Like the nearby desert's ever-shifting sands, Las Vegas' hospitality landscape is continually in motion. Since I began tracking this city's excesses, successes and even its occasional messes for this newspaper in 2003, there has been no shortage of standouts to report on. Here then, are several of my choices for Las Vegas' Best Bets for 2011.
Best Hotel-Within-a-Hotel: SkyLofts at the MGM Grand
In old-time Las Vegas, all hotel guests, regardless of their level of accommodation, faced a seemingly endless march from the front door through the casino to the elevator bank. The hotel-within-a-hotel concept shortened that trek by adding dedicated entrances and front-door-to-suite escort service.
But that was only the beginning: Upgraded accommodations, dedicated concierge and butler staff, and a more serene, personal experience define this niche. The standard of excellence in this category is set by SkyLofts at the MGM Grand. SkyLofts guests are met at their airport gate and transferred via Maybach limo to a private entrance, where a concierge escorts them to their loft suite for check-in.
The one-, two- and three-bedroom, two-level lofts feature modern furnishings, a plethora of flat-panel TVs and ubiquitous Crestron remote controls for all environmental and entertainment systems. Well-heeled travelers seeking luxury, exclusivity and doting service are SkyLofts' target demographic, and they are well served by a capable staff who anticipate and cater to their needs. See www.skyloftsmgmgrand.com.
Best Pre-Theater Dinner Option at Caesars: Bradley Ogden
Let's face it: Making a 7:30 p.m. show at the Colosseum means having to dine at the ungodly hour of 5:30 p.m. That blow, however, is softened by the pre-theater dinner option at Bradley Ogden. Talented Executive Chef Todd Williams religiously follows the restaurant namesake's mantra of farm-fresh American cuisine, while the skilled servers expertly pace the meal -- which is never rushed -- to end precisely at 7:25 p.m.
It's then a stone's throw to the theater, which is located directly across from the restaurant. Tip: Parking at Caesars' Colosseum valet makes for an easy in-and-out evening. For more, see www.caesarspalace.com/casinos/caesars-palace/restaurants-dining/bradley-ogden-detail.html.
Best Place to Chill Out: Minus 5at Monte Carlo
Offering proof that there's no need to actually travel the world to experience climatic extremes, Minus 5 Ice Bar brings the frigid north to sizzling Las Vegas. At the second permanent ice bar within a U.S. hotel (the first is in Mandalay Place), staff provide patrons with parkas and mittens to compensate for the 23-degree Fahrenheit (minus 5 Celsius) environs, while offering cold drinks (what else?) in ice glasses for a $25 entrance fee.
Fur-lined ice benches accommodate those willing to sit while the staff photographer captures their frozen visage. And those who are weary of Las Vegas' prurient image can take heart: There's no chance of seeing a naked woman in this freezer. Go to www.montecarlo.com/restaurants/lounges.aspx.
Best Fine Dining Value: Sirio Ristorante at Aria
The terms "fine dining" and "value" have ordinarily been mutually exclusive, but these aren't ordinary times. The economy has forced even top-end restaurants to scale their offerings to what the market will bear, which in most cases means an affordable prix fixe menu. Even at the luxe Aria Resort & Casino, diners have their choice of reasonably priced, set-menu meals from virtually every restaurant on the property.
The best of these, however, is the three-course pre-theater menu at Sirio, the eponymous Italian eatery created by legendary Le Cirque proprietor Sirio Maccionni. For $50 per person, including tax, diners are treated to Maccionni's family-inspired recipes, served in an unpretentious setting by a professional wait staff. The Cannoli Siciliani dessert, by the way, is sublime.
While this deal is technically only available for prepurchase with a Viva Elvis show package, those in the know (welcome to the club) may walk in and ask for it between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. and after 9 p.m. See www.arialasvegas.com/dining/sirio-ristorante.aspx.
Best New Buffet: Studio B Show Kitchen Buffet at M Resort
In the Las Vegas buffet realm, where "newer" and "bigger" don't always equate to "better," the Studio B Show Kitchen Buffet at the M Resort offers several twists that elevate it above the competition. Off-Strip properties such as the M Resort work hard to gain market share in the hyper-competitive locals market and to lure visitor traffic out to the boonies.
Studio B features an extensive seafood station along with myriad other live-action stations at its nearly 16,000-square-foot buffet-in-the-round. Luscious desserts, crafted by talented pastry chef Jean Claude Canestrier, cap off the quality meal. The adjacent show kitchen enables diners to follow along as Chef Tina Martini demonstrates preparation of buffet favorites.
The big hook here, however, is a Las Vegas-area first: the inclusion of complimentary, unlimited wine and beer with each adult buffet purchase. Go to www.themresort.com/dining/studiob.html.
Best Chinese on the Strip: Wing Lei at Wynn
While gourmet Chinese restaurants dot the Strip, those in the top tier occupy a stratum above the competition by featuring innovative menus not typically seen elsewhere. At the Wynn, Wing Lei Executive Chef Xian Ming Yu ably demonstrates that creativity with his six-course Imperial Peking Duck Tasting Dinner.
Beginning with the traditional Peking duck course, a tableside presentation wherein the bird's crispy skin is carved, then wrapped in buns laced with hoisin sauce and scallions, the meal unfolds with four more inventive courses prepared using the same duck. By dessert, however, the theme changes to a Franco-Chinese delicacy of the chef's choice -- minus the bird. Presentation and service befit the elegant room.
Wing Lei's Imperial Peking Duck Tasting Dinner is available at Wynn every night for $88 per person (minimum of two diners). Those arriving early (between 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.) are rewarded with the same fare at a veritable bargain price of $68. Go to www.wynnlasvegas.com/dining/wing-lei.