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VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
December 2, 2013
Vegas4Visitors 2013 Top 10 Awards: Reader's Choice
It's almost time for my annual year-end picks of my favorite Las Vegas hotels, restaurants, shows, attractions, and more with the 2013 Top 10 Awards and once again this year I'm giving you a chance to make your voice heard with the Vegas4Visitors Reader's Choice. And to make it even better, this year's Reader's Choice votes come with a chance to win!
You can weigh in with your opinion in one of two ways. First, you can go join the Vegas4Visitors Facebook group where we'll be having what I hope are lively discussions about your picks. I'll post a question (ie: What's your pick for the Best Las Vegas Hotel of 2013?) and all you have to do is reply in the comments to that post. They will be posted on Facebook starting Monday, December 2nd, 2013.
If you are not on Facebook, you can also send me a quick e-mail with your choices at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are the categories:
- Best Hotels
- Best Shows
- Best Attractions
- Best Restaurant
- Best Buffet
- Best Bar or Nightclub
- Best Casino
You can send me your picks via Facebook or e-mail any time before Saturday, December 14th at 12:01am Pacific Standard Time.
Everyone who votes in one of the categories will be automatically entered to win a autographed copy of my new Frommer's LAS VEGAS 2015 guide book. You can only vote once per category but each of those votes count as a separate entry.
I'll be unveiling your choices for those categories and my picks for those and several other categories in a series of special columns starting in a couple of weeks. The winner of the autographed guide book will be announced just before Christmas.
Early Oscar Odds from Wynn Las Vegas
The Academy Awards nominations haven't even been announced yet but that isn't stopping Wynn Las Vegas Race and Sports Book Director Johnny Avello from laying odds on not only who will get nominated but who will ultimately win.
"12 Years a Slave" is Avello's top pick in several categories including Best Picture at 7:5 odds; Best Actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor at 9:5; Best Supporting Actor for Michael Fassbender at 9:5; and Steve McQueen for Best Director at 3:2.
Heading the other two major categories are Cate Blanchett, coming in at 2:5 odds to win Best Actress for her role in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine," and Oprah Winfrey favored to win Best Supporting Actress at 6:5 for her role in "The Butler."
But according to Avello's odds it isn't a sure thing for anyone at this point. The Tom Hanks picture "Captain Phillips" is in the running for Best Picture at 4:1 odds as are "American Hustle" and "Gravity" at 7:1 and 8:1 respectively. Avello is putting "Nebraska" on the list but at the bottom at 50:1 odds to win. Others on the list include "The Wolf of Wall Street" at 10:1; "The Butler" at 12:1; "Saving Mr. Banks" at 22:1; "Blue Jasmine" at 30:1; and "Inside Llewyn Davis" at 35:1.
Robert Redford is not far off the lead for Best Actor, coming in at 3:1 for his role in "All is Lost" while Tom Hanks is also competitive at 7:2 for "Captain Phillips." The rest of the field looks like also-rans with Matthew McConaughey at 10:1 for "Dallas Buyers Club;" Bruce Dern at 14:1 for "Nebraska;" Leonardo DiCaprio at 16:1 for "The Wolf of Wall Street;" Idris Elba at 18:1 for "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; and, at the back the pack, Forest Whitaker for his role in "The Butler" at 25:1.
Blanchett's primary challenger for Best Actress is Sandra Bullock, who is at 4:1 for her role in "Gravity." Everyone else is a long shot with Judy Dench at 12:1 for "Philomena;" Emma Thompson at 14:1 for "Saving Mr. Banks;" Meryl Streep at 16:1 for "August: Osage County;" Amy Adams at 40:1 for "American Hustle;" and Julia Louis-Dreyfus the longest of long shots in any race at 60:1 for her role in "Enough Said."
Over in Best Supporting Actor, Jared Leto is in the thick of things at 2:1 odds for his role in "Dallas Buyers Club" as is Tom Hanks at 4:1 for "Saving Mr. Banks." Things drop off considerably from there with Daniel Bruhl at 11:1 for "Rush;" Barkhad Abdi at 12:1 for "Captian Phillips;" the late James Gandolfini at 15:1 for "Enough Said;" Bradley Cooper at 25:1 for "American Hustle;" and John Goodman at the bottom with 30:1 odds for "Inside Llewyn Davis."
