Two Way Hard Three | Las Vegas Casino & Design Blog

March 22, 2010

Strip Walk - March 2010

Posted by Hunter

Mike's adventures continue: Encore Las Vegas, Bellagio, Aria, The Crystals and a stop at Valentino Grill @ The Venetian.

Click through to read the complete text. Photo gallery is here:


It's New To Me! I always figured the Nite Life Shop, with it's proximity to XS, would sell stuff like tiny handbags and hair gel to douche-bags. It's actually the Showroom Merch Store, and it's returned to it's original location from the old days when the Encore hallway was a dead end to the Monorail Bus. This spot was vacated for Taste Of Wynn, but I suspect they have higher sales expectations for Le Reve booklets and Garth stuff (black Stetsons?) than they do for Wynn-branded aprons and cookery. Given that the line outside of XS can be impenetrable on some nights, whatever goes in the location next to it is going to suffer a few hours of being unreachable on many evenings.

Taste of Wynn is mostly cookware and ingredients wearing tags saying one of the Wynn chefs personally chose it, hopefully so that you'll look past the price. The store is divided up with sections for different restaurants and some general purpose items stacked in the heart of the room. It's a small space, and I'm surprised what restaurants are reflected here. I expected to see the steakhouses, Bartolotta, Okada, and maybe Boloud; but in reality I didn't see the steakhouses (maybe I missed them?) but did notice a lot of Society and Wazuzu.

The casino was pretty empty on Saturday, but without the curtains I find the room more appealing and actually wanted to stop and play (but didn't.) I never understood the appeal of the curtains since they assist in blocking out the natural light that Encore was built around and without regular maintenance they will stink of smoke. Cloth draperies are okay if they're kept free of dust and dirt and up out of the visitor's reach, like the awnings over the tables at Bellagio or the little curtains lining the drop-ceilings over the tables at Wynn.

I mostly went in here to check on The Great Wall of Encore (seems appropriate, this company is allegedly run from China now if you are to believe the recent Wynn-terviews.) I can't quite state enough just what a tall obstruction this wall is, it goes all the way up to the skylights. Nice touch on keeping it white above the casino ceiling level, so that what left of the atrium ceiling is viewable up there doesn't have a slight red tint, like the columns below the divider line.

Outside, construction continues. You don't hear that too often anymore.


I was just passing through on my way to Aria, but the rolling carts of flowers always indicates that the Conservatory people are at work.

It seems that the folks here aren't content to let all that stuff in Aria, Crystals, and the always-important Pocket Park keep them too busy. The spring display recycles some of the expected set pieces like the big flowers, moss frog, and flowered snail; but adds more stuff like a big shovel, mushrooms that appear to be picked from Fantasyland, and this flower bee. What's designed to really grab your attention are the Giant Ants in the Plants.

While this isn't a pleasant view, I like the little detail of how the eggs coming out of the, uhhhh, *ahem* are formed into a little step-bridge up the back. Though why anyone would need a step-bridge to climb onto this ant, I don't know, since the walkway to it is blocked off to guests. Maybe they were planning on having people get their photos riding the ant? Unsure.

Since some enjoy monitoring business levels at Bellagio now that it's not a single flagship property and starting to put on some grey hairs, I'll just mention that it was around noon on a Saturday, and the buffet line was all the way out to the room elevators hallway. The Cafe line was tame by comparison, but still made it difficult to get around the conservatory. JP's nearby was also doing brisk business.

Also, maintenance is still visible.

Stepping out to the transit platform, I noticed that LED boards and boarding voiceover announcements are now mentioning Aria at the Crystals and Monte Carlo stops. This seems to confirm that they were having some kind of problem: either "how do I get there?" questions, people thinking they have to ride from Monte Carlo to get to Aria, or the option that just calling the station Crystals had a side-effect of people not knowing that Aria exists. I still think the Crystals stop should just be called CityCenter, but oh well.


