If Claude Lambertz could bring back one food fad of 1970s Las Vegas, it would be... "Sweetbreads. Sweetbreads and mushrooms."
Lambertz, lecturer emeritus of the Harrah College of Hotel Administration, fawns over the dish that kept him going back to the Dunes Hotel and Casino in the late 1970s and 80s. Rarely offered today, the delicacy (made of the thymus glands of beef, lamb, or pork) was among the gourmet dishes offered at fine restaurants across Las Vegas decades ago.
That's right — gourmet dishes had a place in Las Vegas hotels, coffee shops and buffets long before celebrity chefs brought their famed restaurants to the Strip. For evidence, just check out UNLV Libraries' new online collection, "Menus: The Art of Dining."
The digital archive includes 1,500 menus dating back to 1969. They were culled from the Libraries' full collection of 5,000 menus. Clicking through the archive shows the influence of chefs who came to Las Vegas from European cooking schools, says Su Kim Chung, a manuscripts librarian.
"There's a sense of nostalgia (in the collection) that resonates with any of us who want to relive the experiences we had at a particular hotel or restaurant," Chung says. "For Las Vegas, the menus illustrate a rich culinary history and the way people dined out and were entertained."
Among the places to see and be seen was the Dome of The Sea Restaurant at the Dunes Hotel and the Las Vegas Country Club, popular 1960s spots for socialites. Also creating a buzz was Caesars Palace's Bacchanal, where diners allotted three hours for the gourmet dining experience, menus were written partially in Latin, and waiters dressed in togas.
A night on the town then wasn't a quick bite to eat before a concert or movie -- eating out was the show. Your rainbow trout smothered in capers and shrimps came with a side order of musician Wayne Newton, who entertained while you ate. Mr. Las Vegas graced the cover of several menus at the Sands Hotel's Copa Showroom as did Phyllis Diller, Robert Goulet, and Bob Newhart.
Off the strip, Las Vegas' craving for the exotic can be seen in menus from neighborhood eateries, run by an influx of immigrants who brought with them culture, unique ingredients, and new cooking techniques. The city's resorts picked up on these influences, says Jean Hertzman, professor of food and beverage management. Most of the hotels each had French-influenced, Italian, and seafood restaurants as well as a steakhouse. Later Asian cuisine slowly made its away to the tables.
Early Las Vegas dishes were heavy, cream-based, and mostly affordable. Dining out was an intimate and leisurely experience. Wait staff turned over a restaurant maybe twice in the evening and chefs carved duck and deboned fish tableside. If asked, chefs created a meal off the menu -- a rare request today, Lambertz says -- and guests returned for such special attention.
The history found in the menu collection might offer restaurant professionals perspective on what's next in Strip dining, Lambertz says. In the 1970s, he was executive sous chef for the Riviera Hotel and Strip properties and has seen the dining here evolve over the last 30 years.
The food is great today, Lambertz says, due to the availability of fresh and exotic ingredients, a culture that's willing to try new foods, and a growing interest in cooking, thanks in part to TV cooking shows. "There's no doubt we have become prominent all over the world because of our food," he says. "Now, the food has become the superstar."
But, something's missing. Bring back the glamour and spectacle of the Las Vegas dining experience, and do it at an affordable price point, Lambertz says. He misses the thrill of watching waiters fumbling a flamb?, lighting a table on fire and then throwing everything into the pool - a story Lambertz likes to tell of The Bacchanal. Though he doesn't advocate starting fires, showmanship is the kind of thing that creates memories for diners and keeps them coming back.
"As far as Las Vegas being something for everyone — that's gone. We once had a level of exceptional dining that people could afford. Then we got into high-end foods that cost a lot of money. There is no perceived value anymore," Lambertz says.
About the Collection
The online project was funded through a $50,000 grant from the federal Library Services and Technology Act. It features just part of UNLV Libraries' archive of 5,000 menus. The archive began in 1969 and includes menus from American, European, and Canadian restaurants from 1870 through today. It is an integral part of the Harrah Hotel College's curriculum for menu-writing techniques and also is used to illustrate graphic design particular to historical time periods.
Share Your Experience
Browse the extensive digital collection, "Menus: The Art of Dining." The site also includes a bulletin board for restaurant-goers to share their most memorable experiences. The stories will be stored in a database for the benefit of researchers (as well as entertainment for the rest of us).