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It's All About the Abrahams
Bill and Jacqueline in Las Vegas, Oct. 19-24, 1999
By Bill Walsh
DAY 5 (Saturday): Living It Jgp
I don't think Jacqueline and I have ever made it this far into a Las Vegas trip before having our first meal at the Golden Gate's Bay City Diner. The line that awaits us is scary both in its length and in its concentration of slack-jawed yokels, and so we briefly consider abandoning the idea. The line is just as long across the street at the Las Vegas Club's Upper Deck cafe, though, and so we choose the familiar over the new and return to the Golden Gate. A sign reads "Counter Seating on Availability." Holy foiled schemes, Batman! I was going to sit on somebody's lap and Jacqueline was going to park herself at a nonexistent stool, but instead we keep waiting.
As it turns out, the line moves quickly, and we score a seat in one of the odd little dining areas that jut back into the casino. I order coffee; Jacqueline orders Diet Coke. I'm impressed by the selection of pumped-in music: "Live for Today," "Crazy for You," "Werewolves of London," "My Ever Changing Moods." At the controls this morning is some '80s-obsessed hipster after my own heart! Our love for the Bay City Diner is based on its excellent execution of breakfast basics. The folks here know what "over easy" means, and those delicious runny yolks make for heavenly dipping with good sourdough toast. We also never get tired of reading the placemats that remind us the place used to be the Sal Sagev -- "Las Vegas" spelled backward. We both order the usual, plus we get a short stack of pancakes to split.
We've never had a problem with service here, until today. The waitress keeps saying she'll bring Jacqueline's Diet Coke, but she doesn't bring it. Thinking that soft drinks might have to come from the casino bar, Jacqueline tries switching her order to orange juice. The waitress won't bring that either. She does bring salt and pepper when we mention that it's missing, but she brings it from the (occupied) neighboring table, whose occupants are none too pleased when they never get a replacement. I ask for ketchup. "Yes to ketchup?" she asks, as though I might have piped up, unprovoked, to notify her that she should not, under any circumstances, supply us with any tomato-based condiments. Finally Jacqueline makes a minor stink, and finally she gets her OJ -- with an apologetic promise that she won't be charged for it. She isn't, but she is charged for the phantom Diet Coke. Whatever. That dollar comes out of the tip.
The beverage service is better at the Golden Gate's blackjack tables, but our luck isn't. Jacqueline goes zero-for-$40, while I manage to escape with $24.50 of my buy-in. We decide to take a break from blackjack and seek out the triple-play nickel video-poker machines we had enjoyed at Fitzgerald's on our last visit. The payouts are sucky, but the triple action is fun.
Maybe I was just young and naive at the time, but on my first few visits in the late '80s I considered Fitzgerald's one classy joint. I suppose it helps that I'm Irish and a big fan of the color green. But since the Holiday Inn takeover, the casino has become a big, tacky come-on. Yeah, I know -- that's essentially the definition of "casino," but this place is a big, tacky come-on even by casino standards. It's like stepping into an envelope bearing the likenesses of Dick Clark and Ed McMahon. Just try walking through without having a "fun book" crammed down your throat and being escorted to stand in a long line upstairs to receive a slot-club card and a green nylon baseball cap.
Anyway, we find that they've moved the triple-play machines, and now they happen to be located next to the site of the Loud Family Reunion. I decide to head upstairs and see if the sports book is accepting proposition bets on the Mike Tyson-Orlin Norris fight, which is tonight at the MGM Grand. I just read somewhere that, while betting on the winner or loser is silly, you can bet on a variety of other details -- how many rounds it goes, what color the trunks are, etc. -- but in checking around at some of the other sports books downtown I found no such thing.
But the Fitz comes through. It takes a while, but I'm able to find a sheet listing round-by-round odds after wading through a bunch of guys watching a football game on TV and reacting very loudly each time the cathode-ray tube imperceptibly flickers to create the illusion of a moving image. I ask a guy in a referee outfit to explain how the betting works, and he explains the difference between "9 to 1" and "9 for 1" -- and also how this is pari-mutuel betting, meaning the odds will fluctuate up until fight time. I decide to kick some football-fan ass, ponder my options and come back later -- and I do all but the first of those things.