Major new eateries are open. Mastro's, the treehouse restaurant, is the highfalutin place. Brasserie Puck is open for lunch and dinner and both serve things that even I, a Picky Eater, could eat (in other words, they have cheeseburgers.) The Pods is located on that wooden platform thing connecting the levels and is basically a coffee and bakery stop with Puck's name attached to it. Since I couldn't find any information on Pods at Puck's site, here's a menu .

Todd English (of Olives fame [or infamy]) has opened PUB, and it occupies an awkward corner of the building. If CityCenter was a body, PUB would be in the armpit. There's a somewhat hidden away entrance just inside the door at Crystals, a patio entrance at Pocket Park (the closest thing to a real entrance), and a view (but no entrance) to an otherwise empty corridor of Aria.


Here's the most important thing: There's cell phone service in here now. Upstairs, downstairs, full bars, and as many G's as you please. A golf clap is deserved for someone in an office somewhere who did what should have been done two months ago.

Speaking of otherwise empty corridors, here's the path to what turned out to be BarMasa at lunchtime. I had no idea what was down here walking up or going away, and after I got home I figured out what this is. You know, I complained at opening about all this talk of "airport architecture," but this gated off entrance really does look like the Second Terminal that hasn't opened yet.

We've heard a lot about CityCenter's food department being a rotating door ("Please step forward. Thank you.") but the menu at Cafe Vettro hasn't changed too much. I wandered upstairs and the buffet line had maybe eight people waiting. Far, far, far fewer than the overloaded Bellagio buffet. JP's off the casino floor was doing really good business though, maybe even better than Bellagio.

Last thought: the smell coming out of the SkyBox grill by the sports book? Incredible, at least if you're as hungry as I am. It was doing pretty good business too, although I can't figure out if it's a place where you get waited on or a place you order at a counter and seat yourself, because it appeared to have elements of both.

StripMunch: The Grill at Valentino

When you have a hotel that has it's own canal network with gondolas and drivers singing 'That's Amore', you need an Italian restaurant. Even though certain hotels may lack the same charms but have a lot of fancy chefs, the reality is that there's a certain crowd who gravitates to the Venetian for pasta, assumes the pizzas are better at NYNY than Monte Carlo, and figures they can't go wrong choosing Paris for french food.

When I wrote about Dal Toro at Palazzo, @atdleft made comments about Valentino and I said it was probably somewhere I wouldn't go. I changed my mind. Sort of. I was originally going to Trattoria del Lupo at Mandalay Bay as my next review, but the distance to MBay seemed too far so I decided to continue my exploration of dining at The Haus of Adelson, a place where I have almost never had a meal at until now. (It's not my fault they never built a buffet.)

Valentino is a fancy Italian restaurant with food I might not be able to swallow and prices I definitely can't swing. Fortunately for me, They decided to take some spare space that looks like it was originally intended to be a bar/lounge and put a more mainstream Italian experience there.

This place is, odds on, probably your best bet for less gourmet Italian fare. The food is (allegedly) coming from the same kitchens and cooks as the Big Room. The outfit that is operating this place is also running Giorgio at Luxor with a different chef, though I suspect this is a notch up.

This dinner played with my conscience, as it introduced me to lasagna with veal in it. That's one of those things I generally try to avoid for the ethical arguments better outlined somewhere else. I wasn't aware it was in it until just when I was ready to order and didn't want to take up more time finding an alternative, so I figured that I at least can't say that I don't know what I'd be missing. The meal was tasty, both me and my Anonymous Diner, who was the same one from the Dal Toro review, agreed that it was better than we had there the last time I wrote a food column.

On the other hand, service was about the same as far as speed, although that isn't saying too bad about Valentino since the room is MUCH busier than the Palazzo equivalent in the resort's basement. Service was competent at the Grill but probably not a staff that rotates into The Big Room. The room itself, as I mentioned before, looks like it could have once been a lounge, since it has a bar but it doesn't scream "this is a setting for Italian food." Table-mats are brown paper instead of cloth so that after each diner the staff simply folds, crumples, and tosses the table mat into the trash, er, I mean, into a recycling bin for Sands' new refuse sorting program that has been the subject of a lot of media attention this week.

