Thursday, April 19, 2012

Escape from Douchery, Part 17: Mermaid Restaurant and Lounge

Who doesn't love a little bit of kitsch?

There is no city on the planet filled with more cheesy fun kitsch than Las Vegas (no, not even Orlando), and one of the most titanically and epically kitschy spots in the entire city is The Mermaid Restaurant and Lounge at The Silverton Casino Hotel, located just a few miles off of The Strip.

The cheeseball restaurant to end all cheeseball restaurants, the place is decorated in garishly bright colors, with glowing green barnacle shaped light fixtures stuck to the ceiling. The wall behind the bar resembles the bow of a ship, complete with a bronze mermaid statue flanked by exotic fish swimming through two small port-hole shaped aquariums.

I call them small only in comparison to the place's most striking feature: the massive, floor to ceiling 117,000 gallon aquarium, where you can view 5,000 different species of gorgeous exotic fish and sharks... as well as a few gorgeous and exotic mermaids. Yes, mermaids. This place has mermaids!

The restaurant is one of those places that is so old school shameless that they hire hot ladies to put on mermaid costumes and take a dip in the giant aquarium as they smile and wave at the crowd of leering dudes. And it's freakin' awesome.

This place is a long way from the hottest nightclubs on The Strip, both geographically and atmospherically. And this is a very good thing, because you are going to see far fewer fratty bros at The Mermaid Restaurant and Lounge, most of whom are queuing up to try and get into Marquee or Haze. The MRL (as I've decided to dub it) caters to a much more interesting and eclectic crowd of kitsch seekers, many of whom dress up in ugly Hawaiian shirts for the occasion.

The place is completely, and amazingly, stupid in the best and most fun way, much like Las Vegas itself. As such, I believe it performs a very valuable function: it's the the perfect venue in which to perform a friend (or even girlfriend) test. If you're in town with people you've never visited Vegas with before, The Mermaid Restaurant and Lounge should be the first stop on your vacation. Take a seat at one of the plush and brightly colored seats in the lounge, order yourself up a giant (and fairly priced) frozen drink, and watch the reactions of the people you dragged there. If they roll their eyes and talk about the "exploitation" of the women in the mermaid suits, these people are clearly fun-hating buzzkills who take no joy in life and will carry the same attitude throughout the rest of your vacation. The friendship test has proven that you have no reason to keep hanging out with them after you return to the real world, because life's just too damned short to spend time with people who can't find joy in a cheesy nautical themed restaurant with live mermaids swimming in a giant fish tank.

The Mermaid Restaurant and Lounge is by no means the "coolest" place to drink in Las Vegas, but I'll take its dorky, kitschy, and fun charms over the so called "trendiest" Vegas club any day of the week. Because even Marquee doesn't have live mermaids.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Escape from Douchery, Part 17: Aria Hotel and Casino

I talk about Downtown Las Vegas too much.

I know it, you know it, we all know it. It's where the coolest, most interesting stuff is happening in town, and I truly believe that within the next five years, Downtown will have transformed into a neighborhood similar to Silver Lake, filled with hipsters, art galleries, interesting local businesses, coffee shops, and funky bars.

That said, The Strip is, always has been, and will always remain the center of what Las Vegas is all about, and Sin City's reason for existing in the first place. Las Vegas boulevard is littered with billion dollar properties built to resemble the world's most famous monuments, all of which are mostly populated by the very D-Bags I have spent considerable digital-ink disparaging. But if you pay extra-close attention to this blog, you will note that I have a soft spot in my heart for The Strip. How could I not, as a blogger who writes about loving Las Vegas? Downtown is awesome but still pretty limited in scope, and while the most interesting new things in Vegas are located there and while I always make time for Fremont Street, the truth is that I spend most of my Vegas trips on The Strip, especially when I'm traveling with people who don't share my proclivities for funky weirdness (and I had not ever stayed the night in Downtown until my last trip).

All that is to say that I have to sleep somewhere on The Strip when I'm in town. I usually choose my hotel based on which place has the best rate (via my broke-ass existence) and the best location (generally meaning as close to the geographic center of The Strip as humanly possible). But I also do my best to try a different hotel every time I visit Vegas, and have made questionable monetary and geographic decisions in order to lay my head in a hotel I haven't yet experienced. Which is why I finally stayed at The Aria, CityCenter's sparkling center-piece, even though I could have gotten a better deal on a room at The Monte Carlo. The Aria billed itself as a futuristic, green-friendly resort that's been praised as one of the best geek hotels on the planet, and as a fan of robot fiction, I wanted to experience the future, Las Vegas style.

