The bottles sparkled on the glistening glass shelves above us. Sitting on backless barstools at Bardot Brasserie, our favorite restaurant at Aria, my travel companion and I were ready for happy hour. It had been a long flight to Las Vegas. And we get too hungry for dinner at 8:00.
The bar was crowded as we sipped our first drinks but started to thin out as we settled on small bites to split. The steak tartare was moist and tender, and I allowed myself one of the light airy potatoes gaufrette. The short rib tartine was outstanding, so moist and rich that I didn’t mind skipping the bread. The cheese course was small and simple but very pretty atop a round grey marble board. The raclette would have been better softened and scrapable, but the creamy capriole sofia was smooth and sensational. But mostly we simply savored the start of our annual trip to one of our favorite cities.
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Given the three-hour time difference, we headed back to the hotel after happy hour. My favorite Vegas hotel is the Encore, for its consistent elegance and second-mile service. My friend’s is the Palazzo, for its meld of up- and downscale. But where we agree is that we’re fed up with so-called luxury hotels’ nickel-and-diming, especially the refusal to place coffee makers in the guest rooms, and most especially the resort fees climbing higher than the Stratosphere. The Thenardier treatment cheapens the luxury vibe.
So this time, we decided to try Elara, a center-strip Hilton Grand Vacations property. Our large room offerred a spacious sitting area with a pull-out sofa, floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the perpetually packed pool, and a stocked kitchenette with a mini-fridge, a microwave, and, yes, a coffee maker. And there are no resort fees.
In the morning, we walked to the Venetian’s Grand Lux Cafe, our favorite Vegas breakfast spot for its consistent good food and good service. We first discovered it after seeing Sinatra impressionist Bob Anderson’s show Frank: The Man, The Music at the Palazzo, a performance so on-key that for brief moments it was possible to believe we were really seeing Ol’ Blue Eyes himself. Sadly, the sensational show has gone, but the deluxe diner remains. Seated quickly at a two-top booth in a bustling back room, I ordered a veggie omelet and substituted tomatoes for the potatoes. Both were good, and my friend’s almond-crusted trout was excellent, tender and flaky atop a bed of creamy mashed potatoes.
After breakfast we walked over to the Wynn/Encore complex to check out some of my favorite spots. The fountains outside were dancing to Well, did you evah?, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby’s classic song-and-dance duet from High Society.
Inside the swellegant Wynn lobby we passed the floral carousel and ambled through the garden.
Then we strolled through the shopping esplanade and into the Encore. We paid brief homage to the glass-cased awards outside the Sinatra restaurant–his Oscar for From Here to Eternity, his Emmy for Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music, and his Grammy for Strangers in the Night. The elegant luxury of the Encore makes me feel safe.
Back at Palazzo an hour later, the small hot tub in the ladies’ area of the Canyon Ranch spa was empty as I approached in my blue Miraclesuit. A young Asian woman in a white towel asked me whether bathing suits were required. I wanted to answer, “Yes,” but I truthfully responded, “I’m not sure.” She vanished, and I settled into a corner.
Almost immediately, I was joined catty-corner by a 20-something with dark skin, a black bikini, and one of the most phenomenal figures I’ve ever seen–washboard tummy, long lean legs, and a tiny butt I couldn’t achieve if I never ate another carb. Soon the Asian woman, still betowelled, sat next to me and applied a facial masque. Then two large middle-aged white women in skirted suits sat on my other side. For a while, I was wedged between the young and older women, the towel of the one and the skirt of the other floating up against my legs. The older women left, and I moved away from Miss Towel.
Then three middle-aged Canadians climbed in and I moved over to make room for them. One apologized. “You’re fine,” I said. “A spa like this should have a bigger tub.” They agreed. More women joined, and the tub became so overcrowded that one simply knelt in the center. I left.
A short time later, the nice Canadians welcomed me as I entered the warm and moist desert-tiled Herbal Laconium. “Have you been to other spas on the Strip?” one of them asked me.
“I have,” I answered. My favorite is the spa at the Encore. It’s very elegant and relaxing, and the service is outstanding. I also had the best haircuts of my life at their salon. I also like the spa at the Aria. I think they have the best facilities on the Strip. They have three hot tubs in the ladies’ area at different temps and a big co-ed hot tub out on a balcony overlooking the pool.
Back at the locker area a little later, two women were unsuccessfully requesting plus-size robes from an attendant. “I’m not plus-size,” one of them quipped. “I’m curvylicious.”
“Can I use that?” I smiled.
“Sure!” she chuckled. “I don’t have it trademarked.”
