The lights of Las Vegas are countless; the rooms, 130,000 at last tally, nearly so.
Really haute cuisine
By John Poppy
7 P.M. Can a flash of vertigo 833 feet above the pavement bode well for dinner? At 7 o'clock, four of us started our evening at Top of the World, the Stratosphere Hotel's revolving "gourmet room" three-quarters of the way up the tallest building west of the Mississippi, a 1,149-foot tower next to the hotel. Finding a decent meal in Las Vegas is easy these days—the casinos' handy cafés and lavish buffets are a safe bet—and for cuisine that rivals the Strip's other entertainments you can try fancy dishes by mighty chefs in luxurious dining rooms. We chose a place that delivers something none of the others do, a spectacle that's no illusion: the city itself, in evening dress.
As we walked to our table, our view of sunset behind the Spring Mountains to the west was swinging subtly northward. Diners at Top of the World ride a sort of lazy Susan that turns full circle every 80 minutes past windows canted so you can see down as well as out.
The scene, dizzying at first, turned astonishing as night swooped onto the desert. A glowing carpet ran 10 miles in every direction: the relief-map textures and nocturnal colors of metropolitan Las Vegas, home to nearly 1.7 million people and zillions of lightbulbs.
"Do you still look out there?" Bruce asked Kevin Merrick, our waiter. "Every night for nine years," Kevin said. "Since we opened."
He went to fetch dinner—pecan tuna, rack of lamb for two, lobster ravioli, with a pinot he'd suggested—and we turned back to the window. "Coming up on the Eiffel Tower," Alan said. There it was below, weirdly familiar although half size and neighbor to a Statue of Liberty, a black pyramid, and other fantasies along the Strip, that boulevard where even fine food is just part of the show.
Ours cost us $75 apiece. Was it worth that? As we folded our napkins, Camille said, "View and meal: well matched."
Top of the World 2000 Las Vegas Blvd. S., (800) 380-7711, www.topoftheworldlv.com.
By Rebecca Antioco
8 P.M. If you've been to Las Vegas before, seen the shows, and lost track of both time and money, you may want a new perspective. From the snug fit inside a helicopter, you and five other passengers can see the Strip—and downtown Las Vegas—in all its glory, from end to end, in about 15 minutes. Not even the best cabdriver in the city can promise that. And from roughly 1,500 feet in the air, Las Vegas is spellbinding. You'll be so enraptured by the light show at the Bellagio fountains and the beacon shining from atop the Luxor pyramid, you'll easily forgive the out-of-date audio tour for encouraging you to "Check out the fabulous Siegfried and Roy at the Mirage!" Vegas earned its reputation as Sin City for good reason, but when you need a break from self-indulgence and excess, this is a way to rise above it all.
Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters Through AAA's Show Your Card & Save program, members receive a 25 percent discount on Vegas Neon Nights tours. www.papillon.com.
9 P.M. After years of bleeding business to the Strip,
the casinos of Glitter Gulch (as downtown Las Vegas is nicknamed) responded in the early 1990s with the Fremont Street Experience, a pedestrian mall that runs east from Main Street for five blocks. Small stages, vending carts, and kiosks pepper the street, and barkers dressed as mermaids and cowboys entice passersby to stop at their casinos. But the most riveting come-on here is a 90-foot-high canopy that boasts an electrifying display of lights.
At dusk the canopy, dotted with 12.5 million bulbs, becomes the world's largest screen. On the hour, the lights of the mall go dark and a Peter Max–inspired animation lasting between six and nine minutes races up and down the 1,400-foot vaulted ceiling.
When the lights come back up, wander the street where one-cent slots, $7.95 prime rib dinners, and low-ceilinged casinos are clustered close together (rather than a $12 cab ride apart). Don't miss Neonopolis at 450 Fremont Street, where you'll find both the Lost Vegas Historic Gambling Museum and Store and the Neon Museum, whose collection of vintage signs hangs from the walls of an interior courtyard.
Fremont Street Experience (702) 678-5600, www.vegasexperience.com.
By Ron Evans
10 P.M. From Liberace to Celine Dion, entertainers of all stripes have stepped into Las Vegas's spotlight. Today, the visages of current heavy hitters—from celebrity impersonator and comedian Danny Gans to the nameless members of the avant-garde Blue Man Group—can be seen emblazoned across towering casino marquees. But in a
city whose mystique is predicated on illusion, it's master magician Lance Burton who best conveys the reigning sense of wonder.
With his jet-black hair and Jack-Nicholson-meets-Clint- Eastwood voice, Burton has been a permanent fixture on the Strip since 1991 and currently holds court at the Monte Carlo Resort & Casino.
