MORE VEGAS INFO
VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
September 15, 2014
The Countdown: Top 10 Vegas News Stories of the Week
10. Shocker: Man Who Tried to Turn Stratosphere Into Drive Through Was on Drugs
There was a scary incident last week when a man, allegedly strung out after a week-long drug binge, decided it would be a great way to make it onto the evening news if he drove his truck through the front doors of The Stratosphere. 40-year-old Ryan Brown drove the Ford pickup into the valet area Wednesday night and got into an argument with someone shortly before crashing through the glass doors that lead into the main casino. According to reports, Brown stated he did it to become famous and intended to jump off the top of the Stratosphere Tower to drive that particular point home. No one was injured in the incident and Brown is in jail pending charges. Read more about The Stratosphere.
9. Kardashian Store at Mirage Closes
I saw it just last week - the Kardashian Khaos store at The Mirage, filled with all sorts of the reality show family's merchandise and completely devoid of any customers. Apparently that was a fairly regular occurrence because the store will shut down in a few weeks despite its high profile location - you had to pass it to get to the pool, the Mirage Dolphin Habitat, and the Terry Fator showroom. No word on what will replace it yet but I'm guessing it won't involve reality TV stars. Read more about The Mirage.
8. Dealertainers Fold at The Linq
The celebrity impersonator dealers at The Linq - known as Dealertainers - have been sent packing. Effective immediately you will no longer be able to get a blackjack hand dealt to you by Elvis or a Three Card Poker hand by Britney Spears. They were an adjunct of the Legends in Concert show that played at the hotel when it was Imperial Palace but moved to Flamingo a couple of years ago. Now that the hotel is moving upscale as The Linq, apparently the Dealertainers didn't fit the new atmosphere they are trying to create. They may land at another property but for now you'll have to make due with dealers dressed as themselves. Read more about The Linq.
7. SlotZilla Zoom Lines Now Open
The zip lines at SlotZilla have gotten a sibling with the "zoom" lines, which are now open and sending riders flying super hero style down Fremont Street. The lines start at 12 stories up and run the length of the pedestrian mall to a landing spot near the Golden Gate all while in a harness that allows you to recreate a Superman flight. It costs double what the normal seated zip line does - $40 per ride - but may just be worth it for a cool flying thrill. Photo from the SlotZilla Twitter feed. Read more about SlotZilla.
6. Celine Being Replaced by Elton?
Word on the streets is that Elton John will be adding more shows to his schedule of appearances at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace to help fill the void left behind by Celine Dion's absence. It wouldn't take much - Elton currently has NO concerts scheduled at the hotel for the rest of the year so putting even a few on the calendar will make a big difference. This is only a rumor at this point but watch for a full announcement soon along with, possibly, the announcement of another headliner to go into the space. Dion cancelled all of her shows and public appearances a few weeks ago to help care for her husband who is battling throat cancer. Read my review of Elton John.
5. Siegfried & Roy Open Oktoberfest
Longtime Vegas headliners Siegfried & Roy will once again do the honors of tapping the first keg at Hofbrauhaus to kick off the annual Oktoberfest celebration at the restaurant. The duo makes infrequent public appearances even now more than 10 years after the onstage incident involving one of their white tigers and Roy's neck that nearly killed him and ended the illusionists' careers. They'll appear this Saturday, 9/13 at 7pm and Oktoberfest will run for 6 weeks with Bavarian beer, food, games, contests and more. Read the review of Hofbrauhaus.
4. Jerry's Nugget Sign Cruises The Strip to Neon Museum
A Vegas classic got one last trip up The Strip last week as a newly restored sign from Jerry's Nugget Casino was transported from the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO) facility to the Neon Museum, where it was installed as part of the Neon Boneyard's permanent exhibition. The sign's restoration was made possible by Jerry's Nugget as part of a yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary. Opened in 1964, Jerry's Nugget on Las Vegas Boulevard North was established when owners Jerry Stamis and Jerry Lodge purchased Mordell Earl's old Town House Bar. Four years later, they bought out their closest competitor, the Bonanza Club, which featured the city's tallest sign in 1968, the famous oil derrick. Still owned by the Stamis family, Jerry's Nugget is still in business today. Read more about the Neon Museum.
