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VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
December 9, 2013
Vegas4Visitors 2013 Top 10 Awards: Reader's Choice Reminder
Voting is currently underway for the Reader's Choice Awards, where you get to pick your favorite Las Vegas hotels, restaurants, shows, attractions, and more.
You can weigh in with your opinion in one of two ways. First, you can go join our Vegas4Visitors Facebook group and look for the posts about each category (Best Hotel, Best Show, etc.). All you have to do is reply in the comments to that post.
If you are not on Facebook, you can also send me a quick e-mail with your choices at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Five of the categories are already live and you can link directly to the posts here:
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.
Is Shopping the New Gambling in Vegas?
For most of its existence, Las Vegas focused on gambling as its main source of revenue. Rooms, shows, and restaurants were usually operated as loss-leaders; cheap and often free to guests as a way of luring them into the casinos where the real money was made.
That started to change in the 1990s as the modern wave of Las Vegas hotels took root offering more luxurious accommodations, fancy dining, and swank nightclub experiences that people flocked to. About a decade ago, the paradigm shifted and now gambling accounts for less than half of the revenue that most Vegas hotel-casinos generate. The rest comes from people sleeping, eating, drinking, and especially shopping.
You might forgive an outsider from thinking that shopping is the new gambling in Las Vegas. After all, the development of new or expanded casinos has pretty much stopped while most of the new money is going into new places for people to shop (and eat and drink).
The biggest example of this, of course, is The Linq, the half-billion dollar complex that is under construction between The Flamingo and The Quad. The alley between the two hotels is being converted to a shopping and entertainment destination that will feature dozens of stores, restaurants, and nightclubs all leading to the High Roller, a 550-foot tall amusement ride billed as the world's tallest observation wheel. Parts of the complex are due to open in just a few weeks with the rest coming online in the spring of 2014.
Down the street at New York-New York and Monte Carlo, the front of those two hotels is being completely revamped to add new stores, restaurants, and attractions including a Hershey's World complex, plus a park leading to a 20,000-seat arena at the back of the property. Some of the new stores will open by the end of the year with the rest opening in stages through 2016.
Diagonally across the street, The Tropicana is getting ready to start construction on a new 275,000-square-foot shopping and dining complex that will completely transform the front of the hotel. It will feature more than three dozen stores and restaurants when it opens in late 2014 or early 2015.
Even Treasure Island's famous (or infamous, depending on how you want to look at it) Sirens of TI pirate battle show got the old heave-ho to make way for a new, three-story shopping and dining complex that is now under construction on the corner of the property. It will feature a couple of dozen new stores and restaurants when it opens late next year.
And while pretty much everyone has known about it for about a year, Bally's has finally, officially said it is going to build the Grand Bazaar Shops in front of the hotel.
The complex will go in the space currently occupied by the weird light up columns and the moving sidewalk that shuttles people into the casino. Designed to evoke an international marketplace like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or Camden Markets in London, it will feature more than 150 shops and eateries including Swarovski, Swatch, Superdry, Havaianas, and Campo Marzio. More than a third of the project is dedicated to restaurant and bar concepts as well as food stores, such as five separate shops from American chef Sam Marvin offering artisanal cupcakes, ice cream, macaroons, meats, and spices.
In addition to shopping and eating, the brightly colored Bazaar will also host what they are hoping will become another iconic Las Vegas attraction, the Swarovski Crystal Starburst. The large crystal covered ball will drop every night at midnight along with lights and music that will attempt to create a New Year's Eve feeling every night of the week.
And yes, the primary reason I am writing about this again is just so I could repeat my joke that Crystal Starburst is the best stripper name ever.
Construction is expected to begin this week with an anticipated fall 2014 opening.
Shopping will never totally replace gambling in Las Vegas but projects like these should continue the trend of the casino becoming more of an amenity rather than a major draw of the big resorts in town.
The Harmon Saga Continues
Last week I received an email from someone asking about the end of The Harmon, saying they wanted to time their next vacation so they could make sure they caught a signature Vegas event: an implosion. My reply was that when the Harmon's destruction finally comes, it will, as TS Eliot once wrote, be with a whimper not a bang.
To understand the end, you have to go back to the beginning and how this single building has become, in many ways, a symbol for everything that was good and bad about the last decade of Las Vegas history.
