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VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
May 12, 2014
Vegas Countdown: The Top 10 News Stories of the Week
10 - Liberace Restaurant Aims for Comeback
A local investor is attempting to bring back a restaurant once owned by Liberace and is looking for the public's help to do it. The Tivoli Gardens restaurant on Tropicana (where the Liberace Museum used to be) featured a design by the late flamboyant entertainer, including a piano shaped bar and lots of rhinestones. It closed not long after the museum did and has been sitting empty ever since but now a self-described Liberace fan, Jeff Champagne, is trying to raise $50,000 via an indigogo.com crowd-sourcing campaign to reopen the restaurant as the Candleabra Supper Club, with a restored interior, entertainment, and full menu. As of this writing the campaign has raised $50.
9 - Mr. Chow Coming to Caesars
Caesars Palace seems to specialize in creating Vegas versions of classic restaurants like Old Homestead, in business in New York for more than 150 years, and Rao's, another New York City classic since 1896. Now the hotel will add the legendary Mr. Chow's, a sister to the upscale Chinese restaurants that have been a fixture in London since 1968 and Beverly Hills and New York since the 1970s. This will be the seventh Mr. Chow's worldwide and is set to open in early 2015. It will replace the Empress Court restaurant on the second level overlooking the pool.
8 - Weekly Downtown Street Fest Launched
The Fremont East Street Festival kicked off last week, offering up food, drinks, art, and more along the already popular stretch of roadway of Downtown Las Vegas. Every Wednesday in May, Fremont Street will be closed off between Las Vegas Boulevard and 6th Street - where businesses like The Commonwealth, Radio City Pizza, Emergency Arts, and El Cortez are located. Each business along the block will offer up different entertainment and specials and a food truck village will spring up to provide eats to the streets. The festival is scheduled to run from 6pm to midnight every Wednesday through May and then pick back up again in September.
7 - De-Icing The Plaza
The plan to bring the local hockey team Las Vegas Wranglers to The Plaza has melted. Plans to build a tent-like arena for the Double-A ECHL team have been canceled due to cost and timing according to the team's president. The Wranglers, who have the worst record in the league, had been playing in the events center at The Orleans for more than a decade, but the hotel declined to renew the contract so the move to The Plaza was dreamed up. The first idea was to build a structure on the pool deck that would hold 3,500 people but that was later changed to a parking lot location. The team is currently homeless and is actively searching for a place to have its next season, which starts in October.
6 - Hershey's World Set to Debut in June
The sweet new attraction/shopping experience Hershey's Chocolate World is aiming for an early June debut at New York-New York according to a story in the Las Vegas Sun. The store will feature more than 13,000 square feet of chocolate heaven that will mostly involve the selling of the stuff but will have unique features such as the ability to create your own, personalized candy bars. You won't have any trouble finding it. Located between the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty replicas, the store will be fronted by a seven-story tall Hershey's chocolate bar and several giant Hershey's kisses.
5 - SLS to Have a Buffet
Much like the rest of the hotel in its final days, the Sahara Buffet was a place you only should have gone to if you couldn't afford to go somewhere else - cheap, basic, and not terribly appetizing. When the property is reborn as the SLS Las Vegas this fall, it will still have a buffet but much like the building in which it is located, it will no longer be cheap and/or basic. The gourmet buffet will feature upscale cuisine at various live-action cooking stations including Mediterranean, Japanese, wood-grilled, and more. They also are touting their extensive dessert list, which will include fresh donuts and small bite treats served in shot glasses. The hotel is expected to open in late August.
4- I-15 Closure Creates Huge LA to Vegas Traffic Jam
An errant spark from a blow torch caused a huge traffic headache for people heading to and from Vegas from Los Angeles after an under-construction bridge over Interstate 15 caught fire and collapsed. The incident happened near Hesperia, a desert town about 80 miles north of Los Angeles. The interstate was closed in both directions for more than a day, resulting in huge traffic tie ups along the heavily traveled route that most people from LA use to get to Vegas via automobile. No one was injured and luckily it happened during a slower weekday period. If this had happened on a weekend, there would have been a lot of cancelled hotel rooms in Vegas. The bridge had to be torn down and will be completely rebuilt.
