Vegas4Visitors.com Weekly Column by Rick Garman

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The Countdown: Top 10 Vegas News Stories of the Week

10. New Border Grill Now Open at Forum Shops

A second location of the popular Mexican eatery Border Grill is now up and running at the Forum Shops, giving the original location at Mandalay Bay a sister. Both restaurants are under the guidance of Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, most famous to TV viewers as hosts of "Two Hot Tamales" on the Food Network back in the day. The new Border Grill is located on the ground floor of the main atrium where PJ Clarke's used to be, just a few steps from the big circular escalator. Read my review of Border Grill at Mandalay Bay.

9. Vegas Taxi Rates Going Up

It's about to get more expensive to take a taxi in Vegas. The Nevada Taxi Commission has approved a rate increase of about 8% across the board for just about all fares and fees. The initial drop fee is going up from $3.30 to $3.45, the meter fee is going up from $2.60 a mile to $2.86 per mile, and the wait time fee is going up from $30 per hour to $32.40 per hour. The only thing that isn't changing is the $2 airport surcharge. If you feel like getting annoyed about this, here's a good reason: the supposedly "temporary" 20 cent per mile gas surcharge they added when gas was really expensive is still included in the $2.86 per mile fee. Seen the price of gas lately? Anyway, all of this will probably add about a dollar to your average taxi cab fare so not a huge impact in your day-to-day but it still makes Vegas one of the highest taxi fare cities in the country. And the timing couldn't be worse as Uber hits Vegas for the first time (see story below). Read more about ways to get around Las Vegas.

8. Bellagio Conservatory Items Auctioned

The seasonal garden displays at the Bellagio Conservatory are one of the most popular tourist attractions in Las Vegas and many of the decorations they feature are reused every year. But every now and then they have to clear a little space in the warehouse to make room for new items so they get rid of some older stuff like they did last week in an online auction. Hundreds of items from the mundane (fake rocks, plants, decorative columns) to the fanciful (a Ferris wheel, giant caterpillars, a tiger, polar bears, a train set, and more) were put up for bids and they fetched some pretty decent prices. A 60-foot tall Ferris Wheel went for $14,000! Read more about the Bellagio Conservatory.

7. High Roller Happy Hour Now Seven Days a Week

How much of a drinking town is Vegas? Well, apparently there are enough people who can't go the 30 minutes that it takes to ride the High Roller Observation Wheel without having a cocktail so the attraction is extending its popular "Happy Half-Hour" to seven days a week (before it was only available on weekends). For an extra $5 during the day or $10 at night, you get to ride in a special cabin with an open bar serving a variety of specialty cocktails including margaritas and more. The drinking while spinning version of the ride is available from noon until 1am daily. Read my full review of the High Roller.

6. Cosmo Ice Rink to Return with Snowfall

Winter is coming back to The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas with the return of their ice skating rink and winter festival starting Noveber 21st. Located on the rooftop Boulevard Pool overlooking The Strip, the rink has over 4,200 square-feet of real ice that will treat skaters to occasional snowfall - snow making machines will simulate a winter wonderland. The area will also have fire pits, a lodge experience, and custom crafted cocktails plus holiday movies on Monay nights and retro music on Thursdays. The rink will be open November 21-January 4 from 3pm until midnight Monday through Friday and noon until midnight Saturday and Sunday. Admission to the pool area where all the winter stuff is located is free, but it will cost you $15 to get on the rink and another $5 to rent skates (presuming you didn't pack your own when you came to Vegas). Read more about The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

5. All Net Resort Groundbreaking Set for This Week

The $1.4 billion All Net Resort sounded like a pipe dream but the developers behind it insist that is going to become a reality and are moving forward with a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, October 29, 2014. The resort is planned for the land once occupied by Wet 'n' Wild, just south of the SLS Las Vegas (formerly The Sahara and will feature a 22,000-seat, retractable roof arena as its centerpiece alongside a 500-room, all-suite hotel and an entertainment district with restaurants, shopping, and movie theaters when it opens in 2017. It will not have a casino. Read more about All Net Resort.