3. Life is Beautiful Single Day Tickets Now Available
Single day tickets to the three-day music, food, and art festival Life is Beautiful are now onsale. The event will be held October 24-26 in Downtown Las Vegas and will feature musical performances from Kanye West, OutKast, Foo Fighters, Arctic Monkeys, Skrillex, Lionel Richie, and dozens of other bands; food from Giada De Laurentiss, Cat Cora, Scott Conant, Jose Andres, Hubert Keller, and many more; performances from many of Las Vegas' biggest shows; art installations; and a speaker series. Single day tickets are $105 or you can get all three for $249.50 and are available at lifeisbeautiful.com. Read about last year's festival.
2. Riviera Getting a Makeover?
I have written a version of this story more than a few times... after emerging from bankruptcy, the new management at The Riviera is saying they plan to do a makeover of the aging hotel that could cost upwards of $100 million. Since it opened in 1955, The Riviera has gone through bankruptcy proceedings four (yes, four!) times, most recently in 2010. Paragon Gaming now runs the property and has made a few minor cosmetic changes but apparently wants to go all-in on a facelift for what was once one of the most glamorous hotels on The Strip. The specifics of what that $100 million will do to the hotel and when it will happen are unknown, although it would probably also be mostly cosmetic. By way of comparison, the radical transformation of the former Sahara hotel into the SLS Las Vegas cost about four times that amount. Read more about The Riviera.
1. Former Debbie Reynolds/Greek Isles Hotel Closes Suddenly
The Clarion Hotel on Convention Center Drive near The Riviera closed suddenly last week after new owners took over the property with plans to tear it down and replace it with something bigger and better. The hotel opened in 1970 as the Royal Inn and changed names several times over the years, operating as the Paddlewheel Hotel and Casino until 1992 when it was purchased by actress and singer Debbie Reynolds. The Debbie Reynolds Hotel ran until 1999 when it was purchased by the World Wrestling Federation who planned to knock it down and build a wrestling themed hotel and casino but those plans never materialized. Instead it was bought by someone else and revamped into The Greek Isles, a name it had until 2013 when it was transformed into a Clarion branded property. No word on what will replace the hotel yet but all of the furnishings and fixtures are being carted away in a liquidation sale.
Hotel Review: The SLS Las Vegas
By the time it closed in 2011 the venerable Sahara hotel had become a shadow of itself; once one of the most glamorous resorts on The Strip faded to a dusty, worn relic that was really only good if you couldn't afford to stay anywhere else. Now reinvented as the swank SLS Las Vegas, the property is virtually unrecognizable once you step inside, with a level of luxury, service, and amenities that the Sahara never could've dreamed of. But the limitations of revamping an existing building (as opposed to tearing it down and starting over) are evident almost everywhere you look, which makes this transformation a success but not an unqualified one.
More than $400 million was spent on redoing the hotel, with a big chunk of the ground floor demolished and rebuilt and the rest completely overhauled. Because it is so radically different, it is hard to play the "this used to be here" game but for reference purposes, the main casino is roughly where it used to be, the check-in desk is more or less in the same place, the old showroom is now a nightclub, and the glamorous Bazaar Meat restaurant by Jose Andres takes up most of the space that used to be the NASCAR Café and the Cyber Speedway. In fact, one of the private dining rooms at that restaurant was the mechanical room for the roller coaster that used to whirl around the outside of the hotel.
Out front, the main porte corchere is in the same spot but the domed entrance is gone, replaced by open air and a giant statue of a vaguely human, one-eyed figure raising its hands in the air in apparently glee. This is SAAM, a sculpture by designer Phillipe Starke who did most of the visuals in the hotel and is meant to be an artistic representation of the owner Sam Nazarian.
The main entry has mirrors and lighted panels on the floor, giving it an almost dizzying effect at night, and kicking off what is a boldly visual experience. Sometimes the bold works and sometimes it doesn't.
