Story by Victoria De Silverio | Photography by Mark Hartman | Hemispheres, January 2018
Existing as much in the imagination as in the middle of the desert, Las Vegas is the ultimate projection of escapism. It is a town, as Joan Didion said, with “no 'time' … no night and no day and no past and no future." The city's nonstop sensory overload scrambles your frequencies, priming you for the gluttony and vice that brought you here. So you join the flow, the hustlers and the hopers, all navigating the same labyrinth, urging you to drink more, sleep less. Throw some money on the table—you feel lucky. And if you aren't, the yelps of losing and winning sound the same. After all, if it was peace and prudence you were after, you'd be in Santa Fe.
Wayne Newton, a helpful hoodoo root, robot mixologists
I arrive in Vegas ready to do some damage. Along with my friend Amy, who has bravely agreed to accompany me on the trip, I head for the super-size sandbox at Dig This, where a so-called “Aggression Session" allows you to channel your frustrations into the act of smashing a car with a 15-ton Caterpillar excavator. Surrounded by walls tagged with words of inspiration—MEAN PEOPLE! WRONG PASSWORDS!—I stare down a worn 1970s sedan while venue owner Ed Mumm amps me up: “Come on! What's got you riled?" I dig deep and spray-paint a name on the side of the car, a name that Mumm says many pent-up people have mangled in recent months. Then I climb aboard the excavator and seize the controls. With each grab, smash, and drop, the car is flattened and twisted into a metal mess, and sure enough my heavy emotions start to dissipate. “Everyone leaves here euphoric," Mumm says.
Cleansed, we take a taxi to Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at The Mirage, where we Zen-out watching the animals frolic in pools. At one point, the finned artist Maverick swims up, takes a brush in his mouth and paints on our outstretched canvases. Sure, it's a bit Vegasy, but it's a rush to be so close to him, to see his tiny teeth behind what looks like a smile. As we leave, abstract inkblots in hand, Maverick gives us a wave. Talented and cute.
An artistic marine mammal at Siegfried & Roy's Dolphin Habitat
An Uber takes us across the Strip for lunch—we've been dying to try the plant-based Impossible Burger at Andrea's, a sleek restaurant inside the Encore. When the trio of sliders arrives—dressed in frisée, kimchi, pickles, kalbi sauce, and gochujang aioli—we lean in for a sniff. Smells like meat. Looks like meat. The texture is meaty too, only lighter. The secret is heme, an iron-rich molecule found in real meat, which the makers say they've lab-created atom for atom. As scientific experiments go, this one has to be among the tastiest.“Britney, J.Lo, and Sir Elton John might play Vegas, but Wayne Newton is Vegas."
Ready to re-tox, we hit the Strip and walk south, passing the canals of the Venetian, where gondoliers transport tourists glued to their smartphones. We stop outside the casino at the LINQ. A hand-shaped hoodoo root has been burning a hole in Amy's pocket; she insists it's telling us to go in. The root leads us past a Tim McGraw slot machine and a Hangover slot machine. We take a seat among the silver-haired “grinds"—low-rollers at penny slots—and feed a $5 bill into a Cleopatra-themed machine. After three seconds, I'm done, but Amy hits a winning streak. A couple of boozy, piped-in-oxygen hours later, up $200, she cashes out. Her eyes look like saucers.
We're having an early dinner at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand, the French chef's fancy take on the open kitchen vibe of a sushi or tapas bar. With hunger for a compass, we find the monorail, which has a stop inside the hotel. The restaurant is small and the music is soft, two pleasant anomalies in Vegas, and our counter seats offer a front-row view of each course as it's prepared. The foie gras parfait with port wine reduction sets the stage for an outlay of memorable moments, the highlight being black cod in langoustine broth.
We tell the sommelier we're off to see Wayne Newton perform, and he's not sure if we're serious. We are. Britney, J.Lo, and Sir Elton might play Vegas, but Wayne Newton is Vegas. The 75-year-old singer has done more than 30,000 shows in this town, and as he takes the stage at the Bally's Windows Showroom, a fever hits the ladies in their evening finery and hair helmets. They are Wayniacs, and he is their Grateful Dead.
In the green room after the show, we corner Newton, and he tells us a story: “I was on a plane, and I hear, 'Wayne!' and I turn around. It was Elvis. It might as well have been God. I started mumbling what a big fan I was, and he says, 'Yeah, yeah, listen—do you know a girl by the name of Sandy?' And I say, 'Yes, as a matter of fact, we're dating.' And he said, 'So are we!' and we were instant friends."
