Up front, I freely admit, that I'm a fan of Las Vegas. I also understand why many people are not. If you have been there then you already know on which side of that fence you fall and whether or not what I'm about to write is of interest to you or not. Hey, it's a polarizing town. As a poker enthusiast and dedicated people watcher Las Vegas is one of my favorite travel destinations. The wife and I never tire of the city and we find something new every time we visit.
This time, we arrived on the same day as car chase/shoot-out/explosion tragedy which pretty much dominated the conversation over the weekend. On the other hand, given the heightened security after that mess, this was probably one of the safest weekends to find yourself on the Strip. So, without further ado, here are some high and low points of our recent trip.
Hotel: We stayed at New York, New York Hotel and Casino taking advantage of a casino marketing invitation that averaged out to about $60/night including a $25/night 'resort fee'. There's a lot of controversy about these fees which, in my opinion, raise very valid questions about pricing. IMO the fee should be included as part of the room-rate since there's no way to avoid them and they allow access to what I consider to be basic hotel amenities. (pool, fitness center, online access, etc.) When evaluating room-rates I always ignore what the published rate is and calculate the deal adding in the fee to get a better idea of total cost.
As far as the hotel/casino itself is concerned it was just OK. The front registration desk was always understaffed leading to long lines at check-in that moved very slowly. Even showing up with ID/credit card out and ready didn't seem to speed up the progress any. Unfortunately, the marketing promo that we were promised (with the rate, and an accompanying upgrade) did not come to pass. I had requested a King bed which they were out of, instead we got two Queen beds and a "free upgrade" to a Strip view. In reality we got to see the roof of the hotel, the back of the mock Statue of Liberty and could hear the roller coaster quite loudly in the morning. Added to this, the room was tiny and felt cramped. The shampoo was terrible to the point that we went to Walgreens and purchased a travel sized shampoo of our own. At least the beds were comfortable and they paid attention to my request for polyfill pillows for my wife's down allergy.
The casino at New York, New York is spacious, it has a good air circulation system so you don't really notice all of the smokers (unless you are sitting right next to one) and it has a good selection of games and 24 hour $5 Black Jack which seemed to be pretty popular with those who like that game. (I'm not a fan) However, there's no poker room in the casino so I spent most of my time elsewhere. Until the weekend nights*, the slots seemed to be fairly loose and at least let you play bonus games while they were draining your bankroll. However, if you're playing slots for anything other than entertainment, you need to rethink you're gambling strategy.
One new(er) trend in the casinos of which I'm not a fan is the sudden need to have "party pits" of gaming tables surrounding dance floors for hired dancers in lingerie. It's not that I'm a prude (this is Las Vegas after all) but I find it distracting and, especially this time, slightly uncomfortable. What didn't help is that one of the dancing queens on the stage at NY/NY was noticeably pregnant. If I had to guess she was late 2nd trimester. While I'm sure that union rules required the casino to allow her to keep working, perhaps they should have had the good sense to put her in a position where she didn't have to bare (almost) all in front of thousands of drunk gamers? I won't even talk about that in front of children (of which there were many). If you're bringing your child to Las Vegas then you deserve to have to answer the questions they're going to have about what they see.
Food: Eating in Las Vegas is always a mixed bag. You can eat VERY well on the Strip (and we did) but you are going to pay for it. Our big meal this time was on Sunday night at Gordon Ramsay Steak in the Paris Hotel and Casino. On our last trip we ate at Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak at the MGM Grand and it was one of my best dining experiences of 2012. Given that, I was very excited to try GR Steak as I have heard good things about it. Unfortunately, the experience was just OK.
Our reservations were for 8:00 and, having plans that fell through earlier in the day, we arrived at 7:00 with our hats in our hands apologizing, but requesting to sit at the bar for cocktails until our table was available. The door staff, to their credit, handled this with no problem and by 7:05 I was drinking a Vesper and the wife had a pear cider in hand while we watched the Oscars on TV. The drinks staff at GR Steak is very efficient, very professional and staffed completely with very pretty people. They are not, however, very chatty so don't expect to hold a long conversation with them. That was fine with me, but your mileage may vary on that point.
At exactly 8PM our table was ready and we were brought upstairs to our semi-enclosed booth after being instructed to look at the red lights overhead, which were supposedly representative of Ramsay's hand movements when he makes his signature Beef Wellington. I didn't see it but that's OK. As opposed to Craftsteak, with it's more muted tones and steak-house feel, GR Steak is loud and British punk. Think Ramones meets neon lights and you get a feel for the room. Prior to ordering your waiter will offer you the prix-fixe menus which comes with a signed picture of GR the rock star. It's a five-course tasting menu that includes the Wellington. I passed because it's (oddly) for two only, so if one person gets it the other diner is required to eat the same thing. Given that my wife is Celiac the tasting menu was not an option. They also roll around a "wheel of meat" cart with uncooked portions of the steak that's available for purchase. It was a big round shiny thing with slabs of steak backed by little round mirrors and was somewhat comical. That said, if you're a carnivore......
Speaking of my wife's dietary restrictions, GR Steak did a fine job accommodating. We ordered the sauteed mushrooms to go with our steaks and they informed us that my wife could not eat them due to soy sauce in the marinade. They checked everything with the kitchen that she ordered to ensure there were no issues. They asked, when I made the reservation, if there were dietary issues so that was nice. My wife ordered the 24oz bone-in prime rib and I had the 8oz rib cap Wagyu steak. Both were excellent. We also ordered whipped potatoes and sauteed spinach, both were fine.