3 - GameWorks Finally Returning to Vegas This Summer
The fun and games palace GameWorks was a fixture on The Strip at the Showcase Mall for years, but closed in 2013, leaving parents of bored teenagers with significantly fewer options of ways to keep their kids entertained. When it closed, the company said they planned to reopen in just a few months at the Town Square mall just south of Mandalay Bay but months have turned into more than a year and there's still no gamer fun happening. That may finally be changing. GameWorks is now actively hiring staff and is hinting at a June debut of the new outlet, which will feature a restaurant, a bar, a bowling alley, video and arcade games, and more.
2 - Digital Daliances
Because of my job writing about Las Vegas I'm on a lot of different publicity lists so I get press releases all day long. Most of them get hit with the delete key but every now and then one comes through my inbox that makes me pause and appreciate that I am involved with the weirdest city in the entire world. This is the release, verbatim - I'll let you add your own editorial.
"Bunnies of Las Vegas Escorts has melded their celebrated history in the Las Vegas outcall entertainment industry with the budding popularity of the crypto-currency, Bitcoin. Tech savvy Bitcoin users are now able to use Bitcoin currency to fund Las Vegas escort entertainment. Established in 2009, Bunnies of Las Vegas Escorts has become a trusted name in the Las Vegas outcall entertainment industry and is proud to afford clients the privacy and security Bitcoin currency affords them. The company feels confident about the growth of Bitcoin and proudly invites clients to explore this innovative payment method."
1 - Miracle Mile Makeover
Part of the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood are going to be getting a makeover in 2015 that will revamp a mostly unused space into a strip of restaurants and shops. More than 60,000 square-feet of space that fronts Harmon Avenue will get redone including the space that currently is occupied by Todai buffet, formerly the gay nightclub Krave. They will be removing the old Desert Passage style architecture and moving it to a more modern look and feel and add new dining and retail spaces, although no specific tenants have been announced yet. Currently this part of the mall is not accessible from inside - you can only get to it from Harmon Avenue, just a few feet off of The Strip. Whether that changes with the makeover has not been decided yet. Construction is expected to begin in early 2015 and be completed by late next year.
Resorts World Approved
After nearly a year of behind-the-scenes wrangling, Vegas' next mega-resort took a giant step toward reality last week when the company behind it got a stamp of approval form the Nevada Gaming Control Board.
Resorts World Las Vegas will be taking over the Echelon site, the mothballed, partially constructed resort that was planned for the land where The Stardust used to be. The project is expected to open in phases with the first one taking two to three years to complete.
The resort is the brainchild of Malyasia's Genting Berhad, a gaming company that operates casinos in Malaysia, Singapore, The Philippines, and at the Aqueduct Racetrack in New York. Since this would be their first foray into the Las Vegas market, the project required approval from the NGCB and additional licensing will be needed from the Nevada Gaming Commission.
As detailed in front of the board, Resorts World will have an Asian theme, with pagoda style roofs and other Far East design cues.
3,000 rooms will be located in a single tower standing at 674 feet tall. For reference sake that's about 60 feet taller than Wynn Las Vegas right across the street and 50 feet taller than neighboring Trump International. It will be the second tallest room tower in Vegas, behind only the partially built Fontainebleau (The Stratosphere doesn't count since there are no hotel rooms in it). To take advantage of the height, there will be a rooftop park and observation deck open to the public.
The casino will be approximately 100,000 square feet, about the same size as The Cosmopolitan, The Mirage, and Luxor, but smaller than behemoths like the MGM Grand, which measures more than 170,000 square feet and Aria at 150,000 square feet. It will have upwards of 3,500 slot machines and dozens of table games.
More than two dozen restaurants and bars are planned as is a 4,000 seat theater that will feature a resident production that has not been determined yet.
The front of the property will be styled with a garden attraction designed to lure passersby into the resort. Inside will be a 50,000 square foot, 58-foot tall aquarium with exotic fish.
