The Strip's best bets, away from the casino floors

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The best bets in Las Vegas, once limited to gambling, now revolve largely around sensory pleasures driven by accommodations, dining and entertainment. Those hospitality sectors now generate revenue commensurate with or greater than gambling. I've been experiencing the city's various offerings for over 30 years, so be assured that there is history and context behind this sampling of Las Vegas' best bets.

Best-kept secret on the Strip

Monte Carlo Resort Hotel & Casino: Rarely discussed among Vegas cognoscenti and largely ignored by the media, the Monte Carlo is a true sleeper -- hiding in plain sight. 

Located between New York-New York and Bellagio, this hotel is actually noteworthy for what it doesn't offer: free attractions, high-end shows, trendy nightclubs or luxury shopping. Those missing pieces, and the crowds typically associated with them, make the Monte Carlo appealing. It is a conveniently located, accessible, relatively serene and affordable Strip hotel. 

Standard rooms occasionally start at $79 midweek. The concierge floor, one of only a handful in Vegas and a relative bargain, is a little-known pleasure.

Lunch for less than $5

Max's Cafe, Desert Passage: Featuring what is surely the only served and edible lunch on the Strip to qualify in this category, the $4.99 lunch specials at Max's Cafe are a steal.

Located in the Desert Passage Shops at the Aladdin, soon to be the Miracle Mile shops at Planet Hollywood Hotel & Casino, this operation is all about value. 

While seated in the beautifully lit, elegant dining room, we enjoyed a half-pound sirloin burger, a warm goat cheese salad and a mahi sandwich; each item was less than $5.

High-rollers who pony up $6.99 can treat themselves to several pasta dishes or grilled salmon.

Every hour is happy hour at Max's, where you can order three drinks for the price of one.

Buffet for less than $10

Ports o' Call, Gold Coast Hotel & Casino: A few dicey contenders in this category made this research a gastronomic misadventure. But despite the popular notion that buffet quality and low prices are mutually exclusive, the Ports o' Call lunch buffet at the Gold Coast, just west of the Strip, is a welcome exception.

Seven food stations offer an appetizing and tasty mix of options in an airy, open and reasonably quiet space, all for $7.49 on weekdays. 

Restaurant experience

Eiffel Tower Restaurant, Paris Las Vegas: When the Eiffel Tower's elevator door opens onto the 11th floor landing, many patrons stand slack-jawed for a moment as they take in the immediate view of the restaurant's hyperkinetic exhibition kitchen. 

But there's a kicker here: An adjoining window fronts the dessert preparation area, where all manner of delicious and complex creations are whipped up before diners' eyes.

Add the view out the dining room windows onto Lake Bellagio's fountain show and chef Jean Joho's artfully presented French cuisine, and this multiple-sensory treat is worth the somewhat hefty price tag.

Restaurant/nightclub combo

Tao, the Venetian: There are hot nightclubs that serve food and swanky restaurants that feature adjoining clubs, but none that combine the best of both like Tao at the Venetian. 

With a clientele that's high on the celebrity guest quotient, Tao's nightclub regularly packs the beautiful people, with a sprinkling of hoi polloi, into its 42,000-square-foot, Buddha-adorned space. 

In the dining room, chef Sam Hazen's pan-Asian creations, especially the Peking duck, engage diners on a gastronomic level not usually reached in proximity to a nightclub.

Guests should reserve tables early, as the place becomes increasingly frenetic as the night progresses.

Production show on the Strip

"Ka," MGM Grand: Despite spectacular new ("The Beatles' Love," at the Mirage) and established ("O," at Bellagio) competition, Cirque du Soleil's "Ka" holds center stage as the premier production show on the Strip. 

The dramatic production, a larger-than-life tale of separated twins and their journey to reunite, recalls the epic battle myths of every culture in a striking montage of stunningly staged acts.

Although impossible to categorize, the show easily lends itself to vivid description. It's ballet. It's theater. It's acrobatics. It's war. It's ethereal music and incredibly daring choreography coursing through gravity-defying, dreamlike sequences.

Since its debut in early 2005, "Ka" has been the show to see in Las Vegas.

Afternoon show

"Xtreme Magic Starring Dirk Arthur," Tropicana Las Vegas Hotel & Casino: In the rapidly expanding category of afternoon entertainment, Dirk Arthur's magic show is nighttime quality at afternoon prices, and that qualifies as the winner in this category.

Arthur and his assistants wow the audience with large-scale illusions and plenty of big cats that disappear and reappear with startling speed. And producing a full-size helicopter, complete with spinning rotor, isn't exactly something the kids should try at home. 

Parking on the Strip

Bellagio: What's clean, classy and comfortable at Bellagio besides the new spa tower rooms? The parking garage.

Slightly more elegant than lots at some off-Strip hotels, the self-parking garage at Bellagio wouldn't be the worst place to be marooned. Water fountains, pleasant lighting and elegant elevator lobbies at each level are a step above the norm.

The short walk from the garage outlet on the casino level, a trek at other properties,  puts you right into the resort lobby, next to the conservatory, with its seasonal floral displays. Best of all, like every other self-parking garage affiliated with a Strip hotel, it's free.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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