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It's All About the Abrahams

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

By Bill Walsh

DAY 3 (Thursday): Wonging the Buffet, and the Night of Two Rooms

The change girls at Paris would no doubt call it "bourgeois" (Lord knows how it would sound, though, considering their pronunciation of "monsieur"), but tonight we have not one, but two rooms in Las Vegas. Let me explain. As the pre-trip excitement built, I remembered just how tiring it can be to explore the Strip, and I recalled how many times I've returned downtown prematurely simply because I needed to rest. Our free weekend at the Golden Nugget was predicated on buying the room for the other nights, but if it's not too expensive it would be cool to have a room on the Strip for a night or two as well. So I started checking midweek rates at places like the Barbary Coast, and then Jacqueline reminded me of an e-mail I got from the Wynn people a few weeks earlier advertising bargain dates at Bellagio, one of which was the Thursday we'd be there. Bingo! I called Bellagio and asked if the $129 rate still applied, and indeed it did. Oh, and for $30 more we could have a lake view. Why not? When I made a reservation for two adults they asked if my companion would be "Mrs. Walsh," and I stammered a yes rather than going into a lengthy explanation. If the front desk and the chapel cross-reference their records, we might have some 'splaining to do.

So we wake up Thursday morning at the Nugget and stuff our toiletries and a change of clothes into backpacks. "Bellagio," we command the Nugget's taxi-hailing staff, who heartily approve our destination as "the second-best hotel in Vegas."

I'd heard great things about Bellagio's buffet, so we decide to skip breakfast and make an early lunch of it there, getting the basic dinner treatment for 15 bucks instead of 20. The line isn't bad at all, and soon we're ushered into a pleasant enough but somehow disappointing room (I'm reminded of the cafeteria at Ikea) and tucked into a rather cramped booth-table setup. I order both hot coffee and iced tea, hoping to assuage my hangover with a few swigs of the former before washing down my lunch with the latter. For the second consecutive buffet, though, the coffee disappoints. As for the buffet, it's confusing and unfocused. The first thing I see is peel-and-eat shrimp on ice, and in retrospect I should have made a meal out of that. But I choose to sample here and there, adding some smoked-eel sushi here, some lamb there. I'm an adventurous eater, and I'd had smoked eel before, in a shopping-mall food court, of all places. At the mall it was great; at Bellagio it just tastes like fat. Pizza looks promising, visually identical to the wonderful and underrated Bertucci's product, but the taste test finds it rubbery and oddly eel-like. A tenderloin of beef appears worth a try, until I find that the supplied tongs aren't capable of cutting the tendon that strings the slices together. So, using a technique pioneered by renowned buffet strategist Stanford Wong, I wait patiently outside the carving station and jump in when a new, more professionally sliced slab of flesh is presented to the hungry diners. It isn't worth the trouble, it turns out, but Bellagio isn't offering "surrender."

In all fairness, though, the desserts are fantastic. You know those shiny chocolate confections that look almost as if they were painted in enamel? The ones that cost $5 or $6 each? Well, at Bellagio's buffet you can have all you want of those and other sweet masterpieces. Too bad you can't get decent coffee with 'em. And, to be rully rully fair, I've concluded that I just don't like the idea of buffets for anything but breakfast food or specific specialty items, preferably items that can be served cold. For example, I enjoyed the Fremont's Seafood Fantasy immensely.

It's still early, and so the blackjack minimums are still $5 at a few tables. (Later, if I'm not very much mistaken, they'll be $5G.) So we play. I'm finally feeling socially secure enough to risk more than $3 a hand if absolutely necessary, a development that Jacqueline applauds. "It's all about the Abrahams," she is fond of saying. It's a topsy-turvy sort of session, one where we both almost lose everything, but we both turn things around, some of us more than others. Jacqueline triples her $40, and I walk off with a tidy profit of $10.50. I'm not complaining. I got to see a woman surrender with 13 against a dealer's 6. If this were "Wheel of Fortune" and the board read "D_MB," guess who'd be buying a vowel.

PHOTO BY JACQUELINE
The view from our (other) room.
We have an appointment with our wedding coordinator at the Bellagio chapel, but there's just enough time to check in first. The a-hole in front of us in line is demanding to see Steve Wynn because nobody showed him how to work the TV in his room. Just for the heck of it, we ask if Mr. Wynn himself will show us the "on" switch, but we are mere $159-a-night proles who don't even have real luggage, and we are rebuffed. The room is impressive, but the main area isn't conspicuously large in the way that I've heard they are at the Venetian. But the bathroom is huge and the 18th-floor view is spectacular: We're looking right at the fountain and Paris's Eiffel Tower. I finally figure out the consarned ignition switch for this tele-vision contraption -- boy, does Bellagio TV have everything! There's not only the Bellagio Channel and the Bellagio Fountains Channel (live simulcast of the dancing-waters music!), but also the Mirage Channel and the Treasure Island Channel. No Golden Nugget Channel, though. Have to keep the downtown riffraff in their place. Meanwhile, on the pay-per-view, there's apparently not only alleged porn, but also actual porn. Or at least that's what the "HARD XXX"/"SOFT XXX" distinction would have you believe. Presumably the former goes beyond the mysteriously genital-free Barbie-and-Ken fare normally offered to the curious traveler.

