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Pints and bites: Foodie-friendly gastropubs are popping up all over

<p>Aromatic Tete de Moine cheese is shaved with a Girolle in the kitchen at Culinary Dropout. PHOTO: TODD LUSSIER.</p>

Aromatic Tete de Moine cheese is shaved with a Girolle in the kitchen at Culinary Dropout. PHOTO: TODD LUSSIER.

The British are coming, the British are coming! At least that’s what a lot of Las Vegas restaurateurs would have you believe.

The hottest trend in Las Vegas restaurants right now is the gastropub: a British pub that sells beer and food. A new place called Public House (no relation to the restaurant of the same name in The Venetian) is under construction in Luxor. Park on Fremont is preparing to bring the concept downtown. And Brit Gordon Ramsay recently announced plans for a pub of his own in Caesars Palace. I’ve also heard rumors that at least two other celebrity chefs are considering opening English pubs on The Strip. But how “English” will these places really be? Taking a look at the so-called gastropubs that already dot the valley, authenticity clearly doesn’t seem to be the issue.

One of the hottest restaurant openings of the summer is Culinary Dropout (4455 Paradise Road, 522-8100), the Hard Rock Hotel’s “amped up gastropub” that opened Aug. 24. It operates in the space that previously housed Ago, Simon and Mortoni’s, although it’s been seriously expanded. There’s a Union Jack on the wall, but other than that, the décor has the same elegant punk theme as the HRH Tower. And with a menu that boasts an Italian grinder, jambalaya, a Cuban sandwich and beef stroganoff, it’s obvious Chef Eric Suniga isn’t limiting his inspirations to Her Majesty’s empire.

“We’re kind of all over the place,” admits the chef, a veteran of Thomas Keller’s original Bouchon and Michael Mina’s Seablue in the MGM Grand. “I think what [the term gastropub] has turned into is relaxed atmosphere, with quality ingredients going into the food.”

Fair enough. But if you’re at the Hard Rock and you want a slightly more British experience, you will find one just across Harmon Avenue. Firkin on Paradise (4503 Paradise Road, 457-3756) isn’t nearly as cool as Culinary Dropout. The chef doesn’t have Suniga’s pedigree. And you have to endure all sorts of plays on the name: “Another firkin beer?” “Do you want some firkin food?” But the menu does feature U.K. classics like fish and chips, bangers, beans and mash, and cottage pie. There are also a couple of pool tables, which add to the atmosphere quite nicely. Hell, after a few pints, even my bartender’s Australian accent sounded vaguely English. The chicken wings and nachos, on the other hand …

If you’re talking English, as opposed to British, the Todd English P.U.B. (3720 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 489-8080) in CityCenter has the ultimate credential: the surname of its Boston-based chef. To his credit, English actually doesn’t call this spot a gastropub. But it’s hard not to lump in this “public urban bar” with the trend. Hell, there are even dart boards on the wall — although they’re sadly oversized Velcro versions. Throw in beer pong tables and a challenge to drink a pint in 7.5 seconds in order to get it free, and it’s no wonder the place has become popular among the frat-boy set. But don’t dismiss it too soon. English runs a serious culinary operation, and his dirty chips, lobster poppie and Welsh rarebit demonstrate his “gastro” cred. In the meantime, more than 40 beers on tap, a seasonal selection of cask beers and a nice menu of beer cocktails make it a pub of the highest caliber.

To find my favorite not-really-a-gastropub, however, you’ll need to cross The Strip. Before Public House (3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 407-5310) opened at The Venetian in January, Block 16 Hospitality brought in Nevada’s only certified cicerone (beer sommelier) to assemble the beer program, and corporate Executive Chef Anthony Meidenbaur helped developed an outstanding menu. My only complaint is that my favorite dishes — poutine, frogs legs, sweetbreads with parsnip puree — are French. This place is much closer to a brasserie: an upscale French restaurant often attached to a brewery. But that title apparently doesn’t put asses on barstools, so Meidenbaur added a Scotch egg and Welsh rarebit to the menu and jumped on the gastropub bandwagon.

Clearly, the culinary buzzword du jour has lost all meaning. But if you do happen to have any real Brits visiting Vegas, the Crown and Anchor (1350 E. Tropicana Blvd., 739-8676) remains as English as ever, with an excellent shepherd’s pie and real football on the telly.

Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net.