This was a decidedly mixed year for food lovers in Las Vegas.
Some beloved restaurants, including Rosemary's, Nora's Osteria and Alex, closed, victims either of the lingering dismal economy or changing trends.
But there were plenty of openings as well, as some restaurant owners took advantage of the down economy to work out favorable lease arrangements and others followed through on plans laid in sunnier times.
And, in what may be the ultimate response to roller-coaster property values and a tight investment climate, food trucks made a colorful -- and flavorful -- splash as they increased appearances on roadways, street corners and at festivals.
Among the new restaurants that attracted the most attention were those at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Notable among them are Comme Ça, a casual French bistro from Los Angeles-based David Myers that happens to offer a great view of the Strip, and the lighthearted-but-very-serious-about-food Jaleo, from Spanish native and tapas pioneer José Andrés.
An outlet of the venerable P.J. Clarke's, a New York institution since 1884, opened at the Forum Shops at Caesars in January, complete with raw bar and old-timey atmosphere. Its success likely paved the way for the Old Homestead Steakhouse, another New York landmark that had a soft opening at Caesars Palace, with a grand opening scheduled for early next year. Also new at Caesars, an only-in-Las-Vegas proposition: Central Michel Richard, reportedly the first restaurant by a James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef to be open 24/7. Who says New York is the city that never sleeps?
There were numerous notable openings in the suburban valley as well, including Due Forni, Baja California and Dom DeMarco's on the west side, and Urban Grill, Bratalian and Crab Corner -- which grew out of a wholesale business -- on the east. Several neighborhood favorites managed to survive the rocky economy, with Grape Street on West Lake Mead Boulevard celebrating its 14th anniversary and Todd's Unique Dining in Henderson its seventh, while Elements Kitchen & Martini Bar on Rainbow Boulevard is about to mark its third.
Tivoli Village opened in Summerlin in April with Petra: A Greek Taverna and Brio Tuscan Grille. Bottles & Burgers is to open soon, and the shopping area has become home to various events of interest to food lovers, such as Wine Away Wednesdays and the fresh52 Farmer's & Artisan Market on Saturdays.
Some churn continues at Town Square south of the Strip, with vacancies making way for restaurants including English's and I Love Burgers, while Brio Tuscan Grill and Tommy Bahamas continue to pack in the crowds.
And suburban restaurants didn't just stay in the suburbs; some are expanding into the tourism corridor. Hash House A Go Go's Las Vegas flagship on West Sahara Avenue has been joined by sister restaurants at the Imperial Palace, the M Resort and the Plaza. Buca di Beppo has opened a location at Excalibur; and Grimaldi's Pizzeria at the Fashion Show mall. Firefly reversed the trend, with the Paradise Road tapas spot opening a branch on West Sahara Avenue.
The outlook for restaurants brightened along with that for downtown in general, with the opening of The Verdict's Inn in February and the vegan Pura Vida Bakery & Bystro in July. A January opening is expected for the Red Velvet Cafe, a Symphony Park offshoot of the established spot on West Sahara Avenue. At the same time, El Sombrero marked 61 years on Main Street, Dona Maria 20 years on Las Vegas Boulevard and Lola's A Louisiana Kitchen two years on West Charleston Boulevard. La Madonna, which had been in southwest Las Vegas, was reborn as Mundo at the World Market Center.
Elsewhere in the valley, Kathy's Southern Cooking and Catfish Alley moved to new locations.
Food trucks were one of the most important trends across the valley, usurping cupcakes' position as The Next Big Thing. The food-truck movement started here with Slidin' Thru and now numbers more than 20 participants, representing many types of food. Metro Pizza, a valley presence since 1980, launched Lulu's On the Move food truck (and a fifth Metro location is scheduled to open in May). And food-truck festivals have become regular occasions across the valley; the Vegas StrEATS festival is on the second Saturday of each month at the El Cortez downtown.
The growth of the locavore/slow-food movement nationwide finally moved into Las Vegas. Existing markets gained more visibility and were joined by FEED at Azul Tequila downtown, fresh52 at Sansone Park Place and Tivoli Village, and Bet On the Farm at Springs Preserve (note that some of them are on winter hiatus). And at year end, plans were announced for a new indoor farmers' market at the downtown bus terminal, with opening set for February.
As for 2012? Considering the surprises of 2011 -- Rosemary's and Nora's Osteria chief among them -- it's best to quote the Magic 8-Ball: "cannot predict now." But if there's any sure bet in Las Vegas, it's that the future will offer plenty of change.
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at email@example.com or 702-383-0474.