LAS VEGAS – The busiest intersection in this city, Las Vegas Blvd. and E. Flamingo Rd., was marked not long ago by the parking garage at an old-school casino named Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon. Today you’ll find one of The Strip’s sleekest celebrity restaurants, Giada, with giant windows looking out on the passing parade. Not only that, the restaurant is inside the sleek, new Cromwell Hotel, refashioned from the bones of Bills into a posh, boutique property.
If there’s a symbol for how Vegas has changed, Giada and the Cromwell might be it. You’ll still find those maddening escalators and pedestrian walkways in Vegas that take you on a 300 meter long trip to cross a simple street. And you’ll still find plenty of giant casinos set way back from the road with massive roadways blocking the way of pedestrians.
But this town is growing more design friendly all the time, not only on The Strip but in its booming downtown, filled with the sort of tattooed baristas and you’d normally expect to find in Vancouver’s Gastown or on Ossington Ave. in Toronto.
Besides Giada and the Cromwell, you’ll find the shopping/restaurant area known as The LINQ; a pedestrian-only laneway that runs from Las Vegas Blvd. to the new High Roller Ferris Wheel, which of course can seat 41 people and can be set up as a private bar in the sky. There are small, coloured fountains, restaurants with outdoor patios and small, three to four storey buildings along the LINQ, giving it the feel of a desert version of Whistler or Mt. Tremblant. Sure, it’s manufactured, but it’s on a very welcome human scale.
Others have gone the same route. MGM Resorts has added an Irish pub to the Las Vegas Blvd. side of New York New York, complete with a shady patio. There’s also al fresco dining next door at Tom’s Urban and a patio at Shake Shack, which lives up to its Manhattan parent’s reputation as a bastion of greasy burger goodness.
MGM has plans for a massive link between New York New York and the Monte Carlo casino. Called The Park, it will provide a connection between Las Vegas Blvd. and the planned, new NHL arena (which folks here are quite optimistic about). There are plans for a Japanese restaurant with a Kabuki theatre, a Robert Mondavi wine restaurant and a country music restaurant and bar; sure to please all those folks wandering The Strip in boots and ten-gallon hats.
“Vegas is trying to bring the indoors outside and the outside in,” said James Reza, who writes a column about the city in a local magazine called Seven. “They’re getting away from the cave-like casinos.”
You’ll find plenty more evidence of this downtown, especially in the Fremont East district. Container Park is a hugely successful enterprise a couple blocks from the Fremont Street neon madness, with railway containers that hold trendy shops selling local jewelry fashioned from colourful leather, a huge kid’s playground and fun restaurants like Big Ern’s BBQ, complete with a covered patio.
Just across the street, a new, urban shop called The Market opened a few months back. The space feels like a Whole Foods shop meets New York Deli, with fresh fruit and veggies on display, a well-stocked deli case, cool lighting and lovely Stumptown coffee.
Reza explains the changes in town over breakfast at EAT, a trendy spot a block from Fremont St. where I dine on truffle scrambled eggs and smoked bacon on a ciabatta bun. The place has been open only for a few months but is attracting a youthful clientele to a place that feels both modern and slightly retro, with a bare cement floor and green, avocado-coloured banquettes.
There’s still a lot of big things going on. It IS Vegas, after all. MGM is spending millions to put up a permanent festival site in time for the Rock in Rio music fest in May of this year. It’ll be staged up by Circus Circus on the north end of the strip, which has the new SLS Hotel but still looks a tad forlorn.
Down at Mandalay Bay, I got a tour of the recently opened Delano Hotel. Formerly known as THEhotel, it was given a huge refurbishment and re-opened in September, 2014. Calling it a boutique property is a stretch given it has 1,117 rooms, but it’s a gorgeous spot with generous use of local rock and stone and plenty of gleaming, polished wood in a subdued, sophisticated setting with no casino.
All rooms are generously sized suites with plenty of beige and white and cool art on the walls, and the Bathhouse Spa features gorgeous dark stone walls and hot and cold plunge pools. Downstairs off the lobby, Della’s Kitchen has a focus on local products, including Nevada beef. There are even quiet conversation nooks and a slick coffee shop in the spacious lobby area.
A Las Vegas Hotel that allows you to quietly sip a drink or hunker down in a corner and carry on a conversation with friends? The times, they are a changin’.