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VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
October 19, 2015
The Countdown: Top 10 Vegas News Stories of the Week
10. Rock of Ages to Close at Venetian
Things will be a little less rocking at The Venetian in 2016 with the announcement that Rock of Ages will be closing on January 3. The jukebox musical features cover versions of hair-band era rock songs has been playing at the hotel for three years. But fear not hair-whipping fans - word on the street is that the production will be getting a new home at another major hotel although which one is still only in the rumor stage. Read the review of Rock of Ages.
9. More Venetian Show News
Rock of Ages may not be the only entertainment offering being shown the door at The Venetian. Rumors are running rampant that pretty much every single standing production is going away including the Frank Sinatra tribute, which is confirmed to be closing in November, and Australian doo-wop group Human Nature, who are reportedly heading toward the Harrah's showroom (although that isn't confirmed). So what's going to go into all those theaters that will be empty after the first of the year? One rumor has a return of Baz: For the Record, the stunning musical featuring music from the films of Baz Luhrmann that played briefly at Light nightclub. That would be good news as far as I'm concerned but it won't be filling the big theaters. Could another Broadway show be heading to Vegas? Stay tuned. Read more about The Venetian.
8. High Rollers Wanted for New Year's Eve
You're going to have to be a high roller if you want to ring in the New Year on the High Roller. The world's tallest observation wheel is bumping up the prices for New Year's Eve with a single ride ticket going for $250 and $6,250 for a private cabin featuring an open bar and a champagne toast at midnight. I hear that it's a great place to see the fireworks if - and this is a big if - your cabin happens to be at or near the top of the wheel when the clock strikes 12 and/or some of the fireworks are being shot off from behind The Linq. Otherwise you'll celebrate 2016 by looking at a parking lot. Read more about the High Roller.
7. Station Casinos To Go Public... Again
Local gaming giant Stations Casinos has announced plans to have an IPO (initial public offering) that will bring the company back to the stock market. The company, which runs hotels like Red Rock Resort, Green Valley Ranch, Sunset Station, Texas Station, has had a tumultuous financial ride over the last decade or so. Originally a privately held company founded by the Fertitta family, it went public and then went private again in 2008, about a year before it went into bankruptcy. After a reorganization it is doing much better, especially now that Las Vegas locals seem to be going back to the casinos - revenue in the neighborhood gambling market is up over 3% this year. Read more about Red Rock Resort.
6. Nevada Prison a Historic Place
The now-closed Nevada State Prison in Carson City has been officially listed on the National Registry of Historic Places by the National Park Service, a step that could put it on the road to becoming a tourist attraction. The prison dates all the way back to 1861 and housed the state's most notorious criminals until it closed in 2012, including many who were put to death in Nevada's only execution chamber. Perhaps the most colorful bit of history is the prison had its own casino from 1932 to 1967, with inmates running the games and gambling. There are no current plans to open the facility to the public but the registry listing means that efforts to preserve it will be encouraged.
5. Riviera Sticking Around For Awhile
For more than six decades The Riviera was a neon-lit landmark on the north Las Vegas Strip. For more than six months it's been a dark, boarded up eyesore since the hotel closed in May. So how much longer do we have to look at the slowly decaying buildings? Probably until summer of 2016. That's when the Las Vegas Convention Center will most likely start the demolition with an aim of having it all cleared out by early 2017 when they'll be using the land for outdoor exhibition space. That means the new convention facilities that will eventually replace The Riv probably won't open until 2018 or 2019 at the earliest. Read the history of The Riviera.
4. SpeedVegas Now Taking Reservations
If you just can't wait to feel the need for some VegasSpeed, good news - the upcoming 100-acre speed complex and supercar experience opening March 2016, has launched its website and is now accepting reservations. Currently under construction on the far south edge of the city, the facility will include a 1.5 mile track encompassing 12 turns and a half-mile straight. You'll be able to choose from a wide variety of cars to go fast in including a Shelby Mustang GT500, an Audi R8 V-10, a Ferrari 458 Italia, a Lamborghini Aventador, and more. Prices will run from $49 per lap to $89 per lap. Learn more on the SpeedVegas website.
