vegas 2010, part 5

Dave and I had dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s Bar and Grill in the MGM. I had a prosciutto and goat cheese pizza on flatbread. We were getting on well with our waitress so I asked her for a recommendation. “This may shock you, but we’re tourists,” I began. I asked her which bars or clubs she’d recommend on the Strip, as a local. As a local, she replied, she wouldn’t go to any of the clubs on the Strip. But the two bars in New York New York – the Bar in Times Square (which we’d visited) and Nine Fine Irishmen – were fun places to get a pint. We thanked her for the advice.

For a Vegas bar pretending to be an Irish pub in New York City, Nine Fine Irishmen does all right. The man next to me ordered a Guinness; I checked with him on its quality. “It’s all right,” he said with a sage nod. I ordered one myself and validated his judgment: I’d say about a seven out of ten. Better than most bars can manage, but not as good as the best you can find in Boston. We stuck around long enough to watch a Celtic rock band play a few numbers and chat up some of the tourists.


I had talked Dave and I onto the guest list at Tabu, a privilege which would expire around midnight. So we left New York New York at 11:30 and sidled to the front of the line, brushing past the texting tourists. “This is the Vegas experience I was looking for,” Dave observed. Once inside, Tabu proved to be a typical nightclub scene – dim lights, deafening music, suspicious guy/girl ratio – albeit with the added liberty that Vegas induces. I kept the floor warm until I could coax Dave into partying, whereupon we found a cluster of girls to dance with until 3:00 AM Pacific time. We let them go then (they had to catch a flight in three hours) and retired soon thereafter.

vegas 2010, part 4

Given the rain Boston was suffering on Saturday, I never would have forgiven myself if I didn’t at least try the pool. It was borderline swimming weather: 65 and sunny, but with a stiff breeze that had threatened my hat on several occasions. I trucked through the hotel lobby, the casino, the restaurants, the shopping mall and down an escalator to get to MGM’s massive swimming pool complex.

The first pool I found was closed. The second pool I came across, an artificial river winding around a fake rock formation, was filled with tubing dads with tribal sleeve tattoos and dirty palm fronds. The third pool, Wet Republic, was a fenced-off imitation of MTV’s Spring Break ’98: margaritas in yard glasses, DJ spinning house music, no one really swimming. If I wanted to change, I could use one of the men’s rooms (which smelled like men’s rooms at public pools invariably smell) or rent a cabana.

Finally I flagged a pool attendant down. “Do you have any regular pools around here?” I asked. “Where a guy could do laps?”

“We’ve got … no, that one’s closed,” he said. “There’s the river pool.”

“I’m just looking for a pool,” I said. “A concrete hole in the ground filled with water.”

He pointed me toward a pool near the center of the complex that was no deeper than five feet. I swam around for a bit, climbed out shivering and then tried the river pool. It was actually fun, aside from the bobbing Busch cans: an artificial current pulled you along if you kicked your feet up. Worth exploring if you stay at the MGM.

vegas 2010, part 3

The same friend who’d recommended the Burger Bar also suggested the buffet at Paris for breakfast. Dave and I walked north on the strip, bracing ourselves against wind gusts and weaving through crowds of potbellied tourists. When I visited four years ago, the view across the street from the Aladdin had been lone and level sands stretching all the way to the mountains a few miles off. That view had been replaced by the skyscrapers of City Center; also, the Aladdin was now a Planet Hollywood resort. If there’s one city you hoped would never sell out, it’d be Vegas.


After the Paris buffet (really good), I showed Dave around the casinos near the center of the Strip: the Wynn former Wynn properties (Mirage, Bellagio) and the classic Caesars Palace. Dave remarked on how much more comfortable he felt in Caesars than in any of the other casinos: less stimulated, less assaulted by noise and light. I thought about it for a moment. “The ceilings are lower,” I observed. “The sound doesn’t carry and your sightlines are nearer to the ground. You’re confronted with fewer simultaneous explosions.”

Walking home, we crossed one of several new skyways across the Strip, passing a vagabond in dirty leather and ripped jeans yelling at a living statue. “Go away!”, he screamed. I was about to correct the vagrant (he can’t go away; he’s a statue) but let it pass when the vagrant crossed the skyway to slump down next to a panhandler. The panhandler had a cardboard sign asking for a couple of dollars. The living statue had quite a few dollar bills in a hat in front of him. “Go away!”, the man in dirty leather screamed, on the skyway between City Center and the hotel that used to be Aladdin.

