Seasonal Nevada Bargain
By Chris Chamberlain
Through the years, Las Vegas, Nevada, has been a little bit schizophrenic when it comes to its projected image. During the ‘90s, there was a period when resorts attempted to attract families with whimsical projects like the Excalibur, the Circus Circus expansion and an MGM-branded theme park right off the Strip. Not coincidentally, these were three places that I avoided like the plague except for the fact that you have to walk through the Excalibur to get to the Luxor or Mandalay Bay from other casinos.
Since the advent of the “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” campaign, clearly the aim is at an older, slightly naughtier clientele. Y’know, like me. My girlfriend and I have probably taken 20 trips to Sin City in the past two decades, so we’ve got plenty of experience with properties from one end of Las Vegas Boulevard to the other.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret for you to stash in your memory bank for next year: Las Vegas is almost empty and extremely inexpensive the week before Christmas! I’m talking like $50 a night for decent rooms in famous Strip resorts like Caesar’s Palace or the Mirage. Sure, some of the shows are dark that week, but there’s always plenty to do in Las Vegas even if you’re not sitting through the latest Cirque du Soleil extravaganza.
In addition to the cheap rooms, which I justify as costing less than my mortgage on a per diem basis, the small crowds also mean that it’s much easier to get into any of Las Vegas’s fantastic restaurants. I refer to the city as “the world’s greatest food court” thanks to the sheer variety of dining options within a couple miles, and while it may not be the Bouchon that helped to make Thomas Keller, there is indeed a Bouchon outpost in the Venetian. And it’s a fantastic place to grab a proper breakfast or lunch that can include one of the greatest bistro burger and frites plates I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy.
If you like to shop, the outlets and malls in Las Vegas are tough to beat for variety and proximity, although be aware that during the week before Christmas they are quite full of avid shoppers from Asia who do not celebrate the same holiday as most Americans. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s the same reason that the family in “A Christmas Story” was able to have dinner at the Chinese restaurant after the Bumpus hounds eat their Xmas turkey. We usually pack an extra empty suitcase and fight the crowds for some bargain Christmas presents at the Premium Outlet Stores.
The beauty of spending the holidays in Las Vegas is that Christmas is optional. If you want some Xmas spirit, take a walk through the conservatory at the Bellagio which is always decorated with lovely seasonal themes. But if you’re tired of the incessant carols and lights, it’s pretty easy to ignore them completely if you’re feeling a little Grinchy. So if you want to start daydreaming about next year’s holiday vacation full of some adult fun, here are some suggestions based on what we did.
Even though the rates were so cheap in the middle of the Strip, we chose to stay at the far end because the deal at The Four Seasons was too good to pass up! With some room packages at less than $150, this luxury hotel was half as expensive as the Hampton Inn in downtown Nashville during the same week. We paid a little extra for a room with a Strip view, but for the first class service and amenities at a Four Seasons, it was definitely worth the splurge.
The Four Seasons is actually one of the few hotels in Vegas without its own casino, which was fine with us. The hotel actually occupies the top five floors of the Mandalay Bay, so in addition to the serene and well-appointed lobby, lounges, pool, spa, shops and restaurants of the Four Seasons, guests have access to all the facilities at Mandalay and the attached Delano resort. The access is not reciprocal, so it’s always nice to take a little break from the craziness of the casino floor by sneaking through an unobtrusive door accessed only with a Four Seasons key to reach the private bank of elevators. For less than $200/night we felt like real high rollers!
Even though the hotel is at the very farthest southern tip of the Strip, Vegas is a great Uber town now and with the small crowds we never had to wait more than a few minutes or pay more than $15 to get anywhere in town. And we did get around…
We don’t do a lot of gambling when we visit Las Vegas, preferring instead to eat and drink our money’s worth while doing a lot of walking and people watching. When we do gamble, it’s usually something like video poker which I consider to be like getting paid to take a standardized test every seven seconds. And I’m really good at standardized tests.
We did explore some new developments that had opened since my girlfriend last accompanied me on a trip out there, including the fun promenade behind what used to be the Imperial Palace that is now called The Linq. In addition to plenty of eating, drinking and shopping opportunities, the area is highlighted by a huge observation ferris wheel, big enough to have two capsules that can host 30 people apiece and offer a full open bar service for your trip around the axle.
But the newest addition that we discovered was located in the same spot where that old MGM Grand theme park used to reside. Top Golf Vegas is basically an adult playground for golfers and nongolfers alike. My girlfriend has only swung a club a few times, but she had a blast participating in several different types of games where you attempted to knock golf balls equipped with tracking chips into huge lit holes scattered across a long driving range. Even shanks would usually end up going in some hole for a few points, so there was always a sense of accomplishment.
Set up sort of like a bowling alley, you pay for a “lane” by the hour, which entitles up to six people to use either their own equipment or provided clubs. Each bay of the range has its own cocktail server who will happily bring you food, beer, wine or cocktails from the Top Golf menu. You don’t have to settle up until the end, so that’s one less thing to worry about while you take aim at the targets. (Until that bill came. Ouch.)
Of course, being that this was Vegas, everything was glitzed up at Top Golf with huge screens the size of houses on the back wall of the range showing sports, two swimming pools, multiple bars and lounges, corn hole games and many other diversions. I imagine that when it gets really crowded and you have to wait to start playing, these other entertainment options will come in handy, but we just checked them out briefly after we were done playing.