3. Pete Rose Grill Opens on The Strip
Famous baseball legend - or infamous baseball gambler depending upon your viewpoint - has opened his own restaurant and bar on The Strip at the Hawaiian Marketplace across the street from Aria. The 24-hour eatery features a wide-ranging All-American menu of breakfasts, burgers and sandwiches, flatbreads, and diner-style entrees served amid a museum's worth of memorabilia. Rose was one of baseball's most famous players, still the all-time Major League record-holder in hits and games played. After he retired it was revealed that he gambled on games while he was a player and manager of the Cincinnati Reds, a no-no that got him banned from entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Strip restaurant has a dining room, a bar, and an outdoor patio and is open now with a "grand opening" set for later this month.
2. Pawn Plaza Opens
Fans of the History Channel's reality show "Pawn Stars" now have another reason to visit the Gold & Silver Pawn Store in Vegas - the neighboring Pawn Plaza shopping and dining mini-mall. The plaza opened last Friday night with Rick Harrison officiating the celebration and presidential hopeful Marco Rubio on hand to say a few words. The colorful facility has nine tenants including the self-explanatory Vegas Flip Flops, Pawn Donut & Coffee, Pawn Plaza Vow Renewals by VegasWeddings.com, Smoke's Poutinerie, BodySpa Salon, So-Cal Speed Shop, Rita's Italian Ice, Inna Gadda Di Pizza (best name every), and Rick's Rollin' Smoke BBQ & Tavern, where Harrison himself tended bar on opening night. It's located next door to the pawn store at 713 S. Las Vegas Blvd. in Downtown Las Vegas. Read more about the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop.
1. New Nightclub Planned for Aria
Aria Las Vegas has been one of the few major resorts on The Strip without a nightclub since Haze closed in October of 2014. That will all change in the spring of 2016 when the hotel opens Jewel, a new club concept from the same company that is doing Hakkasan at MGM Grand and Omnia at Caesars Palace among others. The new club will be designed by the Rockwell Group, the same folks who did the visuals at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. It'll have 24,000 square-feet capable of holding nearly 2,000 people on multiple levels, VIP suites, and a DJ booth with LED screens and special effects lighting that will rotate 360 degrees. No firm opening date yet other than "spring." Read more about Aria Las Vegas.
Future Vegas: The Status of Upcoming Resorts
You can always judge the health of Las Vegas by the number of cranes on or near The Strip. After many years of virtually no major new hotel development, several are in the works now with claims that they will be debuting between 2016 and 2018. Here's what's on deck and the status of each project.
Located on Sahara Avenue just a few steps west of The Strip, next door to the shopping plaza that has the Capriotti's and Golden Steer, is the future home of the Lucky Dragon hotel and casino. I didn't think this one was going to happen but they have already topped out the nine-story hotel tower and are busy at working on framing the interiors. It looks like this one is serious.
When it is done the Asian-themed property will have 206 rooms and a 19,000 square-foot casino. For reference purposes that's about half the size of The Cromwell's small gambling space and roughly 1/9th of the size of MGM Grand's. It will reportedly focus on games popular in Asian markets such as baccarat, pai gow, fan tan, and sic bo. Restaurants will feature authentic Asian cuisine from noodle bars to dim sum. A Zen inspired spa will relax guests.
The exact opening date is TBD but they are saying by the end of 2016.
Resorts World Las Vegas
After a big groundbreaking ceremony earlier this year, not much else has happened on the big chunk of land where the Stardust used to be and the massive multi-billion dollar Resorts World will eventually be. The company behind it - Malaysian giants Genting Gaming - insist the lack of major activity on the construction site doesn't mean anything and that they are committed to kicking things into high gear in 2016.
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 175,000 square feet, making it one of the largest in Vegas and similar in size to the MGM Grand. 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.
The company says the first phase is still due to open in late 2018.
Here's another big project that has been a lot of talk and not much action yet. The brainchild of Mariah Carey's boyfriend - also known as Australian casino magnate and billionaire James Packer - Alon will be relatively small compared to other mega-resorts on The Strip, with just 1,100 rooms in two towers. Compare that to the 5,000 rooms at MGM Grand or even the 3,000 planned at the upcoming Resorts World Las Vegas being built almost next door.
In terms of overall size it would place it above boutique properties like The Cromwell, which has about 200 rooms but below properties like the non-gaming Vdara with 1,500 and SLS Las Vegas, which has about 1,600. It is expected that the rooms will be generously proportioned suites so what they will lack in inventory they will make up for in square footage.
The hotel would be fronted by a major water feature although the details of what exactly that will be have not been revealed yet nor have any specifics about the casino, nightclubs, restaurants, and other amenities expected at the property.
Construction is expected to begin in early 2016 with an opening date by late 2018.
All Net Resort and Arena
Everybody involved with this one still insist that it will happen but since not much actually has, I wouldn't be making wagers for it just yet.
The plot of land just south of the SLS Hotel (formerly The Sahara) is the target for the hotel, a non-gaming facility that will feature a 22,000 seat arena with a retractable roof as its focal point. The $1.4 billion project will have a 500-room all-suite hotel in a 44-story tower plus a 300,000 square-foot outdoor shopping complex with stores, restaurants, entertainment facilities, and 16 screen movie theater.
The project is being pushed by former NBA player Jackie Robinson, who says he has raised the initial round of funding to build the resort and has lenders lined up for the rest. Robinson played for the Seattle SuperSonics, the Chicago Bulls, and the Detroit Pistons and envisions a world-class arena for year-round events including a possible NBA expansion. The fact that the resort won't have a casino is something that could make that possible since the league has always been skittish about being associated with gambling.
The folks behind All Net are still talking about a 2017 debut but...
The Fontainebleau was intended to be a modern Las Vegas interpretation of the famed Miami hotel with nearly 4,000 rooms, a 100,000 square-foot casino, restaurants, showrooms, shopping, and more. The mostly finished room tower soars above neighboring Riviera and the SLS Las Vegas but it is nothing but a shell.
Things started going wrong in 2008 and 2009 when several banks pulled financing for the project after, they allege, the developers missed some important debt payments. The developers say they didn't miss a payment and accused the banks of collaborating to shut down the project due to conflict of interest (one of the banks was dealing with the Cosmopolitan hotel down the street that was also bankrupt) via a $3 billion lawsuit. Without money to pay people, the bulk of nearly 3,000 construction workers were laid off as were most of the staff in the corporate offices.
The whole thing wound up in a bankruptcy auction in 2010 but that got cancelled when they only received one bid from billionaire Carl Icahn, former owner of The Stratosphere. It was an unbelievable bargain because he snapped up the property for $156 million, a fraction of the estimated $2 billion that has already been spent building the place. In better times, $156 million might have covered the cost of the land never mind the big building on top of it.
Of course that is just the beginning of the checks that Icahn may need to write. It is believed that it will require another $1 billion (at least) to finish the hotel.
But will he finish it? Icahn says he will take his time to decide the best plan for moving forward on the Fontainebleau and, with his casino experience (he also owns several Tropicana branded properties around the country but not the Las Vegas one), he could very well decide he wants a Strip addition to his portfolio. However most analysts believe Icahn will probably hold onto the property for a few years until the economy improves and then sell it to the highest bidder for a profit and make it someone else's problem. Perhaps very telling about his strategy is that he sold off all of the furnishings that were to go into the building.
Perhaps even more telling is that the construction crane atop the building was dismantled in May of 2014. Many analysts believe that it will be cheaper to tear the building down and start over than to try to finish it.
Whatever the future of the Fontainebleau (and if it will even be called that), it will be years before you are ever able to walk inside. If it opens before 2018 I'll be surprised.
Restaurant Review: Border Grill
The brainchild of the "Too Hot Tamales" chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, the Border Grill brand is growing, with multiple locations (and a food truck!) in Los Angeles and now a second outlet at The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace joining their long-running room at Mandalay Bay.
The Forum Shops version takes over the space once occupied by PJ Clarke's on the ground floor behind the big circular escalator. It's a bit smaller than the Mandalay Bay location in a couple of ways. First the physical space at the new one has a more intimate vibe than its bigger sister. I miss the natural light and outdoor patio that the Mandalay Bay version has but I also appreciate that this one is less noisy. It is divided up in several dining spaces including a front bar area with TVs and a view of the Forum shoppers, all of which is done in a festive orange, yellow, and red color scheme setting off the natural wood tones of the walls, tables, and chairs.
Speaking of the chairs... I'm not sure why anyone thinks plain, hard wooden chairs with no padding at a restaurant is a good idea, but maybe they are trying to keep people from lounging too long so they can get more diners through the door. Just a theory.
The other way in which this outlet is smaller is by the size of their menu. The one at Mandalay Bay has about a dozen things that this one doesn't, but unless you are intimately familiar with the offerings you won't be missing anything and you'll certainly find plenty to eat.
We started with the house guacamole, of which I'm not usually a fan, but this was really good; creamy and just a bit spicy. It went well with the fantastically salty tortilla chips that came out before the meal.
Next up were the beef brisket flautas, which the chef likes to think of his southern roots merging with southwestern cooking. Crispy, flaky shells surrounded the tangy BBQ and it was topped with cole slaw and salsa for a fascinating combo of flavors. A little yeehaw and a little ay caramba!
We moved on to the Tijuana kale Caesar salad, which was a basic Caesar only with a couple of twists. First, the dressing was more lemony than usual, which provided an unexpected bite, and the croutons were basically fried chunks of cheese. I should have loved that - who doesn't love fried cheese? - but as a package it came off as a little bland.
For the main course we sampled the cumin grilled skirt steak, served with black beans, corn relish, and a flour tortilla, making it into a more plated version of beef fajitas. The flavor of the meat was perfect; very much tasting like it had come straight off the backyard grill. The only disappointment is that a few bites were a little tough, but that's not unusual with skirt steak so I'm not going to ding them too hard on it. It was still really good.
Other options include everything from enchiladas to quesadillas to tacos to carnitas and beyond. There's also a ceviche bar, allowing you to mix and match and create your own cocktails and "shots." Oyster shooter and a tequila shooter together? Yep, you can do that.
Prices are in the moderate territory. Starters and salads run $10-$16; most of the entrees are in the $20-$30 range although a couple, the ribeye and the whole snapper, will push $40; taco and quesadilla plates are all just shy of $20; and sides are all under $10. Figure $50 per person unless you go crazy on the margaritas, and why wouldn't you? They're very good.
Which Border Grill you choose - the one at the Forum Shops or the one at Mandalay Bay - is really a matter of convenience. If one is closer than the other, pick that. If they are equidistant, I'd probably veer toward the Mandalay Bay location just because of the light and the patio. But no matter which one you choose, you're going to have a great meal.
Show Review: Fantasy
Any show that keeps pulling in audiences after 15 years must be doing something right and in the case of Fantasy at the Luxor it's not only doing it right but doing it better.
I saw Fantasy probably 10 years ago and spent most of the time rolling my eyes at the vapidity of it all. It was soft-core porn that seemed to have been designed according to some sort of blueprint created by a guy who lives in his mother's basement. The women were beautiful, sure, but it was like a bad late night program on Cinemax without even a hint of sexiness or originality.
Like a good wine, it has gotten better with age as they have integrated better choreography, some Cirque-style acrobatics, a much better singer/hostess, better music, comedy, and a focus on stuff that is actually sexy rather than things a 14-year-old boy might think are sexy.
Jamie Lynch makes a great ringleader for this circus - not only beautiful but a darned good singer and genial presence on stage. They keep her clothed, albeit scantily, and she sets a sultry tone throughout.
From there a cadre of perfectly formed women of various types work their way through a series of set pieces that express some version of a fantasy, mostly clichéd but workable. There's the obligatory peekaboo nighty bed scene, which turns into a PG-13 girl-on-girl-on-girl tease; an acrobatic stripper pole sequence; cowgirls (naturally); and an aerialist working a silky red drape that is right out of a Cirque du Soleil show. All of it is enhanced by some really good dancing and great music like "Nasty Girls" by Vanity 6, "Single Ladies" by Beyonce, and "Bang Bang" by Jessie J to name a few. This elevates it from bump and grind crass to something approaching artistic class.
The highlight of the show is classic strip tease set to "Why Don't You Do Right," one of the sexiest songs ever recorded. Granted, I'm pretty sure they were using the version by Jessica Rabbit from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," but it's still a darned sexy song and the dancer performing to it, Kristin Ratatori in the show I saw, had a perfect combination of sly smile, seductive attitude, and dancing talent to pull it all together expertly.
Lightening things up is comedian Sean Cooper, who does goofy James Brown and Michael Jackson impersonations and harasses the audience in a genial manner. Hint: don't fall asleep in the front row - you will wake up to see things you probably wish you hadn't.
I was pleasantly surprised by Fantasy and although I haven't seen all of them, I feel pretty safe in saying that it is probably the best topless revue in town.