By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1996 Gourmet Magazine
Conscientious travelers that we are, we flew to Las Vegas, Nevada, toting an itinerary complete with lists of casinos to explore, restaurants to try, shows to see, and places to shop. On the video screens above the airport’s baggage-claim area, thunderous advertisements cajoled us to eat well, to buy plenty, and to watch master magician Lance Burton execute himself on stage at the Monte Carlo. As we drove along the Strip (Las Vegas Boulevard’s hotel-and-casino crowded south end), effervescent signs and edifices beckoned from left and right—”the architecture of persuasion,” Yale’s Robert Venturi once called it—and within minutes of arriving in one of the fastest-growing cities in America (and the largest one founded in this century) we were reeling, our well-laid plans run amok by the dazzle.
Bewilderment is an apt Las Vegas frame of mind, for of all the things the phoenix of the Mojave does well, disorienting visitors is what it does best. In this twenty-four hour playground, the rotations of the earth are pretty much ignored: The casinos, which never close, are devoid of clocks and windows, and their cool air defies the desert heat; the fun parts of town never get dark. In a place where revelry trumps reason every time, the logic of time and space that most of us use to navigate through mundane reality is rendered obsolete.
Hedonism is the law of the land. Name your pleasure: If you’ve fallen in love, you can marry instantly (and divorce almost as fast). If you’re upset, you can rent a machine gun by the hour or pray round-the-clock (Las Vegas has more churches per capita than any other city). If you’ve come with money to burn or have made a killing, you can buy a necklace of seventeenth-century gold doubloons or a suite of Bulgari diamonds; an amusing Judith Leiber handbag; or a signed pair of Mike Tyson’s boxing trunks. Hungry? Casinos entice you with buffets that serve the most food for the least amount of money; the top ones boast white-glove dining rooms with surf ‘n’ turf in Cognac cream and flaming cherries for dessert. Beyond such proverbial excess, trend-setting chefs Wolfgang Puck, Mark Miller, and Emeril Lagasse have introduced a refined American cuisine in casino restaurants that replicate the Young Turks’ original successes. There is no appetite Las Vegas doesn’t beg to satisfy.
When the Nevada legislature legalized gambling and loosened marital laws in 1931, the die was cast. Las Vegas—a way station on the road to Hoover Dam, then under construction—became an attractive escape from normalcy. Dam workers, Hollywood merrymakers, and sightseers found a taste of the Wild West at saloons known as “sawdust joints” and at dude-ranch hotels. When Bugsy Siegel came to town in 1942, he fashioned a seminal mixture of gangster sleaze and show-biz sparkle at the Flamingo Hotel, situated away from downtown on the old Los Angeles Highway (now the Strip). Bugsy got bumped off; in his wake came truckloads of financing from dubious sources to build new casinos, each one raising the stakes in deluxe pools, bright lights, and big-name stars. This postwar building boom has been blamed for the demise of swank night clubs elsewhere in America as none could pay their performers what Vegas did. Tourists came not only to enjoy the likes of Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, and Judy Garland, but to marvel at an attraction every bit as wondrous as the radiant neon signscape: the detonation of atomic bombs in the desert northwest of the city.
Las Vegas style was soon crystallized by the randy savoir faire of the Rat Pack, whose defining moment was the night in early 1960 at the Sands Hotel when Frank Sinatra tossed Sammy Davis, Jr., off the stage and into the lap of Senator John F. Kennedy. But Vegas was about to change in a big way. Howard Hughes bought half the town, lessening the stigma of mob’ dominion and chasing hookers and topless dancers off his properties. A “wholesome” casino called Circus Circus set out to attract a family crowd with clowns and carnival games. The triumphant return of Elvis at the International Hotel in 1969 (he had flopped at the New Frontier thirteen years earlier) brought in a whole other class of middle-American tourists. And the opening of Caesars Palace on the Strip redefined the very nature of casinos. Ignoring the traditional desert decor, Caesars founder and owner, Jay Sarno, chose a Roman orgy motif. Caesars was a temple of self-indulgence, a world unto itself. As new hostelries tried to outdo its thematic rapture, Las Vegas became a city of virtual realities; and as gambling was legalized in other states, it became all the more imperative for its casinos to offer more, more, more.
