"Most things in Vegas are fleeting," says Matt Harwell, "so we're trying to create something authentic and sustainable." Harwell is the manager of Carson Kitchen, a trendy neighbourhood eatery in a former 1950s motel in the Fremont East District of Downtown Vegas. It was opened in 2014 by chef Kerry Simon, who grew tired of the high prices and pretension on the Strip. The restaurant focuses on upscale comfort food and we sample some of its signature dishes, including devilled eggs with caviar and pancetta, crispy chicken skins with smoked honey, and veal meatballs with foie gras cream. It's all dangerously delicious – particularly when washed down with a cayenne-spiced margarita – but more to the point it's a venue tourists wouldn't normally visit. "Downtown is where the locals go," explains Donald Contursi, founder of Lip Smacking Foodie Tours, "and it's also where Vegas began."
Contursi offers several Vegas food tours (including one on the Strip) but this is arguably the most interesting because it showcases Downtown's revival. Fremont Street was once the beating heart of Vegas – it had the city's first hotels and casinos – but gradually the focus shifted to the Strip and Downtown's popularity waned. In a bid to lure back tourists, the city created the Fremont Street Experience (FSE), a five-block pedestrianised precinct with a giant LED canopy, but even then people rarely ventured further afield.
Cross the street from FSE and you're in Fremont East, a six-block neighbourhood of historic motels, vintage neon signs and graffitied warehouses. Despite an influx of new apartments, restaurants and bars, it still feels edgy and real. What's conspicuous by its absence is gambling – the district has just one casino, the historic El Cortez, which first opened its doors in 1941.
Our next stop is Therapy, a cavernous two-level restaurant housed in a former 99¢ store. Again, we sample some of its trademark dishes, including decadent bacon-wrapped dates with goat's cheese and its Instagram hit – the retirement-threatening fried buttermilk chicken on red velvet waffle with maple syrup.
Along the way Contursi points out other interesting venues, including the Laundry Room, a hidden speakeasy where you have to request an invite by text, and Park on Fremont, a gastro pub with an eclectic courtyard containing bawdy oil paintings and a seesaw.
The man largely responsible for the area's turnaround is tech entrepreneur Tony Hsieh. After selling Zappos, his online shoe store, to Amazon for $US1.2billion in 2009, he used $US350million of his own money to create a development fund to help revitalise the area. People could pitch business ideas and secure interest-free loans. It hasn't all been smooth sailing, but the project claims to have created 165 companies and more than 1000 jobs.
Another key figure is Michael Cornthwaite, owner of the Downtown Cocktail Room. He opened this intimate cocktail bar in 2005 and was instrumental in persuading Hsieh to invest in the area. "Back then it was a real struggle to get people down here," he says, "but now we get three times as many visitors and around 30 per cent are tourists."
Our final stop is 7th & Carson, a laidback restaurant with an impressive wood-fired oven. Irish owner Liam Dwyer delivers platters laden with crispy tempura crab, creamy grilled burrata and freshly baked oven bread with hummus and ganoush. "Welcome," he says, grinning, "you've saved the best till last."
Rob McFarland was a guest of Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Virgin Australia and Brand USA.
Virgin Australia and Delta Air Lines fly daily to Las Vegas via Los Angeles. See virginaustralia.com
The Downtown tour lasts 2.5 hours, costs $US125 and includes three to four dishes at four restaurants. See vegasfoodietour.com