Throughout Burton's 90-minute whirlwind of grand illusions, spectators are left marveling as the wizard of wonder—with help from a requisite number of leggy assistants—escapes from a hangman's noose and makes a white Corvette vanish from the stage. But it's during the show's sleight-of-hand segments that this magic man truly shines. Whether he's pulling a seemingly endless supply of wine bottles out of an empty tube or transforming a little boy into a human slot machine by coaxing a bucketful of coins from his mouth, Burton engages his onlookers with a nonchalant commentary that underscores his expertise by making light of it.
Even as you remind yourself that it's all smoke and mirrors, there's still something both funny and a tad mind-blowing about watching a guy make a duck appear out of nowhere—not just once, but five times in a row—simply by flicking a handkerchief. Clearly, Burton knows how to keep his audience from disappearing.
Lance Burton Monte Carlo Resort & Casino, (702) 730-7160, (877) 386-8224, www.montecarlo.com.
11 P.M. Shopping in Las Vegas can be a much better bet than cozying up to a roulette table. A number of the Strip's biggest resorts house their own elaborate indoor malls, with hundreds of stores—one-of-a-kind boutiques as well as old standbys like Ann Taylor, the Gap, and Victoria's Secret—that stay open until the midnight hour.
At the Venetian's Grand Canal Shoppes, you can spend $78 for chinos in Banana Republic or splurge on a 3rd-century cameo of Medusa from Ancient Creations for just under $2,000. If you prefer more modern jewelry, head to the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, home to one of only three Harry Winston ("Jeweler to the Stars") retail locations in the nation. One-carat diamond earrings starting at $18,000 aren't your style? You can still pamper your ears with a new CD from the nearby Virgin Megastore. To top off your tour, move on to Bellagio and stroll through a little enclave of high-end shops with names like Prada, Giorgio Armani, Hermès, and Tiffany & Co. Even if you keep your credit card in your pocket, you can bask in the extravagance.
Bellagio Store hours: daily 10 a.m.–midnight. 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S., www.bellagio.com.
Forum Shops Store hours: Sun.–Thurs. 10 a.m.–11 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. 10 a.m.–midnight. Caesars Palace, 3500 Las Vegas Blvd. S., www.caesars.com/Caesars/LasVegas/Shopping/.
Grand Canal Shoppes Store hours: Sun.–Thurs. 10 a.m.–11 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. 10 a.m.–midnight. The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S., www.venetian.com/Pages.aspx?id=202.
By Nino Padova
1 A.M. Las Vegas is one of the few cities in the world where you can get a watered-down rum and Coke served to you slotside at 6 a.m. by a woman wearing fishnets. But if you're looking for a more sophisticated drinking experience, venture beyond the freebies. When it comes to pouring the good stuff, Vegas has it all—quality, variety, expert service, and enough taxis on the streets to ensure a night of safe tippling.
Vodkaphiles should head to Red Square, the Russian-themed lounge at Mandalay Bay, where they mix martinis using vodka from Poland, Canada, Jamaica, Idaho, and just about anyplace else that produces the transparent spirit. Decide for yourself which is more imposing, the decapitated 20-foot-tall statue of Lenin that looms at the bar's entrance or the eight-page vodka selection. Don't get hot if the service feels a bit chilly—a 25-foot-long sheet of ice covers the entire bar.
NO-NO: Ordering vodka you can find at your local grocery store.
TOP SHELF: A wheelbarrow of rubles (or about 250 bucks) will put you in a $40,000 sable coat for a private tasting in the vodka locker.
If your cocktail compass points south of the border, pay a visit to the Tequila Goddess at Treasure Island's Isla Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Bar. Mariena Mercer, a sparkly 6-foot-1 blonde, presides over one of the largest selections of 100 percent blue agave tequila in Las Vegas. Let her walk you through the three grades of tequila—blanco, reposado, and añejo—each served with jicama slices and sangrita (a spicy tomato juice–based concoction), which help bring out the toasty flavors of the agave.
NO-NO: Licking salt off your hand.
TOP SHELF: The $99 Goddess Elixir, a margarita made from the five-year-aged Herradura Selección Suprema and mixed by the goddess herself.
The only known sake sommelier in Sin City works at Shibuya, the MGM Grand's ultrachic Japanese restaurant. Don't worry if the 60-bottle sake list reads like a Zen koan; grab a seat at the 50-foot marble sushi bar and wait for Eric Swanson to enlighten you on the finer points of rice wine. After a few cups, you'll be able to distinguish a crisp ginjo-shu from a fruity
NO-NO: Warm sake. A premium brand of sake is best served slightly chilled.
TOP SHELF: A heaping plate of sashimi paired with a $400 bottle of Dassai.