There’s a new outlet of Top Golf opening in Nashville later this year, and I can guess I’ll be a frequent guest.
I’m a planner by nature, so I went ahead and made some dinner reservations in advance of our trip. This was wholly unnecessary. From the poshest restaurants in the luxury resorts to the coffee shops that still serve $0.99 shrimp cocktails, there were tables available anywhere we went at any time. So we took advantage of the situation to hit some old favorites and new finds.
We’re big fans of tapas-style Iberian eating, and especially of the fun presentations of Chef José Andrés. We have eaten at his Jaleo restaurant in the Cosmopolitan on two previous trips to Vegas and really enjoy plowing our way through small plates of delicious flavorful food artfully prepared and whimsically plated. So this time we figured we would try out his latest joint in the relatively new SLS resort.
Bazaar Meat by José Andrés is based around meat, meat and more meat, most of which is cooked over some sort of open flame. There is also some fun seafood on the menu including a delicious dish of smoked oysters where the seafood was served under a cloche filled with applewood smoked and served with an apple mignonette. Although the plates were a little larger than at Jaleo, the menu was still organized around ordering multiple courses to share among the table. Of course since there were just two of us, there was less sharing necessary. Not that we minded….
Some of the best meats at Bazaar Meat aren’t even cooked at all, with several excellent examples of tartares and carpaccios to choose from. For the full experience, you can choose from several different organizations of tasting menus with or without beverage pairings. While we didn’t take advantage of this option, we did use them as guides to figure out some of the chef’s favorite dishes.
Another favorite spot of mine is actually tucked off the main drag of Fremont Street in downtown Vegas. The more old school side of the city has recently become a destination for all sorts of excellent restaurants and cocktail emporiums, and Carson Kitchen is my personal favorite of the lot. Super casual, Carson Kitchen doesn’t take reservations and there isn’t a whole lot of seating, especially on a rainy day like when we visited that meant the upstairs outdoor patio was not an option.
Happy to find a seat at the bar, we enjoyed a few beers and cocktails while we reveled in the buzzy ambiance and watched the talented kitchen staff work in the tiny open kitchen. The menu changes frequently, but in my experience you can’t go wrong with just about anything they serve. Particular favorites include crispy chicken skins with smoked honey, bbq burnt ends with house pickles and highbrow ranch dressing, bacon jam with baked brie on a toasted baguette and veal meatballs with sherry foie gras cream. And that’s just from the appetizer list. Seriously, don’t miss this place if you’re in downtown Vegas!
Right around the corner from Carson Kitchen is another fun choice that’s even more casual. Evel Pie is a pizza parlor and homage to the original king of the daredevils, Evel Knievel. The restaurant’s motto is “Love hard. Ride fast. Eat Pizza.” and the decor revolves around every piece of Knievel memorabilia you can imagine or remember, including pinball machines and video games that took enough of my quarters during my misspent youth that would have considerably plumped my current 401k had I been smart enough to conserve them. Fortunately the cheap drinks and slice at Evel Pie will hopefully help me stretch my retirement savings during future trips to downtown Vegas.
We discovered two new revelatory bars during our most recent excursion, one old and one new. The old spot was at the very outskirts of downtown Vegas, across the street from the Ambassador Hotel at the end of Fremont, known for its garish neon sign promising “Llamas stay for free!”, Atomic Liquors is a prototypical dive bar that happens to be the oldest freestanding bar in Las Vegas. The name comes from the fact that during the frequent nuclear tests of the ’50s at the Atomic Test site on the outskirts of town, locals used to stand on the roof of the building to watch the mushroom clouds rise up from the desert floor. In its day, the Rat Pack, Barbra Streisand and the cast of the movie “Casino” were regulars when they were in town, and it has also been a featured filming location for many films including “The Hangover.” They also serve some fantastic cocktails and rare local, regional and international beers.
Our newest find is tucked away a $5.00 Uber ride from downtown and the strip. You might have to tell your driver how to get to Herbs & Rye, but once you find it, you may just return again and again. Named the top volume cocktail bar in the country at Tales of the Cocktail in 2016, Herbs & Rye combines the clubby vibe of an old school steakhouse with a serious cocktail geek’s paradise of a bar. Affable and talented bartenders mix drinks from a menu divided into sections by historical eras from Gothic to Golden Age Prohibition to the Tiki Boom. Appropriately reverent of the craft, the mixologists are happy to share as much or as little history and background of your drink as you request, or you can just sit in a dark corner with friends and have them bring you trays of fantastic cocktails made with top shelf ingredients. We happened to visit after our dinner at Bazaar Meat, so we literally couldn’t stomach the thought of any more food, but the multiple plates of meatball and chorizo appetizers that we saw coming out to bar patrons gave us a definite plan for our next visit. And we will be back for sure now that we’ve found a new favorite Vegas bar!
Through the years, we’ve enjoyed alternating between cold weather trips to Vegas and visits during the summer just to remember what 110 degrees feels like. But for the money and the easy access to restaurants and attractions, it’s tough to beat that last week before Christmas. See you in 2017!
– Photos by Chris Chamberlain
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