As mentioned, Avello is giving the Best Supporting Actress race to Oprah at this point but Lupita Nyongo is essentially tied for the lead at 7:5 odds for her role in "12 Years a Slave." Octavia Spencer is next at 12:1 for "Fruitville Station;" Jennifer Lawrence is at 15:1 for "American Hustle;" June Squibb at 20:1 for "Nebraska;" Julia Roberts is at 25:1 for "August: Osage County;" and Sally Hawkins bringing up the rear at 50:1 for "Blue Jasmine."
Finally, Alfonso Cuaron is absolutely in the race for Best Director, currently right behind McQueen at 2:1 odds. David O Russell is not far off at 5:1 for "American Hustle" and then the rest of the field stacks up like this: Martin Scorsese at 14:1 for "The Wolf of Wall St;" Paul Greengrass at 18:1 for "Captain Phillips;" Joel and Ethan Coen at 30:1 for "Inside Llewyn Davis; and Alexander Payne at 50:1 for "Nebraska."
Of course all of this is just for fun; you can't actually bet on the Academy Awards in Las Vegas yet. For a long time it was illegal to place wagers on these types of contests but that changed a few years back with a ruling by the Nevada Gaming Commission. The problem is that the ruling came with a lot of strings that the casinos haven't figure out how to work with yet, mostly involving insuring that no one could cheat. Unlike a sporting event, for example, the outcome of the Academy Awards is known by at least a few people before the winner is announced and could, theoretically, be influenced by vote buying or intimidation. Until the casinos can insure that this kind of hanky-panky won't occur - something that is mostly out of their control - they won't be able to take best on the Oscars anytime soon.
The full nominations will be announced on January 16, 2014 and the Oscar telecast, hosted this year by Ellen Degeneres, will be on Sunday, March 2, 2014 on ABC.
Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards
The Time for Coffee Award of the Week goes to New York-New York, which will debut several new stores facing The Strip as part of its multi-million overhaul to the front of the resort. Included will be a Swatch watch store; Stupidiotic gift and gadget store; I Love NYNY sundry and grocery items; and a Starbucks. The stores are set to open on December 28 while the rest of the makeover, which will include a Hershey's World store and a park, will open in early 2014.
The Bubbly Award of the Week goes to Fizz, the new champagne bar operated by David Furnish, which is now open at Caesars Palace next to the Colosseum where his husband, Elton John, performs regularly. The upscale room features high-end champagnes and specially crafted cocktails plus a selection of caviar, gourmet paninis, and small plates from John's personal chef.
The Quite a Haul Award of the Week goes to Jeff Civillico, who raised more than $40,000 from his second annual "Headliners Bash" concert event for his charity Win-Win Entertainment. The night saw performance from Vegas entertainers like The Jersey Boys, Recycled Percussion, Human Nature, Mac King, Clint Holmes, and more. Win-Win helps to pair entertainers with charitable organizations so they can do their own fundraising events.
The Shop 'Til You Drop Award of the Week gos to the Downtown Container Park, which opened to the public last week. The new shopping and entertainment facility at the corner of Fremont and 7th, diagonally across from El Cortez, features dozens of stores, restaurants, and fun diversions (like a 40-foot-long, fire-breathing sculpture of a praying mantis) in a complex created out of recycled shipping containers and manufactured steel cubes.
The Last Breakfast at Tiffany's Award of the Week goes to The Tropicana, which got approval from the county to add a big new shopping mall to the front of its Strip facing acreage. Part of the new facility will get built on top of the existing casino, which will mean the iconic Tiffany glass ceiling over the gaming pit will be removed.
Las Vegas History: The Sands
In a way, The Sands existed because of Bugsy Siegel. No, he didn't have anything to do with the hotel directly - he had been dead for years by the time it opened - but his involvement with The Flamingo played a hand in the genesis of The Sands.