There is no theme, per se. Much like the Cosmopolitan, it relies more on artistic whimsy than anything else, with interesting design touches throughout. The ceilings and walls have various shapes on them here and there - a pair of lips, for example - that gives the public spaces a bit of energy. Notice the heavy use of monkeys in various bits of the decor, which are meant to evoke the mischievous and playful nature the hotel wants to capture. You'll also note a few nods to the hotel's history with designs in the carpeting of old Sahara playing cards or postcards and photos on the walls of 60s era stars like Roger Moore.
But sometimes it goes too far. Let's take the casino for example. It is smaller than most Strip casinos at about 60,000 square-feet. By way of comparison, that's about half the size of the Venetian or Bellagio casinos. That would be fine if they hadn't packed as many things into it as they had, with more than 800 slots and dozens of table games giving the room a hectic, almost chaotic, feeling. Poor spacing between the mostly tall, glaring and blaring machines means it feels like a big jumble instead of a cohesive whole.
There is a nice, albeit small, high-limit room and a sports book inside one of the restaurants for added gaming entertainment.
Restaurants and clubs ring the casino and most of them are transplants from the parent company's portfolio, including the aforementioned Bazaar Meat by José Andrés and other names that are recognizeable if you spend any time in Los Angeles (Katsuya, Cleo, etc.). Of note here are Las Vegas' first branch of the crazy popular Umami Burger chain and an outpost of the terrific Griddle Café plus a buffet, a coffee shop, and more.
Nightlife is a big deal with no fewer than three clubs including the main high-energy hot spot Life, a live music venue with a dive bar aesthetic The Sayers Club, and Foxtail, an indoor/outdoor club that adjoins the main pool. That has been completely transformed with a South Beach feeling (think lots of white), several swank cabanas, and one visually arresting feature: they covered the adjacent parking garage with white panels on to which they broadcast intricate, 3-D visuals at night that not only enlivens the space but keeps random tourists parking their minivans from watching you party.
Shopping is provided by Hollywood retailer Fred Segal in the form of several small boutiques scattered around the property. They offer both men's and women's clothing, jewelry, accessories, and more.
There is a spa and fitness center in case you need some pampering or a workout.
Back in the Sahara days there were four room towers but they tore one down and completely rehabbed the others, leaving 1,600 totally redesigned rooms. This is the area where the bulk of the aforementioned limitations are found, mostly as it is related to size. The rooms are small and feel like it, ranging from only 325 to about 425 square feet. This is about half the size of a standard room at Venetian, by way of comparison, and smaller than your typical hotel room. They cram a lot of stuff into the rooms, which only increases the claustrophobia level.
The smallest of the rooms can be found in the Story tower. Designed to evoke efficiency European apartments, the bed sits in the middle of the room facing a couch under the window, both of which have light-up frames on them. A wall of sliding, mirrored doors reveals the various parts of the bathroom - a toilet, a shower, and a sink that doubles as a wet bar (completely with cocktail mixing tools and Cliel bath products). The furnishings and the design here is spare and minimalist, with exposed concrete and a muted color palette (except for glaring yellow tile in the bathroom area). They have a typical set of amenities from safes and irons to in-room Wi-Fi to massive 55" flat screen TVs and more. In addition to being the smallest, they are also the cheapest and they hotel thinks they will mostly appeal to a younger, party set - hence the mirror on the ceiling above the bed, perhaps.
The World Tower is next up the food chain and features a few extra square foot of space but about the same list of amenities. The bed is underneath the window with a couch at the foot of it and they have thrown in a desk to fill that extra room - they hope this will appeal to a business traveler. Dधcor here is similarly minimalist but with a different color palettte - dusty rose and hints of pink. The bathrooms are more traditional and a bit bigger, also.
Finally there's the Lux Tower, with the "biggest" rooms (425 square feet) and the boldest decor. There are tapestries on all the walls designed to evoke a French boudoir. It's an interesting design concept but it comes off as a little busy for my taste. There is no desk so those wanting a place to park their laptop should go with the World Tower.
The staff I interacted with was friendly. They are trying to lure locals here so they are going for more a personal Downtown vibe than a strictly business Strip one. I think that's a good choice.
Prices are all over the map. You can find the smaller Story and World rooms for as low as $109 during the week and $199 on weekends although prices well north of $200 and $300 respectively are not uncommon. The larger Lux rooms add anywhere from $50 to $100 per night on top of those rates and don't forget about the mandatory $25 per night resort fee.
