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If you go to Las Vegas

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Packaged deals: Plenty of packages are available for travelers who want a good deal to Las Vegas resorts. Southwest Airlines Vacations recently offered two-night packages at the Stratosphere for $244, $304 at the Excalibur or Treasure Island. Round-trip airfare from Kansas City was included. Call 800-423-5683 or visit www.swavacations.com.

On its Web site, Funjet Vacations recently offered two-night hotel stays at the Excalibur for $29, at the Mirage for $74. Log on to www.funjet.com.

To learn more: Call the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority at 702-892-7575. Its Web site www.lasvegas24hours.com offers information on accommodations, shopping, exhibits, shows and dining. Or try www.ilovevegas.com, the online version of What's On: the Las Vegas Guide.

10 hot Las Vegas restaurants:

Aqua, Bellagio Hotel, chef Michael Mina, $62 per person

Nobhill, MGM Grand, chef Michael Mina, opened last fall

Renoir, Mirage Hotel, chef Allessandro Stratta, $76

Spago, Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, chef Wolfgang Puck, $42

Emeril's New Orleans Fish House, MGM Grand, chef Emeril Lagasse, $49

Picasso, Bellagio Hotel, chef Julian Serrano, $79

Aureole, Mandalay Bay Hotel, chef Charlie Palmer, $66

Charlie Palmer's Steak, Four Seasons Hotel, chef Charlie Palmer, $62

Nobu, Hard Rock Hotel, chef Nobu Matsuhisa, $58

Le Cirque, chef Michael Poidevin, Bellagio Hotel, $74

Jackets and ties are required for men at many of the restaurants.

(Source for average check prices/per person: Zagat Survey Las Vegas Restaurants 2002, editors Muriel Stevens and Max Jacobson. Nobhill was not included.)

Las Vegas cuisine bests and worsts:

BEST BUFFET:

A buffet worth paying more and standing in line for? Try the Bellagio Buffet, a fantastic smorgasbord of fine fare, beautifully prepared and artfully presented, for just $25.

A behind-the-scenes tour revealed an underground network of prep kitchens and bakeries producing everything on premises. All the breads, pastries and desserts are made from scratch. The salmon from Scotland is hand-cut. The meat selection includes wild boar.

THE DISH:

Mashed potatoes are currently in vogue. At Nobhill, Michael Mina's new San Francisco-themed restaurant, mashed potatoes are made to order, available with such chichi mix-ins as lobster and truffles.

WORST RESTAURANT TRENDS:

Clark Wolf, founder of Clark Wolf Co., a New York-based food and restaurant consulting firm: Truffle oil

Wolfgang Puck, celebrity chef: Celebrity restaurants run by rock stars, athletes or race car drivers

Joachim Splichal, celebrity chef: Obnoxious customers

Wolfgang Puck's Las Vegas empire:

Spago — the Forum Shops at Caesars

Trattoria del Lupo — Mandalay Bay

Postrio — Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian

Chinois China Cafe — the Forum Shops at Caesar's

Cili — Bali Hai Golf Club

Cheap thrills: Can't pony up $100 per person for dinner? Opt for the cafe version of a famed restaurant. One example: German native Joachim Splichal's success with the critically acclaimed Patina in Los Angeles has enabled him to open a series of bistro-style restaurants, including Pinot Brasserie in the Venetian Hotel. The French rotisserie fare there ranges from humble steak fries to haute foie gras. The check average at Pinot Brasserie is $48 a person. Figure on spending one-third to half the price of most chefs' name restaurants.