Thursday, November 29, 2012

Drais The Roof: Bills To Be Replaced By Nightclub-Centric Resort

It seems that low-rent casinos are going the way of the dodo bird, at least as far as The Strip goes.

After the closing of O'Shea's a mere six months ago and the continued metamorphosis of Imperial Palace into The Quad, Caesars Entertainment has just confirmed plans to shutter their other mid-Strip Casino-equivalent of a dive bar, Bill's Gamblin' Hall. The home of $3 buckets of beer and obscenely low stakes gaming tables, Bill's will close in February 2013 in order to undergo a $185 million face-lift that will turn it into a hip nightlife mecca. After the place is shut down for about a year, Bill's will be reborn as a beautiful butterfly with as yet undisclosed new name that will sport such new features as a upgraded hotel rooms, a glass balcony hanging over The Strip, and three new stories designed to house a 59,000 square foot nightclub and pool deck managed by the good people who run Drai's After Hours. While Caesars has been mum about the new name of the renovated property, a popular rumor amongst Vegas-watchers is that the entire property will be actually re-branded as a Drai's Resort, which would a greater emphasis on the nightlife aspect than any other resort in town (which is saying a lot, considering the trend in Sin City over the last decade).

This makes a certain amount of sense, I suppose. Drai's is such a popular and well-loved brand that they opened a second location on the top of The W Hotel in Hollywood (something I've never understood since Drai's Las Vegas made its name as an "After Hours" spot to head to after all of the other clubs start to empty out, an irrelevant feature in a city where its illegal to serve alcohol after 2:00 AM. I'd begin a rant against this stupidly outdated law if it wasn't so severely off-topic, but seriously... what are we, living in the middle ages?). Nightclubs continue to bring in tons of revenue for Las Vegas resorts, even as the recession has driven down their gambling profits. It's a good, smart play for Caesars. So why does the shuttering of an admittedly pretty grungy casino give me a case of the so-sads?

It's certainly possible that I'm only feeling melancholy because today is one of the 10 or so un-sunny days we get in Los Angeles every year and I've been listening to Radiohead and The Smiths on Spotify all day, but the imminent demise of Bill's has got me feeling a little blue.

The place is the last of a dying breed of truly cheap spots on The Strip. While Downtown, despite the many hip additions opening there seemingly every month, still has plenty of Bill's-like spots that feature really cheap booze and even cheaper table limits, The Strip is starting to run dry similar spots. I'm not saying that Bill's is the only type of Casino that should be on The Strip... but I am saying that it is a type of casino that should be represented somewhere along Las Vegas Boulevard. While nightclubs filled with attractive people trying to look disaffected enough to get past the most discerning doormen are certainly part of a balanced Las Vegas vacation experience, so too should slumming it at a place like Bill's to enjoy hot-tub sized buckets of beer and a roulette table where it takes you an hour and a half to lose $15.

Don't get me wrong... there's nothing "nice" about Bill's. The carpets were ugly, the place smelled like stale beer and cigarettes, the rooms were adequate at best, and it was often more crowded with scum and villainy than the Mos Eisley Cantina. The staff is mostly old-timers who took their time pouring decidedly non-fancy yet stiff (and cheap! so cheap!) cocktails. But that was the charm of the place; it had character. It's one of the spots that felt like it was actually connected to old Las Vegas (even though the name Bill's Gamblin' Hall was something of a reinvention itself, as the casino was once known as The Barbary Coast).

The texture of the place will soon be replaced by something new and slick, designed to appeal to the young hip taste-makers who won't have nostalgia for the charmingly ugly place it replaced. But I have to wonder... are we not near a saturation point in terms of nightclubs in Las Vegas? Yes, it's been the most reliable money maker for resort owners in the last decade, but the emphasis on nightlife is starting to make everything on The Strip feel a little too homogenous. I know, I know... it's The Strip. It's the main tourist drag in Las Vegas, but do we really need an entire resort (if rumors of The Drai's re-branding are to be believed) built wholey around the nightclub experience?