It is worth noting that there isn't much worth visiting within easy walking distance at this time. Stratosphere, Circus-Circus, and The Riviera are the closest but those are still a bit of hike, especially when it's 110 degrees outside. Luckily the monorail has a station right out back and there is a lot of new stuff planned for the neighborhood including at least two new megaresorts and a big festival ground.
Despite being built from the bones of the Sahara, that hotel is long gone. That's both a good thing when it comes to the visual and tactile improvements and a not so good one when it comes to things like cost. Overall, I like what they have done to place although I'm not sure it will be a top tier pick until more development happens on the North Strip.
SLS LAS VEGAS
Number of Rooms:
2535 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
$129 and up double
$25 per night plus tax
Restaurant Review: Giada
Most people only know Giada De Laurentiis from her Food Network show "At Home with Giada" or her "Today" show appearances, but she actually has a pretty extensive culinary background that may come as a surprise to some. The granddaughter of famed director Dino De Laurentiis trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and was a chef at Wolfgang Puck's Spago in Beverly Hills. Considering the backgrounds of some people who have restaurants in Vegas, it's actually a surprise she didn't have one sooner.
The space at The Cromwell is a stunner. Carved out of the second floor area that used to be a parking garage, the room is accessed by escalators or elevators from the casino level that open out onto a sunny, white, light-filled space with light woods, homey furnishings, and big windows overlooking The Strip. Get the right seat and you'll be able to watch the Bellagio Fountains blast off from your table.
The menu here fits right at home with the De Laurentiis' specialties - Italian and Mediterranean cuisine with a bit of a California influence. At first glance, everything seems light, summery, and fun; the kind of stuff you would get at a small cuccina in Italy rather than a typical Vegas restaurant with its big heavy portions of meat and potatoes.
Which is not to say that the food isn't substantial. Everything we sampled was so robust and bursting with flavor that you would do well not to overdo it on an ordering spree, no matter how tempted you may be.
The first page of the menu is all starters - a sort of create-your-own antipasti platter from vegetables like marinated olives or baby sweet peppers with goat cheese; meat like bacon wrapped dates with spicy Italian sausage; seafood with charred octopus or clams casino; cheese from mozzarella with a citrus chili pesto to parmigano with wild sage honey; salamis; crostini (finger sandwiches); and miniature pizzas. You could make a meal just from this section and we almost did with the orzo meatballs done with a light parmesan, the burrata with balsamic salt, and the prosciutto San Daniele. All of it was fantastic but both the burrata and the prosciutto made me deliriously happy and I could've ended the meal right there without any complaints.
There are some soups and salads, which might be good options if you need something really light. I sampled the pasta e fagioli and was a little disappointed - I thought it had been over-spiced but someone else at the table also had a bowl and thought it was fine so different taste buds may react different ways.
Owing to the Italian influence there are a variety of house made pastas to consider including a spaghetti with shrimp and lemon, a rigatoni with vegetable Bolognese, and a ravioli with lobster and asparagus. We sampled the tortellini with pea pesto, pancetta, and mint and the only bit of advice here is one taken from the waiter: you have to like peas to like this dish. I don't so it wasn't what I would have selected but the person who ordered it declared it perfect.
The risotto with crabs and scallops was also sampled and it was a great example of the deceptive portions here. When it came to the table it didn't seem like it was going to be enough for a main course but the bowl was deeper than it appeared and turned out to be not only satisfying in proportion but bursting with flavor.
Main courses are things like a Tuscan rib-eye done with a sunny side up egg, a veal chop Saltimbocca, rack of lamb with spinach, pan roasted salmon, and a whole roasted chicken for two. We tried the filet, served with a zesty salsa verde and crispy polenta, and it was a terrific cut of meat done better than many steakhouses can do it.
Dessert is brought around on a cart and changes based on the whims of the pastry chef but could include things like sorbet and gelato, cookies, tiramisu, creme brulee, cakes, tarts, and more. One bit of advice - don't tell the server that you have a nut allergy if you actually want to have dessert. They wouldn't give me anything from the cart, even things that didn't have nuts in them, out of cross contamination fears. I explained that my allergy was not that severe but they stuck to their guns, which was both good of them and kind of annoying at the same time. My dining companions declared the chocolate cake and the cookies they sampled to be amazing and I hated them a little bit for it.
