Friday, January 27, 2012

Could an Ace Hotel Make it in Vegas?

Just over a decade ago, Downtown Los Angeles was a wasteland. When The Staples Center opened and brought The Lakers and Kings Downtown, things began to change, and just over ten years later, DTLA is on its way to becoming the hippest part of Los Angeles, with interesting new bars and restaurants opening there seemingly every weekend (if you haven't had the burger at Lazy Ox Canteen or an Old Fashioned mixed at Seven Grand yet, you're missing out). AEG is close to completing their evil master plan of building an NFL Stadium in Downtown, which will (in addition to downgrading Sunday traffic on the 110 from "pretty-rough" to "an endlessly horrific Lynchian/ Kafkaesque waking nightmare state from which the only escape is death or madness") bring even more people flooding to the area. A less publicized but equally important sign that the hood is becoming the hippest segment of Los Angeles is the fact The Ace Hotel chain have chosen the old United Artists building in Downtown as the site of their first Los Angeles location. The LA Ace will undoubtedly draw in hipsters by the droves looking to check out the cool bars, trendy restaurants, top DJs, eclectic films playing in the restored movie palace, and coke fueled hotel room parties that will inevitably be part and parcel of its raison d'etre.

For those not in the know, the first Ace Hotel opened in Seattle in 1999 in a converted halfway house and was designed to appeal to "the creative class" (sound familiar to anyone?). The quirky original hotel became a runaway success with Seattle's proto-hipsters in the early 00's, and now there are locations in Portland, New York, and Palm Springs (which seems like a strange location for a hipster-bait hotel until you realize its proximity to Indio makes it the number one choice for concert goers looking for a place to party and crash during The Coachella music Festival). The various Ace locations feature diners that serve organic foods and locally sourced Coffees while you eat at communal tables, lobbies that play indie rock and obscure classic cuts as background music, bars that serve Craft Beers and labor-intensive Cocktails, Hotel Rooms with bunk beds and animal murals, Green-friendly design, Spas that feature natural and organic treatments, "Swim Clubs" where you can enjoy DJ sets, concerts from hip indie bands, Yoga classes, and "impromptu dance parties," and a vibe that is just generally (and self consciously) cooler than any other hotel you've ever been to.

There is something inherently ridiculous about The Ace Hotels' calculated obsession with coolness, a ridiculousness exploited to perfect effect in a hilarious sketch from the first season of Portlandia. But there is also something irresistibly awesome and fun about them, as the hotels generally pull off their goal of being the heppest place to stay and play in every town in which they're located. I've had amazing experiences on the weekends I've partied at an Ace Hotel, which has led me to contemplate the question at the heart of this very blog post: could an Ace Hotel thrive in Las Vegas?

The obvious place to put the Las Vegas Ace would be in Downtown, preferably on or as close to Fremont Street as possible. Downtown has clearly become the center of Hipster-Vegas culture, as its the location of The First Fridays art walks as well as hipster approved watering holes like The Griffin and Beauty Bar. It's also a perfect location for an the chain since all of the previous (and future) Aces are located in refurbished hotels that build the classic style of the previous occupant into their design. Surely, there is an aging Casino that could be converted and face-lifted into an ultra-cool Ace location somewhere on Fremont Street?

Obviously, no other Ace Hotel has a Casino on its premises. The Ace Vegas could be a non-gaming boutique, but I actually think that if they teamed up with someone who knew how to manage a casino, they could do well... especially if they put more thought into their gaming floor than the owners of The Cosmo have. And if the Casino had an interesting theme, a cool vibe, minimum bets that were as low as the rest of the places in Downtown, and cute cocktail waitresses passing out free PBRs, you might end up seeing plenty of mustachioed gentlemen and glasses sporting women sitting around gaming tables and losing their money to The House.

The real question is if The Ace opened in Downtown, would people come? I certainly don't think an Ace Hotel that cost $2 billion to build and was the size of a Strip mega-resort would survive in Vegas. But if the owners of the chain could find a smaller old hotel to renovate in Downtown, they could do very well. If the theoretical Ace Las Vegas played its cards right, it could become the cultural center of the young and artsy, throwing First Friday after-parties with cool DJs spinning deep cuts, hosting up and coming bands that might not play in Vegas otherwise, showcasing alt-comedians who wouldn't feel at home sharing a stage with burlesque dancers, pouring the best craft brews and mixing the most creative cocktails in town, displaying interesting work from local artists, hosting indie film festivals, and  becoming the hotel equivalent of The Double Down Saloon. Hipsters are everywhere, even in Las Vegas. Isn't it time they got their own hotel in Sin City?

Perhaps the whole idea is just a crazy dream... I'm sure the operators of The Ace chain are planning on expanding to cities with well established hipster populations like Austin or San Francisco before opening a hotel in the consumer capital of America known as Las Vegas. An Ace Hotel opening on Fremont Street it could be just as positive a sign that Downtown Las Vegas has been fully revitalized as it was for DTLA. If they took a gamble on a venue in Las Vegas, I wouldn't bet against the owners of Ace Vegas hitting a hipster jackpot.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Escape from Douchery, Part 11: Drai's After Hours

Okay, so this whole week is a little atypical for me, I admit it. I'm writing up two "escape from douchebaggery" posts in one week... and even more shockingly, they're both about nightclubs. I know, wonders never cease. But I finally launched a Google + page for this blog, so I figured why not pump out some extra content to populate it? Plus, there are certain, er, adult events going on in Vegas this weekend, and I'm told the subject of this post is a place where many of the... "award winning entertainers" will end up after the after-parties.

Las Vegas is a town where people party LATE. People used to travel to Las Vegas to gamble, but nightclub culture has taken over the city and it seems like more and more people visit to indulge in pure debauchery that they wouldn't consider back in the "real world." And that means very little sleep happens over the course of a typical Las Vegas weekend.

Most Vegas nightclubs are open until 4:00 AM or even later... and Drai's After Hours at Bill's Gamblin' Hall is the place that the truly dedicated go to AFTER the other clubs close.

Drai's doesn't even open its doors until 1:00 AM and it doesn't close until long after the sun comes up, which does mean that it's a place where you can't fully escape the douchebag element. Plenty of coked out bros trolling for some late night lovin' end up at the place, but the place hits its peak after 4 in the morning, which weeds out most of the lamer elements and leaves you with a crowd of more interesting, artsy and restless types who don't live by normal schedules.  Plus, the way the venue is laid out makes it much easier to avoid people you don't want to deal with than other clubs which are usually so packed with people that they're a vivid vision of personal hell for anyone with even mild agoraphobia.

The club is located in the chintzy casino's basement, a fact that makes the place sexy and intriguing before you even step inside. Drai's has a uniquely lived in and retro cool feel that's hip and stylish without trying to be trendy. The dimly lit space features funky artwork hanging from red walls, bookshelves stuffed with leather-bound tomes, and tons of seating on comfy sofas, many of which are located in private nooks and corners that make it the perfect spot for epic late night make-out sessions (not that I'm speaking from experience or anything) and give the whole place a vibe similar to the dreamy club in David Lynch's Mullholland Drive. All that's missing is a creepy magician/ lounge singer dude (note to Drai's management... hiring a slightly creepy magician/ lounge singer dude would instantly award you with ten million more hipster cred points).

The chilled out main lounge area is my favorite part of the club, but if you are awake enough to dance, there are two different rooms where you can show off your moves. DJs in the Hip Hop Room spin typical Top 40 bangers by the likes of Kanye and Lil' Wayne, but do a good job of mixing in some old school classics as well. And you can hear some genuinely Progressive music that you're not gonna hear at other clubs in the House Room.

I recommend hitting Drai's deep into the night. It may open at 1:00 AM, but I've always found the club is at its most intoxicating after 5:00 AM, when the normals have all hooked up or given up on hooking up and decided to hit the sheets. The place doesn't empty out late at night by any means, but the crowd thins enough that you can stretch out a bit and take in some excellent people watching. I've had conversations with interesting people from all over the country (and the world) well past the witching hour at Drai's. Sometimes, the place stays open until noon if people are still hanging out... and those are the nights that are legendary and dream like, because people who hang out and drink and talk until noon are generally the kinds of weirdos, freaks, artists, dreamers, and searchers that always populate the truly great stories you'll be telling for the rest of your life.

I've experienced a few magical nights at Drai's when the the embody everything I love about a successful Las Vegas weekend, because the fact that it's open until after the sun rises means that it attracts a mix of restless people who never want the night, or the adventures that the night promises, to come to an end.

That said, if you go the weekend I'm posting this, you will probably run into some pervy dudes hoping to meet porn stars... it's not all magic and mystery. It's still Las Vegas, after all.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Escape from Douchery, Part 10: Savile Row

If you're like me, the thought of a typical Las Vegas club gives you a serious case of the douche-chills. 

The scene in most Vegas clubs is always the same, the air thick with the scent of Axe Body spray and desperation as teeming masses dress so uniformly that it feels more like a twisted military exercise as everyone dances badly to the same four or five horribly auto-tuned "bangers" played at volumes that make conversation (and coherent thought) impossible while strobe lights flash garishly. The whole thing is enough to make you understand why terrorists, or at least The French, hate us. One Vegas club actually has columns of flame blasting from the ceiling as scantily clad women hang from trapeze in a setting that inches so closely to Biblical style debauchery you expect to be smited, Old Testament style, before last call.

The thing is, I'm not categorically against the concept of partying at a place where you can hang out and drink strong cocktails and listen to decent music while you impress the ladies with your sweet moves. It's just hard to find a club in Vegas that doesn't make you want to retch up the buffet food you over-indulged in before hitting the dance floor. Savile Row at (of all places) The (ridiculously un-hip, Egytian themed) Luxor strives, and in a lot of ways succeeds, at bringing something different to the crowed club scene.

One of the things that drives me bananas about nightclubs is the velvet rope culture of the whole thing. You have to wait forever to get in to a place that you will probably want to leave pretty much right away, and often end up standing in line for longer than seems possible in an exercise in humiliation that will inevitably bring back memories of getting picked last in gym class. Savile Row is different, though it does not, and let me repeat, DOES NOT eschew with the whole bouncer as gatekeeper of cool thing... in fact, the place kind of doubles down on the exclusivity. The only people who are guaranteed to get in to Savile Row are those who picked (by a shadowy and mysterious committee) to pay yearly memberships, and if you're willing to pay an exorbitant sum to be a member of a nightclub in Las Vegas, then you're probably too stupid to even understand any clever joke I could come up with about how stupid you are.

The membership program isn't the only way to crash the gates of the club, but Savile Row has the strictest line policy in all of Las Vegas, which is both a drawback and what makes the place special. It's not easy to get in, but that's because management's goal is to throw the most eclectic party in town every single night. That means the bouncers here are not as moved to lift the velvet rope by a giggling gaggle of girls in short skirts as they are at other clubs. Savile Row's main gatekeeper, the very coolly named Mike Diamond, truly strives to populate the place with a mix of interesting people that don't fit the normal club scene mold, so creative fashion choices, interesting tattoos and outside the box personalities are more likely to get in over dumb-dumb Sorority girls and Fratboy meat-heads. Fashion and style are important factors in getting into the club, something more creative than the button up shirt and expensive jeans combo that most dudes wear or the skanky short skirts and absurdly angled high heels that usually serves as the typical club-goer uniform. I was able to get in because I was rocking a fedora and a nice jacket over a T-Shirt for a band so cool you've probably never heard of them, no big deal. Also I convinced the bouncer that I was Wes Anderson's cousin... but how I got in isn't important, you guys!

Once I broke through the hallowed gates, receiving dirty looks from the kinds of bros who used to beat me up in high school, I realized that this was the Las Vegas nightclub I'd always dreamed of visiting. First of all, there is no cover if you're invited in, which is a huge plus. I've never understood why you have to pay admission for the privilege of overpaying for drinks at other clubs, but that's another rant.

The intimate, Speak-Easy inspired space is beautifully decorated, with glass tables displaying beautifully lit vintage fashion and sewing machines (keeping in step with the venue's namesake, the fashionable street in London... I know, I don't care about fashion either, but I do care about thematic coherence), velvet curtains, multicolored walls, an inexplicable metal Rhino sculpture (am I starting to sound like SNL's Stefon?), and a gorgeous giant domed chandelier illuminating the intimate, 2,000 square foot space. Beautiful  and attentive female servers wearing Men's dress shirts and no pants never leave you with an empty glass for long. Okay, so maybe that's gross and exploitative on some level, but being a sensitive post-feminist man doesn't stop me from being a man, so pretty pants-less ladies are okay in my book.

And the cocktails those pretty ladies without pants brought me? Some of the best in Las Vegas. Savile Row has miraculously kept up with the LA and New York, post-Mad Men haute-cocktail culture trends, as the super knowledgeable barkeeps can mix you any number of innovative and classic concoctions. I ordered an Old Fashioned and it was one of the best I'd ever tasted. They also stock a great selection of craft brews, something I always appreciate.
But the true triumph of Savile Row is the totally unique vibe. Look, the place still is a Vegas nightclub, which means you will encounter some douchebag elements when, and if, you get in. But the mythic gatekeepers truly do an admirable job of ensuring that the crowds are diverse and interesting. While many of the more hipster-ish elements of the city are probably hanging out at The Double Down or First Fridays, there really was an eclectic mix of people on the night I partied at the club. I talked to a tatted up musician and a very funny young comedian from LA, and we were all surprised that we were actually having such a good time in a Las Vegas club.

Savile Row's strict "no cameras" policy is something I didn't expect to make a difference, but it turned out to be truly awesome. Designed to stop onlookers on from snapping pics of the celebrities who often hang out there, the policy actually made my group enjoy ourselves and stay in the moment and present, because none of us were posting for Facebook or Instagram pics to commemorate the evening as it happened... we chatted and danced instead of Tweeting and posing, and the memories of the evening exist nowhere but on the insides our mind palaces. 

The music selection was downright miraculous. Sure, the DJ played some Top 40, but he also spun great 70's soul tunes, old school hip hop, a plethora of great (and not typical) 80's crowd-pleasers, a few nostalgia inducing 90's jams, a decent selection of impressively obscure-ish indie tracks, and some moody cool electro music (M83 and the Drive soundtrack FTW!). Best of all, I didn't hear one song from LMFAO all night (or at least until I exited the club and hit The Luxor's gaming floor for some very late night gambling). The music wasn't just eclectic... it was played at the perfect level so that I could actually have conversations with my friends without shouting.

Savile Row is really something different in terms of Las Vegas clubs, with a unique ambiance, an emphasis on eclecticism, perfectly mixed cocktails, gorgeous ladies without pants, and truly excellent DJs spinning atypical playlists. I hope more clubs follow Savile Row's lead and create an alternate to the generic club template that exists all over town.

The one true drawback of the place is that it really is hard to get in, but let me leave you with a few tips on how to stand out from the crowd and get the attention of the gatekeepers at Savile Row:

-Wear a powder blue prom tuxedo or a 70's style leisure suit.
-Dress up like an astronaut or in a full Spider-Man costume.
-Be Bill Murray or in an up and coming buzz band like The Cults (if your band's first record got less than an 8.0 on Pitchfork, you probably won't get in).
-Ride a mini-Pony up to the back of the club's line.
-Walk by the club multiple times in different outfits until you get the "green light."
-Convince the gate-keepers that your Wes Anderson's cousin.
-Somehow make the bouncers believe that you DON'T want to get into the club. This is hard because why would you be near the line for Savile Row if you didn't want to get in? But, just like hot ladies, the bouncers will want you more if they think don't care about getting in there.
- Hope that the bouncers mistake you for one of the stars of Portlandia.
- Name drop your influential and widely read blog.
-Have the most awesomely unique or crazy weird tattoos and make sure the bouncers can see them.
-Show up without pants. This will probably only work for ladies, but dudes are welcome to give it a try.
-Guilt head-gatekeeper Mike Diamond into thinking you knew him in high school until he feels bad enough to let you in. If that doesn't work... "Incept" him.
-Casualy name drop Can, Suicide, The Slits or other bands mentioned in LCD Soundsytem's "Losing My Edge."
-Show up with your good friends Penn and Teller (which still might not get you in).
-Be Ryan Gosling (but that'll get you "into" pretty much anything these days, if you know what I mean, hint hint, wink wink).
-Be Kanye West (this may be a big positive or a big negative, depending on how the bouncers feel about Kanye West).
-Have a more bad-ass name than "Mike Diamond." But you better be able to prove it with your ID.
-Be cooler than everyone else in Las Vegas.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Biggest Vegas Stories of 2011: A Year End, Traffic Baiting List

We're nearly two weeks into the new year... and since we're deep into the January doldrums, blogs, magazines, newspapers, and new aggregation sites are still putting together best of 2011 lists in shameless attempts to grab some extra traffic. And since I am by no means above shameless stunts, here's my list of the top Las Vegas stories in 2011:

The Cosmopolitan Opens for Business
The Cosmo opened at the tail end of 2010, technically, but really 2011 was the first year that the mega-expensive, mid-Strip property had to shine. The resort was designed to attract an all new demographic to Las Vegas, which the powers that be described as the "curious class." Many were confused by exactly what the demo was supposed to be, but the term basically translated to the rich young LA  elite looking for something a little different... essentially the people who party at The Standard Hotel locations in Downtown LA or on The Sunset Strip. And it worked, in a way... the rooms at The Cosmo are quite often filled with young partygoers, and the sexy Chandelier Bar has become one of the hippest new watering holes in town. The resort has done a good job of booking hip indie rockers, from all time icons like Morrissey (headlining in the main theater) to up and coming buzz bands like Best Coast and Fitz and the Tantrums (rocking out on the more intimate Book and Stage) played the resort last year, while a slew of Pitchfork approved acts like The Shins, Justice, The Rapture, and Foster the People are on the books to perform there in upcoming months. The Cosmo also has one of the hottest nightclubs in town, The Marquee, which ushered in the beginning of 2011 with performances by Jay Z and Coldplay. While all of this may make The Cosmo sound like a runaway success, The Resort is actually losing money because gambling revenues are not strong... and despite all of The Cosmo's outside the box thinking, the Vegas economy is still fueled by gambling. Which puts the owners of The Cosmo in the awkward position of successfully attracting a new demographic to Las Vegas... only to find out that the "Curious Class" isn't all that curious about the thing that most defines Las Vegas.

Downtown Draws the Hipster Elite
Downtown Las Vegas is not as cool as Austin, Portland, Silverlake, or Williamsburg (Williamsburg is dead anyway at this point, but that's another story), but the neighborhood is becoming more and more of a hipster enclave... which is a pretty amazing development, considering that Vegas was built on glittering consumer palaces. But indie alty artsty types have found a home in Sin City around Fremont Street, where some of the coolest bars in town are located, from The Griffin (a super chill hipster hang with a great jukebox) to Frankie's Tiki Room (kitschy old fashioned fun) to The Beauty Bar (the hipster dance party center of Vegas) to Insert Coins (a video game lounge designed for discerning geeks). The ever expanding arts and music First Fridays events take place all over Downtown and has become a mandatory event for the artsiest Vegas citizens, while the best food trucks in town often post up near Fremont Street. Downtown has been growing in hipster cred for years, but 2011 was the year when Downtown cohered into a formidable mecca for indie scene dwellers... even if its in the shadow of the super mainstream Vegas Strip.

The Economy Continues to Pound Sin City
This is the inescapable fact of Las Vegas these days. While the economy as a whole seems to be on the (very slow) mend, Vegas has been hit hard and 2011 was no better. Before the economy crashed in 2008, there seemed to be no end in sight for the Las Vegas bubble, as more and more multi-billion dollar mega-resorts were replacing classic casinos, and no matter how many new rooms became available in new hotels, the town was almost always at capacity. Expensive restaurants were overbooked and girls in too shirt-skirts waited in long lines outside even the lamest clubs. People were gambling their money away and the rest of the city beyond the tourist mecca area was expanding quickly as more and more people started to move to the quickly growing metropolis. But then everything crashed like a house of cards, or at least like a hacky metaphor. Construction halted on many of those aforementioned multi-billion dollar mega resorts, as giant empty lots sit where proud old Rat Pack era haunts once stood. The Cosmo did open, but only after a European bank took over its staggering debt. Hotel prices swing wildly from weekend to weekend, as resorts are often desperate to attract visitors (you can stay at The Wynn for about $100 a night if you book the right weekend, an astoundingly low rate for such a luxurious and expensive boutique hotel) and shows from iconic entertainers and restaurants from celebrity chefs were forced to shutter. The Strip itself feels strangely empty on many Saturday nights, as the bustling crowds of the midd 00's have thinned drastically. All is not lost in Vegas as the economy slowly recovers and the smartest Casino bosses will continue to innovate and succeed with the cards they've been dealt, but for now some of the glamor of the halcyon days of Sin City feels strangely absent. But Vegas is a town famous for reinventing itself every decade (remember that the 90's were all about trying to attract families and turn Vegas into Disneyland with gambling and liberal open container laws before things shifted to the more honest and direct "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" philosophy that launched a decade defined by the kind of debauchery and bad behavior celebrated in The Hangover), so maybe 2012 will be the year Vegas is reborn again, like a glorious Phoenix rising from the ashes.

Or the world will end. Either way.