Located in the heart of the burgeoning Strip, just north of The Flamingo and just south of The Desert Inn, the plot of land that would eventually be home to The Sands was empty scrub brush until 1950. That's when Billy Wilkerson opened a French restaurant and gambling parlor called La Rue's. If you have read The Flamingo history, you'll know that Wilkerson, the editor of the Hollywood Reporter, was the man who originally started building that hotel. He ran out of money and Bugsy and his cohorts took over, leaving Wilkerson with an unfulfilled dream of operating a casino in Las Vegas. La Rue's was most likely designed to be the first step in creating his own resort like The Flamingo, but Wilkerson got bought out by businessman Max Kufferman in 1951.
Kufferman wanted to build a casino resort either in addition to or in place of La Rue's but he was unable to get a gaming license due to his unsavory connections with alleged mafia figures in New Jersey. So he sold the place to Jake Freedman, a gambler from Texas, who had a good enough reputation to be able to get past the concerns from gaming officials that he was just a front for Kufferman and his mob friends. Freedman got his license, partners who worked at the Copacabana club in New York, and an influx of cash from unknown sources, most likely Kufferman's pals, which may have included legendary organized crime figures like Myer Lanksy and Frank Costello.
The resort was reported to have cost $5.5 million to build and incorporated the existing La Rue's structure. Because of that it was able to be built in a relatively short nine months, opening on December 15, 1952. Its catchphrase, emblazoned on the marquee out front, was "A Place in the Sun."
The main building sat close to The Strip along the northern edge of the property, more or less where the lagoon and main casino of The Venetian sit now. It had the casino, a lobby, restaurants, a showroom/lounge, and more. The 200 rooms were in two-story motel style buildings that stretched back from main building away from The Strip, opening up in a V-shape with a big lawn in between. To keep guests from having to hike the relatively long distance between the rooms and the casino, a fleet of electric trams ferried guests around the property including to the big pool that glistened in between the main building and the first of the motel buildings.
Danny Thomas provided the opening night's entertainment and the hotel was an instant success, rumored to have made back its $5.5 million building cost in the first six months. Everyone wanted a piece of the hotel, with Max Kufferman trying, and failing, to get on the books as an official owner. The same thing happened to no less than Frank Sinatra, who applied for, and was denied, a small ownership stake in The Sands. Sinatra's alleged cozy ties with the mafia nixed his plans but he became a fixture at the hotel and the casino for the bulk of the 1950s and 1960s, lending the property an air of "cool" that made it even more popular.
Freedman died in the late 1950s but by then other investors incorporated and had taken on a majority of the ownership of the property. His widow Sadie kept his 10% stake until she sold it back to the corporation in the mid 1960s.
In 1959, the hotel remodeled the lobby and casino and added a series of bungalow suites.
A year later, Sinatra chose The Sands as one of the five hotels to be targeted by his Danny Ocean character and friends in Ocean's 11. The Rat Pack made the hotel their unofficial home during filming and after the shoot had wrapped, with the most famous photo of them gathered in front of the hotel's marquee. Even though he was denied the first time, Sinatra and Dean Martin both eventually became minority investors in the hotel and Sinatra even got married to Mia Farrow there in 1964.
1962 saw the addition of a u-shaped building hotel building that closed off the open end of the V-shape lawn at the back of the property. It added another 83 rooms and a second pool to the hotel's inventory.
A few years later, in 1965, work started on what would become the hotel's signature feature, a 17-story, 777 room circular hotel tower. It came with a significant expansion of main building adding more casino space, a new theater, and one of the biggest convention centers in town. The new facilities opened in stages starting in late 1965 all the way through the hotel tower's opening in 1967.
That opening came shortly after The Sands got a new owner in the form of none other than Howard Hughes, who was on a bit of a Vegas buy spree at the time. He acquired the resort for $14.6 million in July of 1967.