Drai's is one of my favorite clubs in Las Vegas (in the fact that it's one of the few nightclubs at which I don't feel a crippling sense of letdown once I'm finally admitted in after waiting in an infuriatingly long line), and I'm sure the management of the club will knock it out of the park when the remodeled Bill's opens its doors in 2014. It just makes me a little sad that another unique, if kinda scummy, part of the Las Vegas landscape will be replaced by something slick and trendy. The good news is that you (and I) still have have a few moths to head out to Bill's to tip back one last bucket of cheap Beer and gamble away some cash with their dirt-caked chips in Gamblin' Hall's honor.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Goin' Off The Rails On A Crazy Train: Los Angeles To Las Vegas Rail Line To Open In 2013?

Sometimes, dreams do come true.

There have been rumors of a train running from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for years now, and it seems like those rumors are finally coming true. While early concepts involved a sleek, futuristic high-speed Bullet Train that would smoothly whisk passengers on Mag-Lev tracks to Sin City in about two hours using anime-style technology (a rumor that became so popular that a local band named themselves after the concept), we unfortunately don't live in Japan (a country that exists in the future and present at the same time), so it sounds like we'll have to settle for a conventional train instead.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Las Vegas Railway Expresss Inc. has inked a deal with Union Pacific Railways to use tracks that were previously only used for freight to take excited passengers from Fullerton to Downtown Las Vegas on Thursday and Friday nights, with return trips on Sundays and Mondays.

The creators of The X-Train are making up for lack of sci-fi technology (and for the fact that you'll be forced to go to Fullerton, of all places) with what they promise will be a luxurious "party train" experience. Tickets will go for a relatively steep but not outrageous $99, which will reportedly include a meal and one free cocktail.  The X-Train will be up and running, if everything stays on track (pun fully intended) by late 2013.

The trip will takes less than five hours, and the fact that the train will have a bar running throughout the duration will certainly make the experience fly by faster than the usual drive on the 15, which is often gridlocked with bumper to bumper traffic (a situation that will only get worse as the number of cars that drive on the interstate is expected to more than double in less than a decade).

Amenities will include meals prepared fresh in an onboard kitchen, flat screen TVs at passenger tables, sports lounges for watching games, concierge desks for booking Cirque Du Soleil tickets and dinner reservations, and some sort of live performances (which will most likely just mean DJs spinning in some sort of moving lounge room, but might mean live bands performing in cramped quarters, like in that horrible Buick ad featuring the even more horrible band Neon Trees "rocking out" on a bus). Unsurprisingly, the train will also feature private cars that can be rented for bachelor/ bacehlorette parties, corporate meetings, or Eyes Wide Shut style rich person mask orgies.

I like the idea of hopping aboard a Las Vegas-bound train from LA (though it would be even better if the train actually departed from LA and not Fullerton) and not worrying about driving on what can be a stressful drive on a packed two-lane interstate (especially since I'm usually the one who ends up driving when I head to Vegas with friends... though sometimes people have to drive my car back on the Sunday morning after Saturday night antics, ya feel me bra?), though the potential for douche-tastic antics runs incredibly high.

There's no denying the fact that a thing called "The X-Train" that whisks people to Sin City and promises to be a party on rails will definitely attract an element of Ed Hardy bros with frosted tips (as a side-note... how are there people still wearing Ed Hardy? All evidence on OKCupid points to the fact that ladies would never sleep with a dude who wears that stuff, but I guess there are still enough girls out there for whom T-Shirts with bedazzled Japanese Tigers printed onto them isn't a deal-breaker), but maybe, just maybe, the creators of The X Train will take a hint from the fact that their train's destination is in the increasingly quirky Downtown neighborhood and include some more offbeat offerings that appeal to folks looking for something a little more outside the box(car).

Just think about it... the creators of this crazy train have the opportunity to bring Wes Anderson's obsessively art-directed train cars from The Darjeeling Limited to life (with a more Las Vegan than Indian twist, of course). Hire cool artists to paint and decorate the train, stock the bar with interesting Craft Brews and fresh Cocktail muddlings, hire some actually unpredictable live entertainment acts (which means bands better than the friggin' Neon Trees and DJs that spin something more interesting than Dubstep or Top 40), and bring experts onboard to chat with passengers about interesting (and sellable!) topics, like Wine and Food. If the train is seriously serving fresh meals made by in their kitchen, why not hire cool Chefs that can put together something that is locally sourced as they start to prepare it and becomes less so as the journey continues? All I'm saying is offer a little something extra for people who are not interested in the typical Las Vegas experience.

