I am a big fan of locally guided food tours, and try to take them wherever I go. There’s no better way to explore the cuisine of a place than with a knowledgeable local guide, and instead of being forced to choose one spot for a meal, you usually get a broad sampling while learning the story behind them. I’ve taken excellent culinary tours in places as diverse as New Orleans, Miami, Bali, Bangkok, San Sebastian and Buenos Aires, and you can read my piece about the one-of-a-kind Sushi University tours in Tokyo here at Forbes.
But the stunner I recently enjoyed with Las Vegas-based Lip Smacking Foodie Tours was one of the finest ever, and pulled no punches when it came to showcasing the city’s best – and best hidden gems.
First, I have to give credit where credit is due. My friend and colleague Mike Hiller, a former chef and culinary expert who covers Las Vegas for the Los Angeles Times and also runs the number one food blog about Dallas, where he lives, Escape Hatch Dallas, told me about these tours. In fact, he told me I “had to” go on one. And he was right. Because anyone who loves food and visits Vegas has to go on one. My tour had both repeat out of town visitors who had done other tours with the company, loved it, and came back for more, as well as and locals who discovered things they had no idea existed.
As Mike wrote in the Times, “Everybody thinks they know the best restaurants in Vegas, but Donald Contursi really does. Before starting his award-winning Lip Smacking Foodie Tours, Contursi worked as a waiter at some of the top restaurants in the city. His three-hour guided walking tours take you to four of the top restaurants on the Strip. At each stop, you’ll be treated like VIPs, with immediate seating and served several signature dishes at each restaurant. Along the way, you’ll meet the chefs, learn Vegas insider secrets and eat more good food than you could arrange on your own. The tours are the highest-rated Vegas tours on tripadvisor.com, with more than 1,400 five-star reviews.” It is also Time Out’s top pick for Vegas food tours and as the city’s second-best tour of any kind. Other recent honors include 2018 Best Tour, Best Food Tour, and Best Date Night Spot by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. A few years earlier, Hiller did a more detailed feature on the tours for the Dallas Morning News, which you can read here.
So, what makes these tours so good? Lots of things.
First, they pick excellent places to eat, top tier restaurants, but ones that might be off your usual tourist radar. That’s especially important in Vegas, where choices are overwhelming but a lot of them potential missteps. Everyone visiting wants to know where to eat, and many are terribly misinformed about the food scene, what’s good and what’s not. Every place Lip Smacking Foodie Tours owner Donald Contursi has chosen is a standout. For instance, no one on my tour other than myself was familiar with estiatorio Milos in the Cosmopolitan, one of our stops. Yet Milos is arguably the most acclaimed Greek restaurant in the world, a very high-end seafood specialist known for impeccable and unrivalled specialty fish sourcing. The original is in Montreal but Milos has outlets in New York, London, Athens, Miami and soon Los Cabos. It is a fantastic, albeit expensive eatery, and the one knock it gets from critics is about the price. But that doesn’t really matter on the Lip Smacking Foodie Tour, and despite the fact that Milos is very high end, they don’t skimp, and you get not one, not two, but three of the signature dishes. These include the amazing tower of paper thin, perfectly fried eggplant and zucchini chips with delicious house made tzatziki sauce and the famously tender, perfectly cooked and carefully sourced octopus.
That’s just one example, and at every stop we sampled generous servings of multiple specialties, including the deliciously decadent pork belly bun that made the otherwise overrated David Chang’s restaurant empire a success at Momofuku. At each stop you get three or four dishes, along with a printed menu explaining what you are eating and as a keepsake to remember later. We also visited Javier’s in the Aria, the best and most famous Mexican eatery in the city that many tourists have no idea exists – except those from LA, like Leonardo DiCaprio and the many NBA stars who flock here religiously.
Which brings us to advantage number two – you really do get treated like a VIP. Places like Javier’s are crazy busy, especially at dinner, and often have two-plus hour waits if you are not a celebrity, athlete or a guest of Contursi’s. His tours are like clockwork, and I don’t want to give away his behind the scenes trade secrets, but he has worked closely with all the participating restaurants to create an invisible system so that when his tours arrive, even at peak times, they go straight past the lines to pre-set tables where fresh food arrives almost immediately, with things like special diets or allergies taken care of without having to ask, almost psychic service, while bystanders are left wondering “who are those guys?” when the groups saunter in like they own the place.
“It started for me with wanting to showcase the best dishes in the city,” Contursi told me, “but then I was like, hey, it’s Vegas, so why not be a VIP? We get the best tables with no lines and no waits.”