Black cod at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
Minus5° Ice Experience (as in, it's 5 below 0 degrees Celsius) or Tipsy Robot, where the mixologists are robots? We do both. In between stops, our 50-something Lyft driver tells us he grew up down the street from the infamous mobster Tony “The Ant" Spilotro. “When he went missing, I remember watching the news wondering when he was gonna pop up. And he popped up: in cornfields in Indiana—dead."
Pumped up from our brush with royalty, we hit the Strip again, and it's even more bonkers than before. We can't make up our minds where to go for a cocktail. Will it be
The night's interminable cocktail spree, which includes to-go yard-long frozen margaritas from It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere, continues at Peppermill Fireside Lounge, where all nights in Vegas should end—or start. This cocktail bar is a bona fide classic, with an interior wrapped in the softest glow of pink and blue neon tubing. Taking the last sips of a 64-ounce scorpion bowl, we decide it's time to go, since it's actually 5 a.m. Here.
But then—there's usually a but then in Vegas—as we're settling the bill, a voice rises behind me: “Where are the girls?" I turn around and see that the voice belongs to a guy in a white suit and a shirt with buttons at least two holes off. He looks like Nicolas Cage. “Yes, it's Nicolas Cage," says another man, pointing. I look again: a furrowed brow squeezing two eyes together like lemons. I've seen that look before. It's Nicolas Cage. Silently, Amy and I agree there's time for one more.
A towering slot machine, a dangerous burger, a quickie wedding
After a tiny sleep in our luxurious two-story suite at Skylofts at MGM Grand, we chug espresso and hop on the Deuce Bus to Downtown. Once the epicenter of Vegas, this is where the city's first settlement (by Mormons) and casinos (by mobsters) were founded, and where a teenage Wayne Newton got his start. Much ado has been made about Downtown in recent years, as it's had an epic and expensive revitalization.
We walk over to Eat on Carson Avenue, a breakfast and lunch spot that would fit very easily into every city's Brooklyn. The aroma from the kitchen, and a healthy hangover, make us want to order everything. Hedging our hunger, we settle for three plates: huevos motuleños, a truffled egg sandwich, and addictive deviled eggs.
Back outside, we spy El Cortez Hotel & Casino. Built in 1941, it's the longest continuously operating hotel casino in Vegas, and it was once owned by Bugsy Siegel and friends. After a round of old fashioneds in the low-lit cocktail lounge, we head out without gambling. The hoodoo root hasn't made a peep since yesterday.
The faux skyline at New York-New York
We reunite with crazy almost immediately. At the intersection of South Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street, we stand at the foot of what appears to be the world's largest slot machine, the 12-story SlotZilla, which is flanked by two huge bedazzled showgirls. Above our heads, bodies are flying, Superman-style, tethered to an 850-foot zip line.
Continuing on Fremont, we see a Japanese Michael Jackson impersonator trying to sing and moonwalk at the same time outside the Heart Attack Grill, a burger place with signs that say the food might to kill you. Of course we go in. Waitresses in nurses' uniforms serve Bypass Burgers to diners in hospital gowns, while a bartender with a stethoscope around his neck mixes triple Butterfat Milkshakes. “Vegetarian" options include onion rings fried in lard and filterless Lucky Strikes. Anyone over 350 pounds eats for free. To date, two customers have left on stretchers, with one definitely not coming back for more. His ashes are in a jar on the bar.
We opt for a less adventurous meal: BBQ burnt ends and a sea bass to share at Carson Kitchen. Housed in a repurposed mid-century motel, Carson and its fellow tenants—a donut shop, a sushi restaurant—indicate how Downtown has gone from a derelict no-fly zone to an area where people live and work.“Waitresses in nurses' uniforms serve burgers to diners in hospital gowns."
Catty-corner to the Plaza Hotel & Casino (home of former mayor Oscar B. Goodman's Beef•Booze•Broads restaurant) is Fremont Street's first hotel, built in 1906 as the Hotel Nevada, now the Golden Gate, a Rat Pack classic. The original facade peeks through the glittery makeover. Across the way is Binion's Gambling Hall and Hotel, where owner/convicted murder Benny Binion invented the concept of comping, which allowed even low-ballers to feel like big shots and drink for free.
Around the corner, at the Main Street Station Hotel and Casino, we see the first big-ticket effort (in the 1990s) to lure the crowds back Downtown after the center of gravity shifted to the Strip. The property's museum-quality details—stained glass from the Lillian Russell Mansion, chandeliers from the Paris Opera House—make it a magical place to lose money. A nice security guard escorts us to the men's room, where, strategically attached to a urinal, there is a slab of the Berlin Wall.
