Weekly Column by Rick Garman

Want to know what's happening in Las Vegas? You've come to the right place.

Each week you can come here to get the latest news, the juiciest gossip, and the best reviews for the most fabulous city in the world, Las Vegas. Hey... it says "fabulous" right on the welcome sign!

The latest weekly column will always be on this page, but you can go back through the archives (all the way back to 1999!) or take a look ahead and what's coming up next for Vegas by using the navigation on the left hand sidebar.

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Bill's New Name: The Cromwell

The former Bill's Gamblin' Hall & Saloon finally has a new name: The Cromwell.

The small hotel-casino, which started life in 1979 as the Barbary Coast, closed in 2013 to undergo a $185 million renovation to transform it from a middle-of-the-road property into a boutique luxury hotel. Caesars Entertainment, the company that owns the property, had originally partnered with the Gansevoort chain and it was going to carry that name, but that deal collapsed late last year.

There never was an official explanation on what caused the shake-up, but it appears to be tangentially related to Caesars Entertainment bowing out of the running for a proposed $1 billion casino in the Boston area. According to reports, gaming regulators in Massachusetts were running routine investigations on Caesars and uncovered alleged ties between a Gansevoort investor and the Russian mafia. Although Gansevoort had nothing to do with the Boston deal, the allegations were apparently enough to kill the company's involvement with the Las Vegas project.

Gansevoort, which runs several high-end luxury hotels around New York, was involved in the former Bill's project primarily in name only. The deal was to brand and market the new property as a Gansevoort but Caesars was going to still run the casino and the management of the hotel.

Now Caesars is running the whole show, choosing The Cromwell as the hotel's new moniker. Although it sounds like a brand that had been around forever ("I remember staying at The Cromwell in aught four"), it is not associated with any other hotel or company.

The Cromwell is being branded as "Las Vegas' first standalone luxury lifestyle boutique hotel and casino." That's a lot of verbal gymnastics to try to set it apart from hotels like Nobu, which isn't standalone (it's integrated into Caesars Palace), or Mandarin Oriental, which doesn't have a casino. What it all means is a small property with upscale design, services, and (most likely) prices.

The overall look and feel of the place will combine vintage and modern, drawing inspiration from the Coste Hotel in Paris with black Parisian-style awnings and gold fixtures adorning the windows. The hotel lobby will be filled with antique accessories and bookshelves adorned with leather bound books.

There will be a total of 188 rooms, all done in a Parisian loft-apartment style complete with distressed hardwood flooring and vintage luggage motif furnishings.

A three-story addition will be added to the top of the building with a spa and a pool for a beach club and nightclub operated by Victor Drai, whose Drai's After Hours club will still be located in the basement.

A new restaurant from Food Network star Giada De Laurentiis will be built in the space that used to be the 2nd floor parking garage and will feature big windows overlooking The Strip. It will feature al fresco dining, an exhibition kitchen showcasing fresh pastas being made daily by hand, and an antipasto bar. Signature dishes include Lemon Spaghetti, Eggplant Rollatini, Marsala Herb Chicken Meatballs and Lemon Ricotta Cookies.

The spiral ramp that was the main access for the parking garage has been removed to create space for the new lobby, fitness center, and valet entrance. A new ramp to what's left of the existing garage will be built on the north side of the hotel near The Flamingo but that garage in the building will only be used for valet parking; a new three-story garage is being built east of the hotel along Flamingo that will be accessible from The Cromwell via an underground tunnel.

There is no official opening date yet - all they are saying is "spring" - but hotel rooms will be going on sale to Total Rewards members on February 21 and to the general public on February 24. Expect a late April or May bow.


2013 By the Numbers

A push - that's probably the best way to describe the tourism numbers for Las Vegas for 2013. The city didn't really win but it didn't really lose either.

39.67 million people visited the city, just shy of the 40 million mark tourism officials had hoped for. That's almost identical to the numbers from 2012 where 39.73 million people showed up, which was an all-time record.

All those people had to stay somewhere and they packed the city's 150,593 rooms at an 84.3% occupancy rate, also about the same as 2012. On weekends the occupancy rate was 91%. The nationwide average is more like 65%, so Vegas is still doing well by that statistic.

Rooms were more expensive, going up $2 over 2012 to an average of $110 per night. Of course this average is citywide and includes the budget no-frills motels by the airport as well as the luxury resorts on The Strip. The chances of you finding a room at Bellagio for $110 on a weekend are effectively zero.

The good news for Las Vegas is that there may not have been any more people, they are spending a bit more money in the casinos. Gambling revenue statewide was up 4.8% from 2012, with the casinos raking in $11.1 billion. That's better than last year but still down from the all-time high in 2007 when people dropped $12.8 billion.

Casinos on The Strip accounted for more than half that total, pulling in $6.5 billion.

Baccarat drove most of the increase in the gaming revenue numbers. While it used to be an important, but relatively small piece of the casino money machine, it has more than quadrupled in terms of its percentage of the overall pie, now accounting for 14% of all gaming revenue and a third of total table games revenue.