The much touted panda exhibit and replica of the Great Wall of China are not on the current list of amenities, although the company is hoping to work out the details with the Chinese government to allow the animal exhibit.
Also on the "possible" list is a 20th Century Fox World studio/theme-park attraction similar to the one under construction at the Resorts World in Malaysia. That project includes rides and attractions based around the studio's popular films like Planet of the Apes and Ice Age.
Future phases will include more hotels, a convention center, a water park, and more.
Construction is expected to begin later this year and will reuse most of the buildings that are already partially built for the Echelon project, which was mothballed in 2008.
The first phase should open in late 2016 or early 2017.
Card Counting: What Did Ben Affleck Do That Was So Bad?
Future Batman Ben Affleck made headlines around the globe last week when a story broke about the actor and some trouble at a blackjack table in Vegas. The stories varied from the outlandish - that he had been banned from all casinos in Vegas because he had been caught cheating - to the apparent truth of the matter, which is that he was asked to leave one blackjack table at the Hard Rock Hotel because he was suspected of card counting.
Most people have heard of card counting but don't know what it is and why casinos don't want you to do it. The short version is that it's a system by which a player keeps track of the cards coming out of a shoe at a blackjack table through a counting system, and then adjusts their bet up or down based on the probabilities of what the next cards will be.
Card counting strategies vary in their complexity and scope but the most basic version involves pretty basic math and paying a lot of attention. Each card in the deck is assigned a numeric value, with 2-6 usually getting +1 (plus one), 7-9 getting zero, and face cards and aces getting -1 (negative one). As cards are dealt, the player literally keeps a running count based on these numbers and after enough hands, the numbers will start to tell a story. A higher number means that a lot of low cards have been dealt and that there may be more high cards coming out soon - cards that could get you a blackjack for instance - at which point the card counter may raise his or her bet. A lower number means that a lot of high cards have been dealt and therefore low cards may be coming and it may be time to lower the bet.
To help understand this, let's look at a real world scenario involving the easiest configuration of factors in which to count cards - one player, one dealer, and one shoe of cards (six decks usually). In the first hand the player gets a 2-9 (worth +1 and 0 respectively) and then draws a 7 (worth zero) and holds at 18. The dealer gets a 4-5 (both worth +1), draws a 9 (worth zero), then draws a 5 (worth +1) and busts. Using the card counting strategy above, the number would now be +4, because several low cards came out in that first round. The next round has 6-5 and a 9 for the player and 10-7 for the dealer. Now the count is +5.
The higher that count goes, the higher the probability that higher cards are going to be dealt next, so it may be time to raise your bet.
The complexity of counting cards increases with the number of players at the table and gets thrown in the garbage as soon as the cards are shuffled, but a successful strategy can actual tip the odds in favor of the player instead of the traditional house edge that usually comes along with casino games. If you're able to make big bets, you can make big money.
As you can imagine, casinos don't want you to do this but card counting is not expressly illegal. What goes on in your head while you are playing cards is no one else's business and difficult to prove so there's prosecutions would be nearly impossible.
However, a casino can eject you either from a table or from the casino entirely if they suspect you of card counting - a practice known as "backing off." Most professional card counters accept being backed off as part of the cost of doing business and usually just go on to the next casino that hasn't caught on to what they are doing yet.
So how do the casinos figure out that someone is card counting? Generally they watch for betting patterns that would indicate that counting is occurring - raising bets just as good cards are coming and lowering them before bad ones start to fall. Basically anyone who is doing better than the typical blackjack player does is going to come under scrutiny.
In Affleck's case, there are some reports that he was using small, polished black stones, moving them from pile to pile to keep count. If this is the case, it isn't surprising that he was asked to leave the table.
Despite reports that he had been banned for life from all Vegas casinos or even the Hard Rock, the truth of the matter is that he was asked to leave that game that night. The Hard Rock, not wanting to risk alienating a guy who reportedly regularly bets thousands of dollars per hand, stressed that Affleck and his wife Jennifer Garner are allowed back to the casino and to blackjack any time they want. That evening they reportedly told the actor that he could play any other game in the house and they even arranged for a car to take the couple back to their hotel.
