Las Vegas' casino resorts were built on the laws of probability, but their odds of success are no longer solely dependent on gaming.
Since accommodations, dining and entertainment now represent a significant piece of the revenue pie, my 2013 edition of Las Vegas' Best Bets is dedicated to outstanding products in those categories.
Best Luxury Suite Experience: Tower Suites (Wynn Las Vegas)
In a category with lots of stiff competition, the newly redesigned Tower Suites at Wynn Las Vegas get the nod for best luxury suite product. And the experience doesn't begin or end with the accommodations themselves. The hotel-within-a-hotel is notable for its dedicated entrance, private pools, professional and efficient staff and complimentary breakfast in the elegant Tableau restaurant. Suite furniture and decor, designed by Wynn's talented executive vice president of design, Roger Thomas, typify classic elegance with a modern flourish.
Best Celebrity Chef Burger: Burger Bar (Mandalay Place)
No longer confined to the domains of grease joints and diners, the once-lowly burger — now dressed with gourmet toppings and paired with boozy milkshakes — has been reimagined by Las Vegas' top chefs and elevated to high-concept fare.
Classically trained French chef Hubert Keller was first on the Vegas scene when his Burger Bar opened at Mandalay Place in 2004, and his product is still the one by which all others should be measured. I enjoyed his burger made with Kobe-style beef, cooked medium-rare and served on a homemade potato bun with caramelized onions and sauteed oyster mushrooms. Paired with a Kahlua-infused chocolate shake, it achieved nouveau burger nirvana.
Best Bang for the Buck: Jeff Civillico: Comedy in Action (Quad Resort & Casino)
When introduced last year as a guest performer in Nathan Burton's Comedy Magic show, it was clear that Jeff Civillico was headed for success. The lanky comic, whose dynamic energy propels the frenetic pace of his show, toys with the audience and the poor suckers who volunteer to assist with his juggling and balancing routines. Along the way, he delivers a hilarious, family-friendly patter that keeps the crowd in the moment. Nobody on the Strip works harder than Civillico, whose afternoon show at the Quad (previously the Imperial Palace) is a great value, with tickets starting at $38.
Best In-Room Technology: Aria Resort & Casino
While high-end room technology is ubiquitous in Vegas' top suites, it doesn't typically trickle down to a resort's standard accommodations. An exception is the Aria, where in-room functionality meshes with user-friendliness in perfect concert. As guests enter their room for the first time, the curtains magically part, low-level lighting illuminates the room and the TV is engaged. From then on, all lighting, environmental, entertainment and hotel service functions are controlled via tablet, audio-video panel or TV remote. And in deference to the modern-day traveler's battle cry (Give me ubiquitous WiFi!), Aria's pervasive, property-wide signal delivers.
Best Starters on the Strip: Hakkasan Restaurant (MGM Grand Hotel & Casino)
With Michelin-starred chef Ho Chee Boon leading the kitchen staff at the MGM Grand's new Hakkasan restaurant, high expectations are deliciously fulfilled. And while the menu can be pricey at this modern Cantonese gourmet room — located in the base of a massive, 80,000-square-foot nightclub complex — some of the small plates provide a reasonably priced entry into the chef's cooking. In particular, his seared scallop with fresh mango in chili sauce ($18) and crispy duck salad ($28) are the perfect starters. Both juxtapose interesting and complex flavors with unique presentation to start off the meal.
Best New Show on the Strip: Michael Jackson One (Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino)
Over the years, Las Vegas entertainment juggernaut Cirque du Soleil has reliably thrilled and amazed us but rarely moved us emotionally, until now. The spirit of Michael Jackson, along with his immense talent, eccentricities and showmanship, is faithfully instilled in "Michael Jackson One," now playing at Mandalay Bay. With its ode to the King of Pop, Cirque has taken Jackson's music and simultaneously woven a beautiful tapestry of innocence, childlike wonder and humanity that isn't typically seen in a Las Vegas showroom. Preserving a legacy while simultaneously profiting from it is a tricky balancing act, nowhere demonstrated more capably than here by Cirque de Soleil.
Best Classic Italian Restaurant: Allegro (Wynn Las Vegas)
While the recent emphasis on "chef-driven" restaurants has put the spotlight on some worthy kitchen masters, there is no chef more deserving of notice than Enzo Febbraro of Wynn's Allegro. Feeding our nostalgic hankering for Southern Italian and Italian-American classic dishes, Febbraro, with his considerable skill, panache and charm, works both sides of the house to perfection at Wynn's Allegro. His old-world Neapolitan recipes, including lasagna made with baby back rib meat, and seafood risotto cooked in octopus stock, are warm comfort prepared and delivered flawlessly in a casual and inviting atmosphere.