LAS VEGAS' CHEF WAVE dates back to 1992, when Wolfgang Puck brought Spago from Beverly Hills to the Forum Shops at Caesars.
Emeril Lagasse (New Orleans Fish House, MGM Grand) and Mark Miller (Coyote Cafe, Red Sage) soon followed.
Most recently, the New York chefs -- including Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Vong, Jojo), Nobu Matsuhisa (Nobu), and Charlie Palmer (Aureole, New York) -- have established branches in hotels on The Strip.
But the dining revolution hasn't affected everyone. For Hawaii residents who choose to play in Vegas, the buffet is still king. It doesn't make sense to go anywhere else when package tours include complimentary meals.
"Vacations Hawaii makes it so easy," said Larry Oshiro from Maui. "They set you up with a direct flight to Vegas, room and all these dining coupons. I always come home heavier."
Said Tadao Murakami, who was there to golf, "We go wherever we get coupon. Then we don't have to pay."
His golfing buddy Ben Kekumu agreed, saying, "You know local people, they don't care too much about fancy food. They no care where they go, as long as cheap. Or free."
The golfers spoke highly of Friday and Sunday seafood days at the Fremont Hotel and Casino and the variety at the Main Street Station buffet, with its ribs and Pacific Rim specialties such as kalua pork, oxtail stew, beef teriyaki, namasu and pork fried rice.
"By myself I can eat $23 worth of food (at Main Street Station)," said Kekumu. Good deal. The buffet only costs $4.99 for breakfast, $6.99 for lunch and $9.99 for dinner.
The Hawaii connection dates to 1975, when Boyd Gaming opened the California Hotel and Casino and recognized the lure of gambling for Hawaii travelers. Through the years, the company has filled its ranks with ex-Hawaii residents such as food and beverage manager Lane Conley, who offered input on menus while inviting feedback from guests.
"I think this company responds well to customers' wants," said Boyd's publicist, David Brendmoen. "If they ask for chow mein and we serve hot dogs, it's not going to satisfy people."
Visitors to Las Vegas can expect to pay $5.95 to $8.95 for a casino breakfast or lunch buffet, which is a whole lot cheaper than an $85 prix fixe meal at one of the newfangled, star-powered restaurants, where a single scallop -- if you simply divide the cost by five courses -- might be valued at $17. For that price, you could enter buffet heaven three times.
Most of the old-timers who have stayed at Boyd Properties since the '70s, continue to patronize the California, Main Street Station and Fremont restaurants, but a younger generation is becoming more adventurous, crossing the line or taking bus No. 304 from downtown Vegas to The Strip.
Deedee Bolosan fits the demographic. "We like to go exploring," she said.
"We've gone to the Rio, Mirage, Bellagio -- always the buffet."
Kyle Onuma, who had just arrived from the Big Island, was waiting for a room at the California, and anticipating a visit to a seafood buffet at the Rio.
"We heard about it at home. They're supposed to have a lot of seafood, like Todai. We don't have anything like that in Hilo, so we have to try."
Jan and Brian Nakashima also wandered over to The Strip to sample buffets at Bellagio, the MGM Grand and Rio, picking Bellagio's $22.95 dinner buffet as their favorite.
"We're not fancy eaters, but we like to try different things," Jan said. "Bellagio has it all -- king crab legs, jumbo shrimp, venison, duck."
Of course, for many people, dining will never be Vegas' main attraction.
Said Jan, "Some people are gamblers, not eaters."
The inexpensive buffet is no mirage. It lives at the Sahara. For $5.49, about the price of a coffee-shop burger in Hawaii, you can have just about anything you desire during a weekday brunch. (Tip: Get a dollar off for each of up to four diners with a coupon from Tour Guide magazine, a street freebie.)
Sahara BuffetAt The Sahara Hotel and Casino. Weekday brunch 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. $5.49; 4 to 10 p.m. dinner buffet $6.49; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday/Sunday buffet brunch $8.49.
Call (702) 737-2111
Enter the Arabian Nights-styled restaurant through the Nascar Cafe. Excess befitting a Saudi oil tycoon is your gain. I adored the bagels with lox and assortment of fresh fruit. Then take your pick of ham, cheese, bacon, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, jalapenos and bell peppers at the omelette bar. Or stroll over to the carved-meat station for cuts of ham, turkey or roast beef to accompany huevos ranchos and potatoes au gratin. Another specialty is the beef-filled tamale.
For those who like a sugar rush in the morning, there are glazed, sugar and filled doughnuts, long johns, danishes and croissants, pancakes and waffles, and I haven't even begun to talk about desserts of chocolate and custard pies, cakes, brownies, cobblers and cheesecake.
There's just one difference between this property and those catering specifically to Hawaii clientele. Despite the range of offerings, there's no Portuguese sausage or Spam.
Some of my favorite places to eat on vacation are the places too obscure or in areas too seedy to make it into traditional guides. I wanted to visit the Horn of Africa restaurant, but it was only open in the evening and I had committed to my list.
Thai Original BBQ RestaurantAt 1424 South Third and Utah. Meal for two about $15 to $30.
Call (702) 383-1128.
Nevertheless, wandering around the vicinity of Horn of Africa -- between downtown Las Vegas and The Strip, an area dotted with topless bars, motor motels, dinky wedding chapels and signs that read "Warning -- This area under surveillance" -- I found this little haven, a companion restaurant to the Royal Thai Motel.
It always amuses me to see how transplanted cuisines adapt to their new homes. Whereas Thai food in Hawaii is largely recognized for its curries, here curries get barely a nod. This restaurant is best known for its Thai BBQ Chicken served with honey sauce. It's available for $6.25 as an a la carte entree. The best deal is the $4.50 weekday luncheon special which features a huge plate of the BBQ chicken with fried rice.
In Hawaii, we have our Evil Jungle Prince-style shrimp. This restaurant has "The Monster" ($7.95), grilled shrimp splashed with a sweet and spicy sauce, splashed with lime and topped with chopped green onions and red peppers.
This is not the best Thai food you'll ever have, but it can offer a pleasant diversion from the monotony of buffets without breaking your budget.
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