4. Gold Spike Reopening... Sort Of

The Downtown stalwart hotel/casino The Gold Spike closed last year when it was bought by the Downtown Project, which turned it into a non-gaming, non-hotel - basically a glorified bar with games, a restaurant, and other diversions. Now the small 40 room motel next door The Oasis, which had been incorporated into The Gold Spike when it was redone in 2010, is reopening as a hotel. They have remodeled the rooms with a youthful, hipster vibe (they call the rooms "crash pads" and they have no phones or alarm clocks because who needs those anymore?) and are offering food and beverage service at the pool, bike rentals, a library, and turntables and vinyl records because hipsters like to pretend they are DJs, I guess. Still no casino. Rates are going from around $79 and up plus a $20 per night resort fee. Read the history of The Gold Spike.

3. Elton John Extends Through 2017

Part of the question about who would fill the Colosseum at Caesars Palace during Celine Dion's absence has been answered now that Elton John has agreed to extend his residency at the hotel for an additional three years. The singer's "Million Dollar Piano" will pick back up again in January of 2015 with a series of dates through April going on sale next week. Elton John started his first residency show "The Red Piano" at Caesars in 2004, which ran for five years and then "Million" started in 2011. Read my review of the Elton John show.

2. Justin Timberlake In Vegas for New Year's Concert Movie

Pop icon Justin Timberlake will be wrapping up his nearly two-year-long world concert tour in Vegas with a pair of shows at the MGM Grand on January 1 and 2, both of which will be filmed for an upcoming concert movie. The 20/20 Experience World Tour has been playing around the globe since 2013 and has swung through Vegas a couple of times already but this will be the grand finale. The film will be directed by Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning helmer of "Silence of the Lambs" and what is considered to be one of the all-time best concert films, "Stop Making Sense" featuring the Talking Heads. Tickets are on sale now and run from $90 to $280 via ticketmaster. Read more about the MGM Grand.

1. Life is Beautiful Festival Takes Over Downtown

The music, food, and art experience known as the Life is Beautiful Festival had its second annual run this past weekend, taking over 15 blocks of Downtown Las Vegas with multiple stages, a food village, art installations, lectures, and more. The exact attendance figures are still being figured out as of this writing but they are estimated at least 60,000 people visited the festival over the three-days to see music acts like Kanye West, The Flaming Lips, Jenny Lewis, Lionel Richie, and dozens of others plus chow down on food from both Vegas and national chefs. The organizers of the festival say they are already trying to figure out who will be headlining in 2015. Check out some observations and photos of the festival from the Las Vegas Weekly.

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The Battle for Uber in Las Vegas

A war has broken out in Las Vegas that involves an entrenched army, an encroaching foe, threats, legal action, arrests, and seizure of property... and it's all about giving people rides. On the one side you have the Nevada Taxi Authority and on the other side you have Uber.

The question that at least some of you may be asking is "what in the world is Uber?" The short answer is that it's a ride-sharing app that is scaring the hell out of the Sin City taxi industry after it tried to launch in Las Vegas last week.

Uber got its start in 2009 in San Francisco and the concept behind it is pretty simple: you need a ride somewhere, someone else has a car, and they are willing to give you a lift for a fee. To use the service, you download the app and create an account with a credit card. When you need to go somewhere, simply log on to the app, tap a couple of things, and presto... a car is on its way to you with a pre-negotiated price (you can add a tip but it isn't required) that is automatically billed to your credit card. No money changes hands.

The people who pick you up are not licensed taxi drivers - they are just people giving you a ride somewhere.

Uber now operates in 45 countries and is estimated to be worth $15 billion.

Vegas has long been on the company's radar but it has been tough to get into the market because the local taxi commission is one of the strongest and most powerful in the nation.

It should not be surprising that taxi companies hate Uber and other ride-sharing apps (Lyft is Uber's main competitor). Rates charged by the ride-sharers are typically lower than taxis, which the companies say is because Uber drivers and cars don't have to go through the expensive licensing, regulatory, and insurance hurdles that a regular taxi does. Uber says they screen drivers, require that their cars go through a rigorous inspection, and that the company carries liability insurance.