All of these ideas are probably fantasies, I know. The X-Train will probably be dominated by lowest common denominator programming, cheap mass-market booze options, and disappointing food which will please the less discerning percentage of the population who end up riding the train. And I'll swallow it without (too much) complaint (even as I try to plug my nose from the overwhelming stench of Axe Body Spray), because drinking on a train sure beats sitting in traffic for hours on a Friday night. Bring on The X-Train, in whatever form it ultimately takes!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Turkey Day in Vegas

Thanksgiving is supposed to a family holiday. But it's also supposed to be a celebration of when our nation stole the land we live on from the natives who lived peacefully and in harmony with the place we now call home. Also, it's a day when Al Roker points at floats of outdated cartoon characters (why is Underdog still included in the Macy's Day Parade every year? Do kids even know who Underdog is?).

Anyway, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays for which you might need a holiday. Your family might get mad at you, but why not avoid the usual questions about when you're getting your life together from your parental units and skip the stressful part altogether with a trip to Las Vegas instead of home? While this idea seems irresponsible, you know that it also seems more than a little bit appealing. And while many places across the country are closed up for Turkey-Day, most of Las Vegas is open for business. So what, if you were to take the audacious plunge and forgo family-time for Sin City, are the best things to do in Las Vegas over Thanksgiving?

I'm thankful that you asked, because it gives me the not so rare opportunity to pontificate on my opinions about how to spend a successful Sin City Turkey-Day.

Even if you skip tradition and head to Las Vegas, you'll probably want to enjoy a Turkey dinner somewhere. It just feels downright un-American to not consume the tryptophan-filled bird somewhere, and luckily you'll have many options around town at which to enjoy a good ol' American-style Thanksgiving dinner.

If you want to go all fancy-pants with your dinner, Le Cirque at Bellagio is offering a five course (and very expensive) prix fix meal with stuffed Turkey and the like. The food will most definitely be perfect (and better than your mother makes it... sorry Ma', but it's true) and the service will be impeccable, but if you're looking for a more downscale experience, then New York New York's Irish Pub Nine Fine Irishmen is serving Guinness-Glazed Turkey, which sounds pretty awesome (and much cheaper than a five-course prix fix meal at an internationally acclaimed resto).

You won't miss your mom's Apple Pie when you can visit some of Sin City's decadent sweet-centric businesses. Choose from dessert haven Sugar Factory at The Paris, Planet Hollywood, MGM Grand, or Mirage, as well as Chocolate-centric places like Jean Philippe Patisserie (with locations in The Bellagio and Aria), or Max Brenner at The Forum Shoppes in Caesars Palace. Some of the most sweetly decadent desserts are available at the whimsical Serendipity 3 at Caesars Palace, which features mega-sized Chocolate Blackout Cake, Apple Cobbler A La Mode, Deep Fried Orea Sundae, or their world famous Frrrozen Hot Chocolate. If you're feeling extra fancy and want to show off all of the money you have as a bonafide 1%er, the restaurant also serve a $1,000 "Grand Opulence" Sundae, which is topped by 23 Karat Goldleaf and Gold Flakes and is in the Guinness World Record Books as the most expensive Sundae on the planet.

Yes, Thanksgiving is a great day to check out and watch a bunch of football games. Luckily, this is Las Vegas we're talking about and you can find plenty of spots to post up for hours and watch all of the games at once. Sports bars galore, such as Lagasse's Stadium at The Venetian (I'm no longer boycotting Sheldon Adelson's resort now that his $100 million in donations aimed at defeating the President TANKED BIG TIME) or the Brit-tinged Crown and Anchor will have all the games playing on flatscreen TVs. Or you can get MORE emotionally involved in the outcome of an event you have no control over by putting some money on the games at any of the bazillion sports books located in every single casino... where they'll bring you a free drinks to help deal with the inevitable trauma of all of your bets crumbling to dust.