Makes sense. After all, nobody wants to mess with Batman.
Keeping Yourself Safe in Vegas: Stampede at MGM Grand Injures Dozens
We've all been there. You're leaving a show or a concert, in Vegas or pretty much anywhere, and you're stuck there shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds and sometimes thousands of people funneling through narrow aisles and passageways toward the exits. The fact that things don't go wrong more often is pretty amazing.
That lucky streak ended at the MGM Grand last week when a stampede broke out after a boxing match, injuring dozens.
The incident occurred after the Mayfield-Maidana fight in the MGM Grand Garden Arena. By design, most of the more than 16,000 people that the arena can hold are funneled out through The District, a relatively narrow shopping arcade that links the events area, pool, and casino.
According to reports, panic broke out when a sign fell over making a sound that some interpreted as a gunshot. The crowd surged and people were trampled underfoot and pinned against walls. Hundreds of people sought shelter from the melee in the press center and stores, many of which were blocked off as soon as things started to get out of control.
By the time it was over more than 60 people were hurt, with two dozen taken to local hospitals with non-life-threatening injuries.
The unpredictability of crowds is not a uniquely Vegas issue, but there are few places with as many high-crowd concentrations within such a small area. In other places when you get out of a crowd from a concert or big game, you're usually out of it entirely. Here you leave the crowd in the arena and you're in the crowd in the casino and then you're in the crowd on the sidewalks of The Strip and so it goes.
The most obvious way to avoid the dangers that crowds create is to avoid crowds, naturally, but that means you're probably never going to Vegas again.
Instead, there are a few commons sense ways to mitigate the danger.
Get Your Bearings
Most casinos have some sort of easily identifiable landmark that you can use as a touchstone in the event of an emergency - something that is visible from most areas of the room. Whether it is a statue, a bar, or even a grand light fixture above the table games, take a moment when you enter a casino to notice what that landmark may be and how it relates to the main exit.
Know Your Options
Take a moment on your way in to stop and look at the maps found inside the main entrance of most large casinos. You don't have to memorize it - you'd be surprised how much you'll remember even with a quick glance. But this will help you see where the exits are located and can help you identify alternate routes in case of emergency.
Patience is a Virtue
I know it's hard in Las Vegas where the siren call of the casinos and bright lights is practically demanding that you try to be first out of the showroom or arena, but why not sit and relax for a spell after a show? Even 5 or 10 minutes can make a huge difference in the amount of people you'll be jockeying for exit position with. I promise, the slot machines will still be there when you get out.
Take a Deep Breath
Finally, it's worth mentioning the old "don't panic" mantra. Easier said than done, right? If you're in a crowded casino or shopping arcade with thousands of other people and something bad happens there will be a panic - it's probably the only sure bet you can make in Vegas. But keeping your wits about you may help minimize how much you'll lose if that sure bet ever happens to you.
Show Review: Jubilee
If you're looking for the quintessential Las Vegas show - you know, lots of showgirls, huge head dresses, splashy costumes, and more bare breasts than you can count - you should look no farther than Jubilee at Bally's Las Vegas. Of course if you look farther than Jubilee you'll be disappointed because while shows like this used to be omnipresent, they are now virtually extinct.
And perhaps there's a good reason for that. While it was fascinating as a slice of history that exposes (no pun intended) what shows in Vegas were like before those French acrobats came along and stole all the thunder, Jubilee! was not that great of a show. Its cheesy sets, uninspired choreography, gaudy Samson & Delilah and Titanic themed numbers, and 70s variety show music made it feel like a tired relic instead of fun retro bit of Vegas entertainment.
And perhaps the powers that be recognized that or at least saw the writing on the wall. In 2014 they brought on board a producer and choreographer who has worked with Beyonce, Michael Jackson, and more. The hope was that he could update the show while still maintaining its core as a classic showgirl experience.
Unfortunately what we end up with is a schizophrenic mish-mash of styles and an epically silly "story" that is at once confusing and giggle-inducing. In addition to losing the exclamation mark (it's no longer Jubilee! but rather just Jubilee), it has lost its sense of what it is, even if that was something that hadn't been relevant in Vegas for years.