There is a full lunch menu that features many of the same dishes but adds more salads, pizza, and sandwiches including muffaletta and a lemon pesto grilled cheese with prosciutto.
There is also a tasting menu that comes with four courses and a signed photograph of Giada herself.
Prices are pretty much what you would expect them to be, which is to say on the expensive side. Antipasti selections are mostly in the $10-$15 range, pastas in the $25-$35 sphere, and main courses anywhere from the mid $30s to over $70 for the big rib-eye steak. Our meal for three with one round of cocktails, three starters, three entrees, a couple of desserts, tax, and tip worked out to about $80 per person. Go at lunch and you could probably get out for about half of that. That's not bad for a nice restaurant in Vegas in general and especially one this good.
The service was fantastic throughout the meal (except, perhaps, for the whole "no dessert for you" thing).
One important note is that the restaurant has been incredibly popular since it opened requiring reservations often weeks in advance. Want to dine at 7pm? You're probably going to need to book about two months ahead of time.
Las Vegas really didn't need another celebrity chef restaurant but if it was going to get one, it couldn't have been any better than Giada.
Las Vegas Foodie Fest Set for The Linq
The annual Foodie Fest is coming back to Vegas but is moving to a new location: The Linq - or at least the parking lot behind it.
The festival brings together dozens of the best food trucks from around the country, some that have been featured on Food Network and the Travel Channel. Although the exact lineup has not been determined yet, the one name dropped is White Castle, which should delight fans of the burgers who can't get them in Vegas usually (at least not yet). They will also have carnival rides, eating contests, a beer garden, and live entertainment.
The event is happening October 15-19 in the Linq valet and parking area behind the High Roller observation wheel. It runs Wednesday through Friday from 4pm until midnight, Saturday from noon until midnight, and Sunday from noon until 10pm. Tickets are $10 for a single day (plus the cost of food) or $12 for all five days. VIP tickets are available that include an open bar (!!) and food tastings from various trucks at the event.
You can learn more at lasvegasfoodiefest.com.
The End of the Showboat Era
The closure of the Showboat Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City signalled the end of an era in that the venerable Showboat name is no longer being used on any casino in the United States. In honor of the demise of what was once one of the most recognizable brands in the gaming industry, let's take a look back at the history of The Showboat in Las Vegas:
Before we sail into the history of The Showboat, we should make sure we are all on the same page about what, exactly The Showboat was, or more specifically wasn't. When referring to the riverboat shaped casino hotel, most people presume you are talking about the Holiday Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, which eventually became Harrah's. To further complicate matters, there's often confusion between the Holiday Casino, which had a Holiday Inn branded hotel attached, and the Coney Island themed Boardwalk Holiday Inn further down the street, which was not related.
But The Showboat was neither of those and it wasn't even on the Las Vegas Strip. It's often referred to as a Downtown Las Vegas property but it was miles from Glitter Gulch hotels like Binion's and The Golden Nugget.
In reality it was closer to what would eventually be the Boulder Highway strip of hotels like Boulder Station, located on east Fremont Street between Charleston and St. Louis Avenues. This is now a working class neighborhood but at the time it was mostly undeveloped, with only a couple of gaming nightclubs in the area that were designed to capture the traffic heading from Las Vegas to points southeast like Boulder City, Hoover Dam, and beyond.
The hotel was the brainchild of a partnership between two men who had become near legendary Las Vegas figures. JK Houssels had been the driving force behind El Cortez in Downtown and William Moore was involved in the design of his uncle RE Griffith's project The Frontier on the Las Vegas Strip. In the early 1950s, they envisioned a Strip style resort only closer to Downtown and the only one to be within Las Vegas city limits (The Strip is in in unincorporated Clark County).
They raised the $2 million necessary to build The Showboat, most likely from the usual sources of such funds in Vegas in that era: the mob. The infamous Moe Dalitz, a mafia figure who had a hand in multiple Vegas projects including The Desert Inn, was listed as a manager of the Showboat's casino while Houssels and Moore ran the hotel.