Local officials sided with the cab drivers and insisted that Uber is running an illegal taxi service, threatening to arrest drivers and impound the vehicles of anyone caught giving rides via the app.

Uber launched anyway, mostly operating in the residential areas of Las Vegas. They were not making pickups at the airport or along The Strip but they were dropping off to those areas. They said it was their first salvo that would eventually see them expand to cover the entire city.

Within hours of the service going live, drivers were being arrested in both Vegas and Reno and their vehicles were towed away. There were news reports of almost military tactics being used, with multiple police and state vehicles chasing down and boxing in the Uber cars (which are usually things like a Toyota Prius) and armed officers, some wearing ski masks, making the apprehension. At least eight drivers were arrested in Vegas and are facing jail time, $10,000 fines, and whatever it will cost to recover their cars.

The state's Attorney General also issued an injunction against Uber from operating in Clark County until at least November 7, when a hearing can be held. The company is fighting the injunction, syaing it wasn't properly filed and can't be legally enforced. It says it's drivers are still making runs in Las Vegas.

I would highly recommend not using Uber in Las Vegas until all this gets sorted out - the last thing you need for your Vegas vacation is to get caught up in the arrest of your ride-share driver.

But presuming they get their issues worked out, should you use Uber? I'm on the fence. On the one hand, I think competition is a good thing and hopefully it will have the same effect in Vegas that it has had in other cities wherein the cabs have to improve their level of service to compete. I also think the rates that taxis charge in Vegas are pretty obscene, even before the new increases that will be going into effect soon. But on the other hand I believe in level playing fields and Uber's argument that they aren't really a taxi service and therefore shouldn't have to play by the same rules strikes me as the kind of thing they say publicly but then laugh about as soon as the door is closed. There are also the very real concerns about how often the drivers are screened, how often the cars are inspected, and how up-to-date their insurance is.

And you can't ignore the questions about how much money it actually saves and how effective it will be in a place like Las Vegas. Most studies have shown an average savings of at most 20%, meaning that $20 cab ride from the airport would cost you at least $16. Plus there's the convenience factor to consider. You can pretty much step outside of any building on The Strip and there will be a line of taxis waiting to take you wherever you want to go so the idea of logging on to an app and waiting for a ride to show up just to save a couple of bucks may not make a lot of sense. Then again, the lines for those taxi stands can sometimes take awhile so...

What happens next is anyone's guess but if you base it on what has happened in other cities, there will be a lot of screaming and yelling and legal action and eventually the laws will be revised to accommodate ride-sharing services like this one.

Stay tuned...

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Restaurant Review: The Griddle Café

To call the Griddle Café a Los Angeles fixture is doing it a disservice. It's more like a cult haven, having drawn tourists, locals, famous faces, and more through its doors on the Sunset Strip for more than a decade. It's the kind of place where there is often a line to get in, something that seems silly on the surface but makes total sense once you start eating.

The Griddle Café at the SLS Las Vegas is like the LA version only on steroids. It's bigger, for one, and it's open 24 hours a day for the Sin City crowd whereas you can only get breakfast and lunch in the City of Angels. But the general concept is the more or less the same - loud and energetic atmosphere, industrial decor (exposed ductwork, brick, and cement) meets mid-century diner (red vinyl padded chairs), and big signs with wacky sayings ("Show me your pancakes and I'll show you mine.")

The menu is exhaustive and a bit exhausting - eight pages stuffed with small print that covers almost every base. There are the signature pancakes (nearly two dozen varieties); several types of French toast and waffles; more than two dozen egg dishes from frittata to omelette to scrambles and beyond; nearly a dozen different soft tacos; a similar number of burgers; a bunch of big salads; and another dozen sandwiches just to round things out. Oh, and don't forget about the two pages of hand crafted cocktails, beers, "boozy" milkshakes, coffees, sides, and made to order tortilla chips and guacamole.