The fundamental attraction of any casino is still the opportunity it offers to get rich quick, but hordes of non-gamblers are now drawn to the hotel/casinos of Las Vegas by the thrill of their aesthetic impudence. Featuring some of the liveliest public architecture since the Parthenon, the establishments are designed to indulge a particular fantasy of ecstasy or adventure, and all blare their theme well before you enter.
Caesars Palace is surrounded by “classical” statuary. Luxor Las Vegas is a thirty-story glass pyramid, complete with a “Nile River” and guarded by a sphinx twice as big as Egypt’s (its laser beam eyes had to go after too many complaints from the nearby airport). The Oz-themed emerald-green MGM Grand has a yellow brick road for an entrance. Turn-of-the-century San Francisco is rampant at Barbary Coast, and medieval England is alive and well at Excalibur, where brilliantly lit turrets and spires loom above Las Vegas Boulevard. Treasure Island’s motif is heralded by a lagoon out front in which a full-sized British man-of-war battles a pirate ship every ninety minutes—complete with cannons firing, sailors leaping overboard, and dramatic music. And with the opening this month of New York, New York Hotel & Casino, the Strip now boasts its own Manhattan skyline—including a 510-foot-tall Empire State Building, a replica of the Statue of Liberty, and a 300-foot-long version of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Though it’s easy to suspend disbelief in a city so unreal, it can be a challenge to suspend good taste. Some of the casinos seem no better than Disney World with slot machines and cocktail waitresses, and their garish juvenile themes call to mind those of miniature golf. THE MIRAGE IS a cut above—by Vegas standards, tasteful; and by any measure, over the top in the best possible way. Outside, an artificial volcano rumbles, then spews hot lava. The entrance is through a rain forest of Canary Island date palms and bowers of bougainvilleas. The tropical reverie also includes a huge coral-reef aquarium behind the registration desk, filled with sharks and prettier fish, as well as swimming lagoons with waterfalls, banana trees, and secluded cabanas. In addition, The Mirage is home to Siegfried and Roy’s Royal White (Bengal) Tigers, who perform nightly in a pyrotechnical magic show (the quintessential Vegas act), and who are sometimes housed in a lobby viewing habitat located not far from another of the hotel’s attractions, the enormous dolphin pool. Upstairs, away from the commotion, accommodations are elegant but less than sybaritic. In Vegas you’ll find few hotel room minibars and very little on TV: The casinos want you out of the room, downstairs having fun.
Shopping in The Mirage, on its own street of stores, is sensational. We’ve never seen so many Judith Leiber handbags in one place. Brioni suits, Moschino jackets—most of the clothing for sale is sophisticated enough to command a power table at Morton’s of Hollywood… except, perhaps, for one echt Vegas Moschino women’s business suit we saw: Of conservative cut and color, it featured a red and black lace bustier sewn to the outside of the jacket!
A tram connects The Mirage to Treasure Island, where The Treasure Chest jewelry store sells authentic pieces of eight retrieved from Spanish galleons and made into pricey necklaces, pendants, and earrings.
CAESARS PALACE is another hotel grownups can enjoy. Originally aimed at high rollers, it is still hypnotically grandiose, featuring a replica of Michelangelo’s David and a floating cocktail lounge called Cleopatra’s Barge, with a figurehead of Egypt’s famous queen. Gerard Vullien, formerly of Maxime’s in Tokyo, is the chef at Caesars’s premier restaurant, the PALACE COURT, where Vegas opulence is tempered by the chef’s rigor to produce the most exquisite meals in town. From svelte lobster bisque to salmon wrapped in a gossamer potato crust and flamed with lemon vodka to chocolate-dipped berries and table-brewed Kona coffee for dessert, this food is imperial. After dinner, have drinks under the stars at the piano bar overlooking the Garden of the Gods pool; then—if you still have money to burn—ante up in the adjoining Palace Court Casino, an intimate gambling salon pecan-crusted chicken breast, and we were delighted to take advantage of “Nevada’s largest Tequila selection.” Other big name restaurateurs at the MGM Grand include Emeril Lagasse, whose NEW ORLEANS FISH HOUSE has a raw bar that makes you want to nosh and linger for hours, and Wolfgang Puck, whose WOLFGANG PUCK CAFE IS a sort of coffee-shop Spago with a cheerful view of clanging slot machines.