While I was disappointed that I was not issued a key to a flying car upon check-in, The Aria is pretty damned cool.

Upon entering the room, a robot voice greets you by name (and you better believe I made the woman at the checkin desk enter my name into the computer as "Turd Ferguson"). Our large corner provided perfect views of The Strip through the floor to ceiling windows, from which my friends and I could take turns dramatically gazing at the city, sipping on our pre-game cocktails and imagining that we were nihilistic power-mad Wall Street broker villains from 80's cop movies.

Everything in the room is automated, and I mean everything. Staying at The Aria is like checking into a hotel designed by Stanley Kubrick, except less cold and unfeeling than that description implies. The remote, which I grabbed first and never let go of the entire time we hung out in the room, controls absolutely everything. Press a few buttons to adjust the temperature in your room, open or close the curtains, dim the lights, play music, program your alarm clock, and even TURN ON THE TELEVISION (will the miraculous future revelations never cease?).

The room was as future-cool awesome as advertised, but the point of a Las Vegas hotel room is to give you space to freshen up after a four hour drive and drink a few pre-game cocktails, not to return until 5 or later after failing with women. Which means I need more than a cool bed (since I'll only be using it for sleeping anyway... oh poor me. I'm so lonely!).

The resort keeps the futuristic thing going throughout, dropping the silly themeing that plagued Las Vegas Casino design until through the early 00's. There is something a bit generic and airporty about some the place (and the CityCenter mega-complex as a whole), but the vibe is given some life by the interesting sculptures created by top artists integrated across the property. The casino floor is airy and bright unlike other casinos in town, because the progressive designers flooded it with natural light (which doesn't seem like a big deal but is actually a revolutionary choice in a casino design, where the old philosophy used to be to keep gamblers confused as to the time of day so they wouldn't be able to keep track of how long they'd been losing their money to the house).

Aria (along with CityCenter sister hotel VDara) was also the first LEED certified Hotel in Las Vegas. While I have misgivings about environmentalism being integrated just because it's trendy, the designers worked hard to make sure the hotel is highly efficient and green-friendly, leaving as small a carbon footprint as a 4,000 room hotel could possibly leave. One of the settings you can choose with the elder-remote in your hotel room is a green-friendly setting, where the lights are dimmed, the air conditioning is turned down, and the curtains slide shut to keep the sun out so you won't want to turn the air back up. While one can't honestly expect a Vegas casino to leave no footprint, the designers of Aria did a remarkable job of making the place as green-friendly as possible.

As for things to do in the resort, The Gold Room lounge is cleverly designed to resemble Elvis Presley's legendary Graceland mansion (which was originally built as a tie-in to the soon to close Viva Elvis Cirque Du Soleil show), and while the design is fun and filled with Elvis references, they're harder to enjoy when the lights are dimmed and the soundtrack consists deafening auto-tuned Top 40 hits. At least I didn't hear a dubstep Elvis remix at the lounge. Aria also proudly boasts, Haze, one of the hottest nightclubs on The Strip, which automatically meant that I proudly avoided the place like the plague. A better bet was Bar Moderno, which had space for my friends and I to sit and enjoy their perfectly mixed cocktails. It's a little too purple (that's not a metaphor for anything, they literally decorated the place in tons of bright purple), but they make a good Old Fashioned. The resort also features the delicious Lemongrass, one of the only Thai restaurants on The Strip. I love Thai food (shocking a hipster dude who loves Thai food), so this was an awesome amenity. 

Aria's prime location is another big plus, and it means you're pretty much in walking distance to everything else on The Strip (useful because, surprise fact, even in Las Vegas, drinking and driving is still illegal), and the resort is located in the middle of CityCenter, next to The Cosmpolitan, and just a couple doors down from New York New York (if you want to experience the city's absolute stupidest-cheesy fun casino).

The best part of the place is that when I got back to my room after a night of "hardcore Vegasing" (read: trying to dance with girls until they politely smile at you then walk away to "get a drink"), I arrived back at my awesome future-room and pressed a button on the space-remote (which I hid so none of my friends staying with me could find it... but perhaps I've said too much) that turned all the lights off and put up the Do Not Disturb sign. Those are not difficult activities so this feature might not seem like a big deal, but when you've had 14 whiskey drinks and all you want in the world is to fall onto your bed without taking your shoes off, it feels like a really huge deal.