Contursi also makes sure his guides go above and beyond, and in addition to taking guests around to a great slate of carefully curated spots, they explain history, art and sights along the way, giving great recommendations for future meals and drinks, insider specials, and all kinds of useful travel info. For instance, he advised a visiting couple in our group to head up to the top of the Waldorf (formerly Mandarin) for the best view in town, with a cocktail or free without, a great alternative to the several paid high-altitude lookout options in the city. He explained the locally famous off-menu cocktail at Cosmo’s Chandelier Bar and why it has a cult following. They even give out detailed pamphlets with Contursi’s personal favorite eateries in all sorts of categories, locations and price ranges so you can continue exploring the city’s vast food scene on your own with his knowledge base. For this reason, I highly recommend planning a tour early in your visit, maybe even the first day, because you will want to use what you learn afterwards (I also recommend booking before you get to Vegas as the tours often sell out).
The sheer variety of tours also makes it so there is truly something for everyone. I did the Afternoon Culinary Adventure, with four substantial eating stops in two and half hours between Arai, Crystals and the Cosmopolitan. Easy walking, great variety and enough food to do double duty as lunch and dinner. This is an absolutely perfect choice if you are seeing a show, which usually creates an awkward dinner timing situation. There’s also a three-hour Savors of the Strip evening and more dinner-style tour and a Boozy Brunch Tour, with three lavish stops for everything from dim sum to French pastries, accompanied by specialty brunch cocktails. For the other basic tours, drinks are a la carte at each stop, or there is an optional cocktail add on that includes the signature drink at each stop. If you like adult beverages, you should probably do this, as some guests kick themselves as they order drinks along the way and spend more for less. All these tours have completely different restaurant lineups so if you do more than one it is always new.
The tours are also great values, even though they are pricier than many food tours in other cities (but certainly not Tokyo!). For example, the afternoon tour I did is $125, and just the Milos portion of that would blow more than half your budget if you tried to do it solo. As I said, it equaled lunch and dinner, and includes restaurant gratuities. The downtown tour is the same price (offered variously at lunch and dinner time) and Strip dinner tour is $199 but includes even more dishes. The Boozy Brunch is on weekends and runs $149.
Next time I visit I am going to do the Downtown Tour, since this is the area that has the most interesting new food scene in the city, but the one that visitors know the least about. “Whenever I do the Downtown Tour, I get people saying, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been coming here for 20 years and I never even knew this existed.’” Here is where Contursi’s local knowledge really shines. On the Strip, you are typically greeted by a chef or staffer with a warm welcome, but on the Downtown Tour, you are typically a special guest of the owner/operator, and everyone I spoke to who did this tour, focused on truly independent eateries like the crazy-acclaimed Esther’s Kitchen, absolutely raved about it.
Lip Smacking Foodie Tours also has a unique and notable collaboration option with locally popular Maverick helicopters for the value-added “Savory Bites and Neon Lights,” package. This combines the Savors of the Strip tour with a discounted over the Strip flightseeing experience. It’s just $100 as an add on, and includes champagne at the terminal, roundtrip transportation returning you to your hotel afterwards, and the flight itself. They also offer a similar combo package with sightseeing specialist Pink Jeep tours. Contursi also does a lot of custom tours for corporate outings, and while the standard outings usually have less than a dozen guests, he does custom ones for as many as 150, arranging buses or whatever is necessary. It is a great corporate entertaining event or teambuilding exercise in a city besieged with conventions and meetings.
Finally, there is the biggest fine dining secret in town, the carnivore’s Bucket List event, Contursi’s one-of-a-kind Ultimate Steak Lovers tour. This is offered only to small private groups, and includes three stops at A-List red meat venues: Bazaar Meat, by world-renowned Chef Jose Andres, Jean Georges Steakhouse by star chef Jean Georges Vongerichten, and the city’s newest hotspot, Scotch 80 Prime. You try a sampling of the best of the best, including house dry aged USDA prime, true imported A5 Japanese Wagyu ribeye, a uniquely slow smoked full-blood domestic Wagyu brisket from California’s lauded Mishima Ranch, and bone-in Tomahawk Ribeye. That’s just some of the beef. You also get plenty of foie gras, paper-thin slices of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, Spain’s famed black-footed Spanish pig, and Scotch 80’s signature Mesquite Fired Crustacean Tower, piled high with Maine lobster, white shrimp, Spanish octopus, Alaskan King crab, all flambéed right at the table. Decadent desserts, sides and more apps are included, as is a carefully chosen slate of exceptional wines. This is the kind of thing you do with a group of friends for a bachelor party, anniversary, birthday or small business outing, and while it is by far the most expensive offering at $799 per person, like all the tours it is a good value and much less than you could arrange it for yourself. It includes a best of the best slate of the most coveted delicacies at the city’s finest steakhouses, the drinks, the private transportation all night long – and the VIP treatment Lip Smacking Foodie Tours always delivers.