The theme at BALLY’S LAS VEGAS resort, connected to the MGM Grand by monorail, is “a touch of class,” best evidenced at the property’s Sterling Champagne brunch. Bulk feeding is an obsession in Las Vegas, and most other buffets offer tons of mediocre food for people who would rather spend their time and money at the gaming tables. At Bally’s Steakhouse Restaurant on Sunday there is a tremendous amount of food, but it is good. Omelets are made to order, and so is sushi—expertly. There are heaps of caviar and warm blinis, smoked salmon, salmon steaks, lobster strudel, and freshly opened oysters and clams on the half shell. And there are meats: rack of lamb, veal strudel, beef tenderloin. Pies, tortes, cakes, mousses, and pastries are supplemented by warm peach “Martinique” a la mode. Champagne flutes are kept full of Piper-Heidsieck. Ladies get bussed on the hand by the maitre d’ when they arrive, and they depart with a long-stemmed rose. It is all quite ridiculous and wonderful, i.e., Vegas incarnate.
THE RIO is a Brazilian Carnival–themed hotel that features a spirited Copacabana-style dinner show and a weekend buffet the locals consider the best deal in town. Less known, but a treasure, is FIORE ROTISSERIE & GRILLE, The Rio’s high-priced dining room. A handsome environment of mahogany and linen, Fiore sports a changing menu of plush exotica that includes pepper-crusted elk chops and buffalo steaks. Even familiar fare gets the royal treatment: Seared tuna is flavored with hundred-year-old balsamic vinegar, lamb is roasted to the pink over olive wood, a medallion of beef is dusted with white truffle. Diners’ perks include intermezzo sorbet splashed with Dom Perignon and ornamented with edible flower petals, discreet purse stools standing by the tables so milady needn’t leave her handbag on the floor, and a selection of fine cigars and Cognacs proffered after dinner on a climate-controlled terrace.
In a city where old landmarks are regularly torn down to make way for newer, better ones, BINION’S HORSESHOE is an uncommon taste of history—and a very different experience from the high-tech spots on the Strip. Located downtown, along “Glitter Gulch,” which has recently become a pedestrian mall, this sprawling joint remains a shadowy betting parlor where gambling still has an alluring whiff of sin about it. Grizzled veterans crowd the craps tables, blowing onto dice for luck and whooping with abandon when hot bones deliver lucky seven. Tourists come to have their pictures taken as they stand against a backdrop of a million bucks—a tapestry of a hundred ten-thousand dollar bills in a big gold horseshoe. After an all-nighter, crap-shooters line up for Binion’s ham-and-eggs breakfast, a downtown tradition.
Many travelers never leave the casino complexes, making Las Vegas a tough town for independent restaurants. But ANDRE’S has flourished for years. A quiet mansion on a side street with cozy country-French decor, it is intimate and understated, and a favorite haunt of neighborhood and visiting gastronomes. You might start a meal with pate de foie gras or Malpeque oysters on the half shell and crown the repast with a lofty Grand Marnier soufflé. Andre Rochat’s kitchen is abetted by a dining-room staff that can be callow, but charmingly so. When our eyes widened as a silver dome arrived at table, covering a baked lobster stuffed with Pernod-scented shrimp and scallops, the waitress couldn’t help but scold us, “No peeking, now!” before she lifted it with a flourish. There are no gaming tables here, but there is one spectacular attraction, which Monsieur Rochat is happy to show to interested guests: a wine cellar with bottles long predating Las Vegas, including some in the several-thousand dollar range for seriously wealthy oenophiles.
A very different kind of restaurant, also located outside the casinos’ orbit, is the GREEN SHACK, originally opened to feed the construction workers building Hoover Dam. It is a ramshackle supper club beloved by locals, who come for crunchy skillet-fried chicken served with honest mashed potatoes and hot biscuits.