A different kind of unification is underway at our next stop: the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, where we watch a quickie service that begins with a minister in gold sunglasses and a rhinestone jumpsuit singing “It's Now or Never" and ends with strobe lights and dry ice. Back in the lobby, a guy behind the desk is on the phone: “A showgirl? No problem. A zombie showgirl? No problem."
What could possibly be more Vegas than a wedding ceremony led by an Elvis impersonator who, upon request, will also dress as Merlin the Magician? Well, the giant blinking ruby slipper on Las Vegas Boulevard comes close. The ruby slipper is one of the salvaged relics at the Neon Museum, a meandering open-air space containing more than 200 decommissioned signs, ranging from the elegant, swooping letters of the Moulin Rouge to the jagged, retro-futuristic Stardust sign, which became an emblem of the Atomic Age (tourists gathered on the hotel roof to watch the mushroom clouds of nuclear tests, as you would a fireworks display).
A quick Lyft takes us back to the Fremont Street area and Container Park, where stacked shipping containers accommodate dozens of retail and culinary start-ups. At Cheffini's Hot Dogs, we have draft beer and grilled franks wrapped in bacon and a mess of fixings. On our way out, a giant metal praying mantis roars and spits fire into the air, because, as Barry Manilow said, “There's just no quiet in Vegas."
Bubbly in the Grand Canyon, a hike in the hills, a ride in the sky
We rise early in our Tower Suite at ARIA Resort and Casino because we have a big morning planned: a helicopter flight over—and into—the Grand Canyon. After a ride to the airport in a Maverick Helicopters limo, we meet our fellow flyers. We are eight in total, which seems a crowd until we hop aboard the chopper. It's surprisingly spacious, with wraparound glass, and every seat is a good one.
We fly east over the desolate beauty of the Mojave Desert, passing an extinct stratovolcano that bears black scars from lava flows many millennia old, and the blue waters of Lake Mead, with its own scars—white lines like bathtub rings from the endless rise and fall of water levels. We pass over the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. The massive structure, roughly 70 stories of concrete and steel, seems tiny against the vast nothingness that surrounds it.
The lobby at ARIA
Deeper east, the pilot points out a wild horse slaloming through sunburnt shrubs, then loops low over the edge of the Grand Canyon, dipping between steep walls and following the curve of the Colorado. Our final descent is 3,500 feet to a clifftop perch just 300 feet above the riverbank. At a picnic table, the pilot sets out croissants and uncorks Champagne. The impossible scale and sublime beauty of the canyon are mesmerizing, overwhelming, though this fact seems lost on the rabble of chipmunks scrabbling around for crumbs.
It's noon when we get back to the city, so we pick up our rental car and head straight for Yardbird, a shrine to Southern comfort food next to the Palazzo, for a boxed lunch of Lewellyn's Fine Fried Chicken and Fried Green Tomato BLTs, made with smoked pork belly. We plan to drive a few miles west to Red Rock Canyon, for a picnic and a hike. As we leave, we bump into Spider-Man—who we saw earlier in front of the Bellagio fountain show. We get to talking, and he tells us his favorite Red Rock hikes, which isn't exactly heroic, but it is helpful.
A half-hour later we're driving through the otherworldly Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Around us, crimson and orange formations rise like flames from the muted tones of the desert toward a cloudless sky. But, lunch is getting cold. We stop at the base of the rocks to eat and study the map, then set out on the most challenging hike suggested by Spidey: a five-mile scramble up to a 2,000-foot overlook. When we finally reach the top—it's really good we brought hiking shoes—we watch the sun sink behind the Spring Mountains, its horizontal rays directed to a city ramping up for the night shift.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
“Dangling 900 feet above the ground at the end of a metal arm, spinning like a top, feels like the ultimate gamble."
Dinner tonight is in Chinatown, at Aburiya Raku, a Japanese restaurant in a strip mall favored by off-duty chefs and visiting stars like Tom Colicchio. The name alone, which translates as “Charcoal Grill House Enjoyment," is worth the detour. Alongside the homestyle dishes are little touches like green-tea salt and Koregusu, a Japanese chili liquor. It's our last meal in Vegas, so we cast wallet worries aside and keep a parade of small plates coming, focusing on the robata (charcoal grilled) menu: butter sautéed scallops, Kobe beef skewers, duck with balsamic soy—made all the more delicious with a dry sparkling sake.
Back at the Strip, we wonder if we should leave it at that. But then, like a burning bush, we spot a flier on our dashboard. It's one of many we've picked up here promising discount drinks, discount shows, or discount companionship. This one is shilling the thrill rides at the top of the Stratosphere Tower, including one they call Insanity the Ride. Dangling 900 feet above the ground at the end of a metal arm, spinning like a top, feels like the ultimate gamble. So we ask the hoodoo root for guidance. The root tells us to do it, and we do.