SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Katie Pesznecker visited Las Vegas for a family event. Here is her report.
I’ve come to appreciate the many faces of Las Vegas.
It’s one of the strangest, noisiest, busiest, most indulgent and innovative cities in the U.S. — and as it continually morphs and warps with the waves of modernity, it hangs on to its beloved old-school seediness. With its big-name chefs and skulking street hustlers, strutting head-dressed showgirls and burned-out bartenders, joyous jackpot winners and vacant-eyed gamblers yanking the fruitless slot machine levers until sunrise, it is a town of remarkable contradictions and dichotomies that is certainly never boring.
Ultimately, Vegas is whatever you want. What that is exactly changes over time. My first visit to Sin City: for a friend’s 21st birthday, 1997. We stayed at the Egyptian-themed Luxor; it felt dark and exotic. I drank electric-green Midori margaritas on the rocks, felt ultra grown-up. Clearly that was a very, very long time ago. My head hurts just thinking about it.
Since then, Vegas has drawn me in for weddings, friends’ much-later milestone birthdays, sunny getaway weekends, or just because. And just a few weeks ago, husband Joe and I headed to the glittering Nevada hotspot once again for a vow renewal ceremony for my brother and wife, who married there a dozen years ago.
The trip yielded opportunities to revisit old favorites and discover new attractions too, yet again proving out that while a foundational underside of Vegas is comfortingly unchanged, there is always something new to see and do. Here are some highlights:
Battista’s Hole in the Wall is a sentimental favorite, a just-off-strip Vegas institution on the Stratosphere end, nestled in a down-and-dirty strip mall. One end features the Stage Door Casino, a snug locals fave that calls itself “Las Vegas’ favorite dive bar.” Its adjacent liquor store promises the lowest prices around. Both Stage Door and Battista’s have held their ground since the 1970s.
When you dine at Battista’s, you feel like you’ve sunk into the layers of Vegas history, with its red leather upholstery, Tiffany lamp shades, dim lighting, and walls covered in black-and-white photos of Hollywood royalty – many of the snaps autographed, showing the rich and famous enjoying Battista’s celebrated hospitality.
It also claims to have the world’s largest collection of mini alcohol bottles.
For set prices – which are shockingly low – you’ll enjoy your selection of a classic pasta dish, crusty garlic bread, a soup or Italian salad, bottomless carafes of house wines, and to end the evening, a chocolaty cappuccino topped with a fluffy puff of porous whipped cream.
While lacking the decades-old pedigree of Battista’s, pausing to enjoy a show at the Bellagio Fountain on Las Vegas Boulevard is a must. It’s easy to skip it – the fountain is visible from many buildings and its shows seem constant. But only up close can you appreciate the hefty gusts of water, the delicate bows and swirls of the streams, and how the opulent display is so artistically timed to music. Bonus: it’s free.
More and more vendors are posting up with coolers full of cheap drinks and waters for sale. Generally speaking, the fountain sounds off every 30 minutes between 3-6:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, and every 15 minutes those days from 7 p.m. to midnight. On Saturday, Sunday and holidays, fountain show hours are every 30 minutes from noon-6:30 p.m. and every 15 minutes from 7 p.m.-midnight.
Because this trip included a vow renewal, it also included a bachelorette party of my sorts, and my sister-in-law had her sights set on the classic Vegas male revue, Thunder From Down Under. Rather than try and explain it, let’s just share what their website said: “Think golden tans, smiles for miles and the kind of chiseled bodies you can grate your fantasies on.”
If you’re in a position for a Vegas night out full of laughter, OMG moments, and a “Girls’ night Outback” (their words, not mine!) I do recommend this, um, experience. Staff kept the fruity drinks flowing while Aussie dudes leaped from table to table in increasingly silly costumes set to familiar music, gyrating with humor and flirtation, sometimes pulling willing women on stage for one-on-one performances.
Well, we were all hungry and thirsty after that endorphin-draining experience, so we hopped in a couple Ubers and headed to nearby Libertine Social in Mandalay Bay. Conceived by James Beard Award-winning chef Shawn McClain, it prides itself as a gastro pub with an array of artisanal small plates and New American bar food. It also has a game-day special where, for a set prices, guests can enjoy an all-you-can-eat-and-drink experience for the duration of sporting events, convenient seeing as Mandalay Bay is basically next door to Allegiant Stadium.
We were there post-show, and the vibe was quiet. I tried the BLT salad, with maple-glazed bacon, sweet acidic bits of tomato, bleu cheese crumbles and buttermilk ranch dressing. On the advice of the waitress, we also shared a short rib flatbread, a long oval of perfectly puffed dough topped with mozzarella, caramelized onions, herbed goat cheese and fennel pollen.
To drink, I ordered the exceptional Libertine G&T: Bombay Sapphire east gin, grapefruit, lime, pink peppercorn, and Libertine Social’s proprietary tonic and spice blend.
Here’s a great thing about Vegas: you don’t have to drop a ton of money or have way-in-advance reservations to enjoy great food. Look no further than the Block 16 Urban Food Hall at the Cosmopolitan. A series of order-at-the-counter restaurants curated from national favorites make up this fast-casual dining environment that’s trendy and affordable.
Among the culinary residents is Hattie B’s Nashville Hot Chicken, a must-do for my spice-loving husband. This is Hattie B’s only Western-U.S. location, and your chance at choosing between an array of dizzying spice levels – from no or low heat on up to “Damn Hot” and the intimidating “Shut the Cluck Up.” Pro tip: wash it down with the peach vodka sweet tea slushy.
If you are feeling indulgent, though, we were delighted by our experience this trip at Vanderpump à Paris in the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. We were able to get same-day reservations on the last night of our trip. After lots of time running around with family and friends, it was just Joe and I, and an elegant way to end our days in Vegas. The restaurant shoots for upscale Parisian feel, with huge floral bursts, curling pastel wrought-iron, decadent lighting, and an expert wait staff.
We enjoyed mini slider Wellingtons as an appetizer – chicken poulet, with gruyere cheese, Dijon, candied bacon, wrapped in a warm puff pastry. For my main, I opted for a coq a vin pot pie, which was a succulent combination of braised chicken and soft vegetables in a white burgundy veloute sauce encircled with a halo of flaky pastry.
Oh! And as for the reason we all went to Vegas – the vow renewal! Well it was lovely. The renewing bride and groom looked fabulous in rented attire, the Chapel of the Flowers venue was a charming and serene setting, plus their gift shop sold mini bottles of champagne!
Afterward, the family loaded into a limo bound for El Segunda Sol at the Fashion Show Mall where we ultimately feasted on bowls of guac and taco platters as the happy couple cut cake.
I’m not sure when or why I’ll next be in Vegas but I am curious to see what’s changed when that time comes. While New York calls itself the city that never sleeps, it’s Vegas where, when it’s all over, I always need a nap!
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