The Showboat opened on September 3, 1954. It had a main building with the front shaped like a riverboat sitting in water that acted as the hotel's pool. Only the very front had the riverboat theme and the rest was a fairly bland boxy structure that housed the casino, restaurants, showroom, and more. The 100 rooms were in two-story motel style buildings that were separated from the main building by a driveway.
Houssels and Moore tried to market The Showboat to tourists as a Las Vegas getaway but its location hampered its success. It wasn't within easy walking distance of Glitter Gulch or The Strip, and its lack of the kind of stylish amenities that were being built on Las Vegas Boulevard limited its appeal. The hotel struggled financially pretty much from the get go and never really took off until a new owner, Joe Kelley, took over a majority interest in the late 1950s.
Kelley refocused the property on value, attempting to appeal to residents of the burgeoning suburban neighborhood. In some ways, the Showboat was sort of the first "locals" resort, designed to cater to the people who lived in Vegas rather than those who merely visited. He did it by promoting cheap eats dining specials and by adding a bowling alley in 1959.
Incorporated as Showboat Inc., the various shareholder owners of The Showboat may have changed over the years but the parent company pretty much always remained the same. An attempt by Ramada to buy it in 1969 failed and Showboat Inc. kept steering the ship all the way until 1998.
The Showboat was expanded several times over the years, most notably in 1973 when nine floors of a 19-story tower opened and then again in 1976 when the rest of the tower opened. A 1979 expansion made the bowling alley the biggest in the world with over 100 lanes. A renovation in 1982 added the Showboat Sports Pavilion on the second floor of the main building, which became popular as a venue for boxing and roller derby.
The Vegas hotel got some siblings with the opening of the Showboat Atlantic City in 1987, the Sydney Harbor Casino in Australia in 1995, and the Showboat Mardi Gras in East Chicago in 1997.
Unfortunately, the company's investments in other markets meant that not much investment was being made into the Las Vegas property during the 1990s and it became stagnant, especially when compared to the wave of new, palatial mega-resorts opening on The Strip.
In 1998 Harrah's Entertainment sensed an opportunity and stepped in to buy Showboat Inc. including The Showboat in Las Vegas for $1.15 billion. By then their Harrah's Las Vegas no longer had a showboat theme - it had been converted to the Mardi Gras theme it has now in 1997.
The problem for The Showboat in Vegas is that Harrah's really only wanted the Showboat name and the opportunity it gave them to enter the Atlantic City and Chicago markets. The Vegas property didn't line up with their strategy and they almost immediately put it up for sale.
In 2000, a company called VSS Enterprises run by a group of casino executives plunked down $23.5 million for the Las Vegas property, and by that I mean the building and land. What they didn't get was the Showboat name so they remodeled the main building to remove the showboat theme and replaced it with a desert island look and feel. The new hotel was called The Castaways.
This, of course, has led to even more confusion when talking about the history of the place since there had been a Castaways hotel and casino on The Strip where The Mirage is now located. The two were not related in any way other than the name.
VSS wasn't able to make a go of the property and it fell into bankruptcy in June of 2003. The lienholder, Vestin Mortgages, took over the property and kept it open for about six months until a bankruptcy judge allowed them to shutter the hotel once and for all on January 29, 2004.
Another company planned to purchase the shuttered Castaways in 2004 and market it to a Latin market, but before that deal could get done, local giants Stations Casinos stepped in and snatched the property away. It was viewed as a preemptive move to keep competition away from their Boulder Station hotel just down the street and to get another chunk of land zoned for a major casino that they could use for future expansion of their empire.
In 2005 the company planned to revamp and reopen the hotel as Castaways Station but found that the 50-year-old buildings were not usable and so they needed to start from scratch. The bulk of the property was demolished in late 2005 and the main hotel tower was imploded on January 11, 2006.
Nothing ever got built on the land, which remains an empty dirt and concrete lot today. Stations Casinos tried to sell the property when they went through bankruptcy proceedings in 2009 but were unable to find a buyer. They may develop it or try to sell it again at some point in the future.