[The Incidental Tourist]

Downtown’s casinos are in need of a flavor boost

Asian update: California Noodle House is new at the Cal.

The new California Noodle House is ideal. It’s a comfortable, neat space with warm decorative touches like a wall-mounted collage of noodle soup bowls and amber-glowing paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The Pacific Rim-influenced cuisine is still trendy, and there’s an open kitchen so you can watch your beef chow fun being made.

Most importantly, it’s a brand-new restaurant in an old Downtown casino—Boyd Gaming’s California—serving the kind of food the Cal’s regulars are already looking for. Ideal.

The unfortunate thing is that it took Boyd a long, long time to create the California Noodle House, to update the dining offerings at one of its three Downtown properties. And that’s the standard for the casinos on or around Fremont Street. Cruise through any of these spots, from Main Street Station and Four Queens to Binion’s and the Fremont, and you’ll notice a significantly stale restaurant selection.

One thing we know about the Vegas visitor of today is that eating and drinking is just as, if not more important than gambling and seeing shows and shopping. In the LVCVA’s 2013 Visitor Profile Study, the average three-day trip expenditure for food and drink was $278.95, greater than the sum of spending for shopping, shows, sightseeing and local transportation. Vegas has become a food-tourist destination, clearly powered by the dynamic and diverse dining available a few miles south on Las Vegas Boulevard.

Of course, we can’t compare Downtown casinos to the Strip, but if we did, it would be important to note that the Strip’s post-recession recovery has moved rather quickly compared to Downtown’s molasses-esque movement. Even when new casinos have not been constructed, there are always several hot new restaurants on the Strip. Food is a major driver now, and not just in the Strip’s megaresorts—just ask the folks at Station Casinos why they’ve dropped millions in the last couple of years updating the eats at their neighborhood properties.

Downtown casinos are way late to this party, and that fact is even more glaring when you consider how important restaurant and bar business has been in the redevelopment of Fremont East (and for Downtown Project).

The Golden Nugget has the best and most restaurants along Fremont Street, and its most recent move was replacing the classic Carson Street Café coffee shop with a tequila bar/Mexican restaurant and a Claim Jumper—not the most exhilarating adjustment. There’s literally nothing to eat in the Las Vegas Club. El Cortez is finally revamping its steakhouse, formerly the Flame, but the new thing won’t be done until spring.

The Plaza's Pop Up Pizza has fresh flavors for everyone.

The Plaza has made a lot of effort with mixed results. A wholesale revamp a few years back brought the successful Hash House A Go Go, the swanky Oscar’s Steakhouse, and the quick-fun Pop Up Pizza, but the casino recently closed its sushi joint. The newest addition, Bier Garten, is a sunny place to enjoy a brew and brat, but it remains mostly undiscovered.

The latest arrival in the city’s center, Downtown Grand, made food a top priority from day one, though it hasn’t become a dining must-do. (Pizza Rock, part of the adjacent Downtown 3rd complex, is a runaway success.) At the eastern end of the Fremont Street Experience, the D was able to generate and sustain excitement after a property-wide rebranding—it used to be Fitzgeralds—in 2012. Installing a new coffee shop and a Coney dog quick stop and bringing in the Detroit-operated Joe Vicari’s Andiamo Steakhouse proved to be wise investments that continue to pay off.

Andiamo also fits because it shows shades of a classic Vegas gourmet room, which Downtown casinos have in spades. There’s Oscar’s at the Plaza, Hugo’s Cellar at Four Queens, Vic & Anthony’s at the Nugget and Top of Binion’s. Tourists and locals will always seek out these nostalgic experiences for special occasions, but there’s competition all over the Valley when it comes to the vintage vibe.

Everybody loves a little old school, but a little is all you need. More than anything, Vegas visitors love the new. What haven’t they seen or done or tasted before? What’s changed since the last time they came to town, one or two or three years ago? The casinos under the canopy need to get with the program and serve up something fresh.

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An award-winning writer who has been documenting life in Las Vegas for more than 20 years, Brock Radke covers entertainment ...

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