Where do you begin? We kind of surrendered ourselves to the incredible wait staff and they brought us more food than we knew what to do with. "Mom's French Toast" was two enormous pieces of egg-dipped sweet French bread served traditionally with syrup, powdered sugar, and whipped butter. It was probably the best version of the dish I have ever sampled until I tasted the "Devil's Daydream Bourbon" variety, which is chocolate bread dipped in a Bulleit bourbon and chocolate chips. Wow. That's all I have to say about that.

Hoping to keep ourselves from slipping into a sugar coma, we had to try something savory and went for the "Chicago Charlie" scramble. It was a massive (and I'm not being hyperbolic here - massive is the right word) pile of eggs, Italian sausage, potatoes, bacon, bell peppers, cheese, garlic, basil, and onions served with garlic bread. It was like every bit of breakfast you could possibly want all mixed in together and it was fantastic.

And of course we had to try one of their pancakes. As mentioned then have a bunch of different types - brown sugar banana, Frosted Flake and strawberries, champagne and strawberries; Godiva liqueur and crushed Butterfinger candy, coconut pecan, crushed Oreo, honey cinnamon, and more. The one we tried was the "Tis the Season" with pumpkin pie filling, vanilla whipped cream, and powdered sugar. Not only are they huge to start with (about the size of a medium pizza) but there are three of them. It's way more food than one single person can eat although they are so good you're going to want to try.

We wanted to try some of the non-breakfast items but just look above at what we had on the table, which doesn't include the side of perfectly cooked bacon we got just because we could. But if there burgers, sandwiches, and salads are even half as good as the breakfasts, you'll have a winner here.

The prices are beyond reasonable for the amount of food you are getting. Everything on the menu is between about $10 and $15, meaning you can have a very full, very satisfying meal for under $20 and probably have enough leftovers to eat another full meal the next day.

The service was perfect despite how crazy busy they were - we visited on a Friday at lunch time and there was a line of about 30 people waiting to get in.

For a long time Hash House a Go Go has held the crown for best breakfasts in Las Vegas. Now I think they are going to have to share that crown with the Griddle Café.

The Griddle Café
SLS Las Vegas
2535 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
702-761-7613
website
Daily 24 Hours
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A

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Britney vs. J.Lo?

There could be a battle of the pop divas brewing in Las Vegas as rumors swirl that Jennifer Lopez is close to signing a deal to headline in Las Vegas at Planet Hollywood in the same theater Britney Spears uses. TMZ is reporting that they have seen her contract which calls for more than 70 shows over one or two years paying her $350,000 per show. Caesars Entertainment, the parent company of Planet Hollywood, is officially denying the validity saying "Jennifer Lopez has not been presented with any offer to perform at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino."

The wording of that is important. They aren't saying that the contract doesn't exist or that they are not in talks with Lopez, but that they have not formally presented an offer. Regardless, this is still just a rumor so take that with whatever grains of salt you would like to take it with.

There are still lots of open questions including when the concerts would start, how many of them she will do each year, how much tickets will cost, and how they will put a giant picture of her on the outside of Planet Hollywood in a way that doesn't detract from the giant picture of Britney. I also think there might be a question about where she will be performing. Although the Planet Hollywood theater is what has been mentioned in reports, I know the parent company of the hotel has been looking for acts to fill the Colosseum at sister property Caesars Palace while Celine is taking a break so don't be surprised if you see it swing that way at least to start.

My guesses on everything else is that it'll get announced around the time "American Idol" kicks off (Lopez is a judge again this season, starting in January) and the concert will start around the time "Idol" wraps (May-ish). Tickets will probably be in the same neighborhood as Britney's, so around $60 for the cheap seats up to several hundred for the good ones. As far as the building, who knows? It's a big building.

When the TMZ story first got press, everybody made a big deal about how J.Lo's payday was going to be bigger than Britney's, who was estimated to be getting around $330,000 per show. Within days, the stories "leaked" that Britney's show was such a huge success that she had gotten a raise and was now making $475,000 per show.

