Weekly Column by Rick Garman

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15th Anniversary Special: The Best of the Las Vegas 1998-2013 Part 1

In 1997, I was given the opportunity to write two Las Vegas guide books, the Frommer's Las Vegas comprehensive guide and the first edition of the Complete Idiot's Guide to Vegas. It was a terrific honor and an all-round cool thing to be able to call myself a Las Vegas travel writer but I wanted to find a way to take all that Vegas knowledge I had gotten and turn it into something that was mine; something that I could own and manage, where I could say whatever I wanted to say not just what someone else's writer's guidelines said I could say.

So I turned to the still new-ish Internet and, along with my father, created a website with reviews of hotels, shows, restaurants, and more. We called it and the site launched in September of 1998, 15 years ago this month.

Looking at that first incarnation of the site is a little embarrassing - it's fairly rudimentary from a design and content perspective. But it was one of the first Las Vegas travel planning websites and remains one of the only ones that offers critical review that isn't sanitized by concerns about what advertisers may think. In other words, I still say what I want to say.

15 years later, is not the biggest Vegas website out there but it gets tens of thousands of readers every year and I appreciate every single one of them. Writing about Las Vegas has been one of the few constants in my life and I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoy producing it.

As many of you know, at the end of each year I do a series of Top 10 lists, wherein I pick my favorite hotels, shows, and more. I did them every year except for the first, 1998, and in 2005 where I still had my picks for bests but didn't rank them from 1 to 10 like I normally do. I went back through all of those lists, plus the reviews and material that I have done for the last 15 years throughout the site, and have put together a series of special lists. This week I have the Top 10 Hotels and Restaurants from 1998 to 2013 and in upcoming weeks I'll have the Top 10 Attractions, Shows, and more.

These lists are all about historical perspective. What that means is you'll see things on here that don't exist anymore. You'll also see some current things ranked higher or lower than I would probably rank them if I was just looking at the last year. some of this I tried to do "scientifically," by averaging the item's rankings across the various Top 10 lists through the years but in the end it really just came down to my gut; asking myself "what has had the biggest impact on me and on Vegas in general over the last 15 years?" - your most trusted Las Vegas travel planning resource since 1998.


Top 10 Hotels from 1998-2013

Choosing the best hotels from the last 15 years was easier than I expected it to be, at least compared to some of the other lists in this anniversary special. This was the one where I let the numbers do most of the talking, averaging the various hotels' rankings on the Top 10 lists from 1999 to 2012 and putting in some adjustments for hotels that opened or closed in the middle of that period. But it wasn't all about facts and figures on a spreadsheet; there's a lot of personal opinion mixed in here, as usual. While I think we could have some lively debates about where on the list they should appear and whether or not there are other hotels that should have made the cut, ultimately I think almost everyone would agree that these are truly terrific hotels in their own right.

#1: Mirage

There are bigger, better, and fancier hotels in Las Vegas today but it is not going too far to say that most of them would probably not exist were it not for The Mirage. When it opened in 1989 it literally and figuratively changed the landscape of Las Vegas and ushered in an era where places like MGM Grand, New York-New York, and Wynn Las Vegas were possible. It made it onto my Top 10 Hotels list 12 of the 13 years that I have done them since started and the one year it didn't, quite frankly, was probably an oversight. The Mirage was the first Las Vegas hotel I fell in love with; the one that helped me to fall in love with Las Vegas. While it may not be my #1 choice for today it certainly must be my #1 pick for the last 15 years.

#2: Caesars Palace

The Las Vegas stalwart has had almost as many reinventions as the city itself. Its nearly constant upgrades and improvements over the last 15 years landed it a spot on my Top 10 lists 11 times. It's classic and contemporary at the same time, honoring its history while still presenting a thoroughly modern package that is luxurious without being pretentious. While other hotels of its era have had dates with demolition, and other newer hotels that have come after it have failed to maintain a level of excellence that would put them on this list, Caesars has not only survived but thrived.

#3: Red Rock Resort

Located far afield of the Las Vegas Strip where most tourists go, this beautiful resort has been on my Top 10 lists every year since it opened in 2006. Take one step inside and you'll know why: stunning design from the casino to the pool to the rooms; an affordable lineup of high-quality dining and entertainment; personal, friendly service; and views of both Red Rock Canyon and Las Vegas that are unparalleled. I've often said that if this hotel were located on The Strip instead of a 25-minute drive away it would be the best in all of Las Vegas.