I headed over to the Experiential Rains. I slipped off my robe, stepped into the curved shower stall, and pressed the button for Tropical Rain set in the varicolored tile wall. Birds chirped but no rains came down. I tried Caribbean Storm. The shower stayed as dry as the city outside. I slipped naked over to the other shower. Then I heard the water start in the first. I scurried back. The shower stopped. I gave up, feeling like I’d stumbled in to a Criminal Minds episode where the UnSub traps women in some bizarre nude shooting gallery. I took a regular shower under the double heads in one of several brown-tiled stalls stocked with shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and a fabulously refreshing eucalyptus shower mist.
Then I slipped back into my bathrobe, clipped up my wet hair, and walked across to the salon for the best manicure I’ve ever had. Manicures are my second least-favorite spa service after bikini waxing. They’re boring and don’t usually let you surrender to pleasure. But this 50-minute manicure was truly luxurious, including a salt scrub and a deliberate, lingering hand massage, a combination that left my skin soft and visibly smoother. Since I was travelling, I went for French-style polish. The manicurist asked whether she may paint the white a little thicker than usual, because my nails have a thin translucent no-man’s-land between the pink and white parts. In my decades of professional manicures, no one had ever noted that before. She also gave me both polishes, as well as the file used on me.
Once my nails were dry, I headed back to the locker room to dress for dinner. The small round brush that the courteous and helpful desk attendant handed me was surprisingly good, easily edging the layers below my jaw. Short on time, I applied my bare-minimum make-up–tinted moisturizer, concealer, a pop of cheek color, a quick curl of my lashes, and of course a swab of red lipstick. Then I slipped into my latest favorite easy-breezy ensemble–grey striped jersey dress, cushy black sandals, wide black belt. I packed up my black tote–probably my best purchase of 2017–and headed straight to happy hour.
We sat on low-backed stools at the curved black bar at Lavo. We were there because my uncle raves about their meatballs. I understood why on the first bite: They’re the restaurant meatballs closest to my grandmother’s that I’ve ever had. Dollopped with ricotta and swimming in red sauce, the one-pound softball of ground beef, veal, and pork was moist, fork-tender, and evenly baked throughout. Next we decided to split the salumi-formaggi platter. This too was fabulous–generous amounts of meats, fresh cheeses, and an eggplant chutney whose marriage of sweet and savory made my taste buds sing and dance like Bing and Frank.
Because you can never have enough gourmet Italian food, we decided to walk to Giada for brunch the next morning. Formerly Bill’s, a mid-range casino where I played in my first poker tournament five years and a different life ago, the center-strip building has been renovated into the boutique Cromwell hotel. And flagship Giada has become one of our favorite Vegas restaurants, for its small but innovative menu. Sitting at our tomato-red and creamy white semi-circle booth, with views of the soaring hotels across the Strip, I settled on the vegetarian Waldorf panzanella salad, requesting added prosciutto. Happily, the raisin-walnut bread strips did nothing for me. The rest of the salad was excellent. The vegetables were fresh and crisp. Instead of just being tossed on top, the paper-thin prosciutto was layered into the salad. I usually prefer creamy dressings, but the roasted shallot vinaigrette and the juice from the apples bonded in such a tangy textured marriage that I wanted to suck the flavor from the apple slices and feel it burst on my tongue before swishing and swallowing it down.
After breakfast we walked across the Strip to Bellagio and found the iconic resort the least crowded we’d ever seen it. That is, until we reached the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.
My friend decided to wait while I briefly braved the throng of flower-gazing, picture-taking families. Then we went back out to watch the famous fountains shimmy and soar in one of their best choreographed shows we’d seen.
Heading back to Elara, we cut through the Paris. A little girl of 7 or 8 in a cute cotton sundress whined, “I wanna gaaammbllle!”
“You’re not allowed to gamble,” her mother snapped.
We continued on to Miracle Mile, the Strip’s least upscale, most crowded shopping mall. But it was worth it for the ABC Store. Similar to its Hawaiian cousins, the large sundry shop is an inexpensive source for anything a traveller might want from sunscreen to souvenirs. We gathered up bottled waters and diet sodas to stock our convenient mini-fridge.
Good happy hours are surprisingly hard to find in Vegas, but fortunately Mandalay Bay has several. Unfortunately, they aren’t exactly low-carb. We started off at Hussong’s Cantina, a mid-level Baja place claiming it’s “Fabled to be the originator of the margarita”. Uh, huh. As we sipped the fabled cocktails on backless stools at the dark wooden bar, out came the chips, warm, airy, and accompanied by three salsas. The pineapple was our favorite, fabulously fresh with fruity bursts of sweetness. We each ordered a taco. I was hoping they’d come wrapped in two tortillas, so I could remove one and feel carb-virtuous, but alas the moist and rich carnitas wore only one.
