I’ll never forget my first meal at Tao. The restaurant had only been open a few weeks, and it was packed. We arrived about 10 minutes early for our reservation (they had a strict reservation policy and weren’t tolerant of latecomers), but we still waited more than 30 minutes to be seated. As annoyed as I was by the wait, my mood changed instantly upon entering the restaurant. It was massive, elegant and almost too hip. And the meal was fantastic.
During Tao’s first few years of operation I dined there frequently—usually when I wanted to impress a friend or business associate. Their necks would crane to see Paris Hilton or some other celebrity du jour enjoying a pre-club meal. But when my wife and I dined alone, I preferred the quieter tables upstairs that were removed from the people-watching. Either way, I almost always had a great experience. And on rare occasions I’d even visit the nightclub, usually for some private party.
Over the past few years, the restaurant kind of fell off my radar, drowned out by the torrent of hot new things, and my clubbing days are long behind me. So when chef Marc Marrone invited me in to taste some dishes from the 10th anniversary menu, I jumped at the chance.
A decade down the road, Tao feels familiar but is still visually stunning. The front lounge has been converted into a casual dining area. But the rose petals are still in the bathtubs at the entrance, and the massive Buddha statue still holds court in the main room. And the restaurant still has plenty of nooks and crannies for those who want some privacy.
The menu, however, has evolved considerably. Sure, the Chilean sea bass satay, on the menu from Day One, is almost identical to what I remember. And the sushi bar is still impeccable, manned by chefs trained in Japan. (Try the oysters with uni and salmon roe!) Marrone rolled out plenty of new dishes, including a beautiful whole crispy snapper and drunken lobster pad Thai.
“When we first opened,” Marrone says of the latter, “we sold a lot of regular pad Thai and chicken pad Thai. But guests were looking for something a little more over-the-top and a little more high-end when they came to Vegas. So we took it to another level.”
Tao Group corporate executive chef Ralph Scamardella credits a consistent drive to evolve for the restaurant’s continued success. “We’ve kept it fresh,” he says. “It’s ever-evolving. Tao constantly reinvents itself, changing food, changing the atmosphere, changing the music—always staying current.”
The lobster dish is just one example of how the food has grown more sophisticated. When Tao first opened its doors, the Chinese cuisine was “all classic, New York-style Chinese dishes.” But Scamardella and his staff have made it a point to travel to Asia and see how those dishes are being presented at modern restaurants in their native lands. So the kung pao chicken Tao serves today is “Shanghai style”—spicier, with more sauce and more authentic cuts of chicken than the version served in the past. They’ve changed the beef and broccoli recipe to feature dry-aged USDA prime New York strip.
Nonetheless, Scamardella says, it’s always a balancing act: “In Vegas, you have a huge mix of people. You have some residents. You have some people from L.A. and New York who know food, or think they know food. And you have a lot of people from the Midwest who just want something recognizable.”
Another big difference between Tao in 2005 and Tao in 2015 is that the restaurant no longer feels as closely tied to the club. In the old days, it appeared that half the diners on any given night were warming up for a night on the dance floor. During my recent visit, diners seemed to be there for the food alone. Scamardella says it’s important to him to keep the two entities separate.
“We have club people and restaurant people. And the restaurant part of our team runs the restaurant, while the club part of our team runs the club. We let out people do what they’re best at. … They’re two completely different business models. Because the restaurant guys don’t understand the club guys, and the club guys for sure don’t understand the restaurant guys.”
That’s sounds just about right to this forty-something punk fan who hasn’t seen a dance floor in years: You keep the superstar DJs and bottle service on that side of the wall, and I’ll stay over here with the chefs. And hopefully I’ll still be enjoying Tao’s great food in another 10 years.