Photo © Ethan Hill
Movie director Paul Feig loves the sort of extravagant dining experiences that are increasingly rare in this rumpled T-shirt world. His salvation: Las Vegas, where chefs feed his hunger for oceans of Champagne and swells of caviar.
When I was a kid, I hated food. Other than Double Stuf Oreos, canned vanilla frosting and a chocolatey Texas sheet cake my mom would make as an occasional treat, nothing had any flavor. This was the 1960s and '70s, and pretty much everything I put in my mouth seemed to have slid out of a can, come out of the freezer or been tortured into submission inside a pressure cooker. The restaurants in suburban Detroit never panned out, as plates of fried food and over-boiled vegetables greeted me in establishments with possessory names like Dimitri's Rendezvous and Gino's Surf—all of which ended in Paul's Misery, because I would barely touch my meal and end up getting yelled at by my hardworking dad. And standing above it all was the one restaurant that convinced me I was destined for a lifetime of food avoidance: The Sweden House Smorgasbord.
My father took us to this smorgasbord palace every Sunday after church. He loved the place. I hated it. Everything about it was wrong. You had to stand in a long line when you first entered, wearing your Sunday finest, then take a tray and slide it down the metal rails while scooping the bland, overcooked food onto your plate. For my dad, the bounty of all-you-can-eat proved enough to lure him back week after week, year after year. For me, it was all too reminiscent of the barely edible hell I had to endure every day in the school cafeteria.
The end result of all this was an impassioned vow I made to myself at the age of 13: "When I grow up and have my own money, I will never go to a restaurant where a) a server doesn't take my order and bring me my food and b) the food isn't fantastic." And now, 38 years and a mountain of spent paychecks later, I continue to honor that vow.
Simply put, I love restaurants. And the fancier the restaurant, the more I love it. I can still enjoy the occasional casual spot, as long as the food is good. But eating out should be an event. If I could afford to eat every meal for the rest of my life in a beautiful dining room, surrounded by tuxedoed waiters swarming around my table, trading out large amounts of highly polished utensils for each of the many courses on the chef's tasting menu, I would. I like dressing up for dinner. I like the pageantry of a high-end restaurant. It takes me away from the "Food is fuel" world and into the "Let's enjoy life and celebrate the Nirvana of our taste buds meeting expertly prepared dishes" realm. Great restaurants are like great theater, and both need to be shown the appropriate amount of respect.
Unfortunately, I live in Los Angeles, where the Tyranny of Casual has rendered truly fancy restaurants virtually extinct. (There's definitely great food, but very little pageantry.) Fortunately, I spend a good amount of time in New York City for work and so have no problem getting ultra-civilized dining at places like Jean-Georges, Le Bernardin, La Grenouille and Daniel. But when I'm stuck in L.A. and can't get to NYC, I still have one other swanky gastronomic option: Las Vegas.
I've been going to Vegas pretty much my whole life. My parents used to take me there when I was a kid and I never got over the impression it made on me. The casinos were small and elegant, the patrons clad in suits and cocktail dresses and the restaurants all looked like places James Bond would take a date. I, however, was deposited inside a child-care center, where I would longingly stare at the high-class adult playground and dream of the day I would be old enough to throw on my tux, take my baccarat winnings to the Golden Steer Steakhouse and order the most expensive bottle of Champagne on the menu.
Sadly, once I was old enough to go to Vegas as an adult, in the '80s, the glamour was gone. I would always wear a suit and tie but was merely a stranger in a strange land eliciting stares; an overdressed weirdo who may or may not have been part of the Rat Pack impersonators show. Everyone else was in T-shirts and shorts, and $1.99 buffets were the culinary norm.
After a few years of Vegas road trips that usually ended up with large losses at the blackjack tables and depressing meals in coffee shops, I gave up on the place. Las Vegas was dead.
Several years later, however, my wife decided we should go to Vegas for her birthday. She had read that Aqua (now Michael Mina) at the new Bellagio Hotel was very good. And it was. More than that, it was a proper, formal restaurant, with great service, amazing food and a well-dressed crowd. The next night we ate at Emeril Lagasse's steakhouse at the Venetian, also a delicious and grown-up experience. What was happening?
We started going to Vegas more often. Great chefs were opening restaurants there at an accelerated rate. We had oysters at Bouchon, guinea hen en cocotte (cooked in a pig's bladder with tons of black truffles and foie gras) at Guy Savoy, drank fine wines retrieved by flying bartenders on wires from a four-story wine tower in Charlie Palmer's Aureole and ate fish flown in daily from Italy at Bartolotta. And in all these places, the people around us had actually changed out of their swimsuits and into evening wear. Suddenly, we were booking tables at restaurants from José Andrés, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the Keller boys (Thomas and Hubert—no relation!) and Pierre Gagnaire.
Sitting in Joël Robuchon recently one night, my wife and I were dazzled by a four-hour degustation menu that included a cart covered with every type, shape and size of bread; a labor-intensive tomato course featuring tomato gelée topped with about a hundred perfect dots of mozzarella mousse; osetra caviar on soft-boiled egg with smoked salmon; and finally, a dessert cart that seemed to contain an entire pâtisserie's worth of sweets. It rivaled anything I've had in Europe.
My favorite dining experience ever was a four-hour lunch at Hôtel Le Bristol in Paris in 2002, where the waiters swarmed, the food was otherworldly and I was seated at an outdoor table next to a Nigerian prince. In Vegas, were it not for the occasional sound of slot machines (and the lack of Nigerian royalty), this Robuchon could've easily been in Paris on the Champs-Élysées. I urge you: Go to Vegas and live it up. Pack your nicest clothes, book some top restaurants and help the city continue its foodie rebirth. I'm not going to sugarcoat it. The place isn't perfect yet. You may still end up in a nice restaurant next to a guy in ratty jeans and an ancient polo shirt. And you may still see a high roller in cargo shorts and a Tweety Bird T-shirt yelling at a waiter for a Diet Coke. But it makes life interesting, right? And wouldn't you rather be the cool one in the room? Just ask yourself, "What would Frank do?"
Paul Feig directed the hit comedies The Heat and Bridesmaids.