Slot machine revenue on the other hand has been declining in terms of its input to the bottom line. One-armed bandits still draw in the most money of any casino game but now accounts for about 60% of the total.

The forecast for 2014 is good, with new hotels, attractions, and festivals expected to draw record breaking crowds and higher revenue.


What's That? Construction on The Strip

A barometer of the health of Las Vegas is the number of construction cranes and crews you see on The Strip. During the recession, the building boom became a bust but over the last year things have started to pick back up again with new projects getting underway up and down Las Vegas Boulevard. Here's the guide to the major construction projects now underway on The Strip.

The front of New York-New York and Monte Carlo is a mess right now as construction crews renovate the exteriors of both hotels and add new restaurants, stores, and a pedestrian walkway. The biggest draws will be a Hershey's Chocolate World store and experience, a new restaurant and nightclub with a downhome theme called Double Barrel Roadhouse, and a branch of the popular Shake Shack burger joint. It will all be linked by a park-like plaza that will eventually go between the two hotels and lead to a new 20,000 seat sporting and events arena at the back of the properties. The stores and restaurants are opening in phases through the spring and the arena should come online in 2016.

Up a little further up the street, the front of Bally's is similarly ripped up as they create a new shopping and dining plaza called The Grand Bazaar. It will feature 150 stores and eateries in an outdoor marketplace that will take up the bulk of the property between the street and the front door. There will also be a new free attraction called the Crystal Starburst, that involves a giant Swarovski crystal ball descending every night at midnight amid lights, music, and special effects. It is expected to be open by the end of the year.

Right across the street is the newly christened The Cromwell, the revamp of the hotel that used to be Bill's Gamblin' Hall. The new boutique luxury property will feature 188 rooms, nightclubs, and a restaurant from Giada De Laurentiis. It will open in April or May.

Nearby, The Linq project is now partially open, giving a preview of the pedestrian mall that runs between The Flamingo and The Quad. When it is totally complete in March or April it will feature dozens of stores, restaurants, nightclubs, and music venues all leading to the High Roller, which is billed as the world's tallest observation wheel.

Just up the street a bit is a construction project at the small Casino Royale casino between Harrah's and The Venetian. They closed the Denny's that was located there and are building a new addition to the property that will feature a new, two-story Denny's with a patio overlooking The Strip and a Walgreens.

Across the street at Treasure Island, they have closed the long-running pirate battle show and are building a three-story mall that will feature a CVS and several other stores and restaurants.

The big construction projects are further up the boulevard where the land that used to be home to the Stardust is becoming the $7 billion, China-themed Resorts World (due to open in 2017) and the former Sahara hotel is being redone as the upscale SLS Hotel (due to open later this year). And of course while the construction has stopped, there's the partially built Fontainebleau, a $4 billion hotel project next to The Riviera that went bankrupt and has been sitting derelict for years.


Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards

The It's a Beautiful Day Award of the Week goes to the Life is Beautiful Festival, which has announced October 24-26, 2014 as the dates for its second year of entertaining the Downtown masses. The event started in 2013 and featured dozens of bands (Beck, Imagine Dragons, Zedd, etc.), celebrity chefs, performances from Vegas shows, art, a lecture series, and more. Over 60,000 people attended and this year's is expected to be even bigger, stretching across three days instead of two. The specifics of who will be performing, cooking, and speaking will be announced later this year.

The Just When I Thought I Was Out Award of the Week goes to the Mob Museum, which will be celebrating its second anniversary on February 14th with two-for-one admission for out of town visitors and free admission for Nevada residents. In addition, two of the Tommy guns used in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre will be on display Feb 14-15 only to go along with a piece of the wall from the garage where it happened that is on permanent display.

The Makeover Award of the Week #1 goes to Jubilee!, the long-running showgirl extravaganza at Bally's that closed earlier this week to undergo a major revamp. It is expected to get new costumes, choreography, and cast members along with new music and sets although the now iconic Samson and Titanic numbers are expected to remain. The show should reopen in March.

The Makeover Award of the Week #2 goes to Zarkana by Cirque du Soleil at Aria Las Vegas, which reopened this week after a month-long hiatus to "tweak" certain elements of the show. I'll have a new review soon.

The Still Standing of the Week goes to the Harmon Hotel, the empty building at the front of the CityCenter complex that is, for now, remaining up. The building was supposed to be a high-end hotel but construction irregularities made it unsafe to inhabit. It had been approved for demolition but a judge has stayed that order (again) so that more tests can be done on the building as a part of ongoing litigation over who is to blame.


Restaurant Review: B&B Burger & Beer

Celebrity chef Mario Batali has created quite the little empire at The Venetian. His B&B Ristorante, Carnevino, and Otto restaurants are all consistently popular amongst the foodie set so why not go all in with a burger joint, too?