So, about that veal: I passed on Sinatra for it's dish including this as listed on the menu (as well as because it's in Encore, but that's another rant for another day). Suffice it to say, I'll have to find a position on veal that I can square with my conscience, and I think what I'll negotiate myself to settle on is that I'll begrudgingly accept it as part of a larger meal, but would never order it specifically.

The Grill at Valentino is in The Venetian. Dinner entrees for two came to $41 before tip.

Remember, your feedback/suggestions are useful. I probably would have passed on this restaurant if it wasn't for user comments. I was originally planning to get away from Venelazzo next time since we have now done three consecutive reviews there, though my original intention was to visit Lupo at Mandalay Bay. But then I'm also a bit concerned that this is turning from Mike Tries Restaurants into Mike Eats Lasagna And Pizzas (and maybe Alfredo.)


Read archived comments (30 so far)
March 22, 2010 11:25 AM Posted by AndrewH

As Mike points out you can use your cell phone in Aria now. We stayed at Aria last week from 3/15-3/18, and had full 3g AT&T service for our iphones. Overall I found the service at Aria to be a joke, a massive joke. We had a security guard outside the Crystals entrance in the "pocket park" stop us and treat me and my partner like pure trash. We had drinks from the casino in our hands and he stopped us and said "This is high end retail gentleman no drinks inside". He then pointed out the code of conduct on the door. I fully get MGM not wanting beer by the yards, and giant Eiffel towers of booze in the Crystals. That said they were cocktails from Aria, not beer by the yard! They have a night club in the Crystals, and restaurants that serve booze. WTH!

On a positive note the food at Todd English's "Urban Pub" was great as was the service. Like Mike said no entrance that I could see from Aria itself, only outside from the patio. Below are links to pic's of the broken glass on the floor of my room at Aria. House keeping was terrible. Im back at Wynn/Encore on my next Vegas trip.

March 22, 2010 12:07 PM Posted by Andy in MSP

Encore Beach Club is supposed to open on Memorial Day? I honestly don't see how that is going to happen...

March 22, 2010 12:10 PM Posted by atdleft

Thanks, Mike C! I had a good feeling this Valentino would be as good as the LA original. Now I have to head over there soon.

Now for a future suggestion, here's one I think you can sink your teeth into. Bradley Ogden at Caesars (Forum Casino) has a $29 prix fixe 3 course bar menu. It's probably the best bargain you'll find at any Michelin Starred restaurant in these parts, and you'll find a hearty burger on the menu. :-)

I'll try to think up more ideas today, and keep trying new things!

March 22, 2010 12:43 PM Posted by Brian Fey

Andy - I agree. I realize with unlimited money, you can perform miracles, but this is a pretty major project to be completed in the next 65 days. I'm heading out mid June, and I sure hope it does indeed open on schedule.

March 22, 2010 1:49 PM Posted by detroit1051

Mike_ch, thanks for the photos. You'd think I'd be tired of Bellagio's Conservatory displays after more than a decade, but they still appeal to me. This one looks especially cheerful.

The gate across BarMasa/Shaboo is startling. Since it's not open for lunch and closed two nights a week, that's a lot of time the empty corridor is front and center. Not a good idea, imo. Even when LeCirque, Alex or any other restaurant is closed, the entrance area draws people in to at least look at the menu.
Your photos show the massive floor space of hard surface floors in CityCenter and Aria. Leaves me cold.
It's great that Valentino Grill is open for lunch. Too few resraurants are these days. By the way, I will not knowingly eat veal. May not be rational, but it bothers me.

March 22, 2010 3:00 PM Posted by parchedearth

There will need to be some changes to the CC restaurants. Social House, Mastros, PUB, Beso, Puck are probably too many in close proximity to Aria's first floor places. Sage and Silk Road have already cut back on hours. I can't see BarMasa lasting another year.

