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Dealer Has 21

Bill and Jacqueline in Las Vegas: March 28-April 4, 2001

By Bill Walsh

DAY 7 (Tuesday): Shakedown 1979

No, it's not just my foul mood: The beautiful shower stall in our Venetian room has the worst shower head I have ever experienced. How you say "Gold-plated piece of shit?"

I'm sorry; that was uncalled for. It's probably not real gold.

And remember my ode to the wonders of video checkout? At the Venetian it guides you through the entire process before informing you that it doesn't work "for this room." I will not be one of the lemmings who stand in line with luggage to turn in a goddamn key card. I call downstairs and, to my surprise, am checked out over the phone by a very nice employee.

Also very nice: We get free bottled water as we stand in the taxi line. Yep, I don't know quite what to think about the Venetian. The standard rooms are clearly the best I've ever seen, that shower head aside. The restaurant row probably beats any other Las Vegas hotel's restaurant selection, at least for my tastes, despite the "Bam!" of a snub we got from Emeril. The public areas are undeniably nice, but there's something missing. There's no comparison to Bellagio. And the Venetian isn't a place in which I'd want to spend any time gambling. If there are $5 blackjack tables at the slow times, as there are at Bellagio, I didn't see any. And maybe I'm making this up, but didn't this place pioneer the 19-deck shoe?

Not that I'm really looking forward to the Tropicana at this point. (Terence's e-mail response when he learned we'd be spending a night there: "I understand the Tropicana features a big show with Beel Holden, not to mention great orange juice.")

We pass the motel-style "garden" rooms as the cab approaches the Tropicana's main entrance and at first I think "Eeew!" Then it occurs to me: If we were at an East Coast beach resort, even a relatively affluent one, I'd be looking at those rooms with envy and wishing I could afford one.

That was just an aside. We're staying at the Tropicana only because I saw what looked like a good price on a "Jacuzzi suite." I figured we might be feeling a little cramped by this point in the trip, especially as we look back at those three glorious days in a one-bedroom penthouse at Bellagio last year, and "suite" sounds mighty good.

It's only noon or so, before "check-in time," but none of the previous hotels has blinked an eye at getting us into a room early. The Trop, of course, does a lot of blinking. So after we carted our carry-on luggage past the bellhops and up two or three little sets of stairs to the "Love Boat"-era registration desk, we're told "You can check those bags out front." Down two or three sets of stairs. "You don't have a bell desk inside the hotel?" I ask. "You can check those bags out front."

We're also given a map to the Island Tower, where our room is located. This tower appears to be in Reno.

Out front, the staff is missing. Probably kidnapped by those damn Communist Chinese. We wait and wait and wait. When Gopher finally does show up, he doesn't bother to affix anything on our bags matching the claim check we were given. So we wait while he runs another errand and make sure he does so, to avoid a repeat of that nasty America West Airlines ticket-counter incident of a few years back.

Today the cold snap really has snapped into place. We're hit with a blast of arctic air as walk to the nearby entrance to Excalibur's tram to Mandalay Bay. The plan is to check out the place once more (loved it the first walk-through, not so much the second) and have breakfast at the well-regarded Raffles coffee shop.

We're pretty hungry, so Raffles is the first stop. There's no wait, and we're seated at a table that is pleasantly out of the way but not-so-pleasantly adjacent to the kitchen entrance. That mixed impression is immediately countered by the beverage service. Jacqueline asked for a diet cola and gets a huge glass; I asked for coffee and get a full pot of some of the best coffee I've ever had. The menu says it's Starbucks.

My eggs Benedict and Jacqueline's ham-and-Swiss omelet are excellent. Good hash browns, too.

On the way out we find restrooms before the casino, another nice touch. The men's room isn't big, but it's so nice I'm reluctant to leave.

We make our way to the Shark Reef but, in what is probably a move we'll regret, balk at the admission price. So instead we return to the casino and put money in double-bonus quarter poker machines. Jacqueline loses $60; I manage to hit four 6's and turn my $40 into $62.50.

We had planned to take a shuttle from the Tropicana to the Hard Rock, which we still haven't seen, but since we're not welcome at the Trop we grab a cab (yes, another cab) at Mandalay Bay. The Hard Rock casino is beautiful -- the hardwood floors, the lighting, the signage, the lighting of the signage. But it is small. We're lucky enough to be there at a quiet time.

There's a $5 blackjack table (shoe) with open seats, so we settle in, next to a young man with hundreds and hundreds of dollars on the table, all in the form of $5 chips. We figure he must be superstitious about coloring up. The pit boss immediately greets us with "I know you guys, right?" Uh, no, we answer, you don't. We feel bad later when we realize that was just a throwaway opening line; he's warm and friendly to everyone else who sits down.

