

“Everybody outside of Las Vegas thinks of it as the Strip. That’s what drew me here, but it’s the city that captured me. We always want to be known for more than the Strip, and while it’s still the core of the city, we’re expanding a lot beyond it. The hotels go up, and then they come down; Las Vegas hosts some of the biggest shows, the best restaurants, that 24-hour lifestyle. Winter is the best time to visit, when the nights are cooler, but every time you come there’s something new. The off-Strip dining scene keeps growing. Our Chinatown on Spring Mountain Road is incredible. It’s hard to call it Chinatown, because you’ll find every type of Asian cuisine there; you go there if you want Korean or Thai. Golden Tiki is a great tiki bar. You can stay on Spring Mountain for an evening and hop around. On my days off, I’m always there. Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar is new, and there’s EDO, which is a supercool, molecular tapas place with food from Spain. Pho Kim Long (4023 W. Spring Mountain Rd.; 702-220-3613) is the famous pho place, which is open 24 hours. The last time, I went at 3 a.m. You’ll see everyone there, from chefs after service to lines of people in four-inch heels. When you walk in, there’s this small aquarium that opens to a big dining room. The service is very quick.”

Her Other Musts

Hotel

In 2018, the upper floors of the Park MGM were converted into a boutique hotel called the NoMad Las Vegas. Photo: Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

“The Park MGM (3770 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 702-730-7777) is fantastic. It’s near T-Mobile stadium, so you’re close to any concerts or new hockey games playing there. Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson, and Aerosmith have performed there. The hotel also just got whole new renovations and new restaurants. Bavette’s is there. Los Angeles chef Roy Choi’s Best Friend is there; the servers all wear Adidas tracksuits, and the cover of the menu is his high-school yearbook picture. From the outside, it almost looks like a liquor store, but when you walk in, you see this cool shop. When you go up to the window, that’s the hostess stand.”

Local Restaurant

Sparrow + Wolf. Photo: Sabin Orr.
Sparrow + Wolf. Photo: Sabin Orr.

Sparrow + Wolf (4480 Spring Mountain Rd., Ste. 100; 702-790-2147) is by chef Brian Howard. He really jump-started the off-Strip dining scene. It’s definitely popular among Vegas chefs. The restaurant itself has dark walls and furniture. There’s a big mural of a wolf on the wall. It’s really eclectic fare. He has a lot of Asian influences because the restaurant is in Chinatown. He cooks a lot of really unique dishes. The Chinatown clams casino, that’s what everybody goes there for: It has clams, lap cheong sausage (instead of the traditional pancetta or bacon), and uni. It’s a local spot but not too far from the Strip.”

Piero’s (355 Convention Center Dr.; 702-369-2305) is an old-school Italian red-sauce place. People still get dressed up to go to dinner there. It’s very warm and inviting. The menu has all the Italian-American classics; I always order the osso buco. Everyone who goes there goes on a specific day of the week, so you’ll see the same people there for dinner every Friday, for example.”

Fine Dining

Jaleo. Photo: Courtesey of Jaleo.
Jaleo. Photo: Courtesey of Jaleo.

“I love Jaleo (3708 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 702-698-7950), by chef José Andrés, at the Cosmopolitan. That place is incredible. He does this chicken croquette (croquetas de pollo on the menu) that’s served in a sneaker, which is really fun. I always, always, always get his tomato bread — you crave it. He has the bread come in from Barcelona; they rub it with tomatoes. It’s absolutely delicious. His dishes are very playful. He’ll send you out an olive, and it won’t have the texture of an olive but it’ll taste like one. He has a private-dining area called é by José Andrés. Jaleo is meant to be street-style tapas of Barcelona, and é is more the molecular-foodie side⁠ — there are only nine seats (two seatings available every night), and they’re usually booked months in advance. At Jaleo, there’s this huge paella pan set up in the middle of the restaurant. It’s wood-burning, and they cook all the paella in there. It’s live action in the dining room.”

Buffet

Rows of desserts at Bacchanal. Photo: Courtesy of Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace

“The buffets are kind of a classic for all of us. The one at Bally’s (3645 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 702-967-7258) is still really rockin’, I’m not gonna lie. You can go crazy and do caviar and Champagne. There’s prime rib, a big shellfish section, piles of desserts. I love all the seafood and shellfish there. Just load up on a plate of crab. Bacchanal (3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 702-731-7928) at Caesars Palace is a great one as well. Bally’s is more classic, and Bacchanal is newer and a little bit more innovative — like truffled deviled eggs, lump-crab avocado toast, and red-velvet pancakes.”

