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VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
May 14, 2012
A Tour of Downtown Las Vegas
While The Strip continues to stumble, Downtown Las Vegas has been experiencing a resurgence over the last couple of years with new hotels, restaurants, stores, bars, and more bringing new energy to the area. Downtown has always been a haven for travelers on a budget who didn't really care that there wasn't much to do or eat and that the hotels, for the most part, were not much more than basic lodging. But now more and more people are coming to Downtown, lured not only by its low prices but by the new development that is transforming the area.
One of the exciting things about the new lease on life is that it is not just limited to the Fremont Street Experience corridor but is expanding outward to include booming new neighborhoods around it including the East Fremont district with its fresh and fun bars and nightclubs; the Arts District that showcases galleries, antique stores, vintage clothing outlets, and the exciting First Friday event; and the Union Park area that includes everything from the city's biggest outlet mall to its first performing arts center.
The following tour will give you a day to experience the best of Downtown Las Vegas. If you are a very hearty type, you could walk this tour but it is probably about 4-5 miles total so I'd recommend a car or cabs. It's also worth noting that while the neighborhoods included in the tour are perfectly fine for walking during the day and some at night, there are areas between them that are probably best not to explore on foot after dark.
Start your Downtown Day with a hearty breakfast buffet at the Main Street Station Garden Court Buffet. Not only is a lavish spread that rivals, and even beats, many of the buffets on The Strip, it is also only $7 (with your free players' club membership) so it's a ridiculous bargain to boot.
Wander through the Main Street Station casino, which is quite lovely and offers low limits on gambling, and be sure to notice the turn of the last century San Francisco details that make it sparkle. Guys may want to stop at the men's room to take a look at the piece of the Berlin Wall that holds up several urinals. Sorry ladies... you'll have to be satisfied with the pictures your guys bring out.
Next walk two blocks over to Fremont Street and explore the historic Glitter Gulch. This is where Las Vegas began and you can casino hop through the years starting at the recently redone Plaza, located where the train station that brought speculators to the dusty frontier town used to be; the Golden Gate, which is the state's oldest hotel built in 1906, and still home to its famous shrimp cocktail; The Golden Nugget, originally built in 1946 as a casino only and remodeled over the last few years into one of the nicest hotels in town; Binion's Gambling Hall, opened in 1951 by legendary casino magnate Benny Binion that is still a haven for serious gamblers today; The Fremont, which was the state's first high rise building; The Four Queens; and the hotel that used to be Fitzgerald's that is now getting a makeover to become the more modern D Las Vegas.
For a little more history of a different variety, walk a couple of blocks north to Stewart Avenue and 3rd Street for a visit to the fantastic Mob Museum, which provides an interactive and highly entertaining look at the city's relationship with organized crime.
Head a couple of blocks east to Las Vegas Boulevard and turn left and go north a couple of blocks to the Neon Museum. The permanent facility, which will include an welcome center, exhibition gallery, and tour of the famous neon boneyard, will be open to the public this summer.
By now you're going to be ready for lunch so head back down Las Vegas Boulevard to Fremont Street and Neonopolis. This shopping center had become an empty white elephant eyesore but along with the rest of the neighborhood has gotten a boost with new tenants including the infamous Heart Attack Grill, where you can tempt fate by having one of their high-calorie burgers. If you're worried about angering your cardiologist, there are several other restaurants right around here. After lunch be sure to check out the Toy Shack at Neonopolis, a blast-from-the-past store full of classic toys and games.
Your next neighborhood destination is the Arts District, the epicenter of which is around Charleston Blvd. and Main Street about mile south of Fremont Street. This is where you'll find lots of antique stores, art galleries, and other interesting shopping opportunities. Must-sees include the delirious throwbacks at Retro Vegas; the beautifully restored and autograph opportunities at Rick's Restorations (from The History Channel's "American Restoration" series); The Gambler's General Store, home to all things casino; and The Arts Factory, a combination art gallery and boutique where you can find some really interesting and unique works of art.
If you got to this neighborhood early and need lunch and/or are feeling peckish, you absolutely must visit Lola's: A Louisiana Kitchen, which has fantastic Cajun and Creole dishes.
It is located at the head of your next neighborhood, Union Park. The former train yard is in the process of being transformed into a new city center and includes shopping opportunities at the Las Vegas Premium Outlets North and the Las Vegas Design Center plus the opportunity to see some fantastic performing arts at the new-as-of-2012 Smith Center. All of the things you'll want to see are located along Grand Central Parkway.
That street loops back to join up with Ogden Avenue, which is just a block north of Fremont Street so you've basically done a big circle. But you're not done yet!
By now it should be time for dinner and you have several good options. Triple 7 Brew Pub at Main Street Station is a relaxed place to grab a low cost but really good pub grub still meal. If you want a more upscale experience go to Oscar's at The Plaza, the steakhouse and speakeasy from former mayor Oscar Goodman, or to Hugo's Cellar at the Four Queens, which is still a classic gourmet experience after all these years.
Nightfall brings the Fremont Street Experience to life with all its colorful neon and hourly light and sound shows. Be sure to have your camera ready and don't miss shots of Vegas Vic and Vegas Vicky, the neon cowboy and cowgirl that loom large over the street.
Head down Fremont Street and cross Las Vegas Boulevard into the East Fremont district to finish off your night. This is where you'll find several really fun bars that are not populated only by obnoxious twenty-somethings with designer labels ready to sneer at you because you aren't one of them. The best of the bunch include the video game arcade/nightclub Insert Coin(s); the craft cocktail haven that is The Vanguard Lounge; and the laid-back Griffin.
If it isn't too late and you aren't too much of a chicken, you may want to end your Downtown tour with a view from the above by riding the Fremont Flightlinez zip line. It's not as scary as it looks and will provide you with a one-of-a-kind view of the rebirth of Downtown Las Vegas.
