Monday, February 28, 2011

Wynn Goes Vegan

Vegas Demigod Steve Wynn is going Vegan, and as Steve Wynn goes, so goes Sin City.

The casino visionary changed Sin City's landscape forever when he built The Bellagio, The Mirage and Treasure Island, bringing dolphins, fine art and pirate ships to The Strip before is properties were bought out by MGM Grand. Many Vegas insiders thought he was down for the count, but he came roaring back with the luxury boutique resort The Wynn and its sister property, The Encore.

Now the outspoken Casino boss is making like that Silver Lake hipster girl who always judges you when you eye a bacon-wrapped street dog after a Silversun Pickups show by going full on Vegan, lecturing the press on his new lifestyle and adding Vegan entrees to his restaurants.

Not one to do anything at half-measure, Wynn recently announced that he was hiring Vegan chef (and friend of Oprah) Tal Ronnen to revamp the restaurants in his properties in order to add some high-grade foods that are both healthy and animal friendly.

Now, I'm no Vegan (I suppose I lack the strength of will and moral fiber to give up on In N Out Burgers and Buffalo Wings) but I do respect the fact that the Vegan thing has come to a town known for cheap steaks and meat-laden buffets. It's another great example of why people should never underestimate or pigeonhole Sin City's continued evolution, as it's increasingly being defined by its up and coming arts scene and cool companies that march to the beat of their own drum as much as by the drunken starlets experimenting with their bisexuality at soul-deadening megaclubs.

The question is, will the Vegas of the future make room for more artistic, creative and progressive people to call it their home (or at least their weekend playground)? Or will the Charlie Sheens of the world always define Sin City as they trash their hotel rooms in coke-fueled rage-a-thons?

Only time will tell, but if a stubborn old bull like Steve Wynn can change his lifestyle enough to find common ground with the tatted up and intimidating, black flag T wearing chick who cuts my hair at Rudy's, then there's still hope for Vegas yet.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Escape From Douchery, Part 2: The Griffin Bar

Any self-respecting indie scenesters that do end up in Vegas usually end up in Downtown. It probably has to do with the fact that the Casinos are older, containing the last hints of the old-school Vegas cool that proto-hipster Frank Sinatra embodied, mixed with the utter dive-bar sleaze of some of the places on Fremont. I mean, seriously...have you ever been to Glitter Gulch? It's not a pretty sight, but it's also kinda beautiful, in it's own depraved way.

The point is that, to the alt-crowd, something about Downtown Vegas feels more "real" (to use the preferred hipster term) than anything happening on The Strip. And while Fremont Street doesn't feature fake versions of the Statue of Liberty or Trevi Fountain, somehow it's got some cred even though a massive video screen plays footage of jet fighters and the American flag overhead. They probably tolerate the whole thing ironically, but tolerate it they do.

After the Vegas-tolerating hipster places some bets at The Golden Nugget, many of them will make a pit-stop at The Griffin Bar, just off the Fremont Street Experience. Once you step into this cool and classy watering hole, you'll see why it's become a mecca for cool kids in the know.

The bar has a cozy vibe, with dim lights and a warm atmosphere created by dual flickering fire-places. Unlike most Vegas bars and clubs, comfy leather booths provide seating for all, not just for show-offs paying for bottle service.

The bar serves up expertly mixed cocktails and an interesting selection of beers, all at reasonable prices. Most importantly, the jukebox is a music-lover's dream, as its stocked with a perfect mix tunes from of the moment buzz-bands, indie powerhouses from the last decade, 80's Brit rockers, electro-dance tunes and everything else under the sun (including earnest arena-rock ballads that everyone pretends they only like ironically). Prove your mettle by picking the perfect group of songs at the jukebox, but be ready to face the judgement of  the crowd.

If the place sounds like it belongs on the East Side of Los Angeles and not in Las Vegas, that's because there actually is a Griffin Bar on Los Feliz Blvd, just a block away from hipster mecca The Bigfoot Lodge.

The Vegas version of the Griffin also has a second, smaller room where a DJ spins every night, playing a much cooler mix of tunes than you're likely to hear in one of the big nightclubs built for the thronging masses. It's a great space to sit against the wall and bob your head, or actually get on the floor and dance... if you're not too cool, that is.

So if you're looking to run into any of the people who frequent The Silver Lake Lounge, Cafe 101, or (the sort of dearly departed) Spaceland while you're in Vegas, you're likely to find them drinking tasty cocktails and craft-brews at The Griffin.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Escape From Douchery, Part 1: The Double Down Saloon

It's a theme that comes up often over midnight eggs and bacon at the Brite Spot after an Echoplex show: one of my friends, speaking a little too loud due to the volume of the show we just attended, will ask me why I travel about once a month to a city filled with the exact same Ed Hardy wearing bros and obnoxious, perpetually texting drunk girls (that James Murphy was singing about on what sadly turned out to be the last LCD Soundsystem record) that I avoid like the plague in their Hollywood club haunts as they try to get their pictures taken with Ashton Kutcher or Kobe Bryant?

I try to explain to them that I love Vegas precisely for the reasons they hate it. It represents American excess spiraling out of control, and it's completely fascinating. A photographer could make a Diane Arbus-like reputation on by taking a series of poignant black and whites of the defeated gamblers still trying to find some luck at the tables at 5 in the morning. I try to tell them that there is a beautiful honesty to the proud fakery of Vegas; by putting of The Eiffel Tower, Venitian Canals and an Egyptian pyramid (made of black glass with a light bright enough to be visible from space, no less) all in the same sight-line, the designers of the city's grandest resorts have done more than try to copy some of the world's great landmarks; they've actually boiled American culture down to it's consumerist and shallow core.

But that's just what I tell them when I'm feeling pretentious; the truth is I really like gambling and having the ability to drink an open container as I walk down the street. I also kind of like Cirque Du Soleil; don't tell my buddy who thought that Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion was too poppy and that meant the band was "over."

All that said, my friends (judgemental and close-minded as they may be despite their advocacy of fair trade coffee and PETA) are right; there are, indeed, many douchebags in Las Vegas that one would be advised to avoid like the plague.

I'm not going to go into a rant against these bros in this entry; you know the type I'm talking about, and they cannot wait for Spring Break and the official launch of pool party season so they can show off their Jersey Shore like abs that go with their awesome frosted tips. What I am going to talk about, in a semi-regular (read: when I feel like writing them) series of posts, is actual cool places to visit in Vegas in order to avoid that crowd of bros who fist bump (and call each other bro) without any sense of irony.

And my first Vegas cool spot is a doozy: the one and only Double Down Saloon.

A genuine rock 'n' roll bar, The Double Down is so cool that they opened a second location in New York; that's right, the center of the cool universe imported a popular Vegas watering hole instead of the other way around.

The crowd here is a great mix of locals, indie-rock loving hipsters and punk rockers, with a killer juke-box that will satisfy all tastes (and doesn't include any Bieber, thank you very much). The drinks are strong and well-priced, and they invented the world famous Ass Juice Shot (a brown concoction with ingredients that change daily; don't ask what's in it, just drink it) and a Bacon Marini (yeah, you read that right, an effing Bacon Martini).

With colorfully psychedelic murals covering the walls, this is the type of place that you can start up a game of pool with roadies for Sonic Youth, catch the bassist from Pavement playing pinball or find Bob Pollard knocking back beers like they're water and telling war stories from his fabled career (I'm taking artistic license here; I didn't make it to the epic Matador at 21 indie rock blowout weekend in Vegas last year, and I'll regret it for the rest of my days).

Like everywhere else in Vegas, you can gamble while you get drunk, smoke a pack of Marlboros (which you only do when you're drunk, I know) and listen to great tunes on the jukebox on the saloon's Video Poker, Blackjack, Keno and Slot Machines... and you can lose money amongst your people.

If you're looking to make out with a hot rockabilly chick, then The Double Down is far and away your best bet. This is my favorite bar in Sin City, and it's among my favorite bars in the world... which is saying a lot, because I pride myself on the fact that I've been drunk in many cities across this great nation.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Banksy Does Vegas

One of my favorite Vegas-centric blogs, VegasChatter (who always bring a bit of snark and attitude to their clever little posts) are reporting that work by the street artist extraordinaire will end up in a Vegas club soon.

Did some clever marketer find a way to convince the anti-corporate prankster to sell out and make something for an expensive mega-club? Not exactly...

Banksy's been busy doing his thing all over Los Angeles in the weeks leading up to the Oscars, where his completely excellent and hilarious doc, Exit Through the Gift Shop (Netflix it now! I command you!), earned a surprise nomination. He's been tagging walls and billboards all over LA in what has amounted to an irreverent salute to Hollywood. One of his pieces involved a drunk and horny version of a very famous corporate mascot partying it up on a billboard for The Light Group.

Shockingly, the House of Mouse was not pleased and asked that the Billboard be removed, which Light Group reps agreed to do... but now they've got the Banksy modified ad in their possession and plan to install it one of their Vegas properties.

While it Banksy art in a slick Vegas club seems to be a contradiction of the artist's philosophy, I'm willing to bet that the famously secretive prankster will thoroughly enjoy the irony of his subversive piece hanging on the wall of a place where customers pay hundreds of dollars for a $30 bottle of booze just so they can sit down. He's probably laughing at the whole thing under his hoodie and gorilla mask.

It also provides a grand opportunity for Banksy to respond with a barrage of street art attacks on Vegas if he so wishes... hopefully soon we'll see the Strip covered in clever anti-military industrial complex art spray painted onto the side of a mega-resort or two.

However it all shakes out, I just love everything about this story in the way it completely encapsulates all of the weird contradictions and tensions that make me completely fascinated with (and sometimes repulsed by) that strange glittering city in the dessert.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Cosmopolitan: A Review

I've been looking forward to the opening of The Cosmo since their ad debuted a few months ago. The slick and artsy clip promised to deliver "just the right amount of wrong," in a world of pants-less bellboys, androgynous heroin-chic models, randy grannies and incongruous fluffy kitties, puppies, chicks and bunnies. I'm not gonna lie; I made fun of the ad, but it certainly had me intrigued.

Would the place prove to be a hedonistic Dave Lachapelle photograph come to life? A Vegas version of The Standard? An offbeat playground for indie kids who shop at American Apparel, LOLed at the Who is Arcade Fire meme, and find the Ed Hardy element of Sin City a bit off-putting? I hoped that it would prove to be, at minimum, a Vegas resort with a slightly better playlist (and less Black Eyed Peas) piping through the stereo system.

Or would the artsy ad, like many a broken promise of revolutions in casino design, turn out to be nothing but hype ?

The Cosmopolitan, it turns out, delivers the cool factor in spades... but it certainly hasn't re-invented the wheel (which I'm still waiting for some forward thinker to do in a literal sense... or maybe I'm the only one who finds round wheels to be kind of played out at this point).

One thing is for sure: The Cosmo sure is shiny. This place sparkles, and it's not just because it's the latest resort to open on The Strip; the whole thing glitters like a diamond, and that seems to be the point. One of the bars is even located inside a massive chandelier. While that may sound kind of stupid, it's also really pretty. Look upon the shiny lights with wonder and glee. Look upon them!

Offsetting the glimmering shine of the place is the pretty cool art pieces you can find all over the place, including spots where digital art is projected on walls. Okay, I'll give em that... that's pretty cool.

The place also picks up some indie cred for the very cool bands that have played free shows in their Book and Stage, including buzzy acts like Best Coast, Fitz and the Tantrums, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Just as I'd hoped, their music selection is a bit cooler than the typical Vegas resort soundtrack (though you're just not gonna be able to totally avoid hearing LMFAO and Lil' John's "Shots"... this is still Vegas, afterall).

The Cosmo also features some very unique shops that are worth browsing. U*Tique is described as the "world's first fully automated luxury store," and feels like a high end vending machine from far in the future (or at least like something they've had in Tokyo for years). However you want to describe it, when you order an item a cute little robot deposits it safely into your hands... so obviously I love it. And Droog is the place all you design nerds out there hoped The Cosmo would feature, selling one of a kind items like a chair made of 15 layers of rags (which you can add your own discarded old clothes to and create memories you can sit on) and a tree-trunk bench (which is literally a tree trunk with chair-backs built into it and was designed by a guy named Jurgen Bey, making it ten times more awesome). All the stuff they sold was way, way, way out of my price range... but it was kind of cool to look at.

Rooms are pretty swank and filled with the latest tech, and I had a phenomenal view of The Strip and the adjacent CityCenter towers (which seem more impressive to me every time I'm in town after my initial feeling that the place felt like an airport with no airplanes). I had to wait a little longer to check in than I would have typically liked, but hey... they just opened and still have some bugs to work out. If only they knew who I was, with my rampant influence all over the blog-world, then I would have been whisked quickly to my room, comped a few drinks and treated with the proper respect! But alas, my rampant influence only exists in my mind and I was treated just like the rest of the unwashed masses (as I deserved to be).

I tried to get in to Marquee, the shiny new multi-leveled nightlife centerpiece of the shiny new resort, but the wait was atrocious and the crowd looked... like any other Vegas crowd, only bigger. Sure, I spied a few sensitive dudes with Colin Meloy glasses and a couple girls who could have been stand-ins on a Tegan and Sara video shoot waiting in line, but there was basically the same ratio of Affliction T-Shirt wearing meat-heads in line as at any other Sin City club. The place was so packed with revelers and wanna-be revelers that people were still waiting in line to get in at 5 AM. Even I'm ready to stop partying and turn it in for the night by 5 AM! But I salute the Jersey Shore rejects who toughed it out so they could say they were there, bro.

Overall, I'd say the resort is very cool and I like what they're going for, but that confounded ad had me expecting something a little more designy, funky and unique. What we have instead is a younger spin on chic, high end luxury. Perhaps it's not hipsters the resort is targeting in their ads, but socialites and young starlets with money to burn and aspirations of artsy coolness? Because as much as the place desperately wants to be judged as cool by unemployed screenwriters, bassists and graphic designers, those people are unemployed and can't afford to prop up a multi-billion dollar Vegas resort. For now, you're still more likely to find those people downing Ass-Juice shots and Bacon Martinis at The Double Down or trying to make out with each other at The Griffin or Beauty Bar in Downtown, then trying to forget the sting of hookup failure by trying their luck at table games with lower limits.

Only time will tell if The Cosmo grows into a more buzzed-about resort with a hip and atypical Vegas clientele that come out to Vegas in order to see of-the-moment bands play there instead of at The Echo in LA, or if it will devolve into just another place for sorority girls to stumble through drunkenly. It may be Vegas, but I'm not ready to place a bet either way.