The B&B in the title is Batali and his frequent partner in cuisine Joe Bastianich. The new place is located in the far back corner of the casino, near the sports book, which seems like an odd place if you are coming from the inside but makes all sorts of sense if you approach from the outside. The patio is right along one of the exterior canals and there is a hostess station just steps from the Las Vegas Strip.

The concept here is high-quality, locally sourced ingredients and the best beef they could find. Burgers make up the bulk of the menu with options like a classic Drive-Thru, with two patties on a sesame seed bun; the Morning After with sauteed mushrooms and an egg; the Bottom Burner, with pepper jack cheese, jalapeno pesto, and Mario's signature hot sauce; and a build-your-own option that includes more than a dozen toppings, sauces, and cheeses.

If beef and a bun is not doing it for you, there are many other sandwich options including pastrami on rye, a meatball sub, lobster roll, and more.

They do have a couple of salads, but really? At a burger joint?

We sampled the Bottom Burner and the Royale with Cheese, a burger done with caramelized onions, grilled treviso, and parmigiano-mascarpone cheese. Both were spicy; unsurprising on the jalepeno/hot sauce burger but a bit more unexpected on the other one. The flavor of the beef patty itself was very good - smoky, woodsy, charcoal goodness - but it got overwhelmed by the toppings, which required a glass of water standing by.

The other sample was the crispy cod sandwich, done on a sesame seed bun with jalapeno tartar, so again with the spicy. The person who choose this opted out of that but they didn't have a plain tartar replacement. Despite this, it was well prepared and flavorful.

The big winners at the table were the "Un Fried Mozzarella" appetizer and the side of onion rings. The former was sort of a deconstructed mozzarella stick, with the creamy cheese floating in a bed of rich tomato sauce and super yummy garlic crustini bread to slather it on. The rings were lightly breaded and not too thick, a mistake that many bigger-is-better restaurants make. They were rich in texture and taste and I wished I could have eaten more of them.

You'd expect with a name like Burger & Beer that there will be some of the latter and you would be correct. Plenty of brews in bottles and on tap to choose from, a full bar for other cocktails, and milk shakes that can come with a little something extra if you get my drift.

The prices are about typical for the high-end burger joints. Figure $10-$16 for most main courses, $5-$9 for appetizers and sides, and $9-$12 for the shakes.

The room was a bit on the noisy side with lots of hard surfaces bouncing around the sound from people, servers, and multiple TVs showing sports. If the weather is cooperating, sit on the patio.

Service was very good; absolutely nothing to complain about here.

On the Las Vegas burger hierarchy, I'd place this one behind KGB, Holstein's, and Gordon Ramsay BurGR, but that's pretty rarefied company to be in so 4th is not bad.

B&B Burger & Beer
3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Daily 11:30am-2am
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B


Bar Review: O'Sheas

The original O'Sheas opened in 1989 and found its groove as a cheap, loud, and sometimes crass little casino that offered low-limits gaming, low-cost drinks, and a little person dressed as a leprechaun named Lucky acting as the "Mayor" of the place. Beer pong and large souvenir drink cups were standard and it was much beloved by a certain segment of the Vegas audience that never liked (or couldn't afford) the upscale trend that Vegas embraced.

The casino closed in 2012 to make way for The Linq, a pedestrian mall of shops, restaurants, and bars including a new version of O'Sheas.

There really is no real comparison between the two. First, the old O'Sheas was a multi-level casino with several bars, fast food outlets, and more. The new one is about 5,000 square-feet, so not tiny, but nowhere near the size of the original. It has a handful of gaming tables, some beer pong tables, a couple of bars with video poker, and that's about it. Rumors abound that an expansion will add food service but for now you'll have to go somewhere else if you're hungry.

Second, let's face facts: the old O'Sheas had grown pretty shabby. Worn carpeting, tired slots, and the smell of spilled beer were common. This place is all shiny and sparkly and new, although they did resuse some of the original fixtures including pieces of the stamped tin ceilings, one of the bars, and the sign outside.

Third, let's talk about prices. Although cheaper than a lot of places on The Strip, the drinks and (very limited) gambling here are noticeably more expensive than they were in the old days. Such is the way of the world, I suppose.

They are trying to recapture the original spirit. As mentioned, there is beer pong so that's a start, plus frequent live entertainment at night creates a party mood. They even brought back Lucky, who will be happy to stir up a little mischief when the room is rocking.

Whether or not this place succeeds or fails is dependent on them finding their new identity. If it were up to me, I'd try to position the place as the spiritual successor to Rockhouse, the frat house style bar that was located at the front of this building when it was the Imperial Palace. That bar moved up the street and got more serious, leaving a big gaping hole that O'Sheas could fill nicely. That's something they could accomplish, but trying to evoke the cheap original O'Sheas while moving decidedly upscale in cost and amenities seems like a a strange choice.

The place is a little hard to find if you aren't paying attention. If you are walking through The Linq it is just opposite the entrance to The Flamingo (the one with the giant flamingo statues flanking it). If you are inside The Quad, it is adjacent to the south entrance from The Linq.

The Quad/The Linq
3535 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Daily 24 Hours
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B