MORE VEGAS INFO
VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
January 27, 2014
National Finals Rodeo to Stay in Vegas
Forget high stakes poker, those rodeo cowboys really know how to bluff. But Las Vegas knows how to call a bluff.
That's the most common bit of analysis in the announcement that the National Finals Rodeo will remain a fixture in Las Vegas every December through at least 2024.
For those of you who haven't been to Vegas in early December, or have and wondered what all those guys in cowboy hats were doing walking up and down The Strip, the National Finals Rodeo is one of the biggest professional rodeo events in the country drawing in nearly 200,000 people a year to a weeklong series of ropin', rustlin', and bull ridin'. It has been a part of the Las Vegas landscape for nearly 30 years.
But right as the 2013 edition was wrapping up a little more than a month ago the group behind the rodeo, the Pro Rodeo Cowboy's Association, announced that they had inked a deal to move the rodeo to the Orlando, Florida area starting in 2015. The local communities and businesses there had ponied up (see what I did there?) a bunch of extra cash and higher prize money for the rodeo and its participants, which was enough to get the PRCA to mosey on down to Florida.
Turns out that the deal wasn't so much a deal as it was an "understanding." In other words, it was probably primarily a negotiation tactic designed to get Las Vegas to kick in some more dough for a new contract starting after the 2014 edition of the rodeo, the last one on their current deal with the city.
Proving that you shouldn't play poker with a pro, officials with Las Vegas effectively said "get along little doggie, we'll host our own rodeo." They indicated that a deal would be struck with a competing professional rodeo association and a new national event would be created and hosted at the exact same time. The high stakes game of contract negotiation poker had begun.
Last week both sides blinked and a new contract was announced that will keep the NFR in Vegas for the next decade. So who won? Both sides, probably. The new deal is sweeter financially for the rodeo but it assures that Las Vegas will continue to reap the economic benefits the rodeo brings to town. It is estimated that the event pulls in more than $80 million in non-gaming revenue every year.
So no need to pack up your spurs, cowboy... the rodeo ain't going nowhere.
Las Vegas and the Bitcoin
The Bitcoin has arrived in Las Vegas in a big way, with two Downtown Las Vegas hotels now accepting the virtual currency as payment for physical goods and services. The D Las Vegas and the Golden Gate are both taking Bitcoins at the front desk of both hotels, in the D gift shop, and in Andiamo Steakhouse and American Coney Island restaurants.
For those of you unfamiliar with it, Bitcoin is like any other currency in a lot of ways. Just like you might go to a currency exchange and buy Euros before heading to Europe, you can go online to any of a number of exchanges and buy Bitcoins. The value of them goes up and down like any other currency - as of this writing they are trading at over $800 for one Bitcoin. (So yes, that pack of gum at The D Gift Shop is going to cost you something like .001 Bitcoins)
The big differences between Bitcoin and other currencies are that it is completely virtual - there is no physical paper or metal money - and no centralized organization controls it. Governments and/or banks regulate most currency around the world but here it is done strictly as a peer-to-peer, digital transaction with little or no fees involved.
You store your Bitcoins in a virtual online "wallet" and then try to find someone who will take them as payment.
Online retailers are the most common signatories to the Bitcoin concept, although few of the major ones take them yet. The biggest one that I know of is Overstock.com.
Brick and mortar establishments that accept Bitcoins are even more rare. There are several sites that track places that do including Coinmap.org, which has a nifty searchable Mapquest interface so you can zoom in and out to wherever you're looking to go.
Las Vegas is currently showing 21 establishments that accept Bitcoin including The D and The Golden Gate. Others include some local stores and restaurants, none of which are on The Strip and most of which you have never heard of. The only one I saw that I was familiar with was the Zombie Apocalypse Store on Spring Mountain, just west of The Strip.
The Golden Gate opened as the Hotel Nevada in 1906 so it's a bit ironic that the oldest hotel in Las Vegas is one of the only that has embraced one of the newest digital trends. Whether this remains a curiosity or is the sign of things to come really depends on how much acceptance Bitcoin gains amongst the general public.
Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards
The Booooo Award of the Week goes to the El Cortez and Plaza Hotel Casino in Downtown Las Vegas, the former of which is adding an $8.95 per night resort fee in February and the latter of which is raising theirs to $12 in March. The El move leaves The California, The Fremont, Main Street Station, and The Four Queens as the only Downtown hotels not charging resort fees.