Where next? Well, I'm in the mood for slumming (as if Fitzgerald's wasn't slummy enough), and Jacqueline surprisingly gives in when I suggest the Plaza. Now, I'm not a big slumming sort of guy (we would make it to neither the El Cortez nor the Gold Spike on this trip, and we've never had the pleasure of the Western or the late Rainbow Vegas), but I like a taste every now and again. We enter the Plaza and are immediately drawn to a bank of video-poker machines that are like the triple-plays, only they play 10 hands at once! (I think it was 10 -- maybe it was even more.) I drop five bucks or so and get nothing but a quick illustration of just how badly this game can go. If you're lucky to get one hand of jacks or better, imagine having to come up with 10 of them to salvage your original bet.
Long before I ever visited Las Vegas, the Plaza was part of my family's lore. My great aunt Betty from Omaha was staying there when a man entered her room, scaring the bejeezus out of her. The front desk had assigned him the same room, keys and all. The scare, it is said, earned her a room comp for life. I'm not sure whether she was staying there because everything is named Omaha this and Omaha that, or whether a renaming was another part of the settlement.
Aunt Betty aside, Jacqueline and I have always treated the Plaza as a close-to-last-resort stop for cheap blackjack. We've never cared for the garish lighting, the smoky atmosphere, the loud and crappy lounge music, or the powder-blue tables stained by all manner of bodily fluids. But today we find a table toward the back of the casino, a new table with clean green felt and no crowd, and it's a good thing. The surroundings are horribly dated, but they're clean. We have the rare pleasure of being allowed to double after splits downtown, and on a $3 double-deck game, making these the best conditions we've seen on this trip.
"Live It Up," the dealers' name tags at the Plaza implore. Now, I think most longtime Plaza visitors would agree that it's tough to really live it up in this place when you're neither (a) nude nor (b) on ice. The other funny thing about that slogan is that the "Up" is in logo form -- it stands for "Union Plaza," even though the place has been Jackie Gaughan's Plaza for several years now. I guess "Live It Jgp" doesn't have the same ring to it.
This is a successful session, and my Budweiser comes in Anheuser-Busch's cool new "millennium" longneck bottle. (Visitors to my Web site, www.theslot.com, know how I feel about erroneous uses of "millennium," but at least they spelled it right -- and it is a beautiful bottle.) I walk away with a profit of $35.50, and Jacqueline does even better, parlaying her $40 stake into a cool $100. She tries to "color up" to a black chip, but the pit boss screams at the dealer:
"No! We need to get rid of the greens!" The dealer sheepishly hands over four $25 chips instead, and I take this opportunity to volunteer, "If you really need to get rid of those green chips . . ."
It hasn't been that long since breakfast, but we're surprisingly hungry, and it is here that we embark on The Hunt of Monte Cristo. You see, Jacqueline is especially fond of the Monte Cristo sandwich -- I'm not in that camp, but I believe it's ham and turkey and Swiss on bread or toast that is then batter-dipped, fried and dusted with powdered sugar. You then dip it in something sweet -- usually maple syrup or raspberry jam. It's a coffee-shop staple, and Jacqueline remembers seeing it on countless Las Vegas coffee-shop menus. So we return to Las Vegas Club's Upper Deck and check the menu -- nope. Main Street Station's coffee shop isn't even there; it's being remodeled. A look at menus at the Golden Nugget, the Fremont, the Horseshoe and Fitzgerald's not only yields no Monte Cristo but also raises the specter that these coffee shops have banded together in a cabal of some sort: The menus are eerily similar. Ditto for the Four Queens, where I get a kick out of hearing "My Ever Changing Moods" yet again. I hadn't heard Style Council in years, and now twice in one day!
I had high hopes for the California coffee shop, but we strike out there as well. There is, however, a $3 double-deck blackjack game, which is a pleasant surprise. I have fond memories of playing $2 blackjack at the California (though I might have it confused with the Golden Gate) in the late 1980s, but I've been disappointed since then that such Boyd properties as the California and the Fremont, where I definitely played, have put on airs and rarely offer sub-$5 games. I won't get to experience the Fremont's unique purple-felt tables and metal-studded chips this time (the place is so crowded, nobody goes there anymore), but at least we log a session at the California. This will go down in history as the "double down with a 9" session, as I keep drawing that total against dealer 5s and 6s. I cling to a modest victory (up $13.50), while Jacqueline again pulls a Benjamin out of her hat with a $60 profit.