The Vegas summer pool season started this weekend, so Encore beach is already going to miss the first 2 months. I bet they do a partial opening (e.g. Switch's outdoor patio seating) on Memorial Day and open additional pieces every couple weeks.

March 22, 2010 3:46 PM Posted by atdleft


"Sage and Silk Road have already cut back on hours."

Really? I know Silk Road no longer does dinner (sigh), but what could Sage have done? They've been dinner-only all along, and the buzz over here has been overwhelmingly positive for Sage.

Otherwise, I understand what you're saying on CityCenter dining. So far, it's been hit-and-miss. But if the not-so-hot places can retool while the knock-out hits keep delivering the good stuff, CityCenter should be fine on the culinary front.

March 22, 2010 5:37 PM Posted by Mike P.

FWIW Valentino Grill has been the casual dining side of Valentino for as long as I can remember. It's a pretty good lunch spot, but I'd head to the back dining room for dinner.

I wonder when Martin Heirling is going to decide Sensi needs his full attention. It's too bad Silk Road is closed for dinner now, but the place was empty every time I walked by last trip. For that matter the whole hotel seems like a seriously misguided project.

Has anyone had a look inside the Veer Towers recently?

March 22, 2010 5:49 PM Posted by mike_ch

Well, I hope that PUB and Puck survive. They are both places I can eat something at. :b

Also, Social House is a scrapped TI restaurant. Did you mean Sage? Silk Road?

I know what you mean about too much being too close. My take is that Union and Beso are a bit too much of the same thing right next to each other. In fact, I have not heard anything outstanding about Union at all and so I don't expect that one to last.

March 22, 2010 5:51 PM Posted by Hunter

Social House is going into The Crystals, opening in a couple months.

March 22, 2010 6:12 PM Posted by detroit1051

I sure missed the Social House news. 3 months to go.

March 22, 2010 7:08 PM Posted by atdleft

Detroit & Mike C-

Yep, PMG closed Social House at TI last July (isn't this where Ruffin now wants to reopen Gilley's?) to move into Crystals. It will be interesting to see what happens as Crystals fills up with more shops & restaurants.

"My take is that Union and Beso are a bit too much of the same thing right next to each other."

Yes and no. Union is more Asian influenced, while Beso has more of a Latin flavor. However, both fall more or less into the "steakhouse" category that's always in oversupply here in Vegas. Time will tell just how many steakhouses CityCenter can handle.

"Well, I hope that PUB and Puck survive. "

Well, I promise I'll at least give PUB a fair shot. I already have my doubts considering Todd English's less than stellar Vegas track record (ahem, Olives & Beso), but I don't want to condemn the place just for the (MANY, MANY!) sins of its siblings.

March 22, 2010 7:09 PM Posted by Hunter

No, Khotan is where Social House was at TI.

Gilley's is going into a space that was Mist and Francesco's... or in the original version of the resort, the check-in desk.

March 22, 2010 8:04 PM Posted by bklyn2la

Glad to hear you had cell service at Aria finally, we were not as lucky. Visited there on 3/14 and had no cell service (I have Verizon) and friend had no service on her I-Phone.Very frustrating to me that the service is still hit or miss.We stayed at Wynn for 4 nights and our phones worked fine there.

March 22, 2010 8:09 PM Posted by atdleft

Oh, OK. So Gilley's will just be replacing the old Mist space. I'm still wondering what Phil Ruffin has in store for TI. I did see he got the PBR Rodeo for TI, so at least that should help... But I still don't get the whole downscaling of amenities while upscaling the prices scheme.

March 23, 2010 4:46 AM Posted by Jeff in OKC

Lefty-I am going to guess about Ruffin that he is most comfortable doing business with a more "casual" market. His home (Wichita) and business foundations (self-serveice gas stations, hand trucks and mid-market hotels) linda lead me to that conclusion. Good old mid-western values, without the pretense. That philosophy can also mean a good, basic product, while still charging a premium. I think that's where Ruffin is headed.