Where I felt the restaurant fell down was in the service. It's all very slick at GR Steak, the wine list comes in the form of an iPad that's very user friendly. The wine list is expansive (and the layout on the iPad is by region which is nice) although not very interesting. There are, of course, plenty of 1st classification Bordeaux's on the list for thousands of dollars a bottle, some fairly basic Italian wines and the usual assortment of Robert Parker approved wines from California, Australia and South America. I finally settled on a Chateau Fontenil 2008 Fronsac at $99. It was a good, although not great wine that was not overly fruity or jammy but lacking the minerality needed to balance everything out. Considering the bottle retails for around $35 it wasn't too bad of a deal in a Las Vegas restaurant setting. The sommelier was extremely knowledgeable and very friendly, his service was perhaps the best that I received the entire night.
As is typical in a fine dining setting, we had a waiter and assistant who were serving us this evening. Apparently, several other tables had the same waiter and assistant serving them as well because there were long stretches of time where we received no service at all. I don't expect world class service when I'm having a steak at Outback or Texas Land and Cattle Co. but when I'm paying $300-$400 for a meal I do expect the service to be up to a certain standard. For example: If you're going to place the water bottle and wine out of my reach on the table then I shouldn't have to either sit 5 minutes before a refill or slide around to where I can stand up and pour it myself. On several occasions I had to do this. As I said earlier, the booth in which we were seated was semi-enclosed with high walls separating us from the adjoining seats. It was also semi-circular with both of us seated at the back of the curve. After finishing my appetizer (a ricotta and egg raviolo (more on that later) I wanted some more water and had to slide around to the end of the booth, stand up and pour some for my wife and I. This happened on multiple occasions as the waiter and his assistant were nowhere to be found. In my mind it all comes down to managing expectations. If you're listing yourself as a fine dining experience, then the service needs to be up to that level. When I ate at the Steakhouse at Camelot in the Excalibur Hotel & Casino for instance, it was not billed (or priced) as fine dining so I happily poured my own wine. It's also not acceptable, again in the context of fine dining, for an empty plate to sit in front of a diner for 15-20 minutes, this happened.
I don't mean to keep comparing GR Steak to Craftsteak but such comparisons are inevitable because they are competing for the same customer, with similar price points and food. Overall the quality and taste of the food, the environment and customer service at Craftsteak was just better, the wine list was more interesting, and the braised short-rib ravioli starter that I ordered knocked the pants off of the Ramsay raviolo.
One final thing: I don't understand the need now in restaurants for the servers to instruct diners on how to eat the food. The food-runners did a good job explaining to us what they were placing on the table, but then they proceeded to tell us how we NEEDED to eat it. I get that not everyone knows, when ordering a raviolo with egg, that you should cut it down the middle and mix the yolk with the brown butter to make the sauce but some of us do. I could even understand offering the advice as a suggestion, but the commanding nature made it sound a little extreme. Again, your mileage may vary on this matter.
Overall I rate GR Steak at a 7 out of 10, with the deducts coming on the service side.
We also ate at Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill in the MGM Grand for brunch on Sunday morning. The wife ordered an iceberg salad & mushroom omelet, I had a bowl of their clam chowder and corned beef hash. Both were excellent. With drinks, coffee, food and after dinner coffee and liquor the bill only came to around $100. I highly recommend this restaurant for a more casual meal.
Finally, we had Friday night dinner at Il Fornaio in New York, New York Casino which is a West Coast chain that served up some decent pasta. If you're on a gluten free diet it's handy to know that they can substitute gluten free spaghetti for almost any pasta. Again, the bill for appetizers, entrees and after dinner drinks was around $100. Be prepared however, because most of the seating here is "outside" next to the casino floor in an effort to mimic Italian al fresco dining. What this means is that the people watching with your meal is outstanding, but you're going to smell cigarette and cigar smoke throughout. And, whether you like it or not, people will be watching you eat as well.
Entertainment: On this trip we didn't see any shows, although we have in the past. I will say this, if you like Cirque du Soleil then you're probably going to like most of the shows they offer. My problem is that I've seen many of them and they are all starting to run together. The exception to this is Zumanity, which was the most disappointing Cirque show I've seen to date. I had high hopes for it, thinking Cirque would add an interesting, more adult, twist to the standard run-of-the-mill Las Vegas topless show. Instead we spent the whole night listening to juvenile jokes about lesbian fantasy and the supposed homophobia of the male audience with very little that could be considered romantic or seductive. It was more hype than heat with the biggest joke being that one young man didn't understand that the host for the evening was really a man in drag. Blah.
You'll get a million offers on the street for "discounted shows". I suggest you pass on those. They always come with a time-share tour string attached and the shows you can see are discounted for a reason.
Finally, one of my Las Vegas rituals is to schedule an appointment at The Art of Shaving on Sunday morning for a shave and (occasionally) a haircut. It's an hour of pampering while relaxing in a barber chair. My last barber, Wayne, summed up Las Vegas perfectly when he said "Vegas is the only town that I've seen where people bring a bunch of money they're prepared to lose." He's dead on. The more we travel to Las Vegas the less we gamble, but the more we do. You see people there plunking good money after bad in the slot machines hoping to win big or get back what they've already lost and that's sad. But you're increasingly seeing people there who aren't gambling much at all and are just out to have a good time. The casinos are responding to this by creating extravagant night clubs and massive pools where slot machines and table games used to be. Gambling will always be a part of Vegas, and their economy relies on it. Now though, more than ever, it's a party town with much of the old style sucked out of it. The hotels are all the same and the casinos are interchangeable. I'm not quite convinced that this is a good thing.
*The casinos will deny this, but I'm convinced the slot machines don't pay out as much during "peak" hours. I've found this at almost every casino that I visit: At around 5PM on Friday and Saturday, the bonus games and free spin features seem to turn off almost completely.