The Harmon was intended to be a critical piece of what was the most expensive, privately funded construction project in history, CityCenter.
Spread across more than 60-acres, CityCenter was meant to revolutionize Las Vegas with its modern design and sheer size setting the standard for everything that was to follow, a contemporary city within a city that broke the mold of what a casino-hotel should be like. It's original design featured a casino, a shopping mall, public art spaces, and more than 7,000 hotel and residential units in several buildings: Aria, the main 4,000-room hotel-casino; Vdara, a 1,500-unit condo-hotel; the Mandarin Oriental, a 400 unit hotel with private residences; Veer, two 337-unit condominium towers; and The Harmon, a 627-unit hotel and condo tower.
Aria was meant to be the focal point, naturally, but The Harmon was going to be hugely important if for no other reason than where it was to be located on the property. While every other hotel in the complex sits set back from The Strip, The Harmon was going to be right up on it, its lobby just feet from the heavily trafficked sidewalks of Las Vegas Boulevard. It wasn't going to lure people with a casino or a water fountain or a volcano; instead its DNA would be created from a partnership with The Light Group, a major nightclub operator in town that would turn the entire building into a hip, zeitgeisty destination that would draw in the party set. It was supposed to set the stage, metaphorically, for the entire development, establishing CityCenter as more than just another Vegas casino but a new way of thinking about Las Vegas entirely. In fact, the hotel's original name was The Lifestyle Hotel.
When it broke ground, CityCenter was budgeted to cost $4 billion to build. Construction costs ballooned in the mid-2000s as the real estate bubble got bigger, driving up the price tag to as much as $11 billion at one point (it eventually worked out to around $9 billion according to most estimates). Then the bubble burst and the bottom dropped out of the economy, turning what was supposed to be Las Vegas' biggest success into its biggest financial nightmare.
The cost of CityCenter nearly drove its parent company, MGM Resorts, into bankruptcy but the project was saved by an investment from Dubai World, an investment arm of the Middle East nation that was itching to expand its global reach. They pumped money into CityCenter in exchange for an ownership stake and that kept the construction crews working despite the skyrocketing costs.
The next part is tricky to understand and even trickier to explain, mostly because the full facts behind it all are yet to be uncovered - that's what lawsuits are for - but the bottom line is that something went wrong during the building of The Harmon. Whether it was someone telling somebody to cut corners to control costs, someone inadvertently making mistakes, someone intentionally making mistakes, or just plain old incompetence somewhere along the line, the construction of The Harmon was not only substandard, it was dangerous.
In 2008, when 15 of the planned 49 stories had been completed, an inspection of the building led to the discovery that steel reinforcements were improperly installed, leading to the building being less capable of withstanding the loads that would be necessary to complete it as designed. The first public sign that something was wrong was when MGM Resorts announced that they were changing the plans of The Harmon to have fewer floors, reducing it to 28 stories with no condominium component. At the time they passed this off as a symptom of the economy but it soon came to light that there was concern that the building couldn't withstand the weight of those extra floors.
As the inspections continued, more and more irregularities were uncovered finally leading to the shocking announcement that The Harmon would not open with the rest of CityCenter in late 2009. Instead it would remain dark and empty while crews tried to figure out how to salvage it.
Lawsuits sprung up quickly between MGM Resorts and the construction company, Tutor Perini Building Company. One side says the building is unusable, the other side says it was the design of the building, not the construction that caused the problems. Additional inspections were conducted on The Harmon that eventually produced the scary opinion that the building was so unstable that it was not only uninhabitable, but that a strong earthquake could bring the whole thing crashing to the ground.
MGM Resorts wanted to demolish the building almost from the get-go but their own lawsuit against the construction company actually got in the way. Tutor Perini said that destroying the building would be tantamount to destroying evidence that they say could help them win in court. More than two years of legal wrangling finally resulted in a ruling by a federal judge in August of 2013 that the building could be torn down.
The typical Vegas way of getting rid of buildings wasn't going to work here, though. An implosion was deemed possible but risky considering how close The Harmon is to Crystals at CityCenter mall right next door and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas right across the street. If anything went wrong and the building fell in unexpected ways during the implosion it could be disastrous.
