If it seems that Las Vegas restaurant prices have risen to record levels, it's because they have.

According to the latest edition of the Zagat guide for Las Vegas, which was released Thursday, the city has bypassed New York to become the most expensive restaurant city in the country. An average restaurant meal in Las Vegas is $44.44, according to the guide, compared with $39.46 in New York.

Tim Zagat, co-founder and co-chairman of the company, said he was shocked when he heard the news and wondered if it was accurate. He asked his staff if all the budget restaurants had been cut from the guide's latest edition, only to be told it was the same cross section that had been used before.

"It's kind of astonishing for Las Vegas to be more expensive than my hometown," Zagat said.

The survey is not scientific. Price estimates in the Zagat guide are averaged from those supplied by the company's more than 5,200 surveyors, members of the public who complete online surveys that evaluate restaurants, night life and, this year, shopping venues and attractions. In all, 324 restaurants and chains are included in the latest guide, which is designed to reflect a cross section of eateries considered good by the surveyors and Zagat editors. As a result, chains such as Fatburger and Romano's Macaroni Grill are included, and McDonald's and Olive Garden are not.

Zagat said that in the 29 years he has produced the New York guide, feedback from restaurant owners has indicated the price estimates are "very much on track."

Alex Stratta, executive chef of Alex at Wynn Las Vegas, said Zagat's average of $200 per person for dinner with one drink and tip at his restaurant fits with his own estimates of $150 per person for food only, $300 with wine.

Visitors to Las Vegas on Thursday did not need Zagat's findings to tell them restaurant prices are going up.

"It used to be the cheapest," Mike Daleiden of Minnesota said of the Las Vegas dining scene. "And you used to be able to eat for nothing if you gambled."

Nick Candelaria of Colorado agreed. "It's been a while since I was last here, and (restaurants) cost a lot more than I remember," he said. "It just keeps going up and up."

The jump in prices since the previous full Zagat survey two years ago is substantial, Zagat noted. In those two years, the average meal price in Las Vegas rose 7.9 percent. Zagat said he considers increases of 41/2 percent or 5 percent extremely high.

"This is, as far as I can recall, the highest inflation rate of any city in America -- and we cover almost every city," he said.

The reason for the increase, Zagat speculated, is that Las Vegas has become one of the top three dining destinations in the country, along with New York and San Francisco. That was "inconceivable maybe 10 years ago," he said.

"You have an enormous number of new, top restaurants from among the best chefs in the country doing the most fancy things," he noted, not to mention "dramatic" restaurant settings. "No one could afford to build a restaurant in New York the way you're building them in Las Vegas."

Another factor, Zagat said, probably is the city's high growth rate, which gives a local economy "a tendency to overheat a little bit and make everything in the market more expensive."

Because many Las Vegas casino restaurants have to serve high volumes of people, some costs are greater, said Jeffrey Frederick, regional vice president of food and beverage for Caesars Palace. The "unusual circumstances," he said, such as larger kitchens and more behind-the-scenes labor and storage capability, go beyond what would be needed in the average free-standing New York restaurant.

And then there are the ingredients. Frederick said he recently was in the kitchen at Restaurant Guy Savoy and saw chef de cuisine Damien Dulas inspecting a newly arrived shipment of white truffles, "studying them, telling me all the things he's looking for: flavor and texture and nuances of moisture and density." Dulas told the purveyor to return the following week, when he had a new supply, Frederick recalled.

Alexander Gaudelet, food and beverage director at MGM Grand -- where the 16-course tasting menu at Joel Robuchon is $360 per person, not including wine -- said higher prices partially reflect the higher costs of imported ingredients. The 16-course menu -- there's also a six-course option, for $225 -- always starts with caviar imported from France.

"We buy the caviar in euros," Gaudelet said. "With the current economy, that's translated to the guest automatically."

The lobster is imported from Brittany, he said. Higher fuel costs and lower exchange rates result in higher costs and therefore higher prices.

Stratta, of Alex at Wynn Las Vegas, acknowledged that his restaurant is "probably one of the most expensive restaurants in the country, period."

It simply costs more to do business in Las Vegas, Stratta said.

"I think I've got just about everything flown in," he said. "You can tack another 30 percent onto just the cost of the product. In New York, you can drive a truck down from Maine and you get your fish. Here you have to put it on FedEx."

Labor costs figure into the increases as well. Gaudelet said the staffing ratio at Joel Robuchon is about three employees for every guest. In an average fine-dining restaurant, he noted, the average runs about five to seven guests per employee.

Frederick said that while most of the resorts are used to paying union wages, in premium restaurants, above-market-rate wages are paid to attract and retain a higher caliber of employee.

And it might seem that casino comps would drive up prices. Gloria Hadarly, a certified public accountant with McNair & Associates, said the comp itself comes out even on a tax basis, but if the food costs are lower than the amount of the check, the difference can be written off. But Gaudelet said about 15 percent of the business at Joel Robuchon is comped; Stratta said his comps average about 20 percent.

But lest you think that the high prices are reflected only in the upper-end restaurants, consider this: When the 20 most expensive restaurants in the Zagat listings are taken into account, the average meal price is $113.78 for Las Vegas (a 20.4 percent inflation rate), compared with $143.06 in New York. That means Las Vegas restaurant prices across the board are higher than those in New York, where the top prices are clustered near the upper end.

Gaudelet said he doesn't receive customer complaints about prices because dining at Joel Robuchon is by reservation only, and customers are aware of the exact price before coming in. Frederick said he gets an occasional complaint, but "not as much as you might think."

That's backed up by the Zagat findings. About 76 percent of those surveyed said they are spending more per meal than they were two years ago -- a number that Zagat said is the highest he has seen in the past three or four years. At the same time, 50 percent said they're eating out more often, which he said is "a dramatic increase on the demand side."

But when asked what irritates them the most about dining out, 40 percent of those who replied to the Las Vegas survey said service and 21 percent said price. (Only 3 percent said parking, which apparently is a credit to the ready supply of parking garages.)

Not everyone is comfortable with paying more.

"I think it is expensive, and the good, cheap days are gone," Jim Hartdegen, a visitor from Phoenix, said Thursday.

A tab of $300 is "way out of our league," said his wife, Vickie. "I can't imagine anything being that good."

Others were more philosophical.

"We've heard from friends that it's expensive to eat here," said JoAnn Clarke, visiting from Canada.

"But we've heard it's reasonable, too," said her husband, Jim, echoing Zagat's contention. "You just have to find the right places."

And Zagat said the city's increase can be seen in a positive light.

"Almost everything else that we measure -- people saying they are spending more, eating out more -- all of those factors are going up, so that is not a negative per se; it's sort of a tradeoff," he said. "It's partly because things have gotten so much better, so you pay more."

If it makes you feel better, the average for London is $79.46, Paris is $74.24 and Tokyo is $69.58.

And, of course, even $360 is less expensive than a trip to Paris.

(Disclosure: Heidi Knapp Rinella is one of the local editors of the Zagat guide.) Review-Journal staff writer Sonya Padgett contributed to this story. Contact Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0474.