#4: Green Valley Ranch

For awhile, this gorgeous locals' hotel on the south side of town was at or near the top of my Top 10 Hotels lists. The fact that it has been absent the last few years is only because so many of the slots these days are going to the newer hotels that have demanded attention. It's still a terrific place but it's when you view it from a historical perspective that you see how truly great it is. GVR changed the locals' hotel game, providing a level of luxury, service, and amenities that were unheard of anywhere off The Strip.

#5: Wynn/Encore

Steve Wynn took everything he had done at The Mirage, Treasure Island, and Bellagio and bumped it up about a 1,000 notches with this, his eponymous palace and its baby sister. The hotel paved the way for the modern era of Vegas hotels where wacky theme was replaced by over-the-top luxury, laying the groundwork for hotels like The Cosmopolitan and Aria Las Vegas. It has been on my Top 10 list every year since it opened and the only thing that has kept it out of the top spot is the price. Stay here, though, and you'll understand the maxim "you get what you pay for."

#6: Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas

This hotel still exists but now it is a Hilton. I don't think it's going too far to say that if it was still a Ritz-Carlton, it would still be on my Top 10 hotel lists every year. Except for its location roughly a bazillion miles away from the things that most tourists would want to do, it was a truly perfect hotel, blending stellar service with true luxury in a way that most of the 3,000 room "resorts" on The Strip can only dream of.

#7: Golden Nugget

The Grand Dame of Las Vegas just celebrated her 67th birthday, which makes the fact that it is still a great hotel all the more remarkable. It has made it on to my Top 10 Hotels list more than any other Downtown Las Vegas property and has ranked even higher in recent years after renovations and expansions transformed it from the nicest hotel on Fremont Street to one of the nicest hotels in the entire city.

#8: Bellagio

This ultra-luxury hotel opened about a month after first went online, so get ready to wish it happy 15th in October. Appearances on my Top 10 Hotels list for it have been sporadic, mainly because it was difficult for me to adjust to the somewhat stuffy atmosphere and the insanely high prices for which it became famous. Luckily, I didn't have to adjust; it did, offering a more relaxed, contemporary version of luxury that I really appreciate these days.

#9: New York-New York

In the 15 years that has been around, no other hotel has had as much of an impact on the Vegas aesthetic as this one. It was the pinnacle of the wacky theme era, with replicas of famous Gotham landmarks, a Central Park style casino, change carts that were painted NYC taxi yellow, and a roller coaster just because it wasn't quite frenetic enough. You won't see this particular hotel on my Top 10 Hotels list anymore; it's wackiness has been tamed down, sadly, and it feels decidedly middle-of-the-road in comparison to other, newer Vegas hotels, but when creating a list of the best of the last 15 years, it absolutely deserves a spot.

#10 Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

I know that the Cosmo is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of hotel but I am firmly in the love it category. It doesn't have a theme, per se, but it is as boldly visual and delightfully audacious as any of the Egypt/France/Italy hotels that surround it. Although new, I think it has staying power and will still be on the list of great hotels when I do the 30 year anniversary edition.


Top 10 Restaurants from 1998-2013

Of the different categories - hotels, shows, attractions, nightclubs, etc. - I have reviewed more restaurants in Las Vegas than any other thing; quite literally hundreds of them by my estimation. Some were terrible, most were good, and many were absolutely amazing so creating this list was difficult, to say the least. My first pass at a Top 10 list had 18 restaurants and cutting some of those eight extras caused me almost physical pain (I'm sorry Bartolotta - I still love you!).

So how did these make the cut? Well, the nature of my job, wherein I have to keep up with new things that are opening, means that I often don't have the time to go back to restaurants that I enjoyed. However, this eclectic list is filled with restaurants that I have gone back to multiple times and, for those that still exist, I will go back to again. They are my favorites of the last 15 years.

#1: Capriotti's

Although I certainly wasn't the first person to write about how amazing Capriotii's Italian submarine sandwiches are, I was one of the first and I like to take completely undeserving credit for their subsequent success. In 1998 they had only a couple of stores in Delaware and in Vegas, but now are a rapidly growing nationwide chain and for a good reason: they have the best sandwiches in the entire world, period. Before they opened in Los Angeles, I would always make Capriotti's my last stop on the way out of town so I could have them when I got home - and I often had to bring back sandwiches for other people! It's the not the fanciest and certainly no longer unique to Vegas, but it is still the restaurant that has been the most important to me in the city over the last 15 years.