So instead MGM Resorts planned a "deconstruction," wherein crews basically un-build the building, taking it apart piece by piece from the top down. That effort was set to get underway this month, but once again MGM Resorts has been stymied by someone claiming foul.
Although they are moving forward with the lawsuit against the construction company, MGM Resorts is also claiming the $393 million building as a total loss with their insurance company. The insurance company has now joined Tutor Perini in saying that tearing down the building would prevent them from investigating the claim and has filed an injunction to stop the demolition efforts from starting. The same federal judge that said the demolition could start has now said it has to stop while the court considers the insurance company's petition.
So The Harmon still stands; at once a symbol of the high-flying Las Vegas excess of the first half of the last decade and a physical manifestation of the city's downfall in the second half.
The building will go, eventually. The biggest question is as much a question for a still-recovering Las Vegas as it is for the plot of land The Harmon sits on: what's next?
Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards
The Ho Ho Ho Award of the Week goes to the Bellagio Conservatory, which has unveiled its 2013 holiday display. It features more than 45,000 poinsettia plants, a life-sized snow globe, topiary polar bears made from more than 18,000 white carnations, and a 45-foot tall Christmas tree.
The Whole Lotta Santa Goin' On Award of the Week goes to the Great Santa Fun Run in Las Vegas this past weekend, which drew a world-record 11,221 participants dressed as Mr. Claus. The charity event raised more than $400,000.
The Flying High Award of the Week goes to the High Roller Observation Wheel, which got its 28th and final cabin "pod" attached last week. Located behind The Flamingo and The Quad, the wheel is the tallest of its kind in the world, standing at 550-feet. It is scheduled to open in the spring of 2014.
The New Resident Award of the Week goes to Britney Spears, who made a big splash with a ceremonial "arrival" at Planet Hollywood earlier this week. A motorcade of classic cars literally shut down traffic on The Strip, delivering Brit to the steps of the hotel where she greeted fans. Spears will be starting a two-year performing residency at the hotel on December 27.
The Hunger Games Award of the Week goes to Mandalay Bay, which is prepping to open a new food court near the Shark Reef attraction. It will feature Johnny Rockets, Subway, Bonanno's Pizzeria, and Nathan's Famous and should be up and running in a couple of weeks.
The Cowboy Up Award of the Week goes to Garth Brooks, who will be doing two shows at Wynn/Encore with a full band on January 3 and 4, 2014. Brooks recently did his one man show, which he performed at the hotel for two years, on a live CBS concert special that drew 8.7 million viewers. Tickets for the concerts are on sale now through the Wynn Las Vegas box office.
The Hot Spot Award of the Week goes to Downtown Las Vegas, which now has free Wi-Fi enabled on and around the Fremont Street Experience. It's provided by the city and local company LV.net and will eventually encompass most of Downtown.
Hotel Review: MGM Grand
It's hard to believe but 2013 marked the 20th anniversary of the MGM Grand. A lot has changed in those nearly twenty years, but that's what a Vegas hotel has to do to stay competitive. Sit still too long and other, newer, more contemporary resorts will pass you by.
I bring this up because the MGM Grand has undergone a major overhaul that has resulted in what is, by my count, the third incarnation of the property.
When the hotel opened in 1993, it was designed as a family destination with a "Wizard of Oz" theme from its emerald green exterior to the animatronic Dorothy in the front rotunda to the big theme park out back. It was the biggest hotel in the world at the time, with more than 5,000 rooms, and had a 171,500 square-foot casino, the biggest in Las Vegas. The girth of the place was celebrated: bigger was definitely better. Heck, they even put "grand" right there in the name.
But a funny thing happened on the yellow brick road. The Vegas as a family destination experiment failed and all of that stuff that was designed to appeal to them was removed (Bye Dorothy! By log flume ride!). And along with it, the folks that run this place started trying to disguise just how big it is. Smaller and intimate became the buzz words in the late '90s and the MGM Grand has been playing the downsizing game ever since, dividing up the casino into smaller more manageable areas and even separating parts of the hotel tower into different boutique style accommodations.
As newer hotels came along that were grander in terms of luxury and amenities, the MGM Grand became something of an upper-mid-market property. The rooms, the facilities, and everything else were fine but not the nicest, fanciest, newest, or most expensive. It wasn't often people's first choice, but you could almost always get a room at a competitive price and so that was good enough.
