Vegas4Visitors.com Weekly Column by Rick Garman

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

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

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The Countdown: Top 10 Vegas News Stories of the Week

10. New Sports Bar for The Mirage

The Mirage is betting big on it's upcoming sports bar and grill called The Still. How big? An 8,000 square-foot airstream trailer big. The kitchen will be located inside the trailer, which will be inside the restaurant, attempting to give it kind of an Austin street food truck type of feeling. They'll have food and drink, lots of TVs showing all the big games of whatever type happens to be on, and even some games for guests to play that don't involve cards or slot machines. The Still should be open in March. Read more about The Mirage.

9. Puppet Show Headed to Venetian

They might not be the Muppets but the puppets coming to the Venetian come from the same pedigree. Puppet Up! Uncensored, featuring puppets designed by a branch of the legendary Jim Henson Studios, is best described as a mash up of a puppet show and improv comedy, where suggestions from the audience get turned into sketches that often wind up being much more "adult" than you'll find on Sesame Street. The show doens't have a firm debut date yet, but is being prepped for sometime this spring. Read more about The Venetian.

8. Plaza Powerball Reimbursement

There were three lucky winners in the giant $1.5 billion Powerball lottery last week but of course there were a LOT more losers. The Plaza in Downtown Vegas reached out to that crowd by promising to reimburse anyone with a losing ticket up to a maximum of $25 in free slot play. There were caveats, of course - you had to have bought the ticket within a certain time period, turn it in to the rewards desk in person by a due date, and have a players' club card - but it was still a really unique way of piggybacking on the big news story of the week. No word on how many people turned in tickets. Read more about The Plaza.

7. Plaza Opens Exhibits at Las Vegas Club

Speaking of The Plaza, they are continuing to use the shuttered Las Vegas Club casino across the street for periodic exhibitions including two new ones. The first is a showing of paintings and prints from local artist Jerry Misko while the second celebrates the Plaza's history. On Thursday, Feb. 4, the Museum of Gaming History will open its "Union Plaza Then and Now" exhibit. It will have about 150-200 items from The Plaza through the decades including chips, tokens, dice, ashtrays, post cards and more, as well as a light box display of a rare slot glass collection. The exhibition will also include a wall of photographs spanning the Plaza's history from its groundbreaking to current day. Both exhibits are free and open daily. Read more about The Plaza.

6. New X Show at Harrah's

X marks the spot in Vegas, or at least the shows in Vegas. The producers of X-Comedy and X Burlesque at The Flamingo and X Rocks at The Rio are bringing another X-rated show to Vegas with X Country, another topless show featuring lovely ladies getting their "Yee-Haw" on by dancing to country western hits at Harrah's. But they aren't stopping there. The boot scootin' action is going to continue out in the casino with a new X Country themed gaming pit complete with country western attired go-go dancers. The show started last week and is running Sunday through Thursday at 10:30pm. Read more about Harrah's.

5. Shake Shack Launches First Chicken Sandwich

For some this is akin to the news from several years ago that Porsche was building an SUV - Shake Shack, the cult favorite burger joint with an outlet at New York-New York, is launching its first ever chicken sandwich. Called the Chick'n Shack, the new menu item features a cage-free chicken breast, slow cooked in buttermilk and deep fried with pickles, lettuce, and her mayo all on a non-GMO bun. Will it work at a place that has only been about burgers for its entire existence? It's probably worth noting that Porsche sells more of its two SUVs in a month than all of its other models combined. Read more about New York-New York.

4. New Restaurant at Bellagio

Roy Ellamar was the Executive Chef at Sensi at Bellagio but when that restaurant closed last year, he didn't have to go far to get to his new job. Harvest is the name of the new restaurant now open in the former Sensi space, created by... yep, Roy Ellamar. This one takes the chef's commitment to seasonal menus and locally sourced farm-to-table foods to the next level with items like a Farmer's Salad, the ingredients of which will change weekly depending upon the freshest produce available. The restaurant is open for dinner daily from 5-10pm and is located in Bellagio's Spa Tower (near the Conservatory). Read more about Bellagio.

3. Bellagio Conservatory Chinese New Year

Near the new Harvest restaurant, the Bellagio Conservatory has launched its annual Chinese New Year display, one of the most colorful of its five annual exhibits. This year's display features giant gold coins, red lanterns, a pagoda, and a giant peach tree. The latter is because peach blossoms are highly prized in Chinese culture, with ancient customs saying that the wood from a peach tree is embued with the ability to ward off evil spirits. Note the monkeys in the tree... the Chinese New Year startig on February 8 will be the year of the monkey. The exhibit is open through March 12 and is free. Read more about the Bellagio Conservatory.

2. Caesars Self Check In

Of the many lines you have to stand in when you come to Vegas, few are as frustrating as the check-in line, which at peak times can be upwards of a hundred people long and can take an hour to get through. Caesars Entertainment hotels are aiming to do something about that with new self-check-in kiosks that allow you to do it all yourself. Swipe your ID and a credit card, answer a few questions, and you get your room key. The whole process takes a few minutes and since not a lot of people know they are there they don't have long lines at them. The kiosks are in place already at Caesars Palace and The Linq (both near their respective front desks) and should be in The Flamingo, Planet Hollywood, Paris, and all of their other Vegas hotels in a few months. Now, if they could just figure out a way for that $20 bill trick to work... Read more about Caesars Palace.

1. Celine Dion's Loses Husband and Brother to Cancer

Rene Angelil, the husband of Celine Dion, passed away last Thursday, January 14, at the age of 73 from throat cancer and just two days later her brother Daniel, age 59, also passed also from throat cancer. Dion took nearly a year off from her Las Vegas residency at Caesars Palace to care for the ailing Angelil and only recently returned to regular performances. Concerts scheduled for this past weekend were cancelled but a new run of shows set to start February 23rd are still on for now. In addition, Dion will host a "celebration of life" for Angelil at Caesars Palace on February 3. Angelil started as Dion's manager and mentor when she was a teenager and became romantic after she was an adult superstar. They were married in 1994 and have three children together. Read more about Celine Dion.

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MGM Resorts Will Charge for Parking at All Vegas Hotels

In last week's Weekly Column I had a piece with predictions for 2016 - one of which was that someone would start charging for parking at Strip hotels. Sometimes I hate being right.

MGM Resorts announced on Friday that it will be instituting a parking charge at all of its Las Vegas hotels starting in April, which is (not coincidentally) the same time the new T-Mobile Arena will be opening behind New York-New York and expected to bring lots and lots of cars to the area for big events.

The fees will be for both self and valet parking and will be put into place at Aria, Bellagio, Delano, Excalibur, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand, The Mirage, Monte Carlo, New York-New York, and Vdara. The exact charges were not detailed but a spokesperson said that they would be under $10 for overnight self-parking for hotel guests and that the rates will vary depending on the hotel (it'll probably cost more to park at Bellagio than it does to park at Luxor, for instance). Valet parking will be more expensive than that but they didn't say how much, yet.

Circus Circus will retain free self parking but there will be a charge to use its valet parking. The Crystals and Mandalay Place shopping malls will still offer free parking.

The charges will apply to everyone who parks, regardless of whether you are staying in the hotel, eating at a restaurant, or just coming to drop some bills into a slot machine. Residents of Las Vegas will get an exemption from the charges for a little while to start but they will have to start paying them at some point along with everyone else.

It should be noted that if you are at a certain reward levels with the M Life players' club, free parking will be a perk. The details of that will be worked out before the charges go into place.

Some of the parking fees will go toward building a huge new parking garage that will go into place behind Excalibur. The $54 million, 3000-space facility is intended to handle some of the influx of vehicles expected for the arena, the upcoming 5,000-seat theater at Monte Carlo, and the rest of The Park development plus the other hotels in the area. It will break ground in the spring and open in the spring of 2017.

Other parking garages will get technology updates that will guide drivers to available spaces and allow people to check availability prior to arrival.

So the move brings up a bunch of questions. Why did they make this move? Are there any justifications for doing it? Will this start a wave of fees being instituted at other hotels? How are people going to react to it.

The answer to the first question, why, is pretty simple: profit. It should be unsurprising to anyone that a massive company like MGM Resorts is always looking for ways to make more money and when it looks at the cost to build and operate parking facilities it's obvious why this one would stick out as a possible cash generator.

Is it justified? Well, here's the thing... while it sucks to have to start paying for something that has always been free, go try to park at any other hotel in the heart of any other major city in the world and tell me if it's free. No, wait, I'll tell you - it's not. I travel a lot and here are some examples of parking fees I have paid in the last year: Residence Inn in Austin, Texas, $27 per night; Hyatt Atlanta Midtown, $25 per night; Mills House in Charleston, South Carolina, $29 per night; Marshall House in Savannah, Georiga, $25 per night; Hyatt Place in Austin, Texas, $31 per night; Homewood Suites in Atlanta, Georgia, $28 per night; Congress Plaza in Chicago, Illinois, $39 per night; Abri Hotel in San Francisco, $55 per night. Not too long ago went out to dinner and a show in Downtown Los Angeles and paid $20 to park for a few hours.

And it does cost to park at hotels in Downtown Las Vegas (even though you can usually get a validation that makes it free).

The point is that free parking at major hotels in high traffic areas is unheard of just about anywhere except for Las Vegas. And as mentioned above, the cost of building a parking garage, keeping it clean, and running an army of valet parking people, can't be cheap.

"But what about the money I spend in their casino?" you might argue. Good point, but per MGM's statement, M Life members will be able to qualify for free parking so your gambling money is paying for it in a way.

Will other hotels follow suit? Probably. Nobody else is saying they are going to right now, but Caesars Entertainment, which operate hotels like Caesars Palace, Paris, and Planet Hollywood made a big deal about not charging a resort fee for a long time before finally caving and adding one to all of its hotels. This came after they saw how much money companies like MGM Resorts, which was one of the first on The Strip to add the fees, was making off of them. It may come sooner rather than later at other hotels if they start seeing more people trying to park for free at one of their properties just so they can go to a neighboring one that charges.

How will people react? Oh, they're going to hate it. They're going to yell and scream and proclaim that they'll stop going to Vegas and/or stop going to hotels that charge for parking and/or stop spending as much at those hotels to make up for it. Some people may actually follow through on those threats, but it's worth noting that these are the same kinds of things we heard about resort fees and Las Vegas just broke a record, with more people visiting in 2015 than have ever visited in a single year. Resort fees suck but they aren't hurting business and I have a feeling parking charges will wind up the same.

Don't get me wrong - I hate the idea of having to pay for parking in Las Vegas - but if you look at the answers to the above big questions, all I do is wonder why it didn't happen a long time ago.

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Show Review: Mat Franco

In the nearly two decades I have been writing about Las Vegas, I have seen approximately 752,629 magic shows. Or at least it feels like I have seen that many. A few are worthwhile - Mac King, Penn & Teller, David Copperfield if you like spectacle, Criss Angel if you like lots of spectacle plus rock music - but most are just bad. Really bad. Did anyone else see Showgirls of Magic? I still have nightmares.

So when I had to go review magic show #752,630, you can imagine why I wasn't exactly thrilled by the idea. Mat Franco changed my mind and may have changed the magic show entirely. There's a reason he calls it Magic Reinvented.

Before we get into the show, let's talk about the showroom. The theater at The Linq dates back to the 1980s and used to be one of the most uncomfortable places to see a show in Las Vegas. The old-school tables, where you have to crane your neck to the side to see the action, were terrible. The good news is that a top-to-bottom overhaul of the room has turned this into a clean, modern space with comfy chairs, swank loungers, and high-top tables that actually face the stage. Very well done, The Linq.

Some of you may know Franco from his win on season 9 of "America's Got Talent" and if you do, he is just as personable, charming, and impressive live as he was on TV. He has a natural enthusiasm for the craft of magic and he does it better than just about anyone in Las Vegas by eschewing the grand "I'm going to make this plane disappear" type of stuff and instead using smaller, sleight of hand tricks that will leave you shaking your head in wonder.

By relying on talent instead of hydraulics and trap doors, Franco taps into the wonder that really good magic tricks can inspire in people. With the "whirling blades of death" type of stunts, you know there's a trick involved that is most likely mechanical in nature. It's fun to watch but it's impossible not to think that you could figure out how it's done if you puzzled on it long enough. When Franco makes cards appear out of thin air or turns a $100 bill into a $1 bill right before your eyes it's done with such elan that you almost want to believe that it actually is magical.

If you saw him on AGT, you'll recognize some of the tricks but it doesn't make them any less impressive. Leading that category is a bit where he borrows the phone from someone in the audience and then gets two more people to randomly pick cards out of a deck (in this case it was the 2 of clubs and 6 of diamonds). He has the person with the phone take a selfie with the two cards with their own phone and then makes it "disappear." A call to the phone from the audience member's husband and everyone could hear the phone ringing somewhere in the showroom. I won't spoil the rest but it's almost literally unbelievable.

Likewise his closing act story of each particular show told with randomly chosen playing cards shot from a cannon that somehow manages to tie virtually every single trick back together in a way that will bring you to your feet.

I really wish I had seen Mat Franco before I did my Top 10 Awards of the Best Shows in Las Vegas for 2015 because this would have not only been on the list but near the top of it.

Mat Franco
The Linq
3535 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
702-777-2782
website
$30-$95
Thu-Fri, Mon-Tue 7pm
Sat 4 & 7pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A

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Restaurant Review: Mr. Chow

You're forgiven if you have never heard of Mr. Chow. Although the restaurant has been around for decades - in London since 1968, Beverly Hills since 1973, and New York since 1979 - it isn't as much of a household name as say Wolfgang Puck's Spago or Emeril Lagasse's, well, anything. But the key thing you need to know is that it is considered to be one of the finest of fine dining experiences anywhere, serving elegant Chinese cuisine in a manner befitting of the rich and famous who dine there.

The Vegas version of the restaurant takes over the old Empress Court space on the second floor of Caesars Palace overlooking the pool. It's a stark white affair with only a few pops of color here and there. It left me a little cold and the hard wooden backs of the chairs left me a little uncomfortable but not so much that it detracted from the food.

Above the dining room is this odd "kinetic sculpture," with three white panels that raise and lower, open and close, and change colors with lighting periodically throughout the evening. It reminded me of a space ship or one of those eggs in the movie "Alien." I'm not sure what the point of it is other than to have something on the ceiling other than a mural or giant chandelier, either of which would've given some warmth to the room in my humble opinion.

The menu is basically divided between appetizers and main courses, most of which are served "family style," encouraging sharing. You can create your own mix and match experience with as many dishes as you want but do consider the "semi" prix fixe, where for a set price each person at the table gets one appetizer and one entree of their choice. It's a good way to sample a little of a lot for a price that will most likely save you a few bucks over ordering the same dishes ala carte.

Appetizers include dishes like chicken satay, shrimp roll, Chinese spare ribs, salt and pepper prawns, water or meat dumplings, rice noodles, and more. We sampled the potstickers, which came all connected with a lacy shell of sorts, the minced beef pancakes, and the signature Mr. Chow's noodles. The latter is basically spaghetti with meat sauce and celery, but better than it sounds with tender, handmade noodles and a rich sauce. It was the winner in this particular derby but the others were good, too. The pancakes were a little underwhelming at first but they were helped with the insanely hot chili sauce provided. Warning: a little goes a long way.

For entrees they offer a wide variety of seafood, pork, beef, poultry, and vegetarian options. We went with the Chicken Joanna, a tender breast sauteed to perfection in wine and garlic; the traditional sweet and sour pork with green peppers and pineapple; and the nine seasons prawns, done in a deliciously tangy and sweet sauce that made a believer even out of the non-seafood eaters at the table (that would be me).

Other options include steamed sea bass; dressed Dungeness crab in a "cloud" of egg whites; beef with oyster sauce; fiery beef; lamb with spring onion; their signature Beijing Duck roasted to order and carved at the table; and more.

Desserts are not to be missed. We tried the white chocolate raspberry cheesecake and the chocolate mousse and loved every bite.

The service was exceptional throughout the meal, starting with a veritable army of people seating you and then a parade bringing dishes throughout the night. Everyone was friendly and knowledgeable about the dishes - we felt like we were in good hands.

Of course this kind of luxe experience does not come cheaply. The total for the three of us with the prix fixe menu of $62 per person (there are more expensive options), two drinks, two desserts, tax, and tip was about $330. That's a lot of money for any kind of food much less Chinese, which most people are used to getting out of paper containers delivered to your door. I'm not saying it wasn't worth it - the overall experience is memorable and the food is very good - but there are probably other places I'd spend $110 per person that would be higher on my list.

But in the end, nobody does upscale Chinese cuisine like Mr. Chow and no place does it with a weird space ship sculpture overhead.

Mr. Chow
Caesar Palace
3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
702-731-7888
website
Sun-Thu 5-10pm
Fri-Sat 5-10:30pm
Chinese
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B+

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