Sin City's celebrity chef craze: A guide to Las Vegas' high-end restaurant options

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

LAS VEGAS - People come to Las Vegas to eat. Much like folks go to Minneapolis to shop in a monster mall or New York to gawk at Christmas lights.

Bellagio Casino - Picasso
Those are real Picassos on the wall at Bellagio's super gourmet, stuffy spot.
Bellagio Casino - PicassoWynn - Casino ResortBouchon at The VenetianThe Falls golf course in Vegas

The tide's shifted that much in this town, where buffets with $3.99 steaks used to be considered the height of fine dining.

Now Sin City is all about gourmet dining by celebrity chefs in ultra hip settings. Its showcase big-ticket dining to go right along with the showcase gambling, the showcase golf and the showcase shopping.

Couples who wouldn't dream of dropping $100 on a dinner back home go to Las Vegas and splurge on a $300 affair where self-dubbed wine angels are rappelling down the sides of a giant glass tower.

"If you go to Vegas and don't come back with a story about some great over-the-top meal, people look at you funny these days," said Ralph Victorson, a frequent Las Vegas visitor.

Those there on a golf trip will quickly discover that it's easy to equal - and at times, easy to surpass - your green fees in dining costs when you go to a Vegas celebrity chef. Every casino hotel is boasting about, and marketing madly, its "fantastic" dining palaces. Even casinos that aren't on the radar of the beautiful people - places like the old-school, off-strip Golden Nugget - are in a fine dining tizzy.

Thirty-dollar entrees (make that $40-$50 entrees in the showcase meal spots at really upscale hotels like Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas) can turn a tidy profit that causes any casino baron to gleam.

Just like in Las Vegas golf courses, paying big bucks does not guarantee big wows in Sin City dining though. All those grandly priced meals are anything but equal.

Prominent GQ magazine food critic Alan Richman recently lamented the state of Vegas' celebrity chef dining fixation. Richman estimates that many of Las Vegas' big-name restaurants are only 50-60 percent as good as their namesake restaurants from other cities. But Richman is partially missing the point.

There's no doubt you can get better high-end dinning for more reasonable prices in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and arguably even Scottsdale.

But if you're coming to Las Vegas from St. Louis, Detroit, Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Denver - or a hundred other spots on the map - this trip could be your best chance to have that decadent blowout meal to remember.

Whether you're looking for the dinner of a lifetime or just a great meal where you'll feel like you didn't get had no matter where you're from and how many truffles and foie gras you're used to, here's a quick guide to the best in Vegas' high-end dining.

Your swing coach may not thank you in the morning. But your stomach will be happy.

5 Las Vegas restaurants to bet on

Bouchon at The Venetian: Thomas Keller is a celebrity chef who's mainstream enough - Time magazine once named him its Chef of the Year - but who hasn't morphed into a cottage industry/TV star of little substance. More importantly in Bouchon, he created a satellite restaurant with crisp dishes, attentive service and an almost low-key decor (by Vegas standards). If you're just looking for good food served by people who know it, this is your place.

Picasso in Bellagio: This is as high-end as high-end gets. There are real Picassos on the wall - $50 million dollars worth of paintings if you listen to the press clippings - and the room will remind experienced foodies of the kind of atmosphere you only get at spots like Philadelphia's famed Le Bec Fin or New York's legend Daniel.

Only come if you're easily parted with $400 and aren't intimidated by a setting that comes across more than a little stuffy. And if you love great food.

Aureole at Mandalay Bay: You won't ever mistake another restaurant for Aureole. This is the place with the 42-foot high gleaming glass wine tower. Order a bottle and babes in cat suits rappel up and down the tower to locate it. Fortunately, chef Vincent Pouessel's food lives up to the theatrics.

Restaurant Guy Savoy in Caesars Palace: Many of the millions who pass through Caesars every year will never even realize this gastronomy pampering palace is here. Guy Savoy's place is behind a dark wood door, not visible from any casino floor. It's worth finding.

Richman raves that this Guy Savoy is even better than the chef's food legend Paris spot.

Michael Mina in Bellagio: Walking through the colorful garden to Michael Mina's entranceway and your first reaction could be sticker shock. Yes, that's $45 for striped bass on the menu in the display case. Might as well throw all fiscal responsibility to the wind and order one of the five-course tasting menus. It's no stretch to call this the best seafood in any desert.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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