#2: Chocolate Swan

I've had dreams about this place. Seriously. I've had a lot of chocolate in my life (I'm eating some right now as I type this) but the lovingly hand-made stuff they served here at Mandalay Bay - specifically the milk-chocolate covered caramels - was mind blowing; the best I ever tasted. This was another place I would visit every single time I was in Vegas and usually the box I would buy would be half empty by the time I got home. It closed several years ago when the owner had health issues and Vegas has been a bit less wonderful ever since.

#3: Austins

Now this one I get to take a little more credit for. I was one of the first to review this steakhouse at Texas Station and I can't tell you how many people took my advice and ventured off The Strip, only to write back to me later agreeing that it was the best steakhouse in all of Las Vegas. Competition and little bit of a lack of attention to detail over the last few years have diminished its star a bit, but whenever someone asks me for the best steakhouses in town, this place is still on that list and for that, deserves to be on this one.

#4: Hash House a Go Go

They have pancakes the size of pizzas and waffles with bacon baked inside. I don't know what else you need to validate this twisted farm food restaurant's placement on this list. Okay, how about their signature breakfast "O'Hare of the Dog" that consists of a Budweiser in a paper sack and a side of bacon? Fantastic food and a sense of humor makes this one of my favorite restaurants of all time.

#5: L'Atelier

If the meals here at this MGM Grand restaurant weren't so mind-bogglingly expensive, it would go at the top of the list now and forever. Then again, if it weren't so expensive, the food might not be as mind-bogglingly good. I have eaten here twice now and I swear to you these are meals that I will remember for the rest of my life. The food, the service, and the ambience is beyond world class and while you have to take out a bank loan to afford it, I say it's totally worth every penny.

#6: The Cupcakery

Cupcakes are another area in which I have a bit of subject matter expertise. I enjoy me some cupcakes, is what I'm saying, but when someone asks me about the best of the breed I always bring up The Cupcakery, regardless of what city I'm in. I'll say things like, "Well, in Los Angeles, Yummy Cupcakes are probably the best but they aren't as good as The Cupcakery at the Monte Carlo in Las Vegas." Insanely moist cake, deliciously decadent buttercream frosting, and inventive recipes make this my top cupcake spot - and one of my top dining spots for the last 15 years.

#7: Raku

It doesn't sound like much - little skewers of meat or vegetables cooked over a charcoal grill - but this Japanese Robata restaurant west of The Strip is so amazing that many of the chefs and kitchen staff from the city's hotels come here after their shifts are over. In putting this list together I kept coming back to the idea that a restaurant should have a meaningful, lasting impact and this one absolutely did for me.

#8: Hannah's

It was only around for a couple of years but this eclectic Asian fusion restaurant on the far west side of town was so good that I went back several times, including bringing most of my extended family for cocktails and appetizers when my parents were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. The flavors, the atmosphere, and the prices were all as nearly perfect as you can get and even after all these years of it being closed I still think of it fondly. That, to me, means it deserves a spot on this list.

#9: The Range

This was one of the first steakhouses I visited in Las Vegas and I wound up going back often, partly for its amazing, high-quality beef; partly for its unique starters like the creamy onion soup served in a giant, hollowed out onion; and partly for the really cool, up-close view of The Strip from its second floor perch at Harrah's. Other steakhouses came along and stole my heart (and stomach) and it closed last year, but I will always have fond memories of the meals I had here.

#10: Lola's

As I mentioned above, there were eight other restaurants that were vying for the 10th spot on this list and giving it to this New Orleans bistro was not an easy decision. But at the end of the day I had to give in to the emotion of the equation and tip the scales to a place that serves fantastic versions of a cuisine that I love from a city that I love. Their roast beef debris po boy alone merits a spot on a list of my favorites in Vegas.


Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards

The Last Dance Award of the Week goes to Gallery, the nightclub at Planet Hollywood, which closed suddenly last weekend. No reason was given but some are speculating that the club will be transformed into a Britney Spears themed hot spot to go along with the singer's (not officially confirmed but everyone knows is happening) upcoming headlining gig at the hotel. Expect an announcement around September 17.

The 1 Million Award of the Week goes to the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace, which celebrated its 1 millionth diner last week, less than a year after it opened. Tianshu Sun was the lucky number one million and won two-nights at Caesars along with an unlimited buffet pass and spa treatments during her stay.