In summary, you won't be able to avoid the rush of D-Bags wherever it is you stay on The Strip, but The Aria has rooms similar to what old movies predicted hotels would be like in the future, with the added bonus of the LEED certification to make your environmentalism loving heart feel less guilty about driving 350 miles to indulge in hedonism in the middle of a dessert where they should never have built a city. Recommended!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Coachella, Sin City Style

 The Las Vegas summer concert scene kicks off early this week (which probably has something to do with Coachella kicking off this weekend, and I'm not upset that I didn't get tickets. I'm fine. I'm fine! Stop asking!), as The Shins will perform at The Cosmopolitan's Boulevard Pool to promote their triumphant (sales and hype-wise, at least) comeback album, Port of Morrow. And tonight, reluctant Grammy winning indie-folk beard-bro Bon Iver will play at The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

In my mind (mostly because I'm bored and looking to create dramatic narratives out of nothing), this is just the beginning of a nuclear arms race between the two hotels in which the prize is the hearts, minds, and (most importantly) cash of indie-rock loving hipsters in Las Vegas.

The Cosmo seems to be the resort more aggressively pursuing the indie demographic, with Justice, Cage the Elephant, Young the Giant, and Florence and the Machine (whose show is already sold out, proving that she's gone way beyond indie-popular to just plain popular, but Pitchfork still reviews her, so we'll keep her in the conversation for the sake of this article's premise) all scheduled to play at The Resort this summer. The Cosmo also recently hosted the incoherent Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Beauties and Beats Festival (which mixed together up and coming indie bands with swimsuit models for an event that seemed to confuse just about everyone involved), but The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino has stayed in the game. While the venue played host to decidedly un-indie events like the short-lived Motley Crue residency, The Hard Rock features indie stalwarts Fitz and the Tantrums and The Drums joining Bon Iver on their calandar of upcoming performers.

This sudden influx of indie into a town where more mega mainstream performers like Barry Manilow and (the totally underrated genius man-God) Billy Joel generally headline has got me wondering who exactly the audience will be for these shows. Are the owners of The Cosmo and Hard Rock counting on locals to buy tickets, or do they expect Los Angelinos and other visitors to make the trek out to Sin City to see their favorite Pitchfork approved acts? And if these shows do well, could Vegas eventually host its own Coachella-like mega festival?

It's not a crazy idea. The Vegoose festival was successful enough to run for three years, from 2005- 2007. Indie-fied headliners include Beck, Arcade Fire, Spoon, The Killers, Sleater Kinney, The Mars Volta, The Flaming Lips, Daft Punk, and The Shins (yes, again). The indie bands mingled on the bill with excellent mainstream acts like Iggy and the Stooges (playing the entirety of the amazing Fun House album), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Primus, Ben Folds, Cyprus Hill, Queens of the Stone Age, The Roots, and Public Enemy, not to mention completely un-acceptable mainstream acts like Jack Johnson, Trey Anastasio, The String Cheese Incident, and Dave Matthews & Friends (not to be confused with his other band that also bears his name, which is not to say that that guy has a monstrous ego or anything like that).

Vegoose didn't set the world on fire, and as much I'd like to blame all the horrible bro-tastic jam bands on the bill for that, the real reason (at least according to the festival's Wikipedia page) was that the organizers (who are also behind Tennesee's wildly successful Bonaroo festival) wanted to focus on launching The Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco (which I attended on its first year and was so poorly organized that Radiohead's audio dropped out completely four times during their set, angering Thom Yorke, which is NEVER A GOOD IDEA). The organizers have indicated that they could eventually relaunch Vegoose, but it's been nearly five years since the last one, so things look a little bleak for that eventuality.

So the question remains: could a giant indie rock festival succeed in Las Vegas? Recent fests have been runaway triumphs for their organizers, including the bleep-bloop DJ dance-centric Electric Daisy Carnival  and the pop-oriented, Lady Gaga headlined I Heart Radio Festival. With big indie acts moving tickets at The Cosmo and The Hard Rock, and more and more hip and artsy tastemakers living and working in Downtown, it seems like the time might be right to either re-launch Vegoose or for some other intrepid organizers to try their luck with the Sin City market (Sin-chella, anyone?). The combination of a Vegas weekend with great music will draw crowds, but what exactly would it take to make it work?

