Top 10 Las Vegas trip experiences I tried last week
By Gary Trask
Over the last few years, I've been fortunate to check a number of items off the list, including a visit to Topgolf, a spin on the High Roller observation wheel, a 48-hour March Madness stint that involved a sampling of mobile sportsbooks and a few sessions of online poker at WSOP.com.
Last week, my primary purpose for being in Las Vegas was to cover the World Series of Poker. But a man can only sit at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino and watch thousands of people play poker for so long. There was more to see, touch and feel throughout Sin City, and that’s exactly what I did, as you’ll see below.
10. Downtown Container Park
Goodness, gracious! Great balls of ??! Even in slow-mo, our Mantis is a thrill! pic.twitter.com/AUCxV33Oag— Container Park (@DTContainerPark) July 24, 2017
If you’ve read this space before, you know I have an affinity for Downtown Las Vegas and, as a result, a few of the items on this list are from good old DTLV.
Container Park opened in 2013, but this was my first foray into it. The name gives away the concept. The family-friendly ringed-off area is an open-air shopping, dining and entertainment district made up of repurposed shipping containers. In all, there are about 35 businesses as well as a small concert venue, a treehouse playground and The Dome, which is described as an “immersive 4K-visual entertainment experience” with nearly 14 million pixels in a series of ultra-HD, 360-degree imagery.
While we thoroughly enjoyed our adult beverages consumed at The Perch and Oak & Ivey, the star of the Container Park show is the 40-foot-tall, 30-foot-wide praying mantis that sits by the entrance. It blows flames that go six stories high, burning about 50 gallons of liquid propane per day. If the idea behind the larger-than-life mantis was to attract attention and visitors, bravo to the folks who came up with the plan, because it works.
9. Dining at Downtown Grand
Let’s stay downtown and take you through a couple of fabulous dining experiences at Downtown Grand Las Vegas. Big things are happening at the property, which announced last week that it will soon break ground on an eight-floor, 495-room hotel tower and 250,000 square-foot annex. The renovation will include new conference and business spaces and a 7,000-square-foot fitness center with an outdoor climbing wall.
As for the existing property, Triple George Grill has been nominated for Best of Las Vegas for six consecutive years for good reason. And if you have a few Georges in your life, you may want to give them a call and invite them to dinner.
In celebration of its 12th anniversary, the restaurant is offering a 144-hour happy hour (12 days of 12-hour happy hours) that lasts through July 30. All men (and women!) named George receive a complimentary appetizer with a meal. Bring two Georges in and your party will be served a whiskey flight and dessert gratis. Finally, any group with three Georges will "inherit" a 96-ounce porterhouse steak and house wine free for the table. But even if you don’t know any Georges, this is still a great spot with exceptional service and food.
Another great foodie special at Downtown Grand is the monthly Culinary Road Trips, which provide great value. Led by Executive Chef Scott Commings, a winner of the TV show Hell’s Kitchen, the July dinner had a Las Vegas theme with a full menu of Italian food, including antipasti salad, meatballs, eggplant parmesan, fettuccini al Bolognese and a Linguini, mussels, clams and garlic plate, all topped off by a tiramisu dessert. In a joint venture with the Mob Museum, also located downtown, there was a trivia contest and everyone who attended received a gift bag with coupons and other goodies. Wine and beer was included, and the cost was just $50 per person. To no one's surprise, it was sold out. Next month, it will be a Philadelphia theme, so get ready for some authentic cheese steak sandwiches. Yum.
8. U.S. Darts Masters at Tropicana
As if I wasn’t already spending way too much time watching a fringe sport like poker, I decided to make my way over to Tropicana Las Vegas to check out the finals of the U.S. Darts Masters tournament last weekend.
I quickly found out that, like poker, going to a darts tournament is much more about the people, personalities and atmosphere than it is about the actual game. It was a jaw-dropping experience to walk into the ballroom and see about 1,000 diehard darts fans, wildly cheering and partying. The event was being aired live back in the U.K. so there were TV cameras everywhere. The beer was flowing, people were dancing, the music was blaring and I was standing in the middle of it all in awe. It was like a frat party meeting a soccer match. Not what I was expecting.
