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).
Sure, Vegas notions of class are grandiose: it takes hubris to create an eight-acre version of Italy's Lake Como in the American desert and fill it with dancing fountains choreographed to show tunes. But in a town that ranks the Liberace Museum as a cultural institution, Bellagio is a pretty classy joint indeed.
How can it not be?Just look at the names. At Bellagio's tony mall, there's Gucci, Chanel, Prada, Armani, Hermès, Fred Leighton, and Tiffany & Co. That $12-a-ticket art collection includes works by Picasso, Warhol, van Gogh, Renoir, and Monet. And, last Christmas, no less an American icon than Martha Stewart decorated the hotel's 32-foot Christmas tree. Even she seemed caught up in the opening-weekend festivities last October. "I just had a pedicure," she beamed when I met her.
Can sophisticated travelers really enjoy themselves in the New Vegas?You bet. The current combination of homegrown excess and imported cachet makes this the best place in America to throw moderation to the wind. Vegas is where you drink in the afternoon, order two desserts at dinner, and stay up all night just for the hell of it. You can nibble the delicious cheese of Jubilee!-a feathered extravaganza that has been running for 14 years at Bally's-one night, and then wash it down with the stunning water-themed Cirque du Soleil show O at Bellagio the next.
A year and a half ago, when I turned 35, I called a Fat Pack Summit—I invited 16 of my friends and family members, ages 27 to 78, to gather in Vegas to celebrate my birthday. I didn't have to twist anyone's arm. They came willingly from Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York for a long weekend. Even my parents, both in their mid-seventies, showed up. (You haven't lived until you've seen a silver-haired Jersey girl in studded denim work the dinner crowd at the Hard Rock Café.) Because Vegas is such a strange place—so foreign yet so familiar—it put us all on a colorful, but neutral, playing field. Disoriented, we bonded as we wandered the Strip in search of thrills.
And we found them: we rode the roller coaster at New YorkNew York; bought color-coordinated M&M's at M&M's World; ate sloppy joes at the Motown Café; and posed for photos in front of the giant Siegfried & Roy statue on Las Vegas Boulevard South. We shopped the Forum Shops at Caesars, savored designer pizzas at Spago, and even met a little girl dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. She wasn't working, just visiting. At the age of four, she'd already seen the movie 100 times; her mother told us she dresses that way every day. It was surreal, but then again, so is everything in this town.
Stay at the MGM Grand—as we did that year—and you open your curtains to find the Chrysler Building staring you in the face. The city was then selling itself as a family-friendly monument to mall culture. You could tour Ocean Spray's Cranberry World West in the morning, watch the Audio-Animatronic show Atlantis at Caesars Palace in the afternoon, have dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, and see a Pip-less Gladys Knight perform at the MGM Grand that evening. Sin City?Not on your life. It was a high-tack wonderland enjoyed by people in their eighties and people born in the eighties.
Today, though, Vegas is a more elegant mistress-but still a mistress, not a wife. In the New Vegas, you still can watch a galleon sink in front of the pirate-themed Treasure Island Hotel & Casino, but you can also rent a poolside cabana, work out in a state-of-the-art gym, get a decent seaweed facial, and follow it all with banana tiramisù. It is, to my mind, the best of all possible worlds.
What's next for Vegas?More, more, more. On the site of the old Rat Pack favorite, the Sands, the 6,000-suite Venetian opens this month. There will be a 315-foot Campanile tower, a replica of the Bridge of Sighs, and, naturally, gondola rides. Next year, a new Aladdin Hotel will open with a Middle Eastern theme (inspired more by I Dream of Jeannie than by any actual place). Las Vegas gets bigger, and the world gets smaller: the Egyptian pyramid of the Luxor hotel, the medieval castle of Excalibur, the regularly erupting streetside volcano of the Mirage—the whole wide world is within walking distance. And it's a million miles from the tasteful life you know back home.
To say that room rates vary is one of the few understatements you can make about Vegas. Expect to pay less than what's listed—ask for special rates—unless there are several conventions going on.
Bellagio 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 888/987-7111 or 702/693-7444; doubles from $159.
Caesars Palace 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/634-6661 or 702/731-7222; doubles from $149.
Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas 3960 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877/632-5200 or 702/632-5000; doubles from $200.
Hard Rock Hotel 4455 Paradise Rd.; 800/473-7625 or 702/693-5000; doubles from $75.
Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877/632-7000 or 702/632-7777; doubles from $100.
MGM Grand 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/929-1111 or 702/891-7777; doubles from $79.
Regent Grand Palms and Regent Grand Spa Resort at Summerlin, 221 N. Rampart Blvd.; 877/869-8777 or 702/869-7777; doubles from $195. Opens in June.
Venetian Hotel-Resort-Casino 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 888/283-6423 or 702/733-5000; doubles from $159.
Aqua Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/693-7223; dinner for two $110. Catchy combinations: tuna and foie gras, shrimp wrapped in prosciutto.
Aureole Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/632-7401; dinner for two $130.
Border Grill Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/632-7403. Opens in May.
Chinois Forum Shops at Caesars, 3500 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/737-9700; dinner for two $70. Wolfgang Puck's Asian fusion.
Le Cirque Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/693-8150; dinner for two $165. Two words: lobster salad. Two more: Reserve early.
Coyote Café MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/891-7349; dinner for two $80. Mark Miller's Southwestern watering hole.
In-n-Out Burger 4888 Industrial Rd., and four other locations; 800/786-1000; lunch for two $7. Order a Double-Double Cheeseburger and ask for grilled onions.
Olives Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/693-7223; dinner for two $84. Try the flatbread pizza with prosciutto, gorgonzola, and balsamic fig jam.
Osteria del Circo Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/693-8150; dinner for two $96.
Prime Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/693-7223; dinner for two $100. Jean-Georges Vongerichten's gorgeous steak house.
Smith & Wollensky 3767 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/862-4100; dinner for two $90.
Spago Forum Shops at Caesars, 3500 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/369-6300; dinner for two $110. A casual café and formal-but-informal restaurant.
Atlantis Forum Shops at Caesars, 3500 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/893-4800.
Canyon Ranch SpaClub Venetian Hotel-Resort-Casino, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 888/288-5228. Opens in May.
Liberace Museum 1775 E. Tropicana Ave.; 702/798-5595. Pay respects to the world's largest rhinestone.
Buccaneer Bay Pirate Battle Treasure Island Hotel & Casino, 3300 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/894-7111.
Manhattan Express Roller Coaster New YorkNew York, 3790 Las Vegas Bvld. S.; 702/740-6969; $7.
Chicago Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877/632-7400 or 702/474-4000; tickets from $55.
EFX MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/929-1111 or 702/891-7777; tickets from $49.50. Starring Tommy Tune.
Jubilee! Bally's, 3645 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/739-4111; tickets from $49.50. Eat your heart out, Showgirls.
Mystère Treasure Island Hotel & Casino, 3300 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/392-1999 or 702/894-7722; tickets $69.85. Cirque du Soleil's original Vegas show.
O Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 888/488-7111 or 702/693-7722; tickets from $90. More cerebral than Mystère, but that's okay.
Studio 54 MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/891-1111; men's cover is $10 weeknights, $20 on weekends; women get in free. Dress to the nineties.
At M&M's World (3785 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/736-7611), you can buy M&M's to match your curtains. There are 21 colors; purple is the most popular.