That number is really important because it is $1,000 per show less than what Celine Dion gets... it wouldn't look good if Britney was making more than Celine.

How much of a success is Britney's show? The hotel has reportedly raked in more than $20 million in extra revenue in less than a year with no signs of stopping anytime soon.

The county is even getting in on the act by declaring November 5th "Britney Day" and presenting her with a key to The Strip. But it isn't just Ms. Spears who will be getting something on that day. The ceremony will happen at The Linq shopping promenade at 5:30pm but the first 100 people named Britney (any spelling with valid ID) who checks in at the High Roller Wheel House starting at 8am on the 11/5 gets two tickets to see Spears' show at Planet Hollywood plus a ride on the High Roller and a commemorative gift. Britneys #101 and up will get to ride the High Roller and the gift but no show tickets.

Read the full review of the Britney Spears show at Planet Hollywood.

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Is Caesars Heading Toward Bankruptcy?

The headlines over the last year or so have been ominous. Caesars Entertainment, the biggest casino company in the world and parent to Vegas hotels like Caesars Palace, Planet Hollywood, Harrah's, and more, is $24 billion in debt and has sold a couple of hotels, closed others, and is technically in default on some of its debt payments. The company has actively been trying to carve off certain holdings into separate companies and is working with their creditors to restructure the debt, all in an effort to stave off - or at least lessen the impact of - what most analysts are saying is inevitable: bankruptcy.

The trouble for Caesars started back in 2008 when two private equity firms took over the publicly held company (then known as Harrah's Entertainment) and created more than $25 billion in debt in the process. At the time this was seen as a risky move but not a crazy one considering the company was raking in nearly $10 billion a year in revenue.

The problem was that the buyout happened on the eve of the global recession, which drove down profits and the company started losing money. If they didn't have the high-interest debt payments, the company would be in great shape, but saddled with those kinds of obligations they can't seem to dig themselves out of the hole they are in.

But dig, they have tried. Over the last few years they have continued to spend money like drunken sailors in an effort to create new revenue streams. In Las Vegas they spent about $200 million on the Nobu hotel portion of Caesars Palace, another $200 million on turning the Barbary Coast into The Cromwell, and more than half a billion on the new Linq pedestrian mall, High Roller observation wheel, and renovations of the old Imperial Palace hotel. They also opened shiny new casinos in Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio to try to break into new markets.

At the same time they began various restructuring games that moved certain hotels into subsidiary companies. Caesars Growth Partners, for instance, is the official owner on paper of Planet Hollywood, The Cromwell, The Linq, and Bally's along with the Horseshoe in Baltimore and their interactive division.

More dramatic moves were made in Mississippi and New Jersey where they shuttered the Harrah's Tunica and the Atlantic City Showboat.

None of this has helped to reduce the company's overall debt load so the most recent focus has been on trying to restructure it. According to multiple reports, Caesars has been in talks with their primary creditors to try to get better terms for the money they owe. Unfortunately this has angered the second-tier creditors who think they will get left out if Caesars goes bankrupt, so they served the company with a notice of default earlier this year.

At this point, almost everyone who understands anything about multi-billion-dollar financial machinations says that it is not a question of "if" Caesars will declare bankruptcy but "when?" January has been floated as the most likely target for a Chapter 11 filing and if/when it happens it will be not only the biggest in the casino industry history but one of the biggest in any industry.

What this means to their Vegas properties is yet to be determined. None of them are in danger of closing - the Vegas market is simply too hot right now for that to happen. There is a possibility of pieces of the puzzle being sold though. It has been rumored that the company has been trying to find a buyer for The Rio for awhile now and a bankruptcy could force the issue.

It is also unlikely that the company as a whole will be sold to someone else. They are too big for that and most other gaming companies, while perhaps better positioned financially, don't have that kind of cash lying around.

The day to day operations of the individual hotels will probably not be affected. If you hadn't just read about it here, you probably would never know what was happening behind the scenes.

We'll reconvene on the topic if/when they pull the bankruptcy trigger.

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