LOS ANGELES -- What happens in Vegas is now splashed across food blogs and foodie Twitter feeds, as the "Sin" in Sin City more often refers to overindulging at a celebrity chef's restaurant than gambling, drinking and cavorting with pole dancers.
A constellation of star chefs have established a toe-hold in the desert vacation mecca, with Food Network stars Giada De Laurentiis and Guy Fieri among the more recent arrivals, joining established stake holders Bobby Flay and Gordon Ramsay. MGM Resorts alone touts TV regulars Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse and Tom Colicchio, as well as culinary superstars Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and Charlie Palmer, just to name a few.
With the rise of Indian casinos and other gaming venues across the country impacting their gambling business, Vegas entrepreneurs have felt the need to diversify.
"We started to recognize the need to make Vegas a true destination beyond gaming," says Philip Auerbach, senior VP of hospitality marketing, Caesars Entertainment, who adds that internal research shows more and more visitors are hitting the Strip in search of the perfect steak, and not the slots. "Give them a reason to come and experience stuff they couldn't get anywhere else. Chefs have made Vegas a mainstay destination."
Fox TV star Ramsay ("MasterChef," "Hotel Hell"), who runs three Las Vegas eateries with combined seven Michelin stars, agrees. "Las Vegas is a vibrant, amazing city," he says via email. "It used to be the capital of buffets but now top chefs are opening up restaurants, and it's become a culinary hot spot."
According to a 2014 report from the UNLV Center for Business & Economic Research, tourists forked out an estimated $26 billion on non-gaming activities in 2013, compared to $6.5 billion on gaming. Of the $837 spent by the average visitor, $278 went to food and beverages.
Non-gaming spending has been rising steadily since 2004, when Flay opened his Mesa Grill in Caesars, opening the flood gates to other celebrity chefs in his wake.
Caesars Entertainment Group certainly gives foodies great reasons to keep coming back: Ramsay, Flay, Nobu Matsuhisa, Guy Savoy and Michel Richard are among the chefs who pepper the Caesars' properties.
Promoting fine dining and celebrity chefs "was a way to dialogue with a more sophisticated and wealthy consumer who may not have been attracted to Vegas before," says David McIntyre, VP of food and beverage at MGM Resorts.
The evolution of Vegas into a food destination has been meritocratic and democratic, and has coincided with the rise in popularity of cablers such as the Food Network and reality series like Bravo's "Top Chef" and CNN's "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" that emphasize food and travel.
"We've got a level of sophistication, and then we have everything else too," says McIntyre, citing the accessibility of Food Network stars Fieri, who just opened Guy Fieri's Vegas Kitchen & Bar at the Linq, and De Laurentiis, the first femme chef to open a namesake eatery in Las Vegas.
"I think it's been more in recognizing the different demographics of Vegas consumer, from the Michelin-starred fine dining to the more casual dining of the Food Network stars' places," Auerbach says.
For De Laurentiis, opening Giada in Vegas offered her brand exposure -- and freedom. After looking at spaces across the country for several years, for her, location became paramount. "I ultimately decided on Las Vegas because I had the opportunity to completely build out a space myself, overlooking one of the biggest intersections in Las Vegas, maybe even the world," she says via email. "That opportunity doesn't come along too often."
Buddy Valastro, of TLC's "Cake Boss," opened Buddy V's at the Venetian in 2013; he also runs a Vegas outlet of his New Jersey-based Carlo's Bakery there.
"My brand is family," he says via email. "When we were thinking about Las Vegas, we were at first a little worried -- but the amount of visitors, especially overseas visitors, is astonishing. When you pair that with the fact that 'Cake Boss' airs in over 180 countries, it's truly a way for fans the experience the brand first-hand."
The competition in Vegas is fierce between the hotel/casinos, which look to the Michelin-starred chefs to add some epicurean cred to their venues. That also puts a lot of pressure on the folks behind the restaurants.
"What is important is to offer value in the quality of the food, the wine and the service," says chef Daniel Boulud, whose DB Brasserie is in the Venetian. "For many star chefs on the Strip, what is important is not always to create an expensive restaurant with an over-the-top experience, but more about the quality at a reasonable price and offer the best casual experience in fine dining."
Matsuhisa, who also opened Nobu Hotel at Caesars Palace, agrees: "We all believe that hospitality has to be
about great food, great service and great products."
Hard-core foodies are hitting the Strip armed not only with their appetites, but also with a discerning palate that never forgets.
"Las Vegas has some tough critics," Ramsay says. "They are on you, and if you aren't ready, they'll rip your bones."