This was also the year that Frank Sinatra's affiliation with the hotel came to a rather public end. The exact story behind it all is hazy and varies depending on who you ask, but according to legend, someone in the casino denied Mr. Sinatra credit and he took offense to that. He hunted down one of the hotel's executives (perhaps driving a golf cart through the casino per some versions of the story), confronting him in the coffee shop and eventually throwing a chair at the man, who took offense of his own and punched Sinatra. That pretty much took care of Sinatra's performing days at the hotel and he became a headliner across the street at Caesars Palace.
During Hughes' ownership of the hotel, before and after his death in 1976, very little of significance happened in terms of the development of the property. There were some cosmetic renovations and changes to the lineup of restaurants and lounges, but there were no major construction projects or additions.
In 1981, Hughes' Summa Corporation sold the hotel to The Inns of America, a Texas based hotel chain. They immediately launched a $15 million project to renovate the hotel, updating the decor of the rooms, the casino, and more. The revamp debuted in 1982 with a massive public party featuring Sammy Davis Jr. as the ceremonial emcee.
The company's strategy was going to be to market the hotel to a Latin and Mexican audience, but that idea never got off the ground and wound up damaging the parent company to such a severe level that the Summa Corporation wound up repossessing The Sands in 1983.
The hotel never really recovered after that, going through a series of owners that included MGM's Kirk Kerkorian and a company called the Interface group led by Sheldon Adelson. As modern hotels like The Mirage debuted in Vegas, old ones like The Sands began to look hopelessly out of date and out of touch. The massive Sands Expo and Convention Center was added in 1990 but little else was done the main casino or hotel until around 1993 when a series of cosmetic changes were implemented.
In 1995, Sheldon Adelson further secured his hold over the hotel by buying out other investors and raising money for improvements by selling COMDEX, a tech convention that his Interface company had created. He renamed the company Las Vegas Sands and almost immediately announced plans to close The Sands hotel and replace it with a 6,000 room mega-resort.
The Sands closed on June 20, 1996 but it made one last big splash by making a starring role in the move ConAir starring Nicholas Cage. The shuttered main building was spruced up to make it look like a functioning casino complete with lights, slot machines, and table games all so they could pretend to crash a cargo plane into it.
The iconic, circular main hotel tower was imploded on November 26, 1996. Everything else except for the Sands Convention Center was demolished.
The Sands was replaced by The Venetian, which opened on May 3, 1999.
Dining Review: Mesa Grill
Celebrity Chef restaurants are both the savior and the bane of Las Vegas dining. Sure, it took people like Emeril and Wolfgang to start the trend away from cheap prime rib specials toward epicurean feasts that have turned the city into one of the top dining destinations in the world. But at the same time it seems like anyone who has ever published a cookbook or gotten their face on the Food Network is opening yet another trendy eatery in town, often with less than stellar results since they rarely spend any real time in the places.
Enter Bobby Flay, Food Network staple with enough name recognition to fill his signature Mesa Grill restaurant at Caesars Palace to overflowing no matter how good or bad it is. The good news is this: it's good regardless of whether or not Flay himself is standing over the stove.
The first time I visited, I was impressed. The second time, I was bowled over by the flavors, the presentation, and the almost audacious sense of flair that has been put into the menu, turning what could be a fairly pedestrian Tex Mex snooze into an endlessly entertaining experience.
The space is a casual, vaguely retro stunner with soaring ceilings, warm woods, and comfortably mod furnishings all done in bold yet somehow understated primary colors. The amorphous layout contains not one single sharp edge or corner that I could find. It's a visual feast before the actual feast begins.
The menu is a wide-ranging affair of dishes, most with a southwestern flair, all with the typically extravagant touches and twists that set "fine dining" apart from just plain old dining. You want a chicken quesadilla? Fine. But you're going to get it with smoked chicken and black beans served with avocado and a toasted garlic crème fraiche. And you know what? You're gonna love it.
Created in the specially constructed onsite 20-foot tall rotisserie and quesadilla oven (who knew there were such things?), it is a delight, almost crispy but not crunchy, tangy without an overwhelming bite, and stuffed with enough recognizably fresh ingredients to make it its own meal.
