The wait is over. Another year of in-depth, tireless and fearless research by this writer and a crackerjack research team has yielded this year's roundup of Las Vegas' best, somewhat quirky, bets, on and off the Strip. Offbeat categories, unlikely contenders and solid winners define this survey, which, like Sin City itself, is continually evolving.
Red Rock Casino, Resort and Spa: Those who thought that Station Casinos had reached a pinnacle with its luxe Green Valley Ranch property were taken aback when Red Rock debuted in April 2006. In the gently rolling hills of Summerlin, 20 minutes from the Strip, lies what is arguably the most beautifully designed resort in the area. Chic, ultramodern design meshes with functionality, good taste and a large geographic footprint to offer the unusual mix of vacationing hipsters and everyday locals a satisfying experience in accommodations, gaming, dining and recreation.
Sterling Brunch, Bally's Las Vegas: In Vegas, change occurs about every five minutes. Very little remains constant, year after year, except for the classic Sterling Brunch at Bally's. This is old Vegas, baby: Smoked sturgeon, caviar, rack of lamb and other delicacies offered by tuxedoed servers make this throwback experience worth the $75 price tag. Unlimited Maine lobster is a highlight, closely followed by extremely personal service in an intimate setting. At Bally's Steakhouse, Sundays only.
New show combo
"The Anthony Cools Experience" and "Ooh La La," Paris Las Vegas: You may have seen hypnosis before, but you've never experienced it like this. Cools' sexually charged hypnosis show is raw, uncensored and hilarious. His X-rated commands, which can't be described in these pages, are dutifully obeyed by his subjects, to the delight of the audience. Cools' description of it as hypnosis "honed for the new millennium" is no exaggeration.
Immediately following is "Ooh La La," a sexy, fast-paced, modern variety burlesque show that pays homage to the beloved (but departed) "Showgirls of Magic" and features multiple fantasies in tightly choreographed dance numbers.
The five women performers, with their energy and diverse talent, are a tribute to classic Vegas topless revues.
The small room, hard to find but worth the effort, seats only 280, providing an intimate experience for both shows.
Valet parking waiting area
Flamingo Las Vegas: Offering what is perhaps the Strip's only air-conditioned waiting area for valet parking patrons, the Flamingo's rear lobby is a cool oasis in an otherwise superheated summer ritual. Guests wait in cool comfort while viewing a museum-like collection of vintage Flamingo photos. The lobby has a clear view of the pickup point, so patrons needn't actually venture outside until the very last moment, when they head directly to their precooled cars.
Gourmet Chinese on the Strip
Jasmine, Bellagio: Of the few haute cuisine Chinese gourmet rooms on the Strip, Jasmine at Bellagio is tops in fare, ambience and service.
Elegant European decor and an apropos view of the Paris Las Vegas facade and the Bellagio's own dancing fountains provide the perfect backdrop to the Cantonese feasts created by chef Philip Lo.
White-glove service is exacting and attentive. High price points make this room a special occasion indulgence, but the two-course Peking Duck -- traditionally served with crepes, then "wok'ed" with jicama and wrapped in lettuce leaves -- is an innovative twist and a good value. This isn't just dining; it's an experience.
Le Reve Theater, Wynn Las Vegas: After a near-complete transformation in 2007, Wynn's intimate, aquariumlike theater-in-the-round now affords patrons viewing the water spectacular more elbow room and legroom in plush, high-back seats, never being more than 12 rows from the stage.
The VIP Indulgence Package ratchets up the luxury scale even further with rich, lounge-style seating and complimentary champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries. Enhancing the package are personal video monitors that provide up-close imagery of the underwater action, making these $159 seats the ultimate multisensory and multimedia experience.
Cocktail waitress uniform
Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino: Previous leader Coast Casinos' server uniforms were toned down significantly after the company's merger with Boyd Gaming, but there are still some extremely strong contenders in this category, including the Hard Rock Hotel and Paris Las Vegas. The uniforms on the cocktail waitresses at the new Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino, however, really turn up the heat on the competition. The red satin top, black bra, velvet shorts, fishnet stockings and black boots are hip, sexy and a perfect match for the property's dramatic new look.
The Buffet, Bellagio: Just by a nose, the Buffet at Bellagio edges out perennial rival the Buffet at Wynn. Although the Wynn setting is drop-dead gorgeous, and the food presentation is equally artful, food quality at Bellagio is tops, giving it the nod. Specifically, the weekend Gourmet Dinner -- featuring exotic meats like Kobe beef, buffalo, venison and wild boar -- rivals some top restaurants in town. The cold seafood is top quality, and meats and side dishes are perfectly spiced. The desserts, once disappointing, now match the quality of the rest of the spread, making this feast worth the often long wait.
MGM Grand Hotel & Casino: Over the past few years, many Las Vegas casinos quietly revised their "21" rules, turning them in favor of the house. This stealth modification, while not intentionally publicized, is visible only to those who read the fine print on a table's signage. Reducing the "natural" blackjack payout from 3:2 to 6:5; allowing the dealer to hit "soft 17s"; and restricting double-downs and pair splitting are all recent rule alterations that have radically worsened the odds for the player.
And despite the popular notion that the best rules are often found at the grittier, downtown casinos, the MGM Grand, right on the Strip, still features classic Vegas rules at select, marked tables. Here, the dealer "stands" on soft 17; blackjack pays 3:2; and players may double-down after splitting. Best of all, players can split aces up to four times, just as God intended.
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