Oops. Almost left that wedding coordinator waiting at the altar. Ruby is wonderful, and sometimes in tricky ways. We have this long list of questions and concerns, and even though we don't really get them all addressed, we're left feeling pretty satisfied with the idea that very little of this is in our hands. "If anybody says anything, just throw up your hands and say 'That's Bellagio for you!'" Ruby assures us. During the flower-selection process, one area in which we're left at least a little control, Ruby escorts us behind the scenes, to the hangar-like Bellagio floral department and even to the refrigerated trailer in back. The floral aroma is overpowering, and the scale of it all boggles the mind. I feel like Jules Asner in an E! "Wild on the Strip" special.

So it's back to the room, and we figure this is our chance to explore Bellagio's beautiful pool area. Have I mentioned that it's been sunny and clear with highs in the low 80s? Perfect. The pools (I lost count, but there are half a dozen or so) aren't that crowded, but the deck is. This is a relaxing pool area, not an exciting one. We choose the largest pool and set up shop, then betray our lack of world-weariness by actually getting wet. This pool is the size of a football field but remains 3 1/2 feet deep the whole way. Proving we're at least a little world-weary, we're bored pretty quickly and move to the whirlpool. The "reserved" sign gives us pause, especially since all the businessman-types soaking their muscles appear to know one another, but it appears to apply not to the hot tub but to the $100-a-day cabana alongside it. The tub is bigger than our living room but bears a sign reading "CAPACITY: 13." This must refer to those "whales" the casinos are trying to lure.

We drip and we dry and it's back to the room, where Jacqueline is tempted by a body of water almost as large: our tub. It's the size and shape of a whirlpool-style tub but, alas, has no whirlpool jets. The gleaming brass fixtures deliver quite a water supply, though, and the thing fills up in no time. The water pressure is similar in the separate, glassed-in shower. It's almost too strong, and I suspect that some of that pressure was stolen from our other room, at the Golden Nugget. The steam-room effect is enough to give you a start when you open the stall door and exit to the relatively chillier rest of the room.

Our mission tonight: Make our way to the Venetian for dinner -- either there or somewhere along the way -- and more rehearsal-dinner scouting. As with most walks on the Strip, it's longer than it looks. We've neglected this section of the Strip on past visits and want to peek in at each casino we pass, but we're pretty darn hungry, and so we walk as fast as the waddling cattle people with whom we share the sidewalk will allow.

If you're not a fan of waddling cattle people, you have to like Las Vegas a lot to tolerate the place. (We like Las Vegas a lot.) Every step you take is blocked by people walking so slowly that, if they're going in the right direction, they actually move backward because of the earth's rotation. (Oddly, no matter how quickly you and a companion might be walking together, a barely-moving-at-all waddler will always manage to get between you.) Give the waddlers an escalator or moving sidewalk and they would sooner pass up a free fried-food platter than contribute any kinetic energy of their own. And they'll be darn sure to form a phalanx so as to block any attempts by actual living people to pass them on the left.

On the bright side, with the moving-sidewalk exception, Las Vegas no longer seems to be part of the British Empire. On my previous visits the waddling problem was compounded by a complete lack of understanding among my fellow visitors that in America we walk (just as we drive) on the right side, not the left side, of a sidewalk, street or path. This time, however, most of the waddlers did keep right. Perhaps we have Rush Limbaugh to thank for this, but I think a bigger factor was the well-publicized recent implosion of the ever-influential Big Ben's House of Limeys Hotel and Casino. Still, I'm going to miss being able to order currant juice or lemon squash from the cocktail "birds."

In front of the Flamingo Hilton we pass two guys who could well have been Matt and Stinky. I almost turn around and call out "Stinky?" but then I realize that any number of people within shouting distance might answer to that description.

We finally get to the Venetian and are greeted by many, many picketers. As I learn later in the excellent Las Vegas Advisor newsletter, the Picketers' long-running contract with the Frontier recently expired and the option was eagerly picked up by the Venetian. The Picketers will be performing two shows a night (dark on Wednesdays) for now, until the Venetian completes construction of the legendary ensemble's permanent 3,200-seat showroom, to be called The Union Hall. For what it's worth, though, the show was disappointing. Megaphones are so 1980s.

