When your life as a New York style reporter is defined by martinis at the Four Seasons Hotel, gallery shows in Chelsea, and the occasional afternoon stroll through Bergdorf Goodman, a concentrated dose of bad taste is refreshing-it's that dash of paprika that Diana Vreeland was always going on about. Which is why I've always loved Las Vegas: it's a town of loose slots, female impersonators, 99-cent shrimp cocktails, "tits-and-feathers" extravaganzas, Siegfried & Roy. It knows no propriety.
Or at least it didn't used to.
Today, this gambler's paradise—once a haven of hairpieces, white shoes, and free drinks for every senior citizen who strapped herself to a slot machine—has gone up, up, upscale. The latest crop of restaurants, shops, and shows rival the best of New York and Los Angeles. They should: that's where most of them came from in the first place. (They cost nearly as much, too.)
The surprise is that the new, cleaned-up Vegas is still a hell of a lot of fun. In its quest for taste and respectability, the city hasn't forgotten why people come. In Vegas, more is still more. Bob Mackie is still Armani.
At Osteria del Circo, a restaurant in the new Bellagio hotel, for instance, dinner is interrupted by an enormous splash. Outside, geysers of water are shooting 240 feet into the night sky like fire hydrants knocked over by wayward cabs. On the loudspeaker, "One"—that singularly sensational song from A Chorus Line—is swelling like the spinach gnocchi in my stomach. Meanwhile, in the distance, past the aqua-spectacle, a JumboTron flashes the logos of Gucci, Prada, and Hermès. It's delicious, it's dazzling, it's disgustingly overdone. And, like every other diner in the place, I am loving every minute of it.
The theory behind the new Vegas is simple: if you don't have status, buy it in the jumbo economy size. In the frenzy to be bigger and better, this city of almost half a million people is borrowing cachet from all over the world and putting its own spin on it. Uncomfortable being Six Flags Over Wayne Newton—the city's last incarnation as a family destination never did feel right—Vegas is appropriating architectural touchstones (the Doge's Palace, the Arc de Triomphe) for its newest theme hotels. It's outfitting itself in the emblems of international shopping style, and importing restaurants of national renown. All to attract the upscale travelers who wouldn't have been caught dead here five years ago.
The town's first Four Seasons just opened as a hotel-within-a-hotel on the top floors of the new Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. Jungle-themed, the latter will house a branch of chef Charlie Palmer's New York restaurant, Aureole. But this one will have a wine tower in which sommeliers will bungee-jump to pick up bottles. If that's not impressive enough, there's also to be a poolside version of the popular Los Angeles restaurant, Border Grill. And don't forget the production of the hit Broadway revival Chicago, starring Chita Rivera, that took up razzle-dazzle residence in March. (The last Broadway show with a permanent Vegas company was Andrew Lloyd Webber's roller-skate-orama Starlight Express.)
Craving still more?Don't worry. Mandalay Bay isn't the only hot property performing successful transplants. Other new arrivals with ready-made reputations include a freestanding branch of the New York steak house Smith & Wollensky, and a Studio 54 at the MGM Grand, right where the old Wizard of Oz diorama used to be.
Lured by the excitement, but still hoping to distance itself from the suspicious glitz of the Strip, Ritz-Carlton is entering the market with a 526-room hotel about 15 miles northwest of town. Two Regent properties—the Regent Grand Spa and the Regent Grand Palms—will open 25 minutes from the Strip at a development called the Resort at Summerlin. It offers a 40,000-square-foot spa facility, a stand-alone casino that non-gamblers can easily skirt, and access to five golf courses.
For all the herbal wraps and championship fairways, though, the real sizzle remains on the Strip, where even old stalwarts are getting face-lifts. The Desert Inn, long associated with Rat Pack glamour, has received a $200 million renovation. Caesars has added a 1,134-room Palace Tower that looks like a high-rise Versace boutique. Meanwhile, perhaps the country's most famous spa, Canyon Ranch, will open what it calls a SpaClub at the Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino later this year.
For the moment, at least, Bellagio stands as the best the New Vegas has to offer. Nothing can match its bravado. When the $1.6 billion, 3,000-room resort opened in October, it was touted as the most beautiful hotel ever built, a faux-Tuscan mega-villa so lavish, so worldly, that it would attract both high rollers and non-gamblers. On its inaugural weekend, exclusive invitation-only parties brought the glittering likes of Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Drew Barrymore, and Michael Jordan. "It's just like Como," one fashionista joked by the pool. But even he was impressed with this incredible simulation of good taste. If nothing else, he ate well.
Restaurants, you see, have led the way to the New Vegas. Though other major restaurateurs got to the city first-Wolfgang Puck blazed the Strip with branches of Spago and Chinois at Caesars Palace, while Mark Miller re-created his Santa Fe hot spot Coyote Café at the MGM Grand-Vegas finally hit the big time when Manhattan's Maccioni family (Sirio, the ringmaster of Le Cirque, and his sons, who'd made Osteria del Circo a hit with young swells) accepted hotel impresario Steve Wynn's invitation to open branches at Bellagio. "Sirio's decision validated us," admitted Wynn. "Eyebrows went up in food circles." The Maccionis caught on to what Puck had discovered years ago: all those conventioneers need high-priced restaurants in which to flex their expense accounts. Bellagio has also snapped up such chefs as Todd English of Olives (Boston), Michael Mina of Aqua (San Francisco), and Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Jean Georges, Vong, and Mercer Kitchen (New York).