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It's All About the Abrahams

Bill and Jacqueline in Las Vegas, Oct. 19-24, 1999

By Bill Walsh

DAY 2 (Wednesday): The Road to Mandalay, and Beyond

It's a little weird to use an alarm clock on vacation, but we don't want to miss the breakfast portion of Main Street Station's excellent buffet. Much is made of this hotel's out-of-the-way location two blocks off Fremont Street, but, hell, you could walk farther from a parking space to your room at a Strip behemoth. We get there to find a pretty long line.

The Garden Court Buffet is in a big, beautiful room. The ceilings would make dandy hardwood floors, and Jacqueline and I simultaneously point out that this would make things relatively comfortable in a "Poseidon Adventure" situation, proving once again that we're made for each other.

We pay our $4.95, and I resist the temptation to yell, "FOUR NINETY-FIVE? I had a fricken STEAK for THREE DOLLARS last night!"

The food is good, as always, although we're a little disappointed. The scrambled eggs with cream cheese and ham are missing this time, and the gravy portion of the biscuits and gravy (Jacqueline's staple at this buffet) is way oversalted. My coffee is below average, and the orange juice isn't the fresh-squeezed stuff I remember. But the regular old scrambled eggs, the excellent bacon, the right kind of hash browns, and the cheese blintzes with strawberry sauce are more than worth the price of admission. We vow to be around on a Sunday next time, so we can have cheap champagne and I can put green chile on my eggs Benedict.

We decide to see if there's any blackjack worth playing on the way out, and sure enough there's a $3 shoe game. I don't like shoe games as a rule (besides being mathematically worse for the players, there's also the stupid hand signals and the pressure of everybody looking at exactly what you have while you decide what to do), but we don't get to play at Main Street Station that often, and it's a nice, quiet time. This time, though, Jacqueline gets cleaned out, losing all $40. I again net a $4 gain, plus a free Kahlua-and-milk. If I can win $4 every time I play, that's just fine with me.

Heading back to the Nugget we again pass Girls of Glitter Gulch, which advertises "World Class Topless Girls." I can only imagine how many breasts a girl needs to have to rank as "world class" in the topless department. And when I say I can only imagine, I mean that literally, as Jacqueline has ignored my constant whining about the need to visit the place, if only as a touchstone of American culture. I plead, "But you could hear a recording of 'Welcome to the Jungle' by the original artists!" Nothing.

Now it's time to head to the Strip. Three mega-resorts (Mandalay Bay, Paris and the Venetian) have opened since our last visit, and we have some wedding things to take care of. First stop: Mandalay Bay. I'm not a big fan of Circus Circus properties, and so, aside from the wave pool and the Lenin statue, I'm not expecting to be impressed. I'm wrong. The $13.50 cab ride was worth it. Mandalay Bay is a stunning place. It oozes money, and in more of a young, chic, New York-y way than Bellagio. China Grill, Aureole and the Lenin place, Red Square, all scream, "You can't afford to eat here!" Visually, each is uniquely exquisite.


The view from the pool area.
The Rumjungle nightclub is empty, but I don't think that would stop 'em from denying us admittance. This place is for the Beautiful People, and for those who didn't pay attention during second-grade English. Rumjungle's publicists have apparently convinced all print media that the name must be not only lowercase but also italic (rumjungle), and this will be my reason for boycotting a place that wouldn't let me in anyway.

The restrooms at Mandalay Bay are upscale, but they could be upscaler. The stall doors and walls are tall but not flush with the floor. There's auto flush, but the sinks are manually operated.

We take a lap around the pool area, where we ooh and ahh over the mist machines, the lazy river and the Border Grill restaurant, run by the "Too Hot Tamales" chicks from the TV Food Network. As we pass the wedding chapel a happy couple emerges. British guy, white-trash-but-richer girl, near as we can tell, both probably 40-ish. We complete our lap just in time to share doorways with the wedding party.