The Good Deeds Award of the Week goes to Madame Tussaud's Las Vegas at The Venetian, which will be honoring "everyday heroes" throughout 2014 with free admission and discounted guest admission to select audiences. Military personnel, police officers, and nurses are among the groups who will be given one free ticket (with proper ID) and $8 tickets for up to three guests. This past weekend was law enforcement; February 22 will be nurses; and March 22 will social workers.
The Born to Ride Award of the Week goes to the new Harley Davidson motorcycle dealership on the Las Vegas Strip, the construction of which broke ground last week. The new facility will include sales, rentals, and a gift shop when it opens at the end of the year. It will be located on the plot of land that was home to the Klondike casino - you know, where you used to park so you could dodge traffic and run over to the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign? It's on the south end of The Strip across from Bali Hai golf course and adjacent to the sign.
The Love is in the Air Award of the Week goes to the Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas, which is adding a fence on the bridge leading to the attraction on which people will be able to affix personalized locks. Evoking similar bridges around the world (but most famously in Paris, France), people can sign or otherwise personalize a padlock, snap it on to the bridge fencing, and then throw away the key to symbolize their eternal love. The Locks on the Bridge fence will debut on Valentine's Day but will be a permanent part of the attraction.
Restaurant Review: Stewart + Ogden
The Downtown dining scene continues to get more and more interesting, especially when you throw original and affordable offerings like Stewart + Ogden into the mix.
Located at the Downtown Grand, just a block off of the Fremont Street Experience and across the street from the Mob Museum, this brightly lit space presents itself as an upscale, retro coffee shop with stamped tin ceilings, funky chandeliers, cozy high-backed booths, and tile floors. The effect is charming; both casual and yet somehow elegant at the same time. A bar dominates one wall and the main dining room is open to the casino so you'd expect noise to be a problem but it wasn't on the night I visited.
They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner and the offerings are an eclectic mix of American comfort food (many of which have interesting twists and upgrades) and a few regional specialties just to spice things up. Breakfast includes things like pit smoked Virginia ham and eggs; a make-your-own omelette option with more than a dozen ingredients to choose from; waffles with honey and lemon preserves; a fried green tomato "benny" with lump crab; an egg white frittata; and more.
You can get a few of the breakfast items at lunch and a few of the dinner items as well plus sandwiches (lobster roll, Cuban, burgers, grilled cheese with fontina and bacon, charred tuna sliders, etc.), salads, and soups.
Dinner has a long list of entrees that range from mac and cheese and spaghetti and meatballs all the way up to pan seared trout, pot roast, and steak.
We started with the meatball skewers appetizer, which came with a tomato and provolone fondue and garlic bread. The meatballs were perfectly constructed, not too dense and with just the right amount of zest. The fondue could have used a better balance of tomato and cheese (it leaned too heavily to the cheese side) but we fixed that right up with a flagrant misuse of a bowl of the tomato bisque. That came with a basil creme fraiche and was delicious, both as a soup and as a dipping sauce for the meatballs.
We went in a bunch of different directions for our main courses just because there was such a wide variety to choose from. The pasta primavera came in a bowl roughly the size of a small Buick and had bowtie pasta with asparagus, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, peas, and more. It was a relatively safe execution of the dish but still flavorful and more than enough for leftovers. The filet mignon was as good a cut of meat as you'll find at most steakhouses on The Strip and for about half the cost. It came with potatoes and broccoli, making it a full and satisfying meal. The roast chicken, which also came with potatoes and veggies, was superb - crispy on the outside, juicy inside, and delicious.
We also got a fourth entree to share with the "Over the Top" mac and cheese that came with five different cheeses, bacon, caramelized onions, and a parmesan crust. Yum! It was way too much food but we soldiered through.
We were too full for dessert (I know!) but they have things like ice cream, cheese cake, bread pudding, and a "molten" brownie.
The most impressive part of the meal came with the bill. With the exception of the filet and rib eye, which both hover around the $30 mark, all of the other entrees are in the $11-$17 range. And keep in mind those prices are not ala carte - each comes with sides making them a full meal. Most of the breakfasts are $10 or less, most of the sandwiches at lunch are under $15, and very few of the appetizers, salads, soups, and desserts break the $10 mark. You can easily do a very big, very satisfying meal for less than $25 per person including tax and tip.