While there was definitely a large international contingent, there were plenty of U.S. fans in the house, as well. I spoke to one woman wearing a floral visor with “180” on the top (that figure, of course, signifies the highest score a player can record with three darts) who came to town from New Jersey with 30 friends to see the world’s best compete.
As for the competition itself, it’s not too often you get to see the best player in the world in any sport do his or her thing live and in person, but that’s what the reward was for making the trek to the Tropicana on this day. Michael van Gerwen is the reigning PDC World Champion and currently ranked world No. 1. The 28-year-old from the Netherlands looks like the bouncer at your local bar with his burly build and shaved head. And he’d mostly like kick you and your friends’ ass in darts at said local bar.
As the people who know darts told me, van Gerwen was dominating as he went on to win his 10th World Series of Darts title.
"It's so good to win the first U.S. Darts Masters in Las Vegas," van Gerwen growled after the match. "The whole event has been superb. The fans, the players and the PDC have been brilliant, so I can't wait to get back next year."
7. Breakfast at Peppermill
The Peppermill, located on the north end of The Strip just past Encore Resort, is a well-known, almost iconic venue, with its throwback, neon decor, 24-hour fireside lounge cocktail service and large breakfast portions.
The restaurant has served as the backdrop for classic films and TV shows such as “Casino,” “Showgirls” and “The Holly Madison Show,” and, according to the menu, it regularly serves famous visitors from the past and present, like Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Guy Fieri, Criss Angel and Floyd Mayweather. Apparently, Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller fame, is such a fan that he had a custom booth, modeled after the ones at the Peppermill, installed in his house.
Anyway, the breakfast did not disappoint. The service and set-up is diner-style and I went with the Munch’s Breakfast, which features peppers, onions, Linguica sausage, mushrooms and tomatoes mixed into hash browns, topped with three eggs with cheddar and jack cheeses. It’s considered a hangover cure, and it didn’t disappoint (not that I needed it to work, but I can now see why and how it would).
6. Robotic bartender experience
Unlike the Peppermill, which has been around for four decades, the aptly named The Tipsy Robot just opened inside the Miracle Mile Shops on The Strip in late June. The owner, Rino Armeni, former head of food and beverage services at MGM and Caesars, refers to himself as a “sci-fi” guy. He says he has created the only land-based bar in the world that has robotic bartenders serving drinks to its customers.
“Listen, I think controlling a robot is fun, especially if you can get a drink out of it,” laughed Armeni, 67, as he demonstrated how to order your favorite cocktail from one of the monitors that sit in front of the bar. “We’re not trying to replace the live bartender. We’re just creating a different form of entertainment for Las Vegas.
“One thing that has always bothered me is that despite all of the brilliant people and minds in this city, when it comes to food and beverage we always seem to be one step behind New York. Well, this is my gift to Las Vegas to finally be ahead of New York, because we have a patent and nobody can duplicate this.”
I have to admit, the experience is very cool. Armeni is right. It’s fun to ask and watch a robot mix you a cocktail, and the location is perfect, just steps off The Strip. Business was booming when we were there, which pleased Armeni to no end. When we asked what the two robots and accompanying software cost him, he laughed.
“A lot of money, my friend. A lot of money,” he smiled. “That’s why we have to get the word out and serve plenty of drinks.”
5. Concert at Flamingo GO Pool
Flamingo Las Vegas (@FlamingoVegas) July 17, 2017
I’ve been to Flamingo Las Vegas many times, but had not seen the new GO Pool on the property. So, when I saw that a band that was right in my wheelhouse – ’90s rockers Everclear – was going to be in town the same week as me, I made it a point to escape the Rio for a few hours and see the concert.
Not only was Everclear spot-on, but the venue is perfect for a concert. The 15-acre pool is like a tropical retreat with lagoons, waterfalls, and a contemporary look and feel. Many of the concert goers were in their bathing suits and watched the concert from the pool as the stage was place steps away from the water. But there was also plenty of room surrounding the pool to get comfortable and enjoy the show.