The dealer isn't such a talker, but he quickly surmises we know how to play and he moves on without waiting for a signal when it's clear we'll be standing. This is just fine with us.

After a while we get some company. At first base is an older guy who seems to know everyone in the place. Before long an entourage builds up as people stop by to greet him. He's so busy talking he doesn't get a chance to light up one of those Marlboro Reds he brought to the table. Darn.

At third base we have a 50-something guy who is the first player I've ever seen to try to double down on 19. He makes a big show of acting like it's a big mistake when everyone tells him how stupid that is, but his play makes it clear he really doesn't understand the game.

Then, after maybe half an hour of $5 bets, he asks for his rating card in such a way that the dealer and the other players wonder whether he's asking for a comp. "Comp? Sure, whatever!" the 19-doubler says. We don't see the machinations in the pit, but if this guy gets any sort of comp, we've really been missing out.

We play some uneventful video poker and then it's finally check-in time, so we take a cab back to the Tropicana. The registration desk has our key, and we trek to the Island Tower, passing all sorts of sights that have me thinking that maybe all those implosions weren't so bad after all. The blackjack area, with its stained-glass ceiling, is nice enough, but the rest of the place is Just Plain Old. Some of these ceilings almost require a shrimp like me to duck to pass through. The "steakhouse" has steakhouse prices by Denny's ambience.

Not too long ago, the Trop, with its ubiquitous "Island of Las Vegas" TV ads, was arguably the highest-profile hotel in the city. Now it's just a dump.

We finally make it to the Island Tower elevators, and then we wait. There are at least half a dozen elevators, but they all must be otherwise engaged. One of the outside-facing elevators finally arrives, and there's a decent view. Can't say the same for the view in the other direction: a painting of a parrot on the elevator doors that must have been done by the owner's five-year-old.

Our 19th-floor Jacuzzi suite is laughable. Well, actually, it's fine, but it probably wasn't the best idea to stay here immediately after staying at the Venetian. The living room, in addition to the bamboo couch and coffee table, contains a bar. No liquor or anything, but if I had any I could maybe stand behind this bar and serve a mai tai or something. The bedroom is dominated by a spa that takes the form of big, brown plastic fake rocks. It's in a mirrored corner. There's a bamboo-framed mirror over the soft bed. There's a tiny TV. There's a safe, a safe that looks as though it might have been cracked by Steve McQueen early in his career (before he drove the "Bullitt" Mustang), blocking the walking space between the bed and the window. This safe is for our use, provided we pony up $3.

The sink area and the toilet-shower area are separate. The shower is of the steam variety! It really is a spacious-enough and comfortable-enough suite, but it isn't worth even the "bargain" price I found. (Matt Weatherford of Cheapo Vegas on these suites: "It's some 1979 interpretation of a swank room, and it hasn't been updated since.")

Aside from the suite deal, the other reason I chose to spend a night at the Tropicana was that I wanted to experience one of the town's better pools. I wanted to stand under waterfalls and play swim-up blackjack. Of course, our move to the Trop would have to coincide with gray skies a 20-degree temperature drop. We take the elevator to the pool level and find people actually swimming (the water is almost warm enough to be called lukewarm), but the blackjack table is dismantled and the area is less than inviting.

The other Trop attraction I wanted to see was the Casino Legends Hall of Fame. There's a $4 admission charge, and I have no success scouring the handout magazines for a coupon. The funny thing about this "museum," though, is that you'll find a satisfying dose of the kind of stuff it features outside the entrance. I love this crap, though, and I'm glad we paid for admission. Chips, menus, signs and much, much more. I wish I had brought a map of Fremont Street addresses so I could see exactly where all the defunct casinos whose detritus is on display were located. The video of big Las Vegas fires is on a constant loop, and it's worth watching.

Only now do I decide that a 6:30 dinner at Delmonico will be acceptable. We play some blackjack at a $5 low-rider (chairs, not stools) shoe table. Good rules at the Tropicana, for the most part: Dealer stands on soft 17, surrender, double after splitting. Oddly, though, there's no resplitting of aces. I don't think we got killed in this session, but by now we've stopped keeping track.

Dinnertime draws near, and we take a cab to the Venetian. At Delmonico, Jacqueline makes sure to mention last night's reservation. "Oh, yes," the hostess says, and I'm pretty sure I see a two-word note, the second word of which is "VICTIM," on the ticket she gives to the person who seats us.

