Donald Contursi spent more than a decade uncovering the culinary treasures of Las Vegas before launching a business based on sharing his tastiest secrets, a venture that expanded quickly.
As he worked his way up the Las Vegas restaurant food chain as a waiter, eventually landing at Gordon Ramsay Steak, Contursi spent his free time not only sampling the menus of celebrity chefs but also seeking out the overlooked treasures and off-menu specialties. Working on the Strip and interacting with visitors frequently, Contursi soon realized the plethora of options available could overwhelm even the most dedicated foodies.
In 2015 Contursi launched Lip Smacking Foodie Tours. The company offers guided, multirestaurant excursions that skip the lines, provide special access to chefs and mixologists and pick out the menu highlights. After three months, the tours were doing so well Contursi quit his server job to focus on his fledgling business.
"There are so many hidden gems on the Strip as well as some spots that are not so great," Contursi said. "When people come to Vegas they have to eat somewhere, but it can be overwhelming with so many restaurants in one casino alone. If you only have one or two nights, that's only a few meals, and you want to know what's special and worth your time and money."
Now, Lip Smacking Foodie Tours is expanding its menu of options and has been named a preferred partner member with Virtuoso. All travel advisors, regardless of their consortium affiliation, receive 12% commission for booking the food tours for clients.
"More and more, Las Vegas visitors are not gambling, they are here for the shows and the world-class restaurants," Contursi said. "We encourage people to do it at the beginning of their stay because we provide a lot of insider tips and information that helps people find other restaurants and experiences they are interested in. The tours are also great for people who have been to Vegas and might have seen all the Cirque shows already. We get a lot of corporate travel groups, sales teams, CEOs, private tours, and other specialty travel."
Each tour includes tastings at three to four restaurants, and a supplemental drink package can be purchased, as well. Each restaurant presents an array of its most distinctive dishes and, depending on the venue, added perks include meet-and-greets with chefs and kitchen tours. The tours generally run in groups of 10 to 12, but the company can also accommodate up to 250 people, which are typically split into smaller groups with staggered itineraries so they start and end at the same time but visit the restaurants in different order.
"The most popular tour is the daytime Strip tour, which is great for people who have a show later in the day and are maybe less interested in gambling," Contursi said. "We walk right past the hosts and go to the best table in the house, and a lot of times the other diners look at us in awe. We sit down, and you can either get the drink package or order beverages as you go. We get a selection of the signature dishes, and the chef will come out to greet everyone."
In addition to a selection of different Strip-focused tours, there is a Downtown Las Vegas tour. Lip Smacking Foodie Tours also offers several add-ons, such as luxury transportation and capping off the food tour with a helicopter ride over the Strip. There is also a Boozy Brunch on Saturday and Sunday mornings that visits three Strip locations, which Contursi says is popular with bachelorette parties and other over-21 revelers. Prices for that tour start at $125 per person.
Originally Contursi was doing every tour, but now there are four tour guides, and they may have as many as three tours going at once. The guides strive to offer trivia, factoids and other useful information along the way, including details on art installations along the route and how to get the off-menu cocktail at the Cosmopolitan's Chandelier Bar, one that contains a special flower that numbs your tongue.
The restaurants vary depending on the tour, time of day and availability; past itineraries have included Momofuku from David Chang, Javier's, Bardot Brasserie from Michael Mina, Herringbone, Julian Serrano and Cucina by Wolfgang Puck.
"Everyone wants VIP treatment, especially travel advisors for their clients," Contursi said. "We were the first to really offer that for dining; it's more of an experience than just a meal."