The 10 Million Award of the Week goes to the Eiffel Tower Experience at Paris Las Vegas, which is the number of people who have visited it since it opened in 1999. Martin Layton, visiting from the United Kingdom, was lucky number 10 million and was serenaded by Taylor Hicks and the Jersey Boys and won a trip to Paris, France. Layton was visiting Vegas with his finance and they were married the next day, so they intend to use the trip as a honeymoon. 5,000 balloons were released to mark the Eiffel Tower's milestone.

The Old School Award of the Week goes to The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, which will open a new hybrid restaurant/showroom/nightclub later this year called Rose.Rabbit.Lie. No, I don't know what it means. Although details are being kept close to the vest, backers say it will evoke the glory showrooms of Vegas past like Circus Maximus, which mixed dinner and entertainment into one package. The new venue will be located on the second floor near the Wicked Spoon Buffet and should be open by December.


Hotel Review: Mandalay Bay

Named after an obscure reference in a Rudyard Kipling novel, Mandalay Bay has what has been described as an 1800's Burma theme. If you know what that means you're more educated than I am. The easiest way to describe it would be a subtle South Seas look with lots of heavy stonework, lush foliage, and myriad tropical touches.

When it opened in 1999 it was billed as a hip, happening, luxury hotel aimed at a younger demographic looking for an upscale place to party and play. Over the years, as newer more decidedly youth-targeted hotels came on the scene, Mandalay Bay grew up, losing the whatever whimsy may have existed in the Burmese jungle and becoming a more grown up hotel.

Now the pendulum is swinging back the other way as big portions of the hotel have gotten makeovers. The casino is lighter and brighter than it used to be; the Cirque du Soleil Michael Jackson show is drawing hordes of prime demographic audiences; and the Cirque du Soleil nightclub Light has block-long lines to get in. New restaurants, lounge spaces, and a poolside day club have also been added. The result of all these changes is a new, more youthful vibe and a definite increase in energy, both good and bad. Good in that it's a more exciting place to hang out and bad in that all of that excitement can get annoying after awhile.

In a welcome change of pace, you don't need to go through the casino area to get to the elevators or from the elevators to the pool area. The bad news is that check-in lines can be long at peak times and the elevator lobby, which sits at the intersection of several different paths, can be a navigation nightmare especially when loaded down with luggage. If you're driving in and choose to self-park, you do have quite a hike from the parking garage to the front desk through the casino but it's not as bad as it is in some other hotels (I'm looking at you Caesars Palace).

The standard rooms are comfortable, with each one covering about 550 square feet. This makes them fairly typical in terms of size with the exception of the bathrooms that are generously proportioned. Each has a dual vanity, deep tub, glass-enclosed shower, and a private water closet (room with a toilet). The plantation shutter type doors can be a pain to get open and closed but put your shoulder into it and you'll be fine.

Nice touches include the floor-to-ceiling windows that offer panoramic vistas, iron and ironing board, hair dryers, multiple phones (desk, bedside, bathroom), high speed Internet (included in the resort fee), iPod docking bedside clock radios, mini-bars, safes, and dual lighted closets. The decor has been updated to that sort of retro-sleek look that is all the rage these days - think oversized padded headboards, crisp white linens, low slung couches, and other mid-century modern touches. The overall effect is comfortable, casual, and inviting.

There are a variety of other rooms available from small junior suites to massive two-story affairs that wrap around the entire end of the wings offering 180-degree views of Las Vegas. Amenities and prices go up accordingly.

And if these rooms don't satisfy there are actually two other hotels that are part of the same property - THEhotel (which will become a Delano branded property in 2013) and The Four Seasons.

As mentioned, the casino area has gotten some love with a more vibrant color scheme and improved lighting blasting away most of the sedate earth tones and dimly lit corners that used to dominate. It has high ceilings, good spacing between the slots and table games, and a pleasing lack of flashing commotion but the crowd, especially at the craps and blackjack tables, has gotten younger and more boisterous. Go on a weekend night when spillover from the nightclub is at its peak and the combination of noise from the patrons and music blasting from several open lounges is almost deafening.

In the center is a large lounge/nightclub and there are several bars and additional lounges scattered around the premises. Of them, the Mizuya Lounge is one of the best places for people who aren't 22 anymore but still want to go out for a drink and some dancing. They have some of the best live entertainment around and the energy is usually great, the drinks are cheaper, and you don't have to fight for floor space with the Paris Hilton clones that invade most nightclubs. Having said that, it is right by the lines for the main nightclub so again here you get some spillover on weekend nights.

That club, Light, is a fantastic collaboration with Cirque du Soleil.