We take the monorail to the always pleasant Luxor, which we'd seen before, and then Excalibur. In my visits to the Strip, I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time in Excalibur, but maybe it just seems that way. To say I'm no fan of the Ye Olde school of theme-building would be to put it mildly, despite my fondness for huge turkey legs and chalices full of mead. Still, the shopping arcade that greets visitors coming off the monorail from the Luxor is a surprising oasis of Dungeons-and-Dragons-free splendor. Especially enticing is the great big Krispy Kreme doughnut factory and shop, which I view with the misty-eyed reverie of a recovering alcoholic passing the Irish pub of all Irish pubs. As I wipe away the drool a la Homer Simpson, Jacqueline nudges me and says, "We have things to do and blackjack to play!"

"Time to make the dough?" I reply. "Nuts!"

But first we have to get around to business, scouting locations for a rehearsal dinner. Jacqueline would like to include New York-New York in our plans, but the restaurant selection is not promising. The pressure of this task suddenly goes to my tummy, an event you can thank for another restroom review. This one is elegantly appointed with antique prints, dark wood and the avocado-ish green that people used to paint things and call it "antiquing." The auto-sensor situation is opposite that of Mandalay Bay: manual flush but auto sink. High-quality restroom, but it could use some Rudy Giuliani-inspired skull-busting cops to teach people a lesson or two about flushing the turlets and not pissing on the seats.

While we're at NYNY, we decide (against my tummy's better judgment) on a return engagement on the Manhattan Express rolly coaster. We happened to be around on the hotel's opening weekend and accidentally cut way ahead in line for a late-night ride. (The line was confusing, and crowd control was nonexistent. That's our story, and we're sticking to it.). Now we would try it in broad daylight on a crisp, sunny day. I leave my glasses in a locker because (a) they almost fell off last time and (b) I'm not sure I want a clear view of all this. I'm glad I didn't have my glasses and I'm glad we weren't in the front car, but I'm glad we went on the ride again. I won't try to describe the experience except to say this is quite a ride, perhaps the best coaster I've ever been on.

We take the elevated crosswalk to the MGM Grand and walk, then walk, then walk some more to get to MGM's restaurant row. MGM gets picked on a lot because it's so darn big, but I kinda like the place. In the casino area, at least, the bigness has a statuesque, Caesars-like elegance. I like the idea of having our rehearsal dinner at Emeril's or Coyote Cafe, but Jacqueline isn't too hip to the idea, especially considering the travel time. We tell the hostess at Emeril's that we're looking for a place to hold a dinner for 20, and she tells us something along the lines of 19 or 21 people being OK but 20 being an impossibility. Disillusioned, I suppress the urge to "kick it up a notch" and we make our way out of the City of Entertainment. On the way out we took advantage of the opportunity to walk under a glass catwalk and view the undersides of sleeping lions. Pretty cool. Then we walk, walk and walk some more to get to the monorail. Next stop: Paris. Along the way, we see a casino employee loudly announcing, "Somebody's smoking marijuana in the bathroom!" It's nice to see they've worked Robert Downey Jr. into their Hollywood theme.

The monorail isn't nearly as exciting as the Manhattan Express, and I'm chagrined to learn that it doesn't actually stop at Paris, instead passing up the Casino of Light and depositing passengers at the execrable Bally's. Now, it's not that I have anything against the kind of place where a pie cooler could catch fire and kill 85 people. No, my beef with Bally's is that it has an awfully high opinion of itself for such a generic monolith. I have the same problem, to lesser degrees, with Harrah's and the Tropicana. It's not that I'm a Disney-addled theme addict; I simply expect a Las Vegas hotel-casino to offer something to distinguish itself, even it that something is cheesiness or squalor. If that something is simply "niceness," it had better be really nice. The execrable Bally's is not. It's just, like, there, although to its credit the flames have died down.

By the way, did you hear the one about the execrable casino that decided to offer low-calorie fast-food sushi to lure Asian high rollers who like to keep slim? They call it Bally's McEel.

I knew Paris was related to Bally's, but I didn't realize how closely. So it was much to my surprise that Jacqueline and I ended up strolling down Rue de l'Execrable and right into Paris-Las Vegas. There it was: You could draw a line on the floor and simultaneously stand in the execrable and la formidable!