Update: Thanks to Alex A. for the note above; MGM now owns the Mirage and the Bellagio. Terry Benedict makes a lot more sense now.

vegas 2010, part 2

Vegas offers plenty to look at even if you don’t gamble. After the Burger Bar, we wandered north, passing through the Luxor, Excalibur and New York, New York. The Luxor has the widest variance between quality and spectacle: an impressive architectural feat that’s widely regarded as a shitty place to stay. Excalibur’s worse: the faux-Bavarian castle, meant to signify a British king from five centuries earlier, looks gaudy even by Vegas standards, and its biggest attractions are an Australian male stripper troupe and the voice of Satan himself, Louie Anderson. New York, New York isn’t bad: the casino’s nice, the interior attractions resemble the parts of Manhattan that a Midwesterner would want to visit and it’s got some nice bars.


Dave and I stopped in one of them, the Bar at Times Square, on Friday night. Two dueling pianos dominate the floor, with velvet ropes channeling entrants around them: $10 to go left and stand, $20 to go right and sit. We paid $10 each and stood, buying expensive domestic beer and filtering into a crowd. The emcees kept the crowd rolling with a string of hits from the last thirty years: Bon Jovi, Journey and that staple of piano bars, Billy Joel. A knot of feral Canadians tipped them $40 to play Nickelback; it took three full verses and two choruses of “Rockstar” before enough Americans got their act together to outbid them. First Olympic hockey, now this.

A bride-to-be of no more than five feet in height, flanked by bridesmaids and matrons, waved me down at one point. “Do you know the band Snow Patrol?” she asked. The name sounded familiar. They did that song about chasing cars? I nodded. “You look just like the lead singer!” I’ve never heard that one before, but I quietly added it to the list and thanked her. We made friends with her coterie and danced for a little while until the fatigue of a six-hour plane ride and a three-hour time change overtook us. “Keep an eye on her,” I yelled at one of the bridesmaids. You never know what this city will do to people.


vegas 2010, part 1

They hit you with the slots first thing at McCarran. We crossed all-weather carpeting, of the bright pastels popular in the late 60s or contemporary KayBee Toys, until we hit the line for ground pickup. McCarran Airport’s right off the strip, closer to downtown Vegas than Logan is to downtown Boston; you could see the green ziggurat of the MGM Grand from the front door. But it’s still a $12 cab ride. The cabbie made an unconvincing pitch for Lance Burton (“if you guys are lookin’ fer something to see while you’re in town …”). The patter seemed a little too rehearsed, but I couldn’t swear he was lying to us; he didn’t offer to hook us up. Vegas makes me sensitive to the fix.


The desk man at the MGM greeted Dave and I (my friend Dave, first time in Vegas) with corporate politeness. His hands rattled across the keys with an energy I wouldn’t expect of someone at 10:30 PM on a Friday shift. The MGM’s a lovely hotel, sure, but you have to respect it as an efficient machine as well: a team of housekeepers, maintenance and desk staff who turn over five thousand rooms every week. This revelation was just sinking in as the clerk handed us two room keys and directed us to the elevators. Our room had a southward view, showing us the airport we’d just left. Pictures of Jack Lemmon, Lucille Ball and Lou Diamond Phillips (together at last!) hung on the walls. The room, like the city, whiffed of cigarettes.

Dave and I could see Mandalay Bay from our hotel window, so we decided to walk there for dinner. We left by the main exit, putting us on Tropicana Ave. I wouldn’t call this the first mistake of the weekend; rather, the first time we underestimated Vegas. Every building you can see on the strip is thirty stories tall; every sign, taller than the tallest building you’ve ever lived in. Merely getting off the MGM grounds took ten minutes of walking, by which time we ended up outside the Tropicana. Getting from there to Mandalay Bay took another twenty minutes. Walking from the edge of Mandalay Bay through its roaring fountains, lush greenery and three-hundred yard driveway took another ten minutes, mostly uphill. Once inside, we navigated the shops at Mandalay Bay, flagging down a native guide and sniffing for trail sign, until we found the Burger Bar, recommended to us by our friend Joanna. She had not steered us astray: my Kobe beef burger oozed flavor. The beer selection would have honored a brew pub in any American city; in a tourist trap bar in a tourist mall in a resort hotel in America’s adult playground, it seemed excessive. But catering to every taste means catering to good taste, too.

the city that stays up all night is all right

Traveling this weekend. Posting resumes Tuesday.