THE VENETIAN RISTORANTE is another non-corporate culinary gem—a roadside grotto with a long menu that ranges from fundamental pastas, piccatas, and parmigianas to a grand charbroiled veal chop. The essential thing to eat is a starter of pork neck bones, luscious finger food served in a bowl after having simmered in a pungent wine marinade. A town favorite for more than forty years, the Venetian is as close as Vegas has to a neighborhood eatery. Raw brick, stucco, and a scenic mural create a charming ambiance reminiscent less of Italy and more of America, circa 1955—when eating Italian food was a romantic adventure.
In those days, Las Vegas was an oasis of glamour and vice. The glamour has subsided now that conventioneers and families have become big business, and gambling is no longer wicked (at least according to all those states that sanction it), but there is still no place on earth more devilishly seductive. Seated on the plane as we flew out of town, we marveled at the faces of our fellow passengers. They were dazed from too much of everything but sleep, and yet there was a contented, beatific look about them. We realized the effect the visit had had on us only after we’d tried to make a call from an airport pay phone back in New York. The line was busy, and, at the sound of our quarter clanging into the coin return, we found ourselves almost whooping for joy.
As with a surfeit of any pleasure, a spree of eating and spending, gaming and gawking can tire a person out. One restorative is the Las Vegas Sporting House. In this immense, twenty-four hour health club, you can do whatever it is that makes you feel fit, whether that means lifting weights, catching an aerobics class, or sunbathing nude (women only). The good hotel/ casinos have their own plush gyms, but the joy of the Sporting House is that your workout companions aren’t just fleshy hotel guests; many are hard-bodied local show girls and show guys whose beautiful physiques are their fortune.
Just thirty minutes west of town is the Nevada desert, home to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, a place to get away from it all, driving or hiking among sandstone bluffs of dazzling red and yellow striations. Wild burros roam near the road (don’t feed them, they bite); and scenic horseback rides are available at Bonnie Springs Ranch, a little Western theme town with a family motel as homespun as Vegas is glitzy.
Aside from the intrinsic wonder of Hoover Dam, which created Lake Meade from the Colorado River, there is something deeply satisfying and logical about a thirty-minute trip to this engineering marvel. Without the power it generates, there would be no neon on the Strip, and without the artificial lake, Las Vegas might still be nothing more than a crossroads in the desert. Like the city itself, the dam is an awesome triumph of human will over nature’s way.
Bonanza Gifts on the Strip claims to be the world’s largest gift store, but, if your taste runs to mementos more useful than inflatable Wayne Newton dolls and clocks featuring dice instead of numerals, consider the Gambler’s Book Shop, where several thousand books, videos, and computer programs are available to help you beat the odds. We couldn’t resist taking home one volume titled How to Become a Cocktail Waitress. What other reference source imparts such valuable tips as, “When someone asks for calamari and soda, they probably mean Campari and soda”?
Leaving Las Vegas with a satchel full of money is a fantasy nourished by the ubiquitous slot machines spitting out coins. Even if you aren’t lucky enough to break the bank, you can go home with a retired and restored one-armed bandit (assuming your state permits ownership). At a warehouse store called Vintage Slots, gleaming baroque beauties are lined up along with other vintage gambling-hall furnishings, including blackjack tables and roulette wheels. Alas, the slots are sold empty: Customers must supply their own jackpots.
Bally’s Las Vegas
Binion’s Horseshoe Hotel and Casino
MGM Grand Hotel/Casino
The Rio Suite Hotel and Casino
Andre’s French Restaurant (permanently closed)
401 South Sixth Street
Las Vegas, Nevada
Coyote Cafe MGM (permanently closed)
Las Vegas, Nevada
Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House
Fiore Rotisserie and Grill (permanently closed)
The Rio Suite Hotel & Casino
Las Vegas, Nevada
Green Shack (permanently closed)
2504 East Fremont Street
Las Vegas, Nevada
Palace Court (permanently closed)
Las Vegas, Nevada
Spago Las Vegas (new location)
The Venetian Ristorante (permanently closed)
3713 West Sahara Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
Wolfgang Puck Cafe