Image: Twist, Las Vegas
Coral Von Zumwalt  /  via Travel +Leisure
On the 23rd floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel is Twist, the first stateside restaurant from chef Pierre Gagnaire. The room's pale, chilly lighting is more suited to a museum — or a spaceship.
updated 3/18/2011 11:56:28 AM ET 2011-03-18T15:56:28

There was a time, way back, when Las Vegas wasn’t much of a food town. For most of its brief history, this was a land of soggy pancakes and leathery steaks, of flavorless crab legs and tasteless design. Then again, who really cared? There was plenty to amuse us besides eating, let alone eating well.

Slideshow: Las Vegas's best restaurants

All that changed starting in the early ‘90s, when Wolfgang Puck arrived to make the city safe for celebrity chefs and serious diners. Since then nearly every famous toque you can name has set up shop along the Strip — some have become Las Vegas’s best restaurants, others not so much, but none sparing any expense. The result? A reshuffling of priorities for the city’s hotel and casino developers, and for the (increasingly ravenous) visitors they cater to, for whom grass-fed beef cheeks are likely as enticing as showgirls, blackjack, and Cher. In the culinary candyland that is 21st-century Las Vegas, no respectable megaresort would think to open without a resident cadre of name-brand chefs.

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And now the tables are turning yet again. Today’s Vegas is no longer defined only by splashy casino-side restaurants — though there are still plenty of those, a few of them actually worth the exorbitant price tag. For food-lovers the parameters have expanded tenfold, apace with the city itself. A devoted chowhound could spend weeks just eating his way through Vegas’s Chinatown, oriented along Spring Mountain Road, jumping from pho shop to boba tea shop, Hawaiian poke joint to Macanese bakery, Taiwanese noodle house to Mongolian barbecue.

Within a taxi ride of the Strip one can find a growing number of Las Vegas’s best restaurants, from an authentic Neopolitan pizzeria to a cult-worthy burger joint and a late-night robata grill frequented by all those celebrity chefs. One of the most acclaimed Thai kitchens in America is tucked into an unassuming mini-mall near the Sahara Hotel & Casino. Against expectations, Las Vegas is slowly but surely acquiring — gasp! — a proper local restaurant scene.

Lest we paint too rosy a picture, let’s acknowledge that inspired cooking in Vegas remains the exception, not the rule. For every great meal you’ll still find a dozen desultory buffets, boring fast-food outlets, and cynical chefs slinging overpriced comfort food. Which is all the more reason why the following places stand out as Las Vegas’s best restaurants — the delectable highlights of a city fitfully evolving into a food town.

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