Next we went to the top-floor Skyfall Lounge at the Delano hotel-within-a-hotel. Wrapped with floor-to-ceiling windows, the lounge offers stunning 360-degree views of Las Vegas. Unfortunately, all the low side tables were reserved. Also unfortunately, the outdoor patio, dotted with heat lamps, was closed due to “inclement weather”–temperature that felt like it too reached 360 degrees. So we sat on wire-backed stools at the ovular black Corian bar. None of the carb-heavy bar bites intrigued, so we simply sipped wine and savored the views. On our way out, my friend asked how we’d reserve a lounge table. “You call and ask,” the hostess explained. Uh, duh. Have I mentioned that we’ve both been travelling for decades?
We had no trouble finding fun food as we settled onto low-backed stools at the small dark rectangular bar at Aureole. The meatballs were tender and full-flavored, and the red sauce was very good for a restaurant. The sliders were so rich and well-seasoned that I barely noticed their wrapping of bacon. But the winner of the night was the Brioche Grilled Cheese, the triple-cream brie softly melted without becoming runny on its pillow of bread. A couple a few barstools down asked how it was.
“It’s like touching the face of God,” I replied.
It nearly killed me to skip the top half of the brioche.
My friend loves pools and at 8:30 pointed out that it was probably our last chance to swim in Elara’s before it closed at 10. We quickly finished eating, settled up, Ubered back to the hotel, rushed up to our room, tore off our clothes, donned our blue suits, and hurried down to the pool. A lifeguard told us the pool was closed due to an unspecified “biohazard”. Uh, oh.
In the morning, my companion went out for a walk, and I stayed in to write, leaving the Do Not Disturb sign on the door. At 8:58, my friend returned to find a Hilton doortag claiming that our request for privacy had precluded cleaning our room. We removed it and dressed to go out. At 10, we found another such tag, removed it, collared a housekeeper, requested cleaning, and left. We returned a few hours later to a clean room and tried to relax before our final evening in Las Vegas. A hotel staffer came to the door. His English was hard to understand, but we thought he said something about “rats”. We headed out.
We usually see at least one show each trip, but this time nothing that intrigued us both fit into our schedule. My friend loves Big Elvis though, so we stopped in at Harrah’s cozy piano bar to hear the impressionist hearkening back to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s fried-peanut-butter-sandwich era with classics like Suspicious Minds, Can’t Help Falling in Love, and of course Viva Las Vegas!
We always spend one night downtown. The historic center of Vegas, downtown is the Strip’s cruder cousin. The booze and the bets are cheaper. While skinny girls in glittery costumes carry cocktail trays across the Strip’s marble lobbies, dancing girls in fringe carry a few more pounds on small stages beside downtown’s velvet tabletops.
We headed for happy hour at Oscar’s steakhouse on the second floor of the Plaza hotel. Sitting on cushioned stools at the long caramel-colored bar in the bright glassed-in restaurant, we started with ricotta, creamy and slightly salty. Next up came the Mob Meatballs. Though a tad dry, they were pretty good for chicken meatballs. But we couldn’t get past the name. What self-respecting mobster eats chicken meatballs?
Then we asked about the artichokes au gratin. The surprised young bartender told us that in his many months of service no one had ever ordered them. We took a gamble, and it paid off. The buttery manchego melted into the tangy artichokes and the two melded into the best bites of the night.
One must-stop for us is the Parlour Bar at El Cortez. Built in 1941, the old-school casino-hotel is Las Vegas’s first major resort and a microcosm of Old Vegas. With its Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, coin slots, and original neon signage, including the vertical GAMBLING arrow, walking through El Cortez you almost expect to see one-time part-owner Bugsy Siegel smoking a Cuban cigar. And you can picture him holding a criminal confab in the Parlour Bar, sitting in one of its brown leather club chairs behind its golden-roped red velvet draperies, the conspicuous charm that goes hand-in-hand with corruption wafting through the air like puffs of smoke.
I’ve been going there since soon after it opened in 2011 and enjoy its 11-1 happy hour featuring small bites and cheap drinks. The first time I visited with my current companion, we went to see a Frank Sinatra impressionist, and the place was so packed we couldn’t get two stools at the small bar. “Sinatra” didn’t perform much then, because it was his birthday, though we did score some complimentary cake. But there was a Neil Diamond impersonator that night, and it was so good to sing Sweet Caroline along with him. We’re not sure whatever happened to him, but a waitress told us that “Sinatra” had been dismissed for rudeness to customers. When we first stopped by on this most recent visit, we found a country singer, so we decided to go gamble for a while.
By a little before 11:00, the bar was pretty quiet when we sank into comfy club chairs and sipped cheap sparkling wine. Promptly at 11, a waitress came by to tell us that the kitchen was closed for cleaning.
In Las Vegas, even happy hour is a gamble.
Leslie Carbone is a former Cabinet speechwriter who’s having much more fun as a lifestyle blogger.