What a beautiful room. Soft lighting, very soft leather chairs, a breathtaking stone wall on one side and glass walls on the others. The tenor of the service is just right. We finally ask our waiter just what did happen last night, and he tells of two feet of standing water in the kitchen. Maybe I should still be suspicious, but I'm relieved, and I make a gondola joke. Jacqueline orders a vodka tonic in a "tall glass" (we just recently learned that that's the code word for "make sure it's not all vodka"). I press my luck and try for gin and bitter lemon. I realize not many bars will stock Canada Dry Bitter Lemon, a forgotten mixer of yesteryear I recently discovered and loved, but every bartender guide I look at contains a recipe that involves lemon juice and superfine sugar. If not, I say, make it a gin and tonic. There's actually not much difference between tonic and bitter lemon, and when my drink comes I'm not sure which one I got. The important thing, as you "stirred, not shaken" types know, is that the gin doesn't get "bruised." I'm not sure what that means, but I don't think mine has suffered anything more than a minor scrape. Bactine chaser, please!

I order the bone-in ribeye (Who am I to blow against the wind?). Jacqueline goes for the filet. The waiter goes on and on about how rare the place's "rare" and "medium rare" are, persuading Jacqueline to order "medium" instead of her usual medium-rare. I stick with rare, though I do prefer the medium-rare side of rare as opposed to the "blue" side.

We add an order of garlic "smashed" potatoes. I didn't think we'd be hungry enough this early to bother with an appetizer, but Jacqueline really wants the French onion soup and so I can't resist trying the truffle grilled cheese sandwich.

Jacqueline excuses herself to use the ladies' room, and while she's gone we're presented with a little amuse-bouche from the chef, ostensibly as an apology for last night's cancellation. It's prosciutto and fresh mozzarella with tomato. A tiny plate, but very, very good. There's some sort of spicing going on with the prosciutto that I've never tasted before.

The appetizers are fine, though I'd try something else next time.

Before the steaks come, we're presented with knives that resemble switchblades. Beautiful instruments, these. I bet they keep a close eye on them.

Our steaks are both on the medium side of medium-rare. Good thing I didn't ask for medium-rare. I'm surprised this would happen after such a big deal was made about how red, not pink, "rare" would be, but I'm not ticked off enough to ask for a replacement. I'm about ready to give up on the ribeye, though. Everybody talks about how it's the best-tasting steak because of all that marbling, but I've had this cut from some of the world's best steakhouses and while they're fine, they strike me as just too fatty. This one is particularly fatty. It's a huge steak, but only about 70 percent of it is edible. Next time, porterhouse -- or even filet.

We split a piece of "bananas Foster ice cream pie" for dessert. It's fine, but again I'd try something else next time. It doesn't come close to the banana cream pie at Emeril's in the MGM. I have a dessert wine -- a glass of muscat -- that is wonderful by itself but doesn't go with the pie. My own damn fault: On the menu Emeril clearly suggests a liquored-up version of his New Orleans chicory coffee to accompany the pie.

OK, now here's the funny part: I wasn't all that thrilled with any of the food, and obviously I had some major complaints, but I loved Delmonico. I can't explain it, but the atmosphere was so nice I just have a deep and abiding faith that some adjustments in ordering will bring me a fantastic dinner there next time.

Oh, forgot one complaint: Jacqueline notes that everybody got the prosciutto and mozzarella. So much for being compensated for that ruined Monday night.

Now that we're loaded up with beef and booze, what better than to stand up for an hour or two with a couple hundred other sweaty bodies and watch avant garde theater?

Standing in line to see De La Guarda at the dreaded Rio, we don't feel as though we're in Las Vegas anymore. This brings back memories of the '80s and obscure clubs and great music (though the music being pumped in here isn't exactly great). When the doors finally open, suddenly the feeling is more like Disneyland -- we're led into another holding area, this one outdoors! I won't give away too much, but I will say that the show starts very slowly. It's a good thing it would be so hard to walk out, because I think a lot of people otherwise might. Be patient, though; it's worth it. My favorite detail is the performers' costumes, or, more accurately, the fact that they aren't costumes. They are, but . . . well, you have to see the show.

Back at the Tropicana, we return to our low-rider table to give more money away. The nice man who was at second base when we left for the Rio is still there. The dealer politely asks where we're from, and unfortunately we tell the truth. We then learn all about his military life in the D.C. area. And about what a bum that John F. Kennedy was. The dealer hasn't been back to Washington in 20 years, but he's "correcting" us on any number of things about what's going on in the city.

We need to get an early-ish start tomorrow, and Jacqueline cuts me off as I try to snag just one more free Budweiser (I think I saw something like that in one of those "Lockhorns" panels for sale back at the Venetian). Great. Now how will I get to sleep? Horn-locking or not, we can't not try the fake-rock Jacuzzi. It turns out to be a pretty good Jacuzzi.

NEXT: First Class All the Way