Typically, I feel like a dinosaur when I’m on the Las Vegas pool or club scene, but thanks to the generation Everclear comes from, there were plenty of guests that were my age or older, which was an added bonus. I will be back.
4. Blackjack at El Cortez and O’Sheas
No, this wasn’t the first time I played blackjack in Las Vegas. Far from it. But it was my first experience trying to beat the game at two very unique venues, and both were quite enjoyable.
I wrote about El Cortez Hotel & Casino after staying at the downtown property last fall as it was celebrating its 75th anniversary.
The casino has made a number of changes in recent years, and in its steady push to attract a younger crowd (yes, millennials) it has become renowned for its ultra-loose slots, $1 roulette bets and full-pay, 3-to-2 single- and double-deck blackjack tables with a $5 minimum bet, all of which are a rarity in Las Vegas these days.
To make the blackjack sessions even more enticing, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights they drag out huge tubs filled with ice and beer and place them directly behind the dealers. The music is chic and loud, and instead of having to wait for the slow cocktail servers to fetch you your complimentary drink, as soon as you’re on empty, the dealer signals a server stationed behind him or her and you immediately have your empty can replaced with a frosty one. Never seen anything like it before.
Earlier this year, El Cortez also added double roulette tables that offer space for 12 players at one wheel. It has hosted millennial groups and events, including the Vegas StrEATS food truck festival, the Life is Beautiful music festival and a competition for local designers to redesign four of the hotel’s suites.
While O’Sheas didn’t offer the same player-friendly odds (yes, shame on me for playing where blackjack pays 6-to-5), the atmosphere inside the tiny casino that is part of the LINQ Promenade on the Las Vegas Strip was as fun and inviting as I’ve ever seen. The recently renovated, 5,000 square-foot venue is just like your favorite Irish pub back home (no, Michael van Gerwen wasn’t the bouncer). There are a dozen beer pong tables, and on Sunday night there was a superb cover band rocking the place out.
As the music cranked, my friendly tablemates and I bobbed our heads, mouthed the words to the lyrics and enjoyed a great two-hour run. The dealers were fantastic and everyone at the table made money, even with those cringing 6-to-5 blackjack odds. It doesn’t always happen like this when I play “21,” but overall, this was one of the most entertaining blackjack sessions I’ve ever experienced.
3. Three new hotels
The Cromwell (@CromwellVegas) July 21, 2017
I tried three hotels in Las Vegas that I had never stayed at before. We’ll have more reports on what’s happening at each of the three properties for you in the coming weeks, but here’s a capsule look at them:
- The LINQ Hotel & Casino: Formerly The Quad Resort and Casino (2012-2014) and before that the Imperial Palace (1979-2012), this Las Vegas Strip casino is owned by Caesars Entertainment and brought the previously mentioned High Roller and LINQ Promenade to town. The casino is lively and the promenade is a new outdoor entertainment district that has become one of my favorite spots in Las Vegas and is the reason why I stumbled upon O’Sheas.
- The Cromwell: This is the only luxury boutique hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, and the management has taken some drastic steps in recent months to make everything from the gaming to the accommodations to the food and beverage options more player- and guest-friendly, including opening a state-of-the-art sportsbook before the football season starts in September. The rooms are very hip, with leather couches, paisley wallpaper, hardwood floors and an actual working retro radio. As soon as I stepped inside, I wanted to sit down and order a scotch and light up a cigar. (I didn't, but read on to find out where I did). Also owned by Caesars, it sits on the former location of Barbary Coast and Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon and is home to the legendary Drai’s After Hours and Drai’s Beach Club & Nightclub, and Giada, which offers incredible views of The Strip and whose celebrity chef, Giada De Laurentiis, I'm told, makes frequent visits to chat up the guests. The property is a fraction of the size of a Bellagio or Caesars Palace and houses just 188 rooms, but as GM of The Cromwell and Senior Vice President of Global Operations Blake Segal told us, “It’s about understanding where your place is in the market and doing what you need to do to win the battle. We think that the things we are doing here are the best way to differentiate ourselves, and we think our guests are going to agree.”