I'm going to put on my imaginary festival organizer wizard hat and imagine what it would take to throw the perfect Vegas indie fest:

Keep it on the DT: Sure, The Electric Daisy Festival filled up the massive Las Vegas Motor Speedway, keeping the Ecstacy-popping dubstup-loving kids away from The Strip during the festival. But while most of the big festivals take place in giant empty spaces (Coachella has Indio's Pollo grounds while Bonaroo has a massive farm), the conceptual Vegas indie fest could shut down a few blocks in Downtown and turn the neighborhood into a giant utopian hipster street fair. With all kinds of cool bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels in the area, DT could be the perfect place to throw the festival. And since so much of the area is currently a post apocalyptic wasteland anyway (Kai Ryssdal couldn't help but point out an abundance of vacant lots all over the hood during his NPR Marketplace interview with Tony Hsieh), there is plenty of room to set up stages in the area.

Keep it Curated: The almost too epically excellent to believed All Tomorrow's Parties festival smartly recruits awesome musicians to curate their festivals in New York and London every year. The first year I went (when ATP still did fests in LA, on The Queen Mary of all places), Modest Mouse curated and chose acts like Lou Reed, The Flaming Lips, Stephen Malkmus, Explosions in the Sky, and The Shins (again!!! I know, I'm sorry, but they did change Zach Braff's life, so...) while Portishead curated last year's East Coast fest and chose a terrifically diverse lineup that included Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, Public Enemy (performing all of Fear of a Black Planet), Swans, Bonnie Prince Billy, Battles, Chavez, Oneida, The Horrors, Company Flow, and Bruce Springsteen (just kidding, but a Boss dropin was rumored due to the fact that the fest took place in The Boss's stomping grounds of Asbury Park, New Jersey). Basically this whole paragraph has been a long list of cool bands meant to make the argument that a Vegas fest should follow that model and recruit a big iconic act to headline and then let them curate as they sit fit. (David Bowie has been inactive as of late, but why not try to draw the legendary Glam rock alien out of semi-retirement with the chance to program his own festival in the glare of bright Sin City glitz?)

Keep it Funny: Indie rock and alt comedy go hand in hand these days, so when my fantasy Downtown Vegas festival launches, there will have to be a comedy stage as well. Louis CK is co-headlining the East Coast ATP later this year with (The Afghan Whigs and Godspeed! You Black Emperor), and the upcoming Silverlake Jubilee will have a great lineup of funny people as well, with TJ Miller, Bryan Callen, Natash Leggero, Iliza Shlesinger, Matt Braunger, Kumail Nanjiani, Jonah Ray, Brent Weinbach, and Moshe Kasher set to rock the stage (in a funny way). To draw the big crowds all the way from LA for the dream-Vegas fest, the conceptual organizers (who are purple aliens with unicorn horns in my mind, because why not?) will have to bring in some bigger guns, like Zach Galifianakis, Patton Oswalt, or even King Louis himself.

Keep the Food Trucks Rollin: Vegas has plenty of great food trucks these days, but there's no reason some of the best options from LA couldn't also roll on out to Vegas for a big music festival weekend. If the Kogi and CoolHaus trucks made it out to Vegas for the festival, that fact alone might be worth the trip from LA for many music digging foodies.

Keep the (Craft) Beer Flowing: Beer fests offering tastings of Craft Suds have become events unto themselves (even if the results are sometimes disastrous). If the fest invited a nice group of Brewers and sold tickets for tasty tastings, it could make the event that much tastier. (I'm trying to figure out how to get the word taste in this paragraph one last time.)

Keep it Vegas: If you're going to have a music festival in Las Vegas, you might as well foreground the uniqueness of Sin City. Hire Elvis and Sinatra impersonators, make it easy for attendees to gamble, get Penn and Teller to perform a set, include local artists and bands, invite some strippers and drag queens, and let audiences feel like they are engaging in some generally illicit Sin (even if it's all in the context of a carefully logistically planned music festival). 

Keep the Party Goin' All Night Long: The festival can go all night, if need be. This is Vegas, after all. But even if the gates close around midnight, the hippest hotels in Downtown and on The Strip can attract a new, indie-centric clientele with after-parties featuring music spun by some the best DJs in town who will be free to dig into their collections of obscure 60's soul instead of the same old Top 40.