The show - or at least part of it - is framed by the saga of Catherine Jubilee, a showgirl who is being guided by disembodied voices and what appear to be aliens in a quest through time and space for... well... I'm not sure, really. It has something to do with proving herself, I think, with lots of encouraging pep talks from the disembodied voices ("You're as beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor; as charming as Marilyn Monroe...").
The show starts with her slowly sliding, rather uncomfortably or so it seems, down a giant stripper pole and then we segue into a new, modern number in Justin Timberlake's "Take Back the Night." It features some decent singing and choreography plus lots of showgirls so there was hope for an interesting reinvention. Then it goes right into the old opening number where a cavalcade of showgirls and show guys take the stage for the creaky song about the joys of "girls." This has the kind of misogynistic lyrics that were standard for most of the show's 30-plus years in existence like suggesting we have "Lina for breakfast and Tina for lunch." Or was it the other way around?
Somewhere around in here is when the aliens appear. Covered from head to toe in silver, sparkly fabric they sort of corral our plucky heroine with giant light sticks and start guiding her through her quest, which of course starts in a Las Vegas whose skyline only features sister hotels to Bally's where this show is performed. This is also where there are what appears to be street walking hookers fighting in a corner. I'm not sure why.
The Samson & Delilah and Titanic numbers are still there only now Catherine Jubilee and the aliens are inserted into them. The former features slaves, feminine treachery, a giant fire breathing bull, and a struggle to find words that rhyme with Philistine. The latter involves songs about the joys of ocean travel, a boozy trouble-making broad, and a rather uncomfortable bit where a bunch of crew members are harassing Jubilee until the timing of an errant iceberg keeps things from getting ugly.
Other classic numbers are updated to replace set pieces with lighting effects. For instance the patriotic number is still there only now instead of a flag background the dancers suffer under weird, flag simulation lighting. New numbers have been inserted that are more dance focused. The choreography in those sections is a vast improvement over the "strike a pose" showgirl stuff but most of the staging is so unfocused and poorly lit that it is hard to get an appreciation for it.
Shortly after the Titanic sinks, and Jubilee sails off in a life boat, the showgirl storyline and the aliens are pretty much abandoned in favor of random disco and 80s songs with modern choreography and a few more big splashy showgirl style numbers. The abrupt changes in tone and style cause whiplash and lack any attempt to integrate old with new. There was one moment of hope when the opening strains to Madonna's "Vogue" started playing. In that moment I thought this might be a chance at redemption, fusing the classic showgirl ethos to a more contemporary (albeit 20 year old) musical experience to show that dance style of vogueing and what women in big head dresses do is essentially the same ("Strike a pose!"). But after a few bars of intro and finger snaps, we switched direction again and went into something completely different. What a waste of an opportunity.
The variety acts that used to break up the dancing and singing have been jettisoned and while the jugglers, trained animals, and gaucho dancers that used to be featured may not have been cutting edge, at least they made sense.
The cast is talented from singing, dancing, and breast modeling perspectives; the costumes are still Bob Mackie beautiful; and as mentioned the choreography is improved, but the rest of it is such a weird disappointment that even the good stuff suffers because of it. Sure, there's the whole breast thing but the presentation makes it sort of like looking at a museum exhibit. If you're that desperate for cheap thrills, watch HBO for a few hours.
Here's the deal: I love that this show still exists after more than 30 years (!!) and I appreciate the concept of trying to modernize it and make it relevant again, but this execution can only be viewed as a failure on just about every level. They need to either revert to the original and try again or let the showgirl extravaganza go the way of $1 blackjack tables and slot machines that dispense coins.
Restaurant Review: Guy Fieri's Vegas Kitchen
Food Network star Guy Fieri is enormously popular with pretty much everyone except for food snobs and critics who deride his high-calorie, huge portion dishes as an affront to good taste (in multiple meanings of that phrase). They have blamed him for everything from the obesity epidemic in America to global warming, it seems, and cast his crowd-pleasing restaurants as crimes against cuisine.
I say screw 'em. Eat up!