There are several restaurants including the amazing Citizens Kitchen and Fleur, a decent buffet, and a showroom that is home to the incredible Cirque du Soleil Michael Jackson ONE show. There's also an arena for big concerts and sporting events, lots of shops, an animal exhibit Shark Reef aquarium, a large health club and spa, and convention and meeting space.

Of special note is Mandalay Beach, the resort's beautiful pool area. Open only to guests of the three hotels on site, this gigantic playground offers three pools, several whirlpools, a lazy river ride, and a full sand beach fronting a huge wave pool capable of generating seven-foot swells. You can rent cabanas, surf and boogie boards, and inner tubes and get beverage and food service from the beach bar or even gamble in the small poolside casino. They have included a stage overlooking the beach and wave pool for concerts. I have to say it is one of the most appealing pool areas in town although if you're not a fan of the kids you may want to go elsewhere since this pool area draws a lot of them.

I ran into only one issue with service and that was with a particularly surly front desk agent who didn't have even a hint of remorse about me being forced to stand in a long line after the express check out incorrectly calculated my bill. Too bad because everyone else from dealers to housekeeping to the valet parking staff was great.

As with most Las Vegas hotels, rates have gotten more affordable since the recession began in 2008. What would once cost you easily $200 on the weekdays you can get for as low as half that, although around $150 is a more common average. Weekends are as low as $120 but $200 is probably closer to the norm. That's not cheap but it's a lot cheaper than it used to be. There is a $28 (including tax) resort fee that covers Internet, gym access, and a bunch of other stuff.

One other minor complaint that won't apply to most people is the new layout of the parking garage, which creates epic traffic jams when people are trying to get out at peak times.

Although the new youthful vibe is not exactly my cup of tea, my overall impression of the new Mandalay Bay is generally a positive one. The Burmese jungle is back, baby!

Mandalay Bay
3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Check Rates
3,309 Rooms
$99 and up double
Avg. $150-$200 per night
Vegas4Visitors Grade: 88


Restaurant Review: Eat Downtown Las Vegas

While dining on The Strip became a culinary experience worthy of a truckload worth of James Beard Awards, dining in Downtown Las Vegas mostly remained a wasteland. Cheap buffets, cheap coffee shops, and cheap quality dominated the scene with few places serving anything more interesting than a hamburger or a $7.99 prime rib special.

But Downtown these days is pulsing with newfound life and energy, driven mostly by bunch of new bars and attractions, and the dining scene is finally starting to catch up. As evidence I offer the aptly named Eat.

Located a block off the Fremont East Entertainment District, right behind the Central Container Park complex, Eat is a charming little new-millennium cafeteria that is only open at breakfast and lunch. The room has a funky, art gallery vibe with exposed duct work, cement floors, and vibrant splashes of orange and green color jazzing up the space. You can choose to sit at your own table or banquette booth or you can eat at the counter or communal table if you are a more sociable type.

No matter what you ultimately end up ordering as a main course start (or perhaps end) with the beignets. They are perfectly fluffy bits of fried dough, lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar, and served with homemade jam and a vanilla mascarpone. They are heavenly and rival those served at New Orleans' famed Cafe du Monde.

Breakfasts range from simple (granola and Greek yogurt with berries or steel-cut oats with roasted apples and cream) to complex (fried eggs with Mexican chili and sautéed bananas). Or you could go more traditional with pancakes served with chicken apples sausage or classic shrimp and grits served with bacon and eggs.

A standout on this part of the menu is the truffled egg sandwich, done with two scrambled eggs, mushrooms, feta cheese, and bacon on a warm ciabatta bun and accompanied by a pile of roasted chive potatoes. Eat this and you will never want a McWhatever served on a boring English muffin ever again. The flavors mixed perfectly, with the creamy feta and the thick bacon making a delicious union.

Over on the lunch side you have several salads but it is the sandwiches that should dominate your attention. There's a BLT with avocado and chipotle mayo, a roast beef sandwich topped with blue cheese and pickled red onions, and a Ruben done with homemade sauerkraut and traditional Russian dressing to name a few.

Everything is so fresh that it practically jumps off the plate and the presentation is as unfussy as the service, which is comfortable, friendly, and familiar.

Nothing on the menu is more than $13 and you could easily do a very satisfying meal for about $20 all in.

Downtown Las Vegas needs more places to eat like Eat. Heck... all of Las Vegas needs it.

Eat Downtown Las Vegas
707 Carson Ave.
Las Vegas, NV 89101
Mon-Fri 8am-2pm
Sat-Sun 8am-3pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A