March 23, 2010 10:35 AM Posted by parchedearth

I think CC planned the number of restaurants for full occupancy; including residential and many shoppers at Crystals. Since Harmon, Veer, and Vdara are essentially empty, they have major overcapacity for dining. I don't see the number of diners going up significantly in the forseeable future, so something will have to give. Which restaurants end up closing depends heavily on the leases (not necessarily food or service) and we don't have much visibility there. I would guess many more start going dark several nights a week.

As of last month, Sage is dark on Sun. I haven't heard anything about Blossom; and Lemongrass rarely gets a mention.

March 23, 2010 10:50 AM Posted by atdleft


OK, I can see the "good ol' Midwestern Values"... But I don't see how that sells here in Vegas. TI's price point is still hovering around that of Monte Carlo's, just below Mandalay Bay's, and just above Golden Nugget's. All are listed as AAA Four Diamond Hotels, but as of now I'd say the amenities Ruffin wants to offer at TI aren't in the same league as those at M-Bay, Golden Nugget, and Monte Carlo. So if I were looking for a good deal on a 4 star hotel, why would I choose TI over the others?

It's even harder for me to imagine how this strategy works if TI has no special niche to market itself to. Boyd's Downtown casinos have the Hawaiian market cornered. Hard Rock & Palms go out of their way to cater to young jet set hipsters.

Who will TI appeal to? Will people going for Mystere want to stay for Gilley's? Will people looking for TI's poker room want to eat at Khotan?

March 23, 2010 12:36 PM Posted by detroit1051

Parchedearth (and others), how convenient is it to walk from Aria to the restaurants in Crystals?
Do you have to go outside? Will Beso, Mastro's, P.U.B. and Puck get much business from Aria, or are they dependent on Crystals customers or as specific destination restaurants? If it's not a close walk, I think most Aria visitors would stay right on the property to eat.

March 23, 2010 12:38 PM Posted by Hunter

You have to walk outside, yes. Through the Pocket Park. You're only outside for about 2 seconds though. It's a very short walk.

March 23, 2010 1:14 PM Posted by parchedearth

The walk from Aria to Beso and PUB in Crystals is all of 50ft (a nice stroll through the pocket park). I would guess almost all of their current business is from Aria guests. Mastros and Puck are deadcenter w/i Crystals (only 100yds further). This brings up a good point that there really isn't any dining on the strip side of Crystals to cater to passersby. I think others have actually commented that it doesn't seem like CC even wants people coming in from the strip. Its designed as a self-contained community with even Bellagio being on the outside.

March 23, 2010 3:30 PM Posted by mike_ch

atd: TI's problem isn't the room rate, in fact I kind of feel their appointments are better than Monte Carlo and maybe even Mirage right now, though below Mandalay.

The price confusion has been everything downstairs. The coffee shop is priced more in line with "name" venues like Lagasse Stadium or even Brasserie Puck than a typical lobby all-hours diner. Dinner at the Buffet costs as much, and on some nights even MORE than Cravings at the Mirage which is a much more full-featured buffet ($22-$26, compared to Mirage's $22.50) and the TI lunch buffet had not improved on my last visit in Feb 09, from when I first tried it in the summer of 07.

I can't remember the precise rates at the Steakhouse for the new Italian menu, but it's closer to Sinatra or Lupo rates than the Italian dinners I've been having at The Megaplex in these past few write-ups.

That's what has been out of wack at TI, their rooms are heavily discounted but they are aggressively trying to make it up on F&B and other services like the spa and the resort fee stuff.

Like I said, I think they look around them and see the Venetian and Palazzo and Wynn/Encore and the fine dining at the mall like Capital Grille, and decide that since most people are too lazy to walk all the way to the next closest mid range hotel (Harrah's), they're free to charge what they like.

They are rubbing up against the hotel's long-standing price ceiling with Mirage, and in some cases blasting past it completely.