The only Turkey I need for Thanksgiving is Wild Turkey, amIright? Heavy drinking is generally a necessary part of any holiday, usually because being around family for an extended period of time is essentially impossible without a little help from alcoholic beverages. But just because you've narrowly escaped an awkward familial reunion for Sin City doesn't mean you won't want to indulge... and of course Las Vegas is as good a place as any if you feel like having a drink, or two, or many more than two. It will come as no surprise that I'll recommend some of the more divey corners of Sin City when looking for a place to post up for some serious drinking... my first endorsement from when I started this blog nearly two years ago was The Double Down Saloon, and the punk rock dive remains a favorite. Downtown has a nice collection of interesting watering holes located near one another, including hipster hang The Griffin, the artsy Artifice, or nightlife spot for geeks Insert Coins, amongst other great choices.

Enjoy high end cocktails at The Chandelier in The Cosmopolitan (a bar that is, as the name implies, actually built into the inside of a massive Chandelier, with glowing beaded lights) or the mixology mecca The Downtown Cocktail Room, while Beer lovers can enjoy an excellent selection of Craft Brews at the off the Strip Aces and Ales or Public House in The Venetian, and winos can delude themselves into believing that their alcoholism is a classy habit at The Rio Wine Cellar & Tasting Room, Double Helix Wine & Whiskey in The Shoppes at The Palazzo, or Aureole in Mandalay Bay (a restaurant and bar with a Wine tower so tall that the beautiful ladies who fetch the bottles for you have strap into a pulley system).

While betting money you'll most likely lose pointlessly doesn't seem to fit in the holiday spirit, think about it: Thanksgiving is a holiday about celebrating America, and what is more American than Las Vegas? And how do you celebrate the city more than by indulging in the main reason for its existence? We call this line of logic "justification" or "enabling," but whatever you want to call it, if you're in Las Vegas, you're gonna end up wagering at least some money. Do it right by finding the places that feature low minimum bets so you don't lose your shirt too quickly, such as Bill's Gamblin' Hall on The Strip or basically all of the places in Downtown.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Escape from Douchebaggery, Part 32: Culinary Dropout

The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino is a contradiction, a giant corporate, profit driven Resort themed around the rebel yell of rock music. While most locations of the somehow still popular Hard Rock Cafe chain do not come close to pulling off the trick of serving up rock n' roll attitude along with their mediocre Chicken Wings, with hermetically sealed costumes and props from rock heroes becoming kitsch in the new contexts, the Casino version in Las Vegas actually has a little bit of rock n' roll in its soul.

This may just be because Las Vegas as an entire city encourages debaucherous behavior more than other locations of a restaurant chain that attracts overweight tourists in ill-fitting T-shirts and families with young children (though the casino attracts its fair share of said demographic). Las Vegas is a town built upon the profits of gambling, with loose open container laws and bars that never close. Of course it's the ultimate city for a link in the internationally ubiquitous Hard Rock chain to actually rock, and to do so in at least a semi-hard manner.

Culinary Dropout, the hip new gastropub that recently opened as part of The Hard Rock's new redesign, lends some considerable cool cred to the resort. Gastropubs have become pretty ubiquitous as of late, in Las Vegas and many other cities. High end pubs with fancy versions of burgers and other bar-food staples are cropping up everywhere, but Culinary Dropout definitely brings something new to the table.
The staff at the ultra-casual restaurant is not required to wear uniforms, instead dressing up in their own clothes. Once you get past the initial confusion of which people flitting past your table work for  the restaurant and which are just trying to find a bathroom between drinks, it really does give the place a more relaxed and unique vibe. Relaxed bordering on non-existent dress code for the staff is just the beginning, as many of the tatted and mo-hawked servers and cooks look like they got done knocking back Ass-Juice shots and listening to The Germs and The Stooges on the jukebox at The Double Down Saloon across the street.

Adding to the atmosphere are exposed piping hanging from the ceilings, colorful chandeliers, chrome and wood walls, mismatched furniture, and a patio area with views of Hard Rock's bustling pool scene. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant's soundtrack  is heavy on the rock, with some good and semi-obscure tunes playing in the background at levels that weren't too high, making actual conversation was possible. But all of the cool design elements would mean nothing if the food didn't rock... and the food does indeed rock quite hard.