So that means no: DJ Pauly D is not invited to this party. Sorry, Jersey-Bro.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Escape from Douchery, Part 16: The Cabana Suites at El Cortez

As often as I sing the praises of Downtown Las Vegas, I had never stayed in a hotel on Fremont Street before my last Sin City excursion. I might slag off on the legendary D-Bag element that populates most of the popular spots on The Strip, but the main drag of Las Vegas Boulevard is where most of the action is. Plus, since the economy tanked, you can get really nice rooms at multi-bazillion dollar mega resorts super low rates... compare that to most Downtown lodging options and it's hard to turn down a $150 a night room at The Wynn (when you can find a miraculous deals every once in awhile) compared to a $90 room at one of the outdated Hotels on The Fremont Street Experience that are haunted by the permanent stench of stale cigarettes, sour booze, the perfume (and tears) of cheap hookers, and general desperation. You might not think desperation has a smell, but walk through The Las Vegas Club at 3 in the morning and you'll see what I mean.

But I finally bit the bullet on my last trip when I stayed a night at The El Cortez Hotel's semi-new Cabana Suites. Yes, I hedged my bets by booking a room at Aria on my second night (because they had a great deal that weekend and I was anxious to see what their almost completely automated future rooms were like) just in case staying Downtown turned out to be a tiny-huge mistake. The only mistake, it turned out, was not staying at the super cool suites for the entire weekend.

The El Cortez (double "thes" in the name for those who failed Spanish in high school) bought out The Ogden House Motel, a truly revolting old cheapskate fleabag relic, and smartly tapped into the growing hipster sensibility of the neighborhood by transforming the place into a uniquely designed 64 room non-gaming, smoke-free boutique hotel with style to burn. Suddenly, a hotel that had been open since the 40's and was once the property of Bugsy Segal was connected to one of the hippest spots to lay your head in Las Vegas.

The hotel's first smart move was to team up with The Las Vegas Design Center where they created a competition in which four winners were chosen and given free reign to "design a suite." These rooms are some of the most unique in Vegas, infused with the creative energy of young and hungry designers eager to share their vision with the world for the first time. These distinct suites range in their influences from retro 1950's hepcat cool to clean modernism, but they are united in the fact that they were designed with singular visions in mind. Very cool stuff.

Unfortunately, all of the Design-a-Suite rooms were booked solid on the Friday night in question (because I always have been and always will terrible at planning ahead for anything ever), but I was able to book one of their Junior Suites on the hotel's semi-frustrating website  (and while booking the room was a pain in the ass, the super cheap nightly rate more than made up for it). Once I checked in, I discovered that even the lobby was cool, with  a an art-deco design that was weaved throughout the entire property (including the hallways, with their funky carpeting and funkier wall art), that lent the place a coherent vibe.

 My Junior suite was not massive (as the term "Junior Suite" might indeed imply), but it was more than big enough for myself and my small band of merry travelers. The design was funky-fresh, with a that art-deco look subtly weaved throughout the room. We scored a flat screen television (which one of my suite-mates immediately turned on to flip through premium channels in search of any flashes of nudity), an iPod doc to curate our own pretentious playlist while we pre-gamed before hitting the bars on Fremont Street, and couches on which to chill out after tiring from one of our legendary in-room dance parties (to which you can only hope to one day be invited). Even the bathrooms were tastefully cool, with colorful walls and unique, raised sinks. I'm sorry, but a cool sink will always impress me. It's the little things in life, you know?

I stayed at The Cabana Suites before they opened their brand new pool area, which is set to start operating before summer. I'm sure that they've done just as nice a job on the renovated pool area as they have with the rest of the Boutique (after all, they did call it The Cabana Suites) and I'm secretly hoping it becomes the Vegas version of The Ace Hotel in Palm Springs' totally bitchin' Swim Club

While the small boutique hotel doesn't have its own bar or gaming floor (which is actually nice when you get back to your room late at night and you don't have to stumble through the haunting site of desperate souls losing their money at 4 in the morning), you can walk across the street to the El Cortez's main tower and enjoy a drink at the old-timey Parlour Bar, a reasonably priced yet delicious meal at The Flame Steakhouse, and some low-stakes gambling in one of the longest operating Casinos in town. And The Cabana Suites are conveniently located in walking distance to all of the great stuff Fremont Street has to offer, as the place is an extremely short walk from quirky Downtown hotspots like Insert Coins, The Griffin, The Downtown Cocktail Room, The Drink and Drag, and The Beat Coffeehouse.

While a hotel in Vegas is really just a place to do a few shots before spending a wild adventure on the streets of the city until the wee hours only to stumble back into for a few short and fitfully drunken hours of shut-eye, I will definitely be staying at the hip boutique in the near future. With its location in the heart of Downtown and super cool retro-modern design, The Cabana Suites at The El Cortez is the closest thing Vegas has to a truly hipster-approved hotel (at least until they get their act together and open an Ace in Downtown).