We make our way along more moving sidewalks. Some of them at the Venetian are crested -- you ride rather steeply uphill and then rather steeply downhill. It's fun to watch the waddlers try with all their might to avoid stumbling forward, an act that would actually approximate walking, on the downhill side.

As we get closer to a door at the Venetian (this is one large property), we encounter a Mardi Gras-style parade. Huh? Are we at the Rio? Harrah's? The Orleans? Inside, too, all I can think of is Carnival, and I'm very confused (the theme police, they live inside of my head). We're not impressed, though I must admit that by this point we're too hungry to devote much energy to exploring further.

It's here that our quest for food begins to rival the Bataan Death March. This always happens: With a finite number of meals and a long list of places I'm dying to try, we always end up hungry when we're in no position to get to any of those places. There's plenty of fine dining at the Venetian, but the places we'd like to try are way too expensive, especially with a big night at Binion's Ranch planned for Saturday.

So through Treasure Island and the Mirage and Harrah's we tromp, till we're almost back at [one of] our hotel[s]. Nothing really captures our fancy, but we do try to eat at the stupid Italian restaurant at Harrah's, where the maitre d' acts as though we've burst into the Russian Tea Room at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day and demanded a table for 12. Fine, Guido, keep your ravioli. We figure there's bound to be something edible at the Caesars Palace Forum Shops, and sure enough there are multiple tables available at a Mexican place called La Salsa. We believe the menu hype and each order up a margarita, mine traditional and Jacqueline's peach. Bad mistake. Ever wonder what pureed Sweet Tarts might taste like? Other than that, though, the food is good -- even startlingly authentic at times, as in the case of my Baja fish tacos. Great service, too.

Thusly fortified, we're ready to play blackjack. We don't hold out much hope of finding an affordable table at Caesars, but we immediately happen upon a $5 shoe game and two open seats. The others at the table are together, awaiting the girlfriend of one of the men, and they appear to be best friends with Shirley, the dealer, who periodically asks about the girl's whereabouts. One young man asks Shirley what to do on every hand, and Shirley kindly dispenses perfect basic strategy. The cocktail service is first-rate -- don't know why this would surprise me -- although my request for a Budweiser produces a draft in a glass. Finally the missing party arrives and our fellow gamblers depart, leaving us playing 2-on-1 against Shirley. It soon becomes apparent that Shirley's easy familiarity with the previous group was just Shirley being Shirley. She's probably in her early 50s, with short blond hair and cat's-eye spectacles, and the thing about her that I probably won't be able to adequately describe is that she endears herself to players not with humorous mirth-filled comedy jokes or diner-waitress camp or overly sympathetic ass-kissing or anything even remotely overt -- she simply flips the cards and handles the bets with a quiet (but not too quiet) friendliness, a contagious friendliness that makes her a Vegas classic. And I'm not just saying this because this is, collectively, our best session yet. I walk away $36 ahead, almost as good as the previous day's Golden Gate session, but Jacqueline is the real star, emerging from the red for the trip thus far by pocketing $163. So she's up $151 and I'm up $98.50. This calls for a celebration, and so we seek out the nearest restrooms. Trouble is, Caesars is an old place, built before the evolution of modern excretory functions, and there just aren't any. We eventually find a set in the very old-school portion of the casino, but the women's line puts one in the mind of Space Mountain, and so Jacqueline abstains. The men's line is more manageable -- think "hockey game" -- and I wait my turn.

Next we wish to explore the nearby casinos we've always neglected. First we visit the Venereal Pal -- check that, I mean the venerable Imperial Palace. First impression: It certainly is warm in here. Second impression: Am I in Reno? That's all. I'm not particularly grossed out or anything, despite all the bad things I've heard about this place, but I just have a strong feeling that I'm in one of the bigger downtown Reno casinos. If I were in Reno I'd probably stay, but the competition is stronger in Las Vegas. Third impression, as I swelter while Jacqueline enjoys a restroom without a queue: Those are, uh, interesting cocktail-waitress uniforms.

Then it's on to O'Shea's. The signs scream "LIBERAL VIDEO POKER," and boy, is it ever liberal! Heck, the queens bear the likeness of Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)! But it's blackjack we're here to play, and I spy a rare low-stakes game that isn't dealt from a shoe. We're there, dude. Only after the dealer starts shuffling do I notice that the rules on this $5 double-deck game prohibit doubling down on anything but a 10 or 11. Now we're in Reno! But I don't want to cause a fuss or hurt the dealer's feelings, and so I promptly hemorrhage $40. The sucky rules had nothing to do with it -- I just had a run of bad luck, but because of the sucky O'Shit's rules I have a bad attitude to go along with it.

