N.B. I first published this piece in the summer of 1997, in the first issue of my zine Travelling Shoes. The issue was titled “Las Vegas: Carnival of Fools”.
It’s hard to credit now, but as recently as 20 years ago, Las Vegas was not a major dining destination. Back then, Joël Robuchon was still some unknown French guy who was in a committed relationship with the Michelin Man, not the tyrant at the head of an empire of gastro-lux. And the only celebrity chef in Vegas was Wolfgang! who sounded like Arnold and cooked like Alice (if you squinted your eyes) who had opened another Spago at the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace in 1992. But even five years later, in 1997, you didn’t come to Las Vegas to eat some frou-frou, California chicken, lady pizza. You came to Vegas to lose money, smoke cigars, drink scotch and eat beef, big hunks of manly rare beef, of the sort that Sinatra would send over to the two thick-necked gentlemen who travelled with him.
In other words, Las Vegas was prime rib country, and even a dull-eyed visitor could not help but notice that he could have a complete prime rib dinner at a very good price. As you read “The Cult of Prime Rib”, keep the following fact in mind: in 1997, a Big Mac combo meal in New York City cost $4.97.
Signs advertising inexpensive prime rib are everywhere in Las Vegas. They’re more ubiquitious than advertisements for Siegfried and Roy, more common than pictures of Wayne Newton. The marquee of every hotel, every casino, and every two-bit juke joint in town touts a low-cost prime rib meal. And, if we can believe those marquees, prime rib isn’t just for dinner any more. Instead, the erstwhile glutton can now enjoy prime rib for lunch, prime rib for brunch, prime rib with eggs in the morning, prime rib as a midnight snack, and even prime rib as an appetizer before the main course. In short, prime rib in every possible culinary permutation and combination, at every possible opportunity.
The history of Las Vegas’s obsession with prime rib can be traced back to at least the Ramona Room at R.E. Griffith’s The Last Frontier, the strips second gambling resort, which opened for business on October 30, 1942. For a dollar-fifty, guests could enjoy “juicy rich prime ribs of Eastern steer beef, cooked in rock salt, served from the cart at your table with Idaho baked potato with chives, tossed salad, rolls and coffee.” When you consider that those were 1942 dollars, the Ramona Room wasn’t all that much less expensive than some of the cheap prime rib currently available in Vegas. By cheap, I don’t mean slightly less than market price. I mean rock-bottom, loss-leader, dirt cheap. A complete prime rib dinner at a coffee shop in a smaller Strip hotel can frequently be had for under seven dollars, soft drink included. (The Aladdin has prime rib at $5.95, the Sahara at $5.49, but the current winner seems to be the Gold Coast, which offers a sixteen ounce cut of beef and all the fixings for only $4.99.)
In Las Vegas, even the most pathetic, down-on-his-luck low-roller can scrape up enough money to satisfy that nagging blood lust. The city is a paradise for the frugal carnivore. It’s the one of the great beef-eating towns in these entire chicken-eating United States; a place of glorious, corn-fed, fattened-up, feedlot excess, where cholesterol and calories and clogged arteries aren’t mentioned and don’t matter. “Would you like another pint of sour cream and more bacon bits on that baked potato, Sir?” is the rallying cry for legions of waddling visitors, all intent on driving the entire Angus breed to the very brink of extinction.
Of course, I felt right at home among the people of the Cult of Prime Rib. I love prime rib. I wallow in the blood, sinew, and silky fat of a good rare cut, preferrably with a little fresh horseradish. And while I’d probably never turn down a prime rib dinner at even the most obscure Strip hotel, I still think there’s something faintly obscene about all of that low-priced beef. Perhaps that’s why I thoroughly enjoyed paying $15.95 for a prime rib dinner at Sir Galahad’s, a fancy Ye Olde English themed restaurant in the Excalibur, where the prime rib is served at your table from the cart. Not only was the food delicious, the service excellent, and the decor fairly tasteful (and not just by Vegas standards, either), but it seemed like a real dinner out, and not just another cheap Vegas face-stuffing. (Without a doubt, the worst experience to be had in Vegas, other than being eaten by one of Siegfried and Roy’s white tigers or falling into the Mirage volcano, is the buffet at Circus Circus–bad food, bad decor, and bad manners all combine to make this place seem like the Sizzler from Hell.)
Maybe my ambivalence towards cheap prime rib comes from some twisted belief in the sanctity of prime rib–a belief that a good cut of meat, like fine champagne, should be reserved for special occasions. Dammit, prime rib should be earned by hard labor and is a manifestation of God’s approval. It shouldn’t be spread around willy-nilly, at bargain rates, to those who are less deserving of His grace.
Apparently it’s come to this; after 350 years of rough usage, the only vestige of hard-core American Calvinism is a faint nagging about the appropriateness of dinner entrees.