It's a little after 3 and our reservation at the Horseshoe's steakhouse is at 9:30, so we need to get lunch out of the way pronto to allow a respectable hunger to build up for dinner. I've been obsessing about the Golden Gate shrimp cocktail in much the same way Jacqueline has about the Monte Cristo, and so we make the Gate our last stop. A return to the Bay City Diner reveals no such sandwich on the menu, and so we head for the snack bar. Jacqueline is all set to have cereal when she spies the thick, juicy snack-bar hot dogs. Sold! I've already had one 99-cent shrimp cocktail on this trip -- this is a snack I haven't yet told you about because I can't remember when I had it. Tabasco-induced amnesia, no doubt. This time, I splurge on the $2.99 Big Shrimp. I see an Old Milwaukee tap, which is something you don't see every day (maybe you do in Milwaukee), and so I order me up a draft. The Golden Gate is an odd combination of the upscale and the downscale. This dynamic exists at lots of places in Las Vegas (chandeliers and slot machines), but Golden Gate has a few added conflicts. High-falutin' live piano music and dirt-cheap table limits, for example. And in this rinky-dink little snack bar, the cheap shrimp cocktail and downscale beer I'm balancing on a flimsy institutional orange tray are packaged in, respectively, a lovely glass tulip dish and a heavy, top-quality Pilsener glass. The incongruity is mighty tasty, especially with extra hot sauce. I'm not sure the Big Shrimp is any better than the little shrimp, but it is more filling. Jacqueline enjoys her frankfurter, though the bun is a bit stale.
In an amazing coincidence, the route out of the snack bar takes us right past the blackjack tables we always find ourselves playing at. We sit down with a "Deliverance"-looking family in front of a dealer who has no name tag. When somebody asks, he says his name is Jack. Howdy, Jack, I'm Ace and this here's Queen. Jack is one of what seems to be a growing demographic group among Las Vegas dealers: a young, friendly, very articulate American male who appears to enjoy what he's doing. Somebody (not us!) must be tipping pretty darn well at the Golden Gate if anyone young and articulate is choosing to deal blackjack there in an economic climate where every B-plus student gets to be a high-tech millionaire. The matron of the Deliverance family mentions that she's been coming to Las Vegas for 40 years, since before it got all fancy and stuff. Judging from her play at the table (doubling on 8 against a 10, and on 13 against a 9), I think she might have financed a sizable chunk of that fanciness.
I'm a little worried that I'll run up against a pre-fight cutoff on my Tyson bet (and it's impossible to tell when a main event will start), so we hurry back to the Fitz. The referee-shirt guy is there with another referee-shirt guy, who takes off as soon as I approach. Zebra No. 1, surprise, says Zebra No. 2 will have to help me -- when he gets back in five or 10 minutes. In the meantime, Jacqueline has found a bank of those triple-play poker machines, and so I join her. Before too long, playing a four-of-a-kind bonus game, I hit four 4s, which entitles me to $25 or so worth of nickels. I'm no fool, and I hit the cash-out button before you can say "Mr. O'Lucky." Well, apparently that little win was enough to bankrupt the place. The clinking nickels stop about halfway through my payout, replaced by a blinking message telling me to contact a casino employee. The "change" light on my machine blinks, and blinks, and blinks. Fitzgerald's is not eager to give me my money. I wave my arms frantically at a change girl. Fitzgerald's is not eager to give me my money. I stand up on my chair and yell, "DOES ANYONE WORK HERE?" Fitzgerald's is not eager to give me my money. The casino employees whom we do manage to grab say that isn't their job. I leave Jacqueline to man the blinking machine while I corner Zebra No. 2 and bet $20 on a fourth-round knockout (you don't even have to specify a winner -- if the fight ends in four, I collect a yet-to-be-determined amount). Did I mention that Fitzgerald's isn't eager to give me my money? About 20 minutes after I hit my "jackpot," somebody comes by and opens up the machine, first taking out my O'Lucky Bucks card and replacing it with a card of his own, ensuring that my card does not register the true coin-out total. Harrumph. I march to the cashier, ashamed of my Irish heritage.