Entrees run the gamut from seafood to poultry to beef to game and beyond, all run through that southwestern flavoring gauntlet. For lunch, consider the sixteen spice rotisserie chicken salad. The presentation, as expected, was audacious, with stacks of chicken and greens forming a tower between colorful corn tortillas, goat cheese, and equally colorful drizzlings of sauces including a green onion vinaigrette. The meat was verging on blackened but in a good way, substantial in both heft and not-too-spicy flavor mixing well with the cool greens, tangy cheese, and zesty sauces. The entire thing could have been overwhelming mélange of varying textures and tastes but it all worked brilliantly as a whole.
Other options include a New Mexican spiced pork tenderloin sandwich, cornmeal crusted chile relleno, a grilled swordfish club, and more sandwiches, salads, and lunch style entrées.
For dinner, your choices are similar but less in the sandwich style and more in the entrée style, for example the aforementioned tenderloin comes with a sweet potato tamale if you order it at night. We tried a couple of the steaks - a coffee rubbed filet and a bone in chipotle glazed ribeye, both of which simply fantastic, packed with bold flavor in both the meat and the things that spiced it up. Also sampled were the pan seared sea scallops, deemed one of the best examples of the dish by the person who ordered it.
A full bar specializes in tequila (with more than 250 bottles to choose from) and margaritas. This seemed like a good spot to socialize and maybe order some of those appetizers or dessert.
Prices are on the high side at least according to my wallet but not at all out of line for what you're getting and the neighborhood in which you're eating. Lunch will run $20-25 per person and dinner in the $50-75 range depending on how many margaritas you get.
Service was impeccable and I was impressed by how the staff remained attentive without being intrusive.
Stand up and cheer for a celebrity chef restaurant worth its celebrity status.
Show Review: Nathan Burton
Magician Nathan Burton has been one of the mainstays of Strip entertainment for years now, hosting a reliably entertaining afternoon cavalcade of illusions, comedy, and other bits of random entertainment at various theaters since 2008. Although not as high-profile as Penn & Teller or David Copperfield and not as gleefully amusing as Mac King, Burton puts on a good show that is worth your attention, especially if you are looking for something to do during the day other than sit by the pool or blow more money in the slot machines.
The David Saxe Theater in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood Resort (how's that for a title?) is Burton's home these days and it's a relatively comfortable and intimate space in which to see a little magic and a little comedy. Burton's style is more of the contraption variety, with various people and/or things appearing and/or disappearing from inside cabinets, on top of platforms, behind drapes, and the like. It's the stuff that the Copperfields of the magic world have been doing for decades only with a lower production budget. The fact that the boxes that people pop out of are a little less sparkly doesn't really diminish the effect, but if you're looking for big spectacle illusions, you won't find them here.
Burton is a genial presence and he certainly keeps the production moving, but the overall mood of the show has transitioned over the years from featuring a lot of the inspired antics that helped him make a splash on "America's Got Talent" to being traditional. There's nothing here that breaks new ground or is "OMG" worthy of a tweet later. Or perhaps some of things he does that used to feel fresh and inventive have been done by him and others so many times that we feel as though we've seen it all before.
Which is not to say that he isn't good at it. Just because I'm jaded when it comes to Vegas magic acts doesn't mean that those moments where he pulls up a drape and then drops it to reveal a person that wasn't there a split-second ago aren't still fundamentally impressive. It's just that one of the keys of effective magic is the unexpected nature of it; making the audience gasp because they didn't know what was coming next. Audiences have seen the drape/box/cabinet person/thing appearing/disappearing type prestidigitation done a billion times and it just isn't surprising anymore.
Burton turns over big chunks of his show to other acts, giving it a bit of a variety show feeling. These may vary from time to time but expect close-up magic and comedy bits, like Russ Merlin's audience participation mask routine, in which people are suckered into wearing wacky Halloween masks and basically making fools of themselves. Merlin has been doing this exact same shtick in Vegas shows forever - I swear I've seen it a dozen times - and while still inherently amusing, it too doesn't break any new ground.
There will probably always be a space for traditional magic shows like Burton's in Las Vegas and if you're in the mood for one, his will deliver everything you are expecting, but probably not much more.