To be fair, the snobs and critics aren't totally wrong. I mean, there is undoubtedly an argument to be made that a massive, $18 hamburger topped with bacon AND mac and cheese and accompanied by a big pile of multiple types of fries is probably not the healthiest, or most economical, choice one could make for their lunch selection, but that doesn't mean that it isn't good. It is, actually, in exactly the way that a bacon mac and cheese burger should be, all charcoal goodness in the thick beef patty and brimming with flavor from the huge piles of stuff on top of it.
I'd also argue that these same snobs and critics who dismiss Fieri's burger are the same ones who praise the so called "Manly Burger" at the more chic Umami chain, which comes with beer cheddar cheese, onion strings, and bacon lardon. So the criticism is usually less about the food and more about Fieri and I'm sure his primary concern is not what they say but trying to find enough seats in his restaurants for all the people who want to eat there.
This one at The Quad certainly falls into that category. It's a funky space with Fieri's imprint all over it, from the tattoo inspired artwork to the cow print upholstery on the bar stools and, of course, the shelves full of Fieri branded merchandise. Big windows look out on The Strip or you can eat outside on the patio that is adjacent to Harrah's Carnaval Court (and the valet parking area for The Quad, so that's a bit of a bummer). Indoors or out, it's loud - you were expecting a quiet afternoon tea, perhaps?
A big bar dominates the main room and they actively encourage drinking as part of your good time. In addition to the standard boozy options they also have more than a dozen craft beers on tap and a "frozen" shot system, wherein you get get various shooters that would normally be made in a shaker with ice (and therefore diluted) dispensed directly from chilled containers. Cool. Literally.
The menu is sort of a mix of American and other cuisines, with appetizers like nachos, sashimi tacos, Asian chicken wraps, and onion rings. We sampled the "Fondue Dippers," long, thin breadsticks wrapped in pepperoni and served with a provolone and sausage cheese dip topped with bruschetta style tomatoes. Do yourself a favor and save any of the spectacular cheese dip that might leftover, if there is any, to use with the fries you'll get later.
The southern smoked chili bowl is topped with a huge chunk of cornbread, sour cream, and scallions and even comes with an extra shot of hot sauce in case you don't think it's hot enough. It is, though.
There are a few salads, but, really?
Instead move on to the wings, which are served "lollipop" style in fireball whiskey, BBQ, Asian, and Italian styles or the tacos, including fish, carne asada, shrimp, and chicken varieties. The carne asada meat was delicious if you are looking for guidance in that particular area.
Burgers, of course, are a mainstay including the previously mentioned bacon mac and cheese signature selection. You can also get one drenched in BBQ sauce, topped with pastrami, or blackened with Creole seasonings. Think the turkey burger will save you a trip to the cardiologist? It comes with pepper jack cheese, gouda, bacon, sweet onion jam, and "donkey" sauce and is served on a pretzel bun, so maybe not.
A few other sandwiches such as a huge, flavorful roast beef dip and BBQ pork round out the main courses. Then you head into dessert with items like a massive pile of cheesecake, churros, pie, or an ice cream sundae.
The staff is unflaggingly friendly and energetic and it wasn't just with me. I watched everyone from the general manager to the bus boys and the way they interacted with all the guests was extra special. Nice job.
If you are still able to move enough at the end of your meal to pull out your wallet and pay for all this, you can expect a tab on the high side of the moderate scale. Nothing on the menu is over $20 but most of it is closer to $20 than it is to $10. Throw in an appetizer for the table, beverages, dessert, tax, and tip and you'll easily break $30 per person. Throw in some of those frozen shots and you'll go even higher. That's certainly not cheap, but it is not unsurprising for this type of restaurant on The Strip.
I have a deep appreciation for fine food and have loved many of the fancy and outrageously expensive meals I have eaten at the city's high-end restaurants. But I also appreciate crazy stuff like a bacon mac and cheese burger, especially when it is done well like the one here is. Sure, it may not be the wisest choice on a variety of levels, but if you are really concerned about things like calories and cholesterol, there are plenty of other places in Vegas for you to eat. That just leaves more room here for the rest of us.