Now, Jacqueline and I are suckers for all things francais, so the bicycling baguette man who would've drawn groans from most any right-headed adult simply threw us into throes of ecstasy. The gendarme-costumed security forces and cocktail waitresses? Tres cute! It's all shamelessly Disney-fied, but it's well done. Not that there aren't discordant notes. "Eiffel Tour"? No, they don't mean a tour of the tower; they're trying to use the French word for "tower." Trouble is, it's "La Tour Eiffel," not the Eiffel Tour. Do it right or don't do it at all! Similarly, plaques dedicated to prominent French people are as likely to be misspelled as not.

The author, under Paris's spell.
We drop in to take a look at La Rotisserie, a pleasant little spot that may well meet our rehearsal-dinner needs. In the main dining area the back of each booth is a different famous painting -- van Gogh's "Starry Night" and Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon Blah, Blah, Blah," among others.

Next stop is Mon Ami Gabi, the Parisian steakhouse at the casino's front door. Despite being a Dining Concept® by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc.®
-- gag moi avec un spoon -- it is utterly charming. Inside it's very dark, even by day, very French. Part of the place opens into a sidewalk cafe with a perfect view of Bellagio and its dancing fountain. Paris, unlike many of the mega-resorts, is right on the Strip, not set back the distance of a football field or two. We meet with a sweet but greedy catering manager, who also shows us the Eiffel Tower restaurant. That, too, is very impressive, but both the Tower and Mon Ami Gabi will be too rich for our blood.

We walk across the street to Bellagio, where we eliminate half a dozen even more expensive restaurants from consideration. By then we're hungry, and for a late lunch we turn to an old reliable favorite only a monorail ride away -- the brewpub at Monte Carlo. Monte Carlo, classy if not exhilarating, figures prominently in the wedding plans: The wedding party and most guests will be staying there, and we're planning a drop-by gathering for all guests in the brewpub before the rehearsal dinner. I have the big-enough-for-two-dinners fried-clam appetizer; Jacqueline has a club sandwich on sourdough. I have a very tasty wheat beer, but a sip of her light brew persuades me to order one of those for myself. Beer snobs will scoff, but there's nothing better with food than a freshly brewed version of light American lager.

The catering people for Monte Carlo's less-formal restaurants are grudgingly cooperative, but these aren't places that will stay on our list. Desperate for a low-priced alternative, we head back to New York-New York to check out Il Fornaio, a pleasant-looking Italian place. The guy in charge is friendly and responsive, and the room is more than acceptable, but it's clear that somebody else pulls the catering strings. It's a maybe. One bonus: I get the feeling he'd be willing to rub somebody out for me, so I keep his business card.

OK, enough Strip for today, so it's into a cab at NYNY and back downtown.

We're hoping to go for a swim at the Nugget, but it's a little after 5:30 when we walk by the pool and see that it closes at 6. City that never sleeps indeed! So we go to the room and rest a bit before heading back to the Golden Gate. Again, open seats for $3 double-deck blackjack. The dealer -- like most at the Golden Gate, an Asian woman -- is having a coughing fit, and the pit bosses are ignoring the players' cries of "Get her some water!" It's a wonder I'm not deathly ill by now, because I've been surrounded by coughing hordes the entire trip. It's also a wonder that Jacqueline and I always seem to come out ahead, blackjack-wise, on these trips. If you're playing alone, it's easier to take the money and run. With a partner, though, there's a good chance that one person will be winning -- and having a good time -- while the other is losing, making it more likely that the loser will keep playing, and perhaps keep losing. This is one of those nights. I have my best session yet, building my $40 stake to $84, but Jacqueline loses two $40 buy-ins. As we leave the table after a few hours I advise her to empty the dregs of her free bottled water in the dealer's face while shouting "Sic semper tyrannus!" -- but again she ignores me.

We had an enjoyable session, though, and after too many free Budweisers I'm ready to call it a night. Jacqueline is amenable to that plan. Another beer-snob note: I've taken some heat for ordering Buds when the house would gladly provide something a little more exotic (the Reno Hilton/Sierra Nevada Pale Ale incident comes to mind). I like a "real" beer as much as the next guy, but it's well known that basic strategy in blackjack calls for the beechwood-aged flavor of Budweiser. In bottles. A can or draft is enough to give the house a 0.13% edge, the experts say, so I don't even want to talk about what a brand deviation could do.

NEXT: Wonging the Buffet, and the Night of Two Rooms