In a semi-slumming, semi-bored move, we walk down to the Lady Luck and play some rip-off video poker. You'd better be offering some darn good bonuses if jacks or better and two pair are going to be only a push, and these machines are offering no such bonuses. And you'll never guess what we find on the menu at the Lady Luck's Winners Cafe: yep, the Monte Cristo, albeit with honey-mustard sauce instead of syrup or jam. Maybe next trip.
The magic-show ads at the Lady Luck remind me of an item I read in my complimentary Showbiz magazine: The husband-and-wife Pendragons were named Las Vegas's Magicians of the Year. I haven't seen any of the other Las Vegas magicians, but I consider this a good choice. At Caesars Magical Empire (the show was a quirky and fun birthday present from Jacqueline), I saw Mr. Pendragon saw Mrs. Pendragon in two in a see-through box -- a brilliant and startling illusion that I'm still scratching my head about. I guess I should reserve judgment, though, until I see a big ol' jet airliner magically produced on stage by the Lady Luck's own Steve Wyrick (or is it Steve Miller?).
We had notched down the dressy act on this Saturday, and so we had to return to our room at the Golden Nugget to change for dinner. We also take advantage of this idle period to pack up for the next day's early-morning departure. Our flight is at, ugh, 7 a.m.
Our original plan called for watching the Tyson-Norris fight at one of the sports books. Before venturing out of the room I try to call the Nugget's sports book, but the hotel operator tells me that Nevada gaming regulations forbid such a call. I ask the operator, then, if he knows whether the sports book will be showing the fight, and he says authoritatively that while the Nugget won't be, the Four Queens across the street will be. Good enough: The Four Queens has been among my favorite casinos ever since I had the privilege of urinating next to a member of the Ink Spots in a restroom there in 1988 or so, and it was the site of a spectacular Martingale-system meltdown by my friend Paul last year, but we've given it short shrift on this trip. We head on over and are surprised to see no crowd. Then we're even more surprised to see no TV screen of any kind. I ask the question, and the answer leaves me not entirely sure that the people at the Four Queens sports book have ever heard of Mike Tyson. I guess the fight isn't as big a deal as we thought. Or maybe it's bigger. Whatever the reason, it seems the only way we can see it is to high-tail it over to the MGM Grand and fork over $100 each, and it's nowhere near that important to us. So it's only 8:30 or so and our reservation is at 9:30, but we decide to venture to Binion's Ranch early and see if we can get a table.
Understand, now: Binion's Ranch Steakhouse is the upscale establishment on the top floor of the Horseshoe. It is NOT -- no matter how many magazine articles, guidebooks and trip reports tell you otherwise -- the place where you can get a $3 steak in the wee hours. Is that clear?
We wait with four or five other people for the lone elevator that goes to the Ranch, and it takes a while to arrive. It's worth the wait, from a thrill-seeking perspective. The first thing that comes to mind when you ride this glassy elevator is that it doesn't seem to be, uh, inside anything. Most of your scary glass-elevator rides feature two panes of glass, the one that forms the elevator itself and the one that surrounds the elevator shaft. The elevator to Binion's Ranch has only that first pane -- for all you can tell when you're inside the thing, it's just pretty much dangling off the side of the building. The second thing that comes to mind for Jacqueline and me is that we must have been staring at this elevator the whole time we were in our room at the Nugget, as the Nugget's North Tower is directly south of this exposure.