I dare you to go to The Strip and try to find this wide of a variety of food, prepared as well as this is, for as little money as this costs. It simply doesn't exist. Need another reason to go Downtown? Stewart + Ogden is it.
Attraction Review: Forum Shops Fountain Shows
Cheesy Vegas has been on the wane over the last decade or so. Does anyone remember the talking camels at Luxor or the original pirate show at Treasure Island? These kinds of silly diversions used to rule The Strip but have been replaced by bland luxury, restrained good taste, and/or a nightclub, most likely.
So it's hard not to have a soft spot in your heart for the Fountain Shows in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. The Festival Fountain show debuted with the mall in 1992 and immediately took the crown for cheesy Vegas fun. It features several Roman statues that "come to life" with animatronic movement and lighting effects and lasers and tell the story of, well, something. It's really not important and often the dialogue is muddled and difficult to hear, but it's moving statues! And lasers! Come on!
An expansion in 2003 added the Atlantis Fountain show, which upped the ante significantly with fire and water effects telling the story of the King of Atlantis trying to decide which of his petulant children will rule the kingdom after he is gone. That show got an overhaul in 2013 that added video screens around the rotunda and upgraded the mechanics of the statues so they can move more. Somehow, it has made the show even more deliciously silly; an eye-rolling bit of theater that you will most likely want to film to show your friends back home just how dumb Las Vegas can be.
These are absolutely not worth making a special trip for or, for that matter, expending any additional energy or time than you were already planning to. But if you're in the mall near show time, take a wander over and get a good chuckle and a bit of a warm glow in the knowledge that there is still wacky stuff like this in Sin City.
The shows are held every hour on the hour during mall operating hours.
Restaurant Review: Meatball Spot
There's an interesting cast of characters behind this little quick serve spot in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood. The Chef behind the original incarnation, which was located in the Town Square Mall south of The Strip, was Carla Pellegrino who appeared on Bravo's "Top Chef" and was, for a time, involved with restaurants in Vegas like Rao's at Caesars Palace and Bacio at Tropicana. Her Bratalian in suburban Henderson continues to win plaudits from locals and visitors alike.
When Meatball Spot moved from Town Square to Planet Hollywood, Pelligrino stepped out but a new, much higher-profile investor stepped in. Want a clue as to who it is? Go to the restaurant and look just to your left. Do you see that big theater where pop princess Britney Spears is performing regularly now? Yes, Brit is now in the meatball business.
Why? Who knows. Should it matter to you? No, not at all. She isn't in the kitchen cooking and the chances of finding her noshing on a meatball in the middle of a Las Vegas mall are pretty low, so for the most part it's more of a curiosity than anything else.
As one might expect with a name like it has, meatballs are the main feature here. You can get chicken, turkey, pork, or "classic" (a blend of beef, veal, and pork) as a sandwich, on sliders, or in a cup. There are multiple sauce choices including tomato, spicy meat, parmesan cream, and mushroom gravy. Then you can add cheese and sides like pasta or salad. There's also a make your own meatball-free salad option and flatbreads that come with various toppings that are fairly pizza basic (think pepperoni).
Being the purist that I am, I decided to sample the meatballs in a cup so as not to muddle the whole thing up with bread. I chose a classic, a chicken, and a pork and then added tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. It comes with a garlicky breadstick.
They aren't big - about the size of a golf ball, maybe, so you'll need at least 3 to make a full meal unless you're in snacking mode. The classic was, by far, the best; a nice combo of spicy and tangy, but not too much of either. The tomato sauce added a nice sweet note. The pork was good but a little more crumbly than I like, which made it feel less substantial. The chicken went the other direction and was a bit too dense. Overall the execution and the flavors were good and satisfying.
Prices are probably more expensive than they should be for meatballs but not out of line for a fast-serve restaurant on The Strip. Three are $6 but then you have to add $1.50 if you want cheese and another $4 if you want a side dish. Add in a drink, tax, and a tip jar contribution and you're talking around $15. That still puts it in the "cheap" category but not by much.
It's worth noting that there are only a small handful of tables scattered about in front of the service counter, all of which are located along a busy mall main walkway and a loud bar. I wound up eating mine standing up with the tray precariously balanced on a trash can. I've done worse but I'm pretty sure Britney hasn't.