Red Square (702) 632-7407, (877) 632-7800, www.mandalaybay.com.
Isla Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Bar (702) 894-7349, (866) 286-3809, www.treasureisland.com
Shibuya (702) 891-7777, (877) 793-7111, www.mgmgrand.com.
How To Bring Down The House
2 A.M. I could have sung "New York, New York" and worked the crowd into a frenzy with my comedic off-key rendition of this Sinatra standard, then snapped them out of it with a little ring-a-ding-ding. I had high hopes. I would show this throng, jaded by Las Vegas's many lounge acts and stage spectacles, that I was one who had Frank's phrasing down.
How often had his voice and mine fox-trotted a smooth slow-quick-quick over the years, with the nimble backsliding, through his decades at Capitol and Reprise? Granted, his was on vinyl, mine was in the shower. So it goes.
I chose "Come Fly With Me" for my karaoke debut at the local watering hole, Ellis Island Casino & Brewery. The clientele was my kind—people with more pride than cash in reserve. Esteemed DJ Timmy Welsh called my number and I hopped up on the 3-inch-high platform, eager to deliver some of the jazziest pentameter in pop music. "In llama land there's a one-man band . . ." and so on.
The result? Let's just say luck was blowin' on some other guy's pipes. All my years of rehearsing did nothing for my timing: The words streamed across the monitor before I was ready for them, and the synthesized orchestra got ahead of me. Still, the audience, a generous bunch (many of them aspiring and off-duty performers), applauded. In the end, my act was worth the gamble—I did it my way.
Ellis Island Casino & Brewery Karaoke every night. 4178 Koval Lane, (702) 733-8901, www.ellisislandcasino.com.
Gold Coast Hotel and Casino Karaoke Wednesday nights. (800) 331-5334, www.goldcoastcasino.com.
Barbary Coast Hotel and Casino Karaoke Monday nights. (888) 227-2279, www.barbarycoastcasino.com.
By Jeff Miller
4 A.M. Cultural myth depicts a Las Vegas wedding as a ceremony born of lonely desperation, bookended by late night drinking and a morning of startling revelation.
Some people, real and otherwise, seem to follow such a script—say, Britney Spears and TV friends Ross and Rachel. The chapels themselves play a stellar supporting role by offering 24/7 availability and drive-through windows. But true love actually abounds.
Outside the famous Little White Chapel, a mature couple—sporting smiles, with sullen teenagers in tow—pulls up to renew their vows. Inside, a young bride-to-be and her covey of cooing friends wait in the tiny lobby; she is nervous but thrilled in a white sleeveless gown and color-coordinated flip-flops. Suddenly, a party of 20, complete with tuxedos, gowns, and beaming flower girls, spills from the Chapel of Promises. Who cares that the tiny courtyard of concrete, artificial turf, and knee-high faux picket fence is just five feet from four lanes of traffic? Despite the fact that the average wedding here takes a scant 20 minutes, the happiness is palpable.
More than 120,000 couples obtain marriage licenses in Vegas each year and over 50 wedding businesses stand ready to help with limos, rentable apparel, and singing Elvis impersonators.
Spontaneous marriages are the exception, however, because no chapel can perform the ceremony without the proper paperwork. That said, late night proposals can be accommodated: Clark County's marriage license bureau is, like Vegas itself, open around the clock on weekends and holidays.
A Little White Chapel 1301 Las Vegas Blvd. S., (702) 382-5943, (800) 545-8111, www.alittlewhitechapel.com.
Las Vegas Marriage Bureau Clark County Courthouse, 200 S. Third St., (702) 455-4415, www.accessclarkcounty.com/depts/clerk/pages/marriage_information.aspx.
By Dean Blaine
7 A.M. Nothing satisfies a late night appetite quite like a hearty breakfast. The Big Kitchen Buffet at Bally's, one of the city's largest buffets, serves up 4,480 eggs and more than a ton of potatoes each week. From Belgian waffles to prime rib, it's breakfast on a grand scale.
Bally's Big Kitchen was one of the first to push the buffet envelope, offering made-to-order omelets and departures such as shrimp and smoked salmon. But as similar eateries began experimenting with their menus (think breakfast pizza), the Big Kitchen stuck to more traditional fare. In Las Vegas, of course, tradition includes crowd favorites like cheese blintzes and apple crepes. And best of all, the Big Kitchen Buffet serves breakfast every day until 2 p.m.
Big Kitchen Buffet Bally's Las Vegas, 3645 Las Vegas Blvd. S., (702) 967-4930, www.caesars.com/ballys/lasvegas.
Photography by Chip Simons
This article was first published in March 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.