Inside the Flamingo Hilton, where the giant neon replicas of the outdoor signage generate almost as much heat as a circa-1980 MGM Grand pie cooler, we happen upon a police chase. (For the next two hours my brain won't stop repeating, "Bad boys, whatcha want? Whatcha want? Whatcha gonna do?") We don't happen upon any blackjack tables we care to sit at, but the posted rules for "Spanish 21" at a full table or two catch my eye. All blackjacks pay 3 to 2 (no pushes), all 21s pay off, special bonuses apply to certain card combinations -- it sounds too good to be true, but I can't figure out the disadvantage. It's a good thing there are no open seats -- later I would learn the disadvantage: The decks don't contain 10s.

Then we walk into the Barbary Coast. This place holds a special fascination for me: Although I remember it only as a semi-skanky, Casino Royale-level casino in which we played some nickel video poker on our last visit, I've since learned that it's a rather swanky hotel with not one but two of the most highly regarded restaurants in the city, and possibly the country. The hotel rooms go for a song in a great location, and someday I hope to stay here. Better yet, I hope to persuade a wedding guest or two to stay here and let me peek into their rooms. But however nice the hotel might be, the casino is the same skanky place where I lost $20 worth of nickels. We do find a $5 blackjack table, though, and it's one of those cool low-rider tables, so we stay and play. Again my Bud comes in a glass -- I can't get a bottle of beer to save my life tonight! One of our table-mates is having a more serious drinking problem. He asks for a Finlandia vodka and is told the Côte Barboire doesn't carry Finlandia. The waitress offers Absolut, but he absolutly wants Finlandia or nothing at all.

Our original dealer leaves, complaining of his aching back (the low-rider tables are apparently not dealer-friendly), and a ditzy blonde takes over. The Barbary Coast's $5 chips bear a yellow rose and the slogan "Live the Legend," and so I ask her exactly what legend it is that we're living. "I don't know -- nobody's ever asked me that," she replies, before venturing that it might have something to do with the legend of the Barbary Coast. Meanwhile, a guy playing the slots nearby has been screaming "WHOOOOOO! WHOOOOOO! WHOOOOO!" nonstop. "Do you guys have a mechanical bull?" I inquire, and the dealer laughs so hard I begin to doubt my little joke was funny after all. The elevator near our table goes downstairs to what was once a McDonald's (Jacqueline's fondest memory of her first Las Vegas visit) but is now Drai's, one of the aforementioned dining establishments. We see the doors open and a priest emerge, a babe on each arm. (Look for "The Priest and the Babes," premiering this fall on the WB.) Mr. Finlandia, not satisfied with the previous waitress's denial of said vodka's availability, asks a new waitress to secure an upscale-vodka comp for him from the pit boss. We don't stay long enough to learn the outcome of this gambit, but Jacqueline does get to catch Mr. Finlandia's neighbor -- a guy who has distinguished himself with some very bad play at very high stakes -- cheating by pushing out some extra chips after the hand has been decided. She shoots him a dirty look.

We emerge into the balmy night and take in what has become the premier intersection in Las Vegas. Paris's Eiffel Tower is all the more beautiful when lighted, and it really makes the Strip. (What used to be here again?) Bellagio is Bellagio, especially when the fountains are dancing. And even the execrable Bally's, which has further defiled itself with a series of hideous blue horizontal stripes on its white tower, is soothing at night -- wrapped like candy, to quote an obscure Blondie song, in a blue, blue neon glow.

It's probably a little early for a late, late dinner, but it's a little late for anything else, so we make our way to the Bellagio coffee shop. I order my usual late-night breakfast of over-easy eggs with crisp bacon, white toast and hash browns, with Budweiser, but this time I have a brainstorm and add tomato juice on the side, which will prove to be a perfect complement. Jacqueline, as at the Horseshoe, is having a tougher time ordering, but she settles on the biscuits and gravy, even though I warn her that they probably don't make that properly here. "They don't make that properly here," the waitress offers by way of consolation as she informs Jacqueline that this menu item is not available at this time of night (even though the menu says no such thing). And so, exasperated, she orders some French toast that she knows she won't like. Getting the check proves to be a nightmare, and later the freaky itemization of that bill on our TV-screen checkout would leave us unable to discern whether we got ripped off. Guess I should have saved the receipt.

I note here, as at every restaurant in Las Vegas, that an obviously legally mandated posted warning spells out the dangers of eating such undercooked food as beef (mmm!), shellfish (mmm!) and milk (hmm?). Note to self: Ask for warm milk the next time a cocktail waitress approaches my blackjack table.

NEXT: Our Love + 35 Bucks