This new version of the MGM Grand aims a few notches above "good enough" with a hip, modern design and a newfound attitude of cool. Unlike most things that try to be cool and usually fail, here it succeeds for the most part.
The bulk of the rooms have been remodeled, turning what were fairly pedestrian affairs into sexy, modern digs. Filled with sleek, contemporary furnishings, lots of high-tech wizardy, bold color schemes, and energetic patterns in the fabrics, they are significantly more "grand" in just about every way. Judicious use of mirrors makes them seem bigger than are and while they may not be as mammoth as some of the suite-like accommodations at places like The Venetian or Cosmopolitan they are more than big enough for most Vegas visitors. The list of amenities certainly is big: 40" flat screen HDTV; a media hub to connect all your devices; minibar; laptop sized safe; iron and board; electronic drapes; and more.
I found the new decor to be a bit on the busy side but that's just my personal taste. As stated above they are a vast improvement over the old rooms so I am willing to overlook carpeting patterns that have enough squiggly lines in them to make me seasick.
There is another section of the hotel with rooms thare not getting the remodeling love. Formerly known as the West Wing, this tower now houses rooms known as "Petite King" and although they may not be as luxe as the new digs, they are still fine for most people. The rooms themselves are tiny - only 375-square-feet - but they have done a lot with a little amount of floor space. Just inside the door is a wash basin surrounded by mirrors (with an embedded flat-panel television) and frosted green-glass doors to the water closet and shower (no tubs here). Past that is a super-comfy king bed under the single window, more mirrors, a closet, a writing desk, a chair, and more high-tech amenities like another flat-panel television, a DVD player, and touch sensitive light fixtures. If you're by yourself or on really good terms with whomever you're visiting with, these are a good option.
An interesting option are the Stay Well rooms, which add a bunch of health and wellness amenities at the standard rooms including healthier snacks in the mini-bar, a HEPA-standard air purification system, a special water purification system, a vitamin C infused shower, electromagnetic field protection, dawn simulator alarm clocks that wake you up gradually, and more. Whether you get one of these rooms because you are health conscious or because you are looking to mitigate your decided unhealthy Las Vegas choices is up to you, but it'll cost you about $30 more per night. They are obviously popular; what started as a couple of dozen rooms is now an entire floor.
There are, of course, a number of additional room configurations from small suites to residential style units in the Signature buildings out back to the epic Skylofts atop the main buiding, which are huge and come with their own personal butler. If you can afford one of these you probably aren't reading a review of the hotel anyway.
Other areas of the hotel are got a redo as well, with the casino floor and other public areas getting new fixtures, furnishings, paint, and wallpaper. New bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and attractions have been added and old ones went away. This includes the long-running Lion Habitat animal exhibit and the stalwart Studio 54 nightclub, both of which shut down in early 2012 to make way for the massive, multi-story Hakkasan nightclub.
Keep in mind that ultimately they can throw in as many décor tricks as they want, this is still a huge place. Allow extra time to get from your room to just about anywhere and bring comfortable walking shoes.
Take a deep breath, here come just some of the facilities: At last count there were at least 20 different restaurants, several bars and nightclubs; three performance venues including the 15,000 seat MGM Grand Garden; the tremendous Cirque du Soleil production called KÀ; Brad Garrett's Comedy Club; a huge recreation deck with four pools, three Jacuzzis, and a lazy river ride; a wedding chapel; a spa and health club; two shopping arcades, the MGM Grand Underground and The District; and that tiny little casino with every slot and table game imaginable plus a sports book with luxury VIP skyboxes (one of which has its own poker table). There's also a station on the Las Vegas Monorail right out back, ready to whisk you to points northward on The Strip.
There's more but my fingers are starting to hurt from all this typing so just check out the related reviews below.
The service used to be somewhat impersonal here, but among the changes they are making is a focus on friendliness. I was actually surprised at how well they managed to treat their guests, especially considering how many of them they have to deal with.
Which brings up a point. This is a huge hotel with space for a LOT of people and those people will often be between you and where you want to go, whether that be the front desk to check in or out, the elevator bays to get to your room, the blackjack table, the restaurant, the club, and on and on. It's not unique to the MGM Grand, but expect lines; really long ones on busy periods.