- Lucky Dragon Hotel & Casino: The Asian-themed resort opened in 2016, becoming the city's first ground-up casino development in six years. While its location is not ideal for foot traffic, as it sits at the far north end of The Strip, nestled between Circus Circus and The Stratosphere, the property and its accommodations are elegant and modish. It caters to an Asian crowd with signage that has the Chinese language first and English second, a multilingual staff, and mostly baccarat and pai gow tables in the 27,000 square-foot casino. Also, the indoor/outdoor tea garden and lounge with custom-built Gongfu tables that sits just off the main lobby is a great spot for a pre- or post-dinner cocktail or dessert drink.
2. USFantasy Sports
USFantasy Sports, the only legal fantasy sports platform in Nevada, was unveiled last August. In short, USFantasy Sports offers a pari-mutuel format that follows the model seen when betting on horse racing. So, instead of drafting a fantasy team for an entire season or selecting a daily fantasy team with salary cap restrictions, you can bet individual players in everything from football, basketball and golf to NASCAR, MMA and WSOP, in win, place, show, Pick 3, daily double and exacta pools.
We spoke to the company’s president Vic Salerno, a legend in the sportsbook industry, while in Las Vegas — and while he says things have been slower than expected during the first year of operation, they are excited about the near future for a couple of reasons.
First off, the USFantasy mobile app is expected to be unveiled before the football season. Secondly, with a full year under its belt and the average bettor becoming more educated about the format, the start of football season comes at an opportune time. Finally, USFantasy Sports is primed to expand soon to other states, where it is expected to draw up a much more brisk business than Nevada.
“We think it’s going to be a home run in other states,” Salerno predicted. “In Nevada, there are just so many other things to bet on. In a state where there is less of these kinds of things to wager on, the average bettor will embrace it much more.”
We tried our luck in some baseball markets with some success and got to put our money where our mouth is with our WSOP predictions when we bet (and lost) with tickets on Benjamin Pollak to win and a Scott Blumstein-Pollak exacta ticket.
If you understand pari-mutuel, USFantasy Sports can not only be a lot of fun, but you can also find some serious value in some markets that you wouldn’t find on the typical sportsbook board. We will most certainly give it a try again next time we're in Las Vegas for the football season.
1. Montecristo Cigar Bar at Caesars
Caesars Palace unveiled this this posh 4,000 square-foot bar with a humidor, lounge and private vault early last year and, quite frankly, I can’t believe it took me this long to try it. After one visit, you can safely bet your last Cohiba Behike that it will be a regular stop for me on future trips to Vegas. It’s already been nominated for Playboy’s Best Bars Award (2016), and it’s easy to see why as soon as you park yourself down at the plush bar.
In addition to a wide selection of cigars in the 400 square-foot, walk-in, glass-encased humidor, Montecristo’s serves a wide variety of rare whiskeys, wine, beer and tasty appetizers. You will not regret ordering the Rolling Smoke (Maker’s Mark 46 bourbon, Laphroaig Islay whisky, coffee bean-infused Carpano Antica vermouth and vanilla), especially if world-class bartender Lucas serves it up. There’s a large video wall made up of 12 55-inch high-def TVs on the far left-hand side of the bar that can be seen from any vantage point, and I’m told it’s a perfect landing spot in the fall for football season.
While the 100-seat bar is the epicenter of Montecristo, the courtyard space in the back makes it feel like you are sitting outside with lush green design elements and a unique skylight feature. The 10-seat vault is the most intimate area in Montecristo, and is rented out by private groups for dinners and parties.
I’ve been to my fair share of cigar bars, and Montecristo, hands down, has the best ventilation system I’ve ever experienced. After sitting at my seat at the bar, watching my beloved Red Sox win in extra innings, puffing a Padron Damaso and downing a Rolling Smoke and the fried calamari, I didn’t have to burn my clothes because they smelled like I had spent the last two hours in a cigar bar – even though that’s exactly what I did.
See you this fall, Lucas. Already looking forward to it.