A couple of quick notes that could change this itinerary. If you are visiting on the first Friday of the month, rearrange your tour so you can be in the Arts District in the early evening for the First Friday festival. The street fair is worth going out of your way for. Also, before your trip you should check to see if there is anything of interest to you playing at The Smith Center. A night at the theater should be on your agenda!
Lucky 7: The Best Off the Beaten Track Shopping
For the last several weeks I have been directing you to the Best Off the Beaten Track experience in Vegas; the places that don't get the kind of tourist attention that should because they are either geographically or atmospherically away from the big draws. We started with hotels and then moved on to restaurants, attractions, and nightlife. This week, the series ends with the Best Off the Beaten Track Shopping experiences.
Gambler's General Store
Las Vegas Design Center
The Toy Shack
Zombie Apocalypse Store
Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards
The Extension of the Week goes to Boyd Gaming, the company that owns the mothballed, partially constructed Echelon project on the north Strip where the Stardust used to be. They have asked county commissioners for extensions on their various permits to give them more time to figure out what they are going to do with the property. How much more time? Until 2018! This means that it is likely Echelon, or whatever might replace it, will not open until the next decade.
The Chugging Along Award of the Week goes to the Las Vegas Monorail, which got approval from a bankruptcy judge last week on its debt reorganization plan. This should allow the system to keep operating for the next few years but if riders and revenue stay at their current very low levels another date with a judge could be in its future.
The Boo! Award of the Week goes to the Goretorium, a haunted house and horror movie museum attraction being planned for The Strip by "Hostel" director Eli Roth. It will feature movie memorabilia, a bar/nightclub, and a bunch of scares throughout. The attraction is planned for the new building next to Planet Hollywood on the corner of The Strip and Harmon Avenue, above Walgreen's and should be open by September.
The Yet Another Thing I Won't Be Doing Award of the Week goes to Sky Combat Ace, a flying adventure attraction in Las Vegas that is offering stunt-plane style ride-alongs and lessons. Yep, you get to do your very own loops an barrel rolls. More info at their website skycombatace.com.
Tipping Guidelines from Vegas4Visitors Fans
This week on Facebook I asked our nearly 1,000 Vegas4Visitors Facebook page fans a series of questions about what they tip in Vegas.
The tips I asked about are not ones that you only will ever have to think about in Vegas but they are a little less common than your standard wait staff, cab driver, and bartender.
For the most part, what you said matches with what I have been recommending:
The Facebook fans agreed with this for the most part saying that they leave $2-$5 per day and will tip more if they have some sort of special request such as an extra pillow or more bath amenities. A few people said they don't leave a tip at all - not surprising since this hasn't always been a standard.
If you hit a slot jackpot over $1,200 it needs to get paid by hand and, since it is taxable, requires paperwork. There are usually two people involved in this process and it is common to tip them after they hand you the big stack of cash. I usually start at $20 per person and go up from there depending on how much I have won. The most I have ever tipped was $100 apiece to five different people who worked on paying out a very, very, very large jackpot.
Most of the Facebook fans who had been lucky enough to get these hand pays in the past agreed with the $20 starting point although several encouraged more if for no other reason than good gambling karma.
As far as dealers, it depends on the game and the wagers, but if you get a good hand or series of hands, the common tip is to match whatever your base wager is. So if you are betting $5 a hand on blackjack and you get a few good hands in a row, tip the dealer $5. On a game like Three Card Poker, tips are common when you get a flush or better and generally match the Pair Plus original wager. This is totally at your discretion and should be a reward for not only how much money you are winning but how much fun you are having at the table.
The Facebook fans agreed dealers should be tipped but the amounts on low stakes games were generally suggested to be a buck or two.
This is one where the Facebook fans had a different take. For the most part the comments indicated that most folks don't leave a tip at drop-off unless they have a really nice car and want the valet to keep it close and/or take extra good care of it. $1-$5 was the most common range for pick-up, with most saying that where they landed in the range depended on how fast they got their car back.
Many buffets also have made-to-order stations where a cook will whip up an omelet, a salad, or some other custom dish the way you want it. It is customary to tip them a buck or two for each plate and you can leave it on the counter or hand it to them directly.
Facebook fans were all over the map on this one. Although the most common answer was $2-$3 total at the table and nothing for the cook staff, some people suggested as much as the standard 15-20% that regular wait staff would get and several dollars for the cooks.
Front Desk Clerks
I've only ever done this once. I get perks because of my job and because I have a tendency to blow a lot of money in the casinos so usually the hotel or casino that is hosting me gives me a nicer than average room to impress me or to give me a comfortable space in which to weep over my losses.
But one time I visited just for fun on New Year's Eve and wanted to watch the fireworks from my hotel room so I did the $20 trick to ensure that I would have a view of The Strip. It worked, although it is important to note that I don't know for sure that I wouldn't have gotten a Strip view room anyway.
My recommendation on this is to save your $20 unless you are going to be spending a lot of time in the room. And even then, I have found that a friendly smile and conversation with the check in agent will go just as far as an Andrew Jackson.
Only one of the Facebook fans said they do this regularly and he indicated that it works almost every time.
Many thanks to everyone who joined in the discussion on the Vegas4Visitors Facebook fan page.
Lucky 7: Shows I Miss in Vegas
I've been going through some old Vegas4Visitors.com files and found a bunch of old reviews of things that are no longer in Vegas including shows that I wish still were. Here's my list:
Second City Improv
Stomp Out Loud
Lucky 7: Shows I Don't Miss in Vegas
So yes, there are a bunch of shows that I miss but there are also many that I don't. Here's a look back at some of the shows that never made it to my "Best Of" lists:
Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance
Show Girls of Magic