Nightclubs

The Chainsmokers at XS (left) and the pool at KAOS. Photo: Danny Mahoney/Wynn Nightlife; Courtesy of KAOS.
The Chainsmokers at XS (left) and the pool at KAOS. Photo: Danny Mahoney/Wynn Nightlife; Courtesy of KAOS.

“I still love going to XS (3131 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 702-770-0097) at the Wynn. It’s half-outside and half-inside and just gorgeous. They have great DJs and programming. XS and Encore Beach Club are still my favorites, hands down. Drake is at XS right now. When I worked on the Strip, I would send everyone to XS. There’s also a new ‘dayclub’ and nightclub at the art-filled Palms called Kaos (4321 W. Flamingo Rd.; 702-329-6200). Cardi B has a residency there. It lives up to its name without a doubt. At the hotels on the Strip, you’ll always meet promoters who will give you their card and waive the cover for you. Otherwise you can go through a concierge service. (Vegas Girls Night Out is one, run by a Las Vegas native, Bri Steck.)”

Downtown Bars

Laundry Room (left) and Commonwealth. Photo: Courtesy of Commonwealth.
Laundry Room (left) and Commonwealth. Photo: Courtesy of Commonwealth.

“Locals go out on the Strip when we want to gamble, have a nice dinner, or go to a show. But more likely, locals are going to be downtown rather than on the Strip. Whenever I think of downtown Vegas, I think of Fremont Street. That’s where Beauty Bar (517 Fremont St.; 702-598-3757), the Griffin (511 Fremont St.; 702-382-0577), Park on Fremont (506 Fremont St.; 702-834-3160), and Evel Pie (508 Fremont St.; 702-840-6460) are. You can definitely barhop happily on that street. Commonwealth (525 E. Fremont St.; 702-445-6400) has the secret speakeasy the Laundry Room in back. It’s very cocktail driven and intimate. When you get in there, you feel like the Who’s Who. They have great DJs on the rooftop. My favorite cocktail bar downtown, though, is the Downtown Cocktail Room (111 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 702-880-3696). It’s very dark in there with lots of house music playing, but they do really, really cool cocktails. You can just sit at the bar and be in the mixologist’s hands.”

Museum

Photo: The Neon Museum

“I love the Neon Museum (770 Las Vegas Blvd. North; 702-387-6366). It really captures our history with more than 200 signs and memorabilia dating back to the 1930s — the iconic Stardust sign, all the neon lights. You get a glimpse into what the Strip used to look like. It’s set up almost like a junkyard; locals call it the Neon Boneyard. Everything is set up in an outdoor exhibit. There’s this Liberace sign with a piano underneath that plays by itself and lights up at night. More people go during the day, though. My favorite is the original Atomic Liquors sign. Atomic had Vegas’s oldest liquor license; people used to go on the bar’s rooftop and watch atomic bombs being tested. That sign is iconic.”

Tourist Attractions

The fountains at the Bellagio. Photo: littleny/Getty Images

“Everyone should see the fountains at the Bellagio (3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd.) once. They’re gorgeous. Also go look at Caesars Palace (3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd.), which also has the new Vanderpump Cocktail Garden (3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 866-227-5938). It’s shocking how big and cool-looking it is from the Strip. When you get further downtown, you can see more of older Vegas. I always tell people to check out Fremont Street and the downtown scene. I love the High Roller Ferris wheel at the LINQ Hotel (3545 S. Las Vegas Blvd.). It’s relaxing, and you can see the whole city. The Volcano at the Mirage (3400 S. Las Vegas Blvd.) is timeless, and the view from Top of the World (2000 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 702-380-7777) is worth the visit.”

Antiques

Photo: Antique Mall of America/Facebook

“Our downtown has great antiques shops, like the Antique Mall of America (9151 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 702-933-2791). It’s huge, like 43,000 square feet. They have thousands of Las Vegas oddities, retro Vegas furniture, collectibles, records, memorabilia. There is so much down there. We purchased a few pieces for La Strega there.”

Day Trip

Valley of Fire State Park. Photo: Sophie Dauwe/Pepite Production/Getty Images/iStockphoto

“We have great trails. There’s a great hike up in Red Rock Canyon. That’s where most of us locals go on our day off to clear our heads and stay sane. It’s beautiful up there. I don’t camp at Red Rock; I just go for the trails. I love the Ice Box trail, and there’s a 13-mile bike ride that’s a total butt kicker. For camping, I go to Mount Charleston. That’s only about 40 minutes away. You can go snowboarding in winter. A lot of people go to Hoover Dam or the Grand Canyon, but you’re also not too far from Zion National Park in Utah, which is incredible.”

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A Chef’s Guide to Las Vegas