The menu was created by Executive Chef Eric Suniga, who has worked under foodie heavyweights Thomas Keller and Michael Mina, so you know there is love and care going into the cuisine. My friends and I sampled some fresh Oysters from their Raw Bar and shared a Cheese and Meat Anitpasit plate before moving on to the main course. I ordered the Fried Chicken with the Honey Biscuit, Potatoes, and Gravy, because Fried Chicken is my favorite food (and also because I'm a disgusting person with no shame who refuses to learn how to eat right). It was one of the best Fried Chicken meals I'd had in a long time... just crispy awesome delicious goodness. I also sampled my friend's 36 Hour Pork Ribs, which were tangy, spicy, and awesome, and my other buddy's Jambalaya.  Both of their selections were good, but I handily "won" dinner with my order.

Un-schockingly but also very pleasingly, as is the case with most restaurants in the loosely defined "gastropub" genre, the place has a very well curated Craft Beer selection, with offerings from excellent Breweries like Dogfish Head, Rogue, Lagunitas, Green Flash, and Goose Island. I enjoyed a hearty and strong Squatter's IPA from Utah, proving that they can make high octane Beer in a state where much of the population isn't allowed to drink any.
So yes, Culinary Dropout is a restaurant that has jumped on a recent culinary trend located in a resort that's part of a corporate tourist attracting international chain of cafes and hotels... yet despite all that, the place is still pretty darn rock n' roll. Plus, and most importantly... the food is really good.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Linq To Rock Hard

Blinking off the post-Obama celebration hangover (if you want to shout "Yes We Did!, that's fine, just try not to be too loud around me today), I was browsing the interwebz and noticed that a few more venues have been announced for the upcoming Linq Project in the middle of The Strip, which is basically a gaping construction sight next to an in-the-middle of renovation Imperial Palace at the moment.

The Tequila Ranch Western Bar, World of Coke Store (which already has a location under a giant Soda-Pop bottle at The Showcase Mall), and Ghiradelli Chocolate Company (a San Francisco landmark that Chocoholics will fiend for) are all going to occupy store-fronts in the entertainment district in the foot of a giant Ferris Wheel, but the most exciting addition is also a big surprise... The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Yes, there is already a massive Rock Hall in Cleveland, and no details have been released about the new one opening in Las Vegas. VegasChatter speculates that it will be some kind of off-shoot of the original version, which makes a lot of sense but also explains very little. What form of offshoot will it take? What will be included in this museum that's not included in the one in Ohio?

While it can be assumed that the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame won't be a replacement for the original (because there won't be space to build anything nearly as large as the original and because nobody from Cleveland's Tourism Bureau seems to be in a panic about losing the one of the few reasons you'd ever want to go to Cleveland in the first place), the fact is that Las Vegas is a much more appropriate town for such a museum. Sure, the song Cleveland Rocks is totally a real song that actually exists, but the sentiment expressed in said tune is surely at least half-ironic (plus, it's association with ultra-square 90's sitcom The Drew Carey Show hasn't done much for its reputation). Either way, Las Vegas is a whole lot more rock n' roll than most cities that aren't Cleveland, what with its devotion to debauchery, open container laws, and the fact that its very nickname is Sin City.

So while it's too early to tell exactly what will be included in the Vegas Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one can hope that it's as respectfully curated as the original one is in Cleveland (and that it's not just a kitschy Hard Rock Cafe, since the city already has not just one of those on The Strip but also features a Hard  Rock Hotel and Casino located just off Las Vegas Blvd.). Nobody has confirmed if any acts will be inducted into the hallowed ranks of rock history at the Vegas location in addition to the yearly, elaborate Cleveland ceremonies (which this past year notably featured an Axl-less Guns N' Roses, the exact inverse of the current Slash-less GNR currently in residency at The Hard  Rock Hotel and Casino... full circle! ) One thing that's nearly guaranteed is that the Rock Hall Vegas will include a live venue. Combined with the already announced Brooklyn Bowl, this will make The Linq a very rock-centric little slice of Las Vegas indeed, not something that was expected from Caesar's original plans that seemed to appeal more to middle class families than dangerous Rock Gods and their devoted fans. This means The Linq might actually be a very cool little area to see some great live music after strolling through a museum devoted to rock history. Granted, these venues will be side by side with some very un-rock n' roll chains (while The Yard House features an admirable devotion to Beer, it's hardly sinful Rock Bacchanal and more like The Cheesecake Factory with a big Suds list). So serious celebrations of Rock N' Roll rebellion will rub shoulders with happy families and yuppie tourists. It's a contradiction that's just oh-so-Vegas.