The days of the el-cheapo buffet and $5 prime rib specials are pretty much in Las Vegas' past. However, conference co-chair, speaker, and Vegas local Don Jones offers these suggestions.
Most fine dining restaurants will serve the full menu at the bar. If you're dining alone or can't get a table, this is an excellent option. Make friends with the bartender(s) for the best service.
Stay hydrated. You won't believe how quickly you'll dry out – you're in the desert.
The Strip and Downtown areas are eminently safe and walkable. When an overhead pedestrian bridge is available, you must use it; otherwise, use crosswalks only and obey traffic signals. This is crucial – Vegas had more than 100 pedestrian injuries last year. Don't become a statistic.
Do not engage or linger near street vendors, peddlers, or card games. They are illegal.
Ignore the porn card distributors on the Strip, and they'll ignore you.
If you're after specific recommendations, find Don Jones and ask away.
Almost every casino will have a buffet and 24-hour café -- think Denny's-style food. Excalibur's buffet is the least expensive nearby, and offers a large selection. Buffet wait times (lines) can be massive during peak dining hours, with priority given to the hotels' gambling club members. Be prepared.
The Tropicana's fine dining options, steakhouse Biscayne Bay and upscale Italian eatery Baccio, are both excellent ($$$). However, they're both small rooms, and may book up quickly. Neither has a large bar, although Biscayne has a small lounge area.
Fast food courts ($) can be found at MGM Grand (next to Emeril's) and Luxor (on the 2nd level). Typical national chains are represented.
Excalibur's big feature is Dick's Last Resort ($$; foul language included), serving basic American fare. You'll also find a so-so steakhouse and other standards, along with some fast food.
New York-New York has Il Fornaio (Italian, $$$), Gallagher's Steakhouse ($$$$), Nine Fine Irishmen (pub, $$$), Gonzalez Y Gonzalez (Tex-Mex, $$$), and a selection of fast food. You'll also find several bars and a generally fun atmosphere, a dueling piano bar (evenings), and a small sports club.
MGM Grand's best options include Wolfgang Puck (Californian, $$$), Fiamma (Northern Italian with house-made pasta, $$$$ - say hi to Kerry at the bar), and Top Chef Tom Colicchio's craftsteak ($$$$$) and 'whichcraft (sandwiches, $$). Emeril's fish market ($$$$) is also here, and high-end sushi shop Shibuya ($$$$).
Luxor's Tacos & Tequila ($$$) is standard Tex-Mex far with an emphasis on the booze.
A bit further along, Mandalay Bar has House of Blues (Southern comfort food, $$$).
Paul Robuchon's Parisian Le Attelier ($$$$$) is at MGM Grand and is worth a look. For reasonably-priced (for Vegas) American contemporary food, consider Aureole at Mandalay Bay ($$$$, featuring a 4-story "Mission Impossible" wine tower -- say hi to Sal and David at the bar). Border Grill at Mandalay bar offers Southern Mexican (not Tex-Mex) food with a focus on fresh and organic ingredients ($$$) -- it's near the hotel's conference center and Shark Reef aquarium. To get to Mandalay Bay, cross to Excalibur and take the free tram.
Worth the Trip
Newcomer Cosmopolitan (next to the Bellagio) rocks the good scene, from Secret Pizza ($, by the slice, near Blue Ribbon Sushi) to Blue Ribbon Sushi ($$$, ask for Jeff or Chris at the bar). Also check out Holstein's (gourmet burgers, $$), The Henry (upscale café, $$), and Jaleo (Spanish tapas, $$$). Milo's (high-end fish, $$$$$$) is worth looking at, but is crazy expensive. Italian Scarpetta (by Scott Conant, $$$$) is quiet and relaxing, while neighbor DOCG ($$$) serves high-end pizzas and pasta in a busy room. Next door to Cosmo, Crystals mall includes Todd English's PUB (beer, sandwiches, bar food, $$$) and Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria ($$$, excellent happy hour prices).
Aria also has some foodie options, including the amazing Sage (Contempo American, $$$$; ask to be seated with Ginger in the dining room, or eat at the bar), steakhouse
Jean Georges ($$$$$), and numerous other high-end (pricey) restaurants. Walk to Monte Carlo, past their brewpub ($$, bar food and sandwiches) to get into Aria.
Avoid casino floor bars – you'll get fairly low-quality drinks and indifferent service. Fine dining restaurants feature the best bars if you're after something unique or well-made. At MGM Grand, the best bets are Fiamma (Kerry works the bar) and craftsteak. At New York-New York, Coyote Ugly (evenings) doesn't make great cocktails, but the bartenders certainly put on a show – order a beer and a glass of water. At Cosmopolitan, try Scarpetta or DOCG for wine, and Comme Ca for prohibition-era cocktails. At Mandalay Bay, the best wine is at Aureole (Sal and David at the bar). For a quieter evening, consider Charlie Palmer Steak at the Four Seasons (attached to Mandalay Bay).
Las Vegas' actual downtown, especially the Fremont East district, is undergoing a revival as small, locally owned bars and restaurants open near art galleries and public spaces. Downtown Cocktail Room, Commonwealth, Park, Radio City Pizza, novelty Heart Attack Café, and others are packed into a walkable area at Fremont and Las Vegas. It's usually a 20-minute cab ride if you have your cabbie get on I-15 North.