Prices have come down across town and you'll find that at the MGM Grand for sure. You can find rates as low as $60 during the week and $100 on the weekends but figure on average figure around $100 weekdays and $200 weekends. Also, they do add in one of those nefarious resort fees ($25 per night) so keep that in mind when you book. As with all Vegas hotels, prices fluctuate madly so they may be significantly higher when you book.
The improvements at the MGM Grand have made this a much better hotel in my opinion and if you can put up with the crowds and the sometimes overwhelming size of the place, it's a really terrific option for a Vegas visit. It may not be my number one choice but it has definitely moved up a few notches on the list.
3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
$69 and up double
Avg. $150-$200 per night
Vegas4Visitors Rating: 85
Restaurant Review: Grind Burger
The search for the best hamburger in Las Vegas pretty much ended for me when I ate at KGB, the Kerry Simon joint at Harrah's. Their burgers are almost divine creations and while there may other good ones in town, I haven't found any to challenge KGB's supremacy.
Of course that doesn't stop me from checking out the competition to see if someone can outdo the leader of the pack. Whenever I hear about a place that gets rave reviews for the burgers, I feel obligated to at least try them out. What can I say? I'm a giver.
Grind Burger has gotten a lot of attention in Las Vegas lately, getting high rankings on social media food sites and in the hard-to-impress local media, so off I went to down yet another hamburger in the name of research. You're welcome.
It's located on Tropicana Avenue, about a mile east of The Strip on the ground floor of a residential building right across the street from the airport. It's a strange complex, with some food outlets and liquor stores on the ground floor, apartments above that, and planes coming in for a landing at an almost terrifyingly low altitude.
The decor of the place is industrial chic, with polished concrete floors, brick walls, and exposed ductwork giving it a factory feel. There are two rooms - a restaurant area with some not-exactly-comfortable wood tables and metal chairs and a small pub area with a similar design and video poker at the bar. It's casual and intimate, although the plethora of hard surfaces means it can get noisy when there's a crowd.
The menu comes on a clipboard, handed to you as you are seated, along with a pencil that you use to mark your selections. They have some snacks like edamame, chicken wings, and Thai spiced fried calamari plus pizzas and a single salad if you're feeling the need for something green that doesn't have a big hunk of cow meat underneath it.
But the bulk of the offerings focus, rightly, on the burgers. It's a build-your-own concept in which you have several different choices of meat (ground chuck, turkey, chicken breast, or meatless), buns, cheese, and toppings. Regarding the latter there are more than three dozen options that include things like basic lettuce, tomato, and pickles; five different types of mayo (basil pesto, roasted garlic, etc.); sauces of all variety from BBQ to soy; a half-dozen dressings (cayenne pepper ranch, balsamic vinaigrette, etc.); and more adventurous fair like olive salad, sautéed spinach, black beans and garlic, and cabbage slaw. It can be a bit intimidating for those of us who want everything but know that would probably end poorly and therefore get stuck trying to figure out which part of "everything" we can live without.
We tried the Juicy Lucy burger, an 8-ounce ground chuck burger stuffed with the cheese of our choice, which includes things like Swiss, cheddar, and pepper jack. I did good old fashioned American then added the garlic mayo, lettuce, tomato, raw onion, and bacon. The result was good but not great, with the pungent onion completely overwhelming everything else, to the point where the burger itself seemed a little bland. Another concoction that we sampled had some different choices and was deemed more successful, but it still came up a little short in my opinion and not just in comparison to the phenomenal burgers at KGB.
Prices are decent, although higher than I expected them to be at an off-Strip restaurant. You can get a miniscule four ounce patty for $7.49 but the 7 ouncer is $10 and the cheese stuffed Lucy another buck on top of that. Cheese costs 75 cents extra and you can get four of the basic toppings included but every additional one will run you another 75 cents. Premium toppings like bacon and capers come at $1.50 each. So my burger came out to around $13, which is only a few bucks cheaper than what you'll pay at the vastly superior KGB and you don't have to pay for a cab ride to get you there.
360 E Tropicana Ave.
Las Vegas, NV 89169
Vegas4Visitors Rating: B