I was in Las Vegas for business, which sounds more important than it was, but I can’t not mix business with pleasure so I turned it into a mini-vacation since I happened to be there during my boyfriend’s birthday (who has the same birthday as my ex-boyfriend and my sister’s ex-husband, all different years) and flights from where he lives (Portland) are fast and cheap.
We’d planned the Benihana birthday when I was in Portland a few weeks prior. Neither of us had ever been. There is one in Beaverton, the only in Oregon, but on spur of the moment there were no reservations until 8:45pm (the restaurant closes at 9:30pm) and as I’ve learned (once years ago when I attempted to walk-in at the Edison, NJ location) you have to have reservations if you want to be subjected to the whole dinner and a show thing. I even signed up for the $30 off coupon if you dine in your birthday month. That’s really the only way to do it because Benihana is not exactly cheap, though you do get soup, salad, shrimp appetizer, rice, and ice cream. My Splash ‘n Meadow (hibachi steak and shrimp) was $42. (Strangely, this combo doesn’t appear on the Oregon or NYC menus).
There is a newer Benihana location on the strip but I was not risking it with a new-and-improved modern version. Benihana should not look like it was designed in 2016. This restaurant at the Westgate, neon visible all the way from my hotel, the El Cortez, downtown Vegas (distances are super deceiving in this flat, plunked-down city–Benihana was three miles away) was sprawling with little indoor fountains, bridges, and semi-private rooms. And most impressive to me was a roving photographer who would take your photo before the meal had begun, posing and staging diners like I haven’t encountered since my senior portrait, and putting two images in a padded display binder to sell you as you left. I had never encountered this practice, which I thought was extinct, yet there was a woman with a camera doing the same thing at the Peppermill where we went afterward, my third time at the infamous fire pit lounge. This time I had a valid excuse, “Thanks, but we just got our picture taken.”
Usually I’m opposed to communal dining. On my left was an adult child and spouse taking parents out to celebrate a 40th wedding anniversary. The father, wearing a baseball cap, arms crossed and stony nearly the entire meal, was not having any of it. On my right were women from somewhere in the South, one 30something and single, the other 40ish with a teenage daughter at home who was also celebrating a March 22 birthday, and were there for a different conference than mine and appeared to already have a few drinks in them. They were old pros at Benihana, made sure to tell staff it was the boyfriend’s birthday and were even trying to finagle free photos (no dice). Two of the six strangers had dietary restrictions (one, no shrimp, the other no meat at all, which if you have a legit allergy, um, the food is all being cooked on the same grill) and concerns were voiced about the sauce being too spicy.
I haven’t spoken about the food because it’s not really the point. You get your onion soup, salad with miso-ginger dressing, and chicken fried rice. My steak and shrimp had fine texture, and my medium-rare request was granted, but the beef barely tasted of anything despite lots of a vaguely teriyaki-ish sauce and butter splashed on it while it was grilled. It reminded me of when I get desperate and buy meat at a C Town.
Whatever, Yan, who was Chinese, did the shrimp flipped into the toque trick, made lots of puns, “Have you ever seen butter fly?” as he plopped half a stick with his spatula, and…
…clearly was a romantic at heart. All that you could hope for celebrating a birthday in Las Vegas.
And I even paid $40 for the not-super-flattering, dough-faced (far more common than doe-eyed, I’m afraid) photo, something I normally would not do, but being in a long distance relationship, I’m a little more frivolous when we get together every few months. The photographer said I reminded her of her sister-in-law “she has pin-up bangs too” and was trying to find a photo of her and I was cringing inside because I was worried she’d show me a chunky rockabilly chick. (I’ll own my growing plumpness but I think I dress fairly modern/contemporary. The default style in Vegas if you’re not touristy or preppy is ‘90s burlesque. I did not see a single person in four days that could be characterized as “hipster,” despite that tired term now being devoid of meaning.) The sister-in-law ended up being an attractive blonde with a flower in her hair, similar age as me, honestly a little too old for that look if I were being judgy. (Dita Von Teese is the only example I can think of as a 40+ woman who can get away with that retro style. It ages you after a certain point.) But everyone, servers, bartenders, Lyft drivers, was so nice in Vegas–or maybe everyone is chatty everywhere except NYC–I felt obligated to engage when my instinct is to brush off. It’s kind of scary now that I think about it. Considering I work at home 2-3 times per week and rarely go out on weekends these days, I think I had more extended conversations with people I just met in those four Vegas days than a month in NYC.
Benihana * 3000 Paradise Rd., Las Vegas, NV