We get off, and things are dark and a little cramped. Old school. I like it. The crowded elevator leaves us pessimistic about getting seated early, but the maitre d' says that if we have a seat at the bar he'll get us in soon. I'm reluctant to have a drink-drink after the day's blackjack-table Buds and before the inevitable steakhouse red wine, but it doesn't seem right to order a non-drink drink in this atmosphere, and so I get a gin-and-tonic to go with Jacqueline's vodka tonic. The bartender says he'll put the drinks on our dinner tab, a logistically neat gesture that you don't see often enough. I elbow Jacqueline as we overhear the bartenders discussing various recipes for the lemon drop, which is her real favorite drink but which she is too sheepish to ever order, unless we're at a Houlihan's or Bennigan's or some such place where the availability of such a beverage is advertised with a glossy menu insert. Maybe next trip. Jacqueline asks for a tonic top-off, as her second-favorite drink was a tad on the strong side.
Before we can finish those drinks, we're whisked off to a booth that faces the window, showroom-style, and looks out onto the Strip. I had heard praise for the view from Binion's Ranch, but it is far more spectacular than I imagined. I'm a little puzzled about the arrangement of the various hotels at first, until my faithful kemo sabe points out that our booth is perpendicular, not parallel, to the Strip. So instead of seeing the whole thing laid out from the relatively close Stratosphere to the far-off Mandalay Bay, we're seeing a perspective shot in which the Stratosphere is in the foreground and the other Strip properties are incrementally farther back, and in which the degree to which the various hotels are set off from the Strip looms rather larger.
The prices are a little higher than I expected, but then I realize that they aren't a la carte. Whereas a $27 steak at Morton's or Ruth's Chris or Smith & Wollensky includes only the steak, the $27 porterhouse at Binion's Ranch includes soup or salad plus garlic mashed potatoes. Considering what the aforementioned places charge for such accoutrements, the Ranch is shaping up as a bargain. Jacqueline orders her usual New York strip, medium rare, and I go for the porterhouse, rare. The porterhouse (20 ounces, if I'm not mistaken) sounds a tad large, but it's only a few dollars more than the less spectacular choices. I'm surprised not to have a wine list thrust at me, but it's just as well, and we each order a single glass of cabernet.
First up is the bread -- warm sourdough with properly softened butter. It's even better than the wonderful roll that came with the Binion's coffee shop's $3 steak, and it proves conclusively that the Horseshoe people are on top of the whole bread-temperature thing. The salad is, well, authentic: iceberg lettuce and a few tomatoes. A nice bowl of mesclun greens would have been more to my liking, but that isn't the food of cowboys. I skip the appetizer in favor of psyching myself up for the size of this steak, but Jacqueline has a bowl of French onion soup that she gives a thumbs-up.
The meat arrives, and it inspires awe. Aside from the sheer size of these two steaks, each bears the charred countenance of an expertly cooked piece of meat. To skip ahead a moment, I'd never experienced this phenomenon before, but these steaks end up looking more rare than they taste. It's axiomatic that the better a steakhouse is, the more things tend toward rare (what the Lone Star Steak House in your local strip mall calls "rare" would be "medium well" at Morton's), but at first glance I'm thinking (a) Jacqueline's medium-rare steak looks plenty rare for me, and (b) Jacqueline's medium-rare steak looks way too rare for her. Once we both dig in, however, we're pleased. Indeed, the taste that Jacqueline give me of her red, red New York strip, while very good, tastes too well done for me. While I am leaving the fatty edges, I'm still amazed that I'm essentially able to finish my porterhouse. I also make a significant dent in Jacqueline's leftovers. She does much better with her potatoes than I do with mine. They're downright awesome, mind you, but I'm here for the main event. Speaking of which . . .
There's a decided lack of Tyson buzz in the air as we make our way back to our room. We turn on CNN to learn of the ridiculous first-round "no contest," in which Tyson's bizarre decision to slug Norris 20 minutes after the round-ending bell is matched by Norris's bizarre decision to declare that the punch caused him to develop polio. I may well be entitled to a refund of my bet, but I'm too lazy to explore that possibility.
We had hoped to watch Norm Macdonald host "Saturday Night Live," but at 11:27 Jacqueline realizes that she's ready to turn in and I realize I could use a beer or two. So while she settles into bed, I run down to the Nugget's sundries shop (this is the first time our North Tower location is a disadvantage) to pick up a couple of Buds. I miss only a minute or two of the show, which isn't that good anyway, and drift in and out until it's time to turn the TV off, which I manage to do without instructions from Steve Wynn.