It’s 3:30 in the morning on a Thursday in August, and I’m lying on the marble floor of my hotel bathroom in Las Vegas. I’m naked and drenched in sweat, crumpled into a fetal position on a bathrobe to shield my clammy skin from the freezing tile. My face is inches from the toilet bowl, which I’ve just soiled by violently puking into it the contents of my stomach. This is not a testament to the quality of my dinner the night before but rather a gross monument to my gourmanderie. Several hours earlier, I’d consumed most of (in no particular order) a perfectly cooked, 64-ounce tomahawk steak; a pound of short ribs; bone marrow; Champagne; Fernet-Branca; red wine; five squares of psilocybin mushroom chocolate; peanut butter mousse; strawberry mousse; various cakes; yellowtail crudo; bread; butter; cheese; Caesar salad (for health); and an order of Stanton Social Prime’s famous French Onion Soup Dumplings, rich little things you can absolutely plow through before you realize you’re only on the first course.
It was a meal you might serve a man condemned to die. But here I was, alive and only wishing for death.
Three days prior, I’d come to Las Vegas to venture into the neon-red heart of American decadence. To be honest, I don’t love Las Vegas — day clubs and Diplo and Dana White, oh my! — but I was in a bit of a rut at home. I was gloomy. Los Angeles was gloomy. Hell, everywhere seemed gloomy, and Vegas might just be, I thought, a regenerative oasis in the desert. At the very least, there’d be buffets.
America is in the midst of a collective cognitive dissonance, which, if you think about it, is really America’s default setting (e.g., a “land of the free” founded by slavers). On the one hand, a vast malaise hangs over the nation thanks to a bevy of now common tragedies. Climate catastrophes and mass shootings are regular occurrences. Homelessness runs rampant in our wealthiest cities. A global pandemic is still killing thousands of people a week. And despite predictions that a Trump presidency would birth a wave of irreverent art the way Reagan inspired an army of punk bands, our recent cultural output seems more interested than ever in satisfying corporate interests. These realities are trying: A 2021 poll of 10,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25 found that 76 percent of respondents thought of the future as “frightening,” while more than half agreed that “humanity is doomed.” Conversely, however, as close and terrifying as this ruination may feel, Americans don’t seem all that concerned with trying to prevent its coming to pass. Our maximalist habits are what got us into this mess — more and bigger, whether that be guns, cars, comic-book movies, or tax breaks for the rich — and yet we are weakening gun laws, buying more SUVs, and our wealth inequality is close to that of the Gilded Age. We see the cliff, and we’re afraid of it, but for some reason we can’t take our foot off the gas.
If I’m doomed, then I might as well be doomed in Las Vegas, which is actually doing pretty well, considering. The city’s population is booming thanks to its sunny climes and low cost of living. It’s getting an MLB team soon — sorry Oakland — and potentially an NBA team after that. And if sports aren’t your thing, Las Vegas also recently completed construction on what this observer believes to be the coolest waste of money the world has seen in a long time: a spherical entertainment arena whose exterior boasts history’s largest LED wall, allowing the dome to resemble any number of other well-known orbs (a basketball, an eyeball, the moon, burrata).
While the rest of the world is burning, Las Vegas is making eyeball stadiums, like the Nero of municipalities. Hunter Thompson came to this city once to try and find what was left of the American dream following the flameout of ’60s idealism and the rise of Nixon. He witnessed social rot, cynicism, violence, and lots of drugs. Half a century later, I endeavored to see what Las Vegas could offer a weary soul in an America that makes Richard Nixon look like Jimmy Carter, an America where a former president facing four criminal indictments isn’t resigning in disgrace but thriving in the approval ratings. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s quote was, “Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are.” And so I went to see what people are eating in America’s id. You can’t make much sense of the world with your brain or heart anymore. Perhaps the answer lies in the stomach.
Do I actually dislike Vegas? It’s something I find myself asking halfway through dinner on my first night there, my animosity melting away like I’ve just seen a long-lost lover and forgotten why we broke up in the first place. My assistant, Hannah, is with me, which is helping temper my disillusionment; Hannah is Gen Z and has never been to Las Vegas as an adult. It’s a delight to watch her take it all in like she’s just been let out on rumspringa. When we pass the famous Bellagio fountain show on our walk to dinner, her eyes light up and she says, “I’d like to lie down on top of one of those jets of water and get shot really high into the sky.”
Dinner that evening is at a restaurant called Superfrico, a self-described “psychedelic” red sauce joint that opened in late 2021, and as Hannah and I devour our beef cheek rigatoni, the pasta resting beneath a generous dusting of shaved truffle, an entertainer in a bedazzled bra stalks around the dining room methodically swallowing razor blades. The decor is a lurid pastiche of pop art from creatives with names like the Sucklord, all of it glowing gently under black light. Imagine if the biggest stoner in your freshman dorm had an unlimited budget for the back-to-school poster sale, and you’re in the ballpark.
“If she did that in LA, people would say she’s glamorizing self-harm,” says Hannah, pointing at the woman, who is now magically pulling the blades up from within her body via a piece of yellow thread.
Fortunately, home seems very far away right now. Despite its reputation as a showman’s town, LA’s dining scene is fairly staid, particularly the places I tend to go. It’s a lot of charred broccolini and succulents on windowsills, with both diners and servers shit-talking in hushed tones about the talentless hacks who got the movie gigs they wanted. I try to imagine suggesting to friends in my Silver Lake milieu a restaurant with costumed fire jugglers and glow-in-the-dark wallpaper, and can hear the snorts of derision in my head.
But here in Superfrico, as Hannah and I marvel at an acrobat doing a handstand on our banquette, there’s a refreshing lack of snobbery. That’s because the candor in the cheesy tagline — “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” — is that coming to Las Vegas is sort of like a mass conspiracy. Just as you can’t be judgy in a brothel or a clown college, you can’t be judgy in Vegas. Once you’re in, you’re in, and it’s impossible to look down your nose with any real righteousness at the next guy doing his thing.
By the time a young man in latex gloves approaches to prepare our tableside mozzarella, massaging the curds in a warm bath before stretching the cheese goo theatrically above his head, Hannah and I are already gorged. Nevertheless, when the 1-pound ivory glob is finally solidified and at rest in front of us, I eat greedily, not caring who sees me wolf down the grassy, milky bites before sopping up the accompanying basil oil with a hunk of bread.
Perhaps it’s this libertarian spirit that allows Las Vegas to flourish, despite all the reasons it shouldn’t. Something Hannah points out to me as we’re walking to lunch the next day, something I then can’t stop thinking about for the rest of the trip, is that she feels like she is encountering real diversity in the places we visit.
I am used to my bubbles, neighborhoods in the gentrified eastern part of LA in which people dress like me, vote like me, and avoid church like me. But the Las Vegas Strip doesn’t allow for that kind of easy atomization. In fact, it’s a place built on the idea that entrenched class hierarchies become more porous within its borders, a city where A Nobody can put it all on black and become A Somebody in the time it takes for the roulette ball to settle.
On paper, it shouldn’t work. Ask anyone who’s even glanced at the news recently if they think it’s wise to put hundreds of thousands of people of every race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, and political orientation into big rooms where they can get fucked up all day while engaging in stressful games of chance. It sounds like a terrible idea, right? But that’s exactly what Vegas does every single week, and it hasn’t been incinerated in a civil war yet. On the contrary, it runs like a well-oiled slot machine. So much so that I wonder if the key to world peace is just legalizing all vice and letting everyone drink liquor in the streets constantly. (A quick Google search revealing that Las Vegas has the 13th-highest homicide rate in America quickly throws cold water on that idea.)
It’s surely Vegas’s interest in welcoming all kinds of people that inspires the city to be so over-the-top. To appeal to the masses, you have to cater to the masses. This thought occurs to me during another period of intense engorgement, at the Wynn brunch buffet, where a sign promises “The best of everything you love.” You’re allowed only two hours to eat before they kick you out, but for a veteran glutton — like myself — that’s plenty of time to go around the world in 80 plates. (If time is especially of the essence, remember that one of the most maximalist things about Vegas is that everything is for sale: I paid extra to get into the buffet’s “priority seating” line and saved myself 40 minutes.) They’ve got Caesar salad next to pork tamales next to Maine lobster Benedict next to campfire brownie bread pudding next to mac and cheese next to fried calamari next to dan dan noodles. A mountain of poached shrimp chills on a foundation of pellet ice, a tub of cocktail sauce just to the side. The morning I was there, the crepe station line was six people deep as a cook in a chef’s toque spooned fat blackberries over one of her golden brown offerings. There were vegan salads and an omelet station. There was even a heap of “black lemon gouda” cheese, a food I’d never heard of that looked exactly like the charcoal soap they keep at the ends of aisles in Whole Foods and tastes like a piece of Parmesan left adjacent to a lemon wedge for too long in your refrigerator. But that’s okay! It’s a buffet, where “fine dining” can very reasonably mean “fine,” as in “adequate.”
The something-for-everyone ethos similarly holds true for the latest Vegas culinary trend of “food halls” (aka food courts to those of us who grew up working in shopping malls). At Famous Foods Street Eats, a 24,000-square-foot attraction in Resorts World, Hannah and I share a chaos meal of sushi, vegan chicken nuggets, and lechon with truffle rice from Pepita’s Kitchen, the first Filipino-owned restaurant on the Strip. Each of the meals is good on its own — particularly the lechon — but my favorite bite is when, in a moment of cross-cultural inspiration, I dip the crispy pork skin into the honey mustard that came with the nuggets. Probably an unforgivable sin to someone out there, but somehow it worked. Just like Vegas.
On our final evening, Hannah and I make a commitment to go hard, despite ourselves. But two days of nonstop eating and drinking are starting to erode our wills. Earlier that day alone, we’d slogged through a breakfast of cheese-laden scrambled eggs and blueberry pancakes bigger than Hannah’s head at the Peppermill Restaurant and Lounge, a rare standalone eatery on the Strip that hides a ’70s-style conversation pit in a dark bar in the back. After that, we went for lunch at Black Tap, the elevated malt shop famous for its burgers and milkshakes, where, in a calorie-induced fugue state, I almost ordered a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos salad before Hannah talked me off the ledge.
“You’ll fucking hate yourself,” she said. But she’s wrong, because I already do hate myself.
We opted, instead, for a midday meal of milkshakes, which, in retrospect, was not much — if at all — better than a Cheetos salad. Hannah’s shake came with an entire slice of cake on top; mine, with three full-size chocolate chip cookies.
“There’s no way I can eat this,” I said, before eating almost all of it.
It’s clear that we’re unraveling a little on the walk to dinner. I’m lost in thought, noticing how, in the right light, the Trump hotel is the color of a dehydrated person’s pee. Next to me, Hannah, who’s been reading a lot of Camille Paglia lately, gazes out at the Vegas skyline, an unfocused juxtaposition of simulacra: the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Great Pyramid, Roman statues, Venetian canals.
“Civilization is a delusion,” she says, moving a hand across the horizon as if casting some spell on it. “Nature will always win. We have a semblance of control over the land and our bodies, but there will always be nature. There will come a time when this will all be abandoned.”
It should go without saying that we are very stoned.
Once seated at Stanton Social Prime, we really, really go for it. There are the aforementioned soup dumplings, bread, salad, and crudo, all of which are largely filling on their own — especially after the day we’d had. But the entire tenor of the meal changes when the tomahawk steak comes out.
As we’ve come to expect, the delivery of the steak is, you might say, “a whole thing.” The 4-pound cut of beef is wheeled out from the kitchen dangling from a trellis wrapped in fairy lights, its drippings falling into a tinted glass dish fashioned to look like a naked woman in a bathtub. Once tableside, the server combines the drippings with cognac before lighting the mixture on fire and stirring it a few times.
“I’m gonna put the fire on the bone now!” he announces, and he does just that, spooning the flaming cognac, blood, and fat concoction onto the tip of the bone and letting it slide down the meat in flaming dribs and drabs. For the 19 years before this weekend, I had been a pescatarian and hadn’t had more than a few bites of steak in one sitting for as long as I can remember. After eating the fire steak — and the accompanying short ribs — I think I’m good for another 19. Not that it wasn’t delicious, but I liken the experience to going without water for days only to finally quench your thirst with a fire hose at close range.
For her part, Hannah seems more excited by the steak knives than the steak itself. When I catch her taking a close-up picture of her hand holding one of the knives, she doesn’t demure.
“This is the dyke-iest thing about me,” she says. “These knives are sick.”
Indeed, they are sick knives, nearly 11 inches long and gently curved, with a dark, wood-grain handle. They are probably too much firepower for our purposes — we are eating the steak, not killing it — but so goes Las Vegas, an entire town dedicated to giving you more than you need. The knives are a small reminder of the ways in which Vegas constantly goes above and beyond, and it’s easy to see why so many people find this appealing. In a world that seems to always be charging you more and more for less and less, Vegas is a place where the service is impeccable, the portions huge, and the knives heavy in your hand. In the kitchen, cooks prepare your steak to your specifications before wrapping it up like a Christmas tree and sending it out on a mini parade float. The front-of-house staff is equally flamboyant, playing with fire and swallowing sharp objects for your amusement. All the dramatics help you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth — even though you’re not, of course, because, as we know, the house always wins. At bottom, Las Vegas is a place that tries to make everyone feel like a big shot, which is not easy to do when everyone is also watching the actual big shots play Masters of the Universe on their mega yachts and private spaceships day in and day out.
After dinner, Hannah and I find ourselves at a chalet-themed bar called Ski Lodge. I have no recollection of how we got there, but I remember drinking another couple of fernets before calling it quits. The damn mushrooms never kicked in, and without them, our will to party has been exhausted.
The next morning, even with my hangover and knotted stomach, Las Vegas has a glow about it that it’s never had for me before. Hannah agrees, telling me she doesn’t want to leave as we pack up the car. We’d been forced to drive instead of fly after a wildfire somewhere between Los Angeles and Las Vegas had sent thick smoke into the sky, grounding our flight indefinitely. It was just one of the wildfires that would plague North America before and after our trip that summer, another devastating tragedy in an increasingly devastated world.
As the casinos receded in my rearview mirror, I realized Las Vegas was the only city I’d been to in a long time that didn’t seem like it was trying to con me. It’s glaringly capitalist and never tries to pretend otherwise. It trades in sex and impropriety, completely unconcerned with whether you think it’s offensive to catch meat drippings with a naked lady bowl. The Strip itself consists of cavernous structures in a baking desert that are nonetheless always arctic due to endless air conditioning. It’s an ecological nightmare, yet still, if you’d like, you can leave the AC on in your empty hotel room all day so it’s nice and cool when you get back from gambling in a different, bigger air-conditioned room.
This isn’t to say that any of this is good, of course. But I’d rather a place be open about its commitment to money and excess over everything. It’s preferable to the alternative we see elsewhere, a veneer of respectability and consideration that provides cover for a maximalist venality: millionaires in elected office banning plastic straws while letting ExxonMobil operate with impunity. Billionaires demanding massive tax breaks and then complaining about the incivility of people living on the streets, people who could be helped with tax-subsidized social welfare programs. An endless churn of lying.
At the very least, I think what Vegas-style maximalism can offer people in these uncertain times is simple Dionysian solace. If basic existence is going to feel more and more like a gamble, why not literalize that feeling in Las Vegas? Cool, dark rooms with no windows, no clocks, only sports on the TVs. Maybe you’re trying to distract yourself from the horrors outside — the good ol’ head-in-the-sand approach. Or maybe you’re just there to put a dollop of caviar on your shit sandwich. Either way, Vegas invites you to come and sit for a while; have your favorite cocktail, your favorite 3,500-calorie cheat meal; watch your server do a literal handstand for you, for a laugh. If you’re feeling lucky, you can try and turn that $20 in your pocket into a million just by playing some card games. Chances are you’ll probably end up losing that money, but they tell you that from the outset: “The house always wins.”
In other words: “If you come here, you are more than likely to lose.” And people still flock. It’s like America in that way. In the end, both places will screw you, but at least Vegas won’t feed you a load of bullshit about being a bastion of equality and meritocracy as it does.
Cord Jefferson is a writer-director living in Los Angeles.
Rick R. Ledesma is a 1st Gen Mexican-American / Chicano photographer born in Oxnard, California. Now living in Las Vegas, he has collaborated with various communities within Nevada, helping document current issuesand supporting cultural awareness projects & events.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein