Friday, March 30, 2012

Escape from Douchery, Part 15: Bar + Bistro

Another day, another escape from douchery post where I advocate a uber-hip spot Downtown. I know, I know, I'm getting predictable, but the neighborhood really is emerging as a mini-urban paradise for artists, musicians, hipsters, bohemians, and the "creative class" (as the awesomely named urban planning guru Richard Florida has dubbed the Zappos employees and people following in their footsteps who are starting to work, drink, and live in the area).

You have to look no further than The Arts Factory, a collection of art galleries, studios, yoga classrooms, jewelry makers, and performance spaces all housed in a former warehouse, as an example of a venture that perfectly represents the emerging creative population of Downtown Las Vegas. And the simply and directly named Bar + Bistro, with its emphasis on seasonal Latin fusion food made from locally sourced ingredients, classic cocktails,  good wine, original art on display, and funky design, has become the ideal social center for the eclectic and exceptionally (and sometimes self-consciously) cool group of residents and visitors to the artsy hub.

I obviously cannot resist a visit to Downtown when I'm in Vegas, but I had not seen The Arts Factor until my last Sin City adventure due to that I usually spend my time in the area wandering The Fremont Street Experience (in my defense, they have a bowling alley with an all drag queen staff on Fremont, plus that stupid giant screen above your head that is just hypnotizing sometimes), but I corrected that on my last trip.

The entire Arts Factory building is certainly impressive and utopian, and I got to see some decent art at a couple of the galleries. But the star of the place is doubtlessly Bar + Bistro, a totally unique spot that is in an obscure enough location to truly keep the douche-element far away. This is a place frequented mostly by locals and tenants of The Arts Factory, a place you have to seek out specifically. That means the fratty tourists aren't going to end up there, since they're too busy whooping and hollering at horrible pool parties, ruining comedy shows at Strip resorts, and making general asses of themselves.

The restaurant has a funky and inviting vibe that you'll notice from the exterior, with signage inspired by the graphic design of the New York Subway system (because as everyone knows, everything cool ever comes from New York, obviously). The interior is super cool, yet unpretentious and relaxed, with a rustic (I never know if I'm actually using that word right in describing restaurants) atmosphere created by walls given texture with wood, exposed brick, or bold colors. Original pieces of art hang on the walls (curated by the very cool Trifecta Gallery, located in The Arts Factory building), and many of the pieces are actually really good (unlike the work at many, many, many local restaurants, bars, and coffee shops across the country, which may be original but is also totally terrible). The background music is well curated; I heard lots of Walkmen, Modest Mouse, and Tom Waits, and not even one Rhianna song (okay, I kinda like that "We Found Love" song. Guilty as charged).

My group wasn't ready for dinner, but we did split some delicious tapas, including Spicy Spanish Chorizo, Carnitas Tacos, and Mofongo (a Plantain and Garlic Mash with Chorizo that was so good it made me angry that I had not tried it before that night). And for those of you (including Steve Wynn) wondering, the menu does feature an extensive Vegan section (would you expect anything less from a place like this?).


We came to drink, and the place delivered. I started with an excellent Scotch flight that featured three different 1 ounce pours, then sampled a few of their signature cocktails, including their Margorilla (a margarita with Grand Marnier on the rocks) as well as their fresh and tasty Pomegranate Sangria (because resisting a Sangria at a Latin Fusion place is just plain stupid, even if it's a Sangria that buys into the silly and should-be-played-out-by-now Pomegranate in everything fad). The gimmicky Sangria was good, but their plain old straightforward Sangria was even better. Like "holy crap pour me another immediately, or I will punch you in the nose," good.

Bar + Bistro used to throw an even called Camp 107, where they screened classic cinema and cult flicks outside on their patio while serving food and drinks as hipsters with high socks and oversized glasses played Bocci Ball in the warm dessert night. They still throw events like Raggae concerts, beer tastings, and Vintage Bike Nights, but my cinephilic heart hopes they bring back the outdoor movie screenings. You can still play Bocci Ball, though.

Overall, Bar + Bistro was a pretty utopian spot, with great food, excellent cocktails mixed by bartenders who know what they're doing, an inviting vibe, and interesting art on the walls. No wonder it's become a bit of a hub for the artsy and hipster types who spend time in The Arts Factory and Downtown.... it's a common place where they gather, away from the more commercialized Vegas Strip, to create a community with other like-minded Bohemians without fear of judgment. 

Or maybe "creating a community" is just a buzzword that's really just excuse for those artsy types to get drunk. Which is fine too, because THAT SANGRIA IS REALLY GOOD.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Future of Las Vegas

Before the 2008 economic apocalypse, Las Vegas was at its peak. Despite the fact that new mega-resorts opened seemingly once a month, the city's hotel rooms were at capacity nearly every weekend. The city itself was growing at a tremendous rate, as more and more people were flocking to the Nevada dessert for affordable homes, a decent school district, and proximity to one of the most famous tourist attractions on the planet. The scene for the young, hip, and artsy was looking up as well, with new galleries displaying the work of local artists and quirky bars popping up in Downtown.

Then everything caved in in the Fall of 2008. The entire country was (and still is) hurting, but the Las Vegas economy was damaged more severely than most. In a city where the economy is largely based around tourists spending disposable income, when the disposable income of most Americans ran dry, things got ugly. The city had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, and many of the normally occupied hotel rooms were empty on usually bustling weekends. Multi-billion dollar construction projects were abandoned, as sites of glorious future resorts became giant dirt pits.  Expensive luxury resorts often offer room deals that resemble the prices of The Hooters Hotel and Casino (I'm not hating on The Hooters Hotel and Casino, mind you...  I would never disparage a place where you can enjoy poolside Chicken Wings).

So things have been bleak in Las Vegas, and they've been bleak for almost half a decade. But Sin City, if it's anything, is a town that learns how to adapt to the times. And with that in mind, I will gaze into my i-Crystal Ball and read The Palms of the city (har har) as I deliver my (decidedly non-)expert predictions on the future of Las Vegas.

Vegas Will Become Increasingly Niche-Based
The internet has made fragmented culture beyond repair. There will never again be a show like Seinfeld that everyone in the country gathers around at the water cooler to discuss the morning after it airs (did anybody actually ever gather around water coolers to talk or was that just a term made up by marketers?); there will never be another album as ubiquitous as Thriller (and not just because there will never be a talent as unique as the young Michael Jackson); the concept of monocultue is dead, and there's nothing wrong with that. Individual tastes can be served and satisfied, creating micro-hits like Community, shows that draw minuscule audiences but create incredible loyalty in those small cults of people who tune in every week (with passionate bordering on vitriolic post-mortem internet discussions in which the finer points of every joke and reference are debated and mournful Twitter campaigns are launched in protest to the mere rumor of the show's cancellation).

The savviest Las Vegas marketers are aware of this fracturing of audiences, and more and more resorts are targeting specific audiences. While drawing sportsfans to bet on March Madness games has always been a go to strategy, many resorts are now going after more specific groups, with The Cosmo recently hosting an indie rock festival, while The Palms threw a big MTV Spring Break rager meant to attract Jersey Shore loving bros. While large-scale megahits like Jersey Boys and Cirque Du Soleil's many inceptions line The Strip, smaller shows with more specific audiences are opening all the time, like Mike Tyson's one man show at The MGM Grand and Confessions of a Rock Star at The Riviera (starring the former front man of 80's indie stalwarts The Smithereens).

Even as the finally economy recovers, I think this is going to be the new direction of Vegas. The monoculture will never put itself back together again, so the savviest resorts will do well targeting and creating loyalty amongst demographics with specific interests and passions.

So basically, my point is that someone should really consider building a Batman-themed Casino.

What's Old Is New Again
Mad Men. The Artist. Midnight in Paris. The past is so hot right now.

It's easy to spot the trend in the stores at Vegas malls and at the cocktail culture bars where mixologists dress in old-timey vests and spend extra time and care mixing Old Fashioneds and other cocktails that your grandfather was sipping when he first picked up your grandmother at a local gin joint (and then did unspeakable things to her in the bedroom. Grow up and deal with the fact that they're human beings who once had libidos just like you).

This trend, combined with the fact that the over the top themeing of casino design that dominated Vegas from the early 90s to the mid 00s has chilled out (no more fakey fake reconstructions of romantic cities in walking distance from each other), as places like Aria, The Palms, and The Cosmo are more about creating a cool and nice experience for adults instead of a Disneyish theme park filled with gambling and bad behavior. These combined trends lead me to the logical (in my mind) conclusion that the new trend in Vegas resort design will be retro cool. After years of knocking down the classic, Sinatra era resorts, I can envision the next crop of resorts being re-imagined versions of Strip classics like The Sands, The Stardust, The Dunes, and The Dessert Inn. While nostalgia can be the enemy of progress, the fun part of this trend will be that creative resort designers can pick and choose from the coolest aspects of the past, bringing back the classic Rat Pack vibe, complete with sexy lounges (and crooning lounger singers) and looking back to a time when having a cocktail in your hands at all times of the day meant you were a man, not an alcoholic.

Downtown Will Rise
Downtown Las Vegas is pretty rundown, but it has a savior in Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who has grand ambitions to breathe new life into the neighborhood. The Zappos heardquarters were moved into the former site of City Hall in the heart of the area, an honest to goodness indie coffee shop (complete with a vinyl records and a Zine library) opened nearby in an artist friendly building, the very ambitious Mob Museum just opened, and some of the most interesting bars in town are scattered along Fremont Street. But the area is still mostly a wasteland of vacant lots and crumbling old casinos.

If Hsieh is able to use his considerable influence and charm to attract other companies to move their offices to Downtown Las Vegas, a totally unique neighborhood, populated by young people with taste and money, will spring up and rejuvenate the area. The quirkier nature of the businesses that are already thriving in Downtown indicates that the area will have a different identity than The Strip, and the place could develop into the Las Vegas version of Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Silverlake (my home stomping grounds) in Los Angeles.

So look forward to many beards to grow along with interesting new hotels, bars, music venues, and galleries.

Jet Pack-Up Blackjack Tables
Swim-up blackjack tables are old news. In the future, the hippest resorts will have to build gaming tables that appeal to the inevitable Jet Pack trend that is surely finally on its way. 

Vegas is down right now, but like a glorious Butterfly dedicated to convincing people to gamble away money they can't afford to lose, it will emerge from its cocoon, evolved, adapted, and ready to spread its gloriously beautiful capitalistic wings.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Escape from Douchery, Part 14: The Barrymore

The Royal Resort is the definition of "unassuming." "Resort" is certainly a strong word to describe the Off-Strip, non-gaming hotel that looks from the outside like dozens of other nondescript, budget-friendly places designed solely as a place to lay your drunken head on the cheap after a night of boozin' and gamblin' on The Strip.

But The Royal houses an unexpected secret, and not the dark and twisted kind of secret that you might stumble upon in horror at many Las Vegas venues. The Royal's secret is the opposite of all that, in fact: an awesomely hip and unique little restaurant and lounge called The Barrymore.

The sexy restaurant and lounge is run by the people behind Public House at The Venetian and the upscale and delicious burger joint Holstein's at The Cosmopolitan. These guys clearly know what they're doing, and in a lot of ways, The Barrymore is their most ambitious project to date.

The retro-cool space is covered in beautifully old fashioned wall paper that reminded me of The Haunted Mansion (in a good way! I love The Haunted Mansion), evocative original artwork, comfy plush booths, hand crafted mirrors on the walls, and Gold Film Reels lining the ceiling (which was of course my favorite touch, as a movie-crazy type of person).

Dinner was excellent, as the restaurant serves upscale American fare for totally reasonable prices. I sampled the Lobster Mac and Cheese appetizer and Crispy Pork Belly (yes, I am aware that Pork Belly is becoming a ubiquitous dish at any self respecting restaurant these days, but it's an awesome trend I heartily endorse) entree, both of which were delicious, and the restaurant's fancy shmancy version of S'Mores were worth the indulgence. Since The Barrymore's cellar features 50 great wines for under $50, my table split a bottle of Italian Cabernet that was the perfect compliment to our meals and made us all feel very classy.

Once we finished eating, we decided to have just one more drink at The Barrymore's extremely cool lounge area, and that's when I fell in love with the place.

Cocktail culture is spreading quickly through Las Vegas, and The Barrymore is more evidence to that fact as vest-wearing mixologists pour elaborately mixed cocktails like their signature eponymous drink (made with Gentleman Jack, Blood Orange Liquer, Vermouth, Orange Bitters, Orange Zest, and Orange Marmalade... yes, Orange Marmalade in a cocktail... sounds weird but it works) or their excellently crafted Old Fashioned. They also carry a small but nicely curated selection of Beers, including some of my all-time favorites like Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA and Delirium Tremens.

One drink became more than one more drink which became several drinks. Long story short, we ended up getting pretty tipsy and hanging out at The Barrymore for a few more hours than we had planned. The atmosphere was totally chilled out, and we were digging on the cool sounds of the classic jazz soundtrack that provided a welcome escape from ubiquitous top 40 hits and aggressive Dubstep drones playing in most bars on The Strip.

The place also has a nice patio area with a firepit where you can grab a couch and enjoy views of The Strip's more iconic resorts towering above The Royal. The crowd was eclectic, probably due to the venue's remoteness and obscurity.

The Royal seems to be going through something of a transitional phase, as they're attempting to up their hip factor and "build buzz." As the great Sin City guide VegasChatter pointed out, The Royal currently has two websites: a straightforward one that markets the place as a smart and budget friendly choice for tourists who don't mind staying off Strip and a cooler than though version that re-brands the resort as a "boutique" hotel re-Christened as The Royal House which is clearly designed to attract the hipsterati (at least until an Ace opens in town), with other cool flourishes like a gallery displaying the work of local artists, a central bar and lounge that plays old films during the day and hosts musicians and DJs at night called The Den, and a relaxing pool area with brightly colored cabanas. All these features are smart, but the vibe of the place is still inescapably "budget hotel" at best, and "large motel perfect for spending time with a lady of the night" at worst. If The Royal Resort (or Royal House, or whatever its called) is making a play to burn down their image as a boring yet affordable hotel to become reborn as a flaming Phoenix of Off-Strip boutique cool, The Barrymore is a promising step in the right direction.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Escape from Douchery, Part 14: Penn and Teller

Most of the entries in my ever-growing "escape from douchery" series are about places to party while minimizing bro and bro-ette interactions. But this time, I'm going to talk about a show.

Vegas has hundreds of shows in all kinds of genres, but few of them have anything resembling an edge. That's totally understandable, because if a show opens on The Strip or in Downtown, it has been conceptualized with maximum mainstream appeal in mind. The imported Broadway productions, comedians and musicians with Vegas residencies have long and proven track records of supernova levels of popularity. Even Cirque Du Soleil shows, with all their artsy affectations and semi-nudity, have slick and mainstream appeal (listen to Patton Oswalt's brilliant bit about Cirque shows if you want to hear someone express their feelings on Cirque shows in a much more articulate and hilarious manner than I'm capable of).

Perhaps the least hip genre of Vegas entertainment (or of anything ever) is the magic show. There is something generally (yet endearingly) dorky about most magicians, many of them nerdy introverts with a passion for an un-hip art trying to craft mysterious personas. There's a reason Criss Angel is one of the most mocked entertainers in the world (let me note as a counterargument to the fact that Angel is such a text-book example of  a "douchebag" it's a struggle to think of who the model for the term was before he became famous, he remains an incredibly successful performer whose collaboration with Cirque Du Soleil has been running continously in Vegas for nearly four years).

Penn and Teller stand out from the crowded field of Vegas magic shows and, rather miraculously, bring some edge, hipness, and class to the genre with their ever popular show at The Rio.

You probably know P and T's shtick by now: Penn is the big guy with the goatee and long hair who is almost constantly talking while Teller is his more diminutive and totally mute counterpart. The duo has been performing the same basic routine since their critically acclaimed Broadway shows and SNL appearances in 70's, and the fact their show still feels fresh is pretty miraculous.

What makes the show so special is that they bring a real intelligence, wit, and class to the proceedings. These guys are incredibly well educated in the history of show business, and you feel that immediately while you enjoy the pre-show music, provided by their pianist playing classy jazz (instead of the usual club bangers and dubstep mashup nonsense blurting out of just about every other speaker in the greater Las Vegas region).

But the appeal of Penn and Teller isn't simple old school nostalgia. The duo's understanding and respect of the history of show business allows them to pull apart and examine what makes a good show tick so they can blow it up to create something a inventive, unpredictable, and slightly anarchistic.

When Penn and Teller emerge, suited up and  energized on a bare stage, you're in store for something a little different from your typical magic show. Their dark sense of humor keeps things clicking, as they perform death defying and sometimes violent tricks like bullet catches and knife tosses with a merrily morbid and winking sense of fun. The tricks are often pretty extreme and dangerous, but the guys never take any of it seriously. Their wit and self-deprecating sens of fun deflate the overly-self serious theatrics of other famous magicians.

The reason the show is so interesting and sharp is that that Penn and Teller are themselves are so interesting and sharp. An outspoken Atheist and Libertarian, Penn is a true raconteur, as his recent episode of WTF with Marc Maron proved. While I strongly disagree with many of his libertarian views , he's clearly thought them through and makes compelling reasoned arguments for a philosophy I can't get behind. Plus he's clearly a libertarian because he believes people can take care of people better than the government can; this is a nice (though naive) way to look at things (though I'm a bit more cynical and believe that, unlike Penn, most libertarians became libertarians because they're not interested in taking care of anyone but themselves; but I digress). And even though Teller is the "silent one" during their performances, when he steps out of his stage-persona he's actually an incredibly articulate guy who has given amazing lectures on the psychology of magic and what it can teach us about the human brain. They also hosted the Emmy winning Penn and Teller's Bullshit! on Showtime, which brought the duo's signature wit and and skepticism to the small screen.

Unless Prince tries decides to try for another Vegas residency any time soon (or you're a really big fan of Cee-Lo and "sexified showgirls"), Penn and Teller is the show to see if you're looking for something smart, sophisticated, compelling, and unpredictable. The duo combine an almost encyclopedic knowledge of classic show-biz traditions, mix it in with a restless desire to break the rules, blend it with a blackly comic and self-deprecating wit, and top it all off with some of the most skillful yet meta magic you'll ever witness on a stage to create a show like no other.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Escape from Douchery, Part 13: Public House at The Venetian

With the arrival of Public House at The Venetian, craft beer culture has truly arrived in Las Vegas... and at one of the most popular resorts in the middle of The Strip, no less.

Gastropubs serving upscale bar food and rotating craft beer selections have become all the rage in LA. What started as a trend for Eastsiders looking for something more flavorful than Budweiser to pair with their burgers has become a hot trend all over the city. Now even a square patch of the greater LA area like Studio City boasts Boneyard Bistro, a funky yet upscale joint that serves Kobe Beef Chili-filled Donuts, taps kegs of Russian River Brewery's legendary Pliny the Younger (a beer-geek obsession released just once a year that's so perfect it's worth murdering everyone you've ever loved to score a pint), and plays obscure indie bands like Woods in the background.

And now Vegas is getting in on the act, in the most mainstream of venues. While microbreweries are not a new trend in Vegas, Public House at The Venetian is one of the first high profile Gastropubs on The Strip. And it stacks up nicely against the many similar joints in Los Angeles.

Public House Venetian has an upscale yet loose and relaxed vibe, with low tables in the bar area and plush leather booths in the main dining room. Rich brown woods line the walls and flooring, while funky art hangs all over the space. The Pub-House can get pretty loud at night, with crowds of excited patrons drowning out the chilled-out background music. The food is awesome; I shared a few small plates, including Roasted Bone Marrow (a delicious taste adventure if you're willing to take the journey) and tried their Pub Burger, which compared favorably to the legendary offerings from LA's Father's Office and The Lazy Ox Canteen.

But the beer is the main attraction of a good Gastropbub, and Public House at The Venetian has no shortage of great suds on tap at a place with the motto "united we stand, pint in hand" (which is incredibly stupid but I secretly love rhymes, so I'll allow it). The restaurant offers hundreds of Beers, served out of taps, bottles, and casks, sourced from some of the best breweries in the country. I'm a big fan of Dogfish Head Beers (as is anyone who is "into beer" in a real way), so I started with their famous 90-Minute IPA. But then I found out that Public House had puled out the big guns by employing the first Cicerone (a fancy-pants job that is basically the Beer-version of a Sommelier) in the state of Nevada. I flagged the guy down to pick his brain/ prove what I knew (because I'm horribly insecure and was seeking validation of any kind). He clearly knew his stuff and I ended up getting talked into a delicious Ballast Point Sculpin IPA, which has also become somewhat legendary in Beer Advocate reading circles.  Like any great Gastropub, the owners of Public House are always swapping out what they have on Tap and in their Casks.

Public House at The Venetian is just a part of a trend that's spreading quickly through Las Vegas. Todd English P.U.B. at Aria has already tapped into the craze, while The Luxor is opening their own restaurant called Public House that's totally unrelated to the gem in The Venetian. The Cosmopolitan has Holstein's, while The Pub at Monte Carlo has a pretty decent selection of beers on tap. But The Venetian's Public House is your best bet if you want to experience an LA-style gastropub, with a menu of delicious upscale bar food, a funky-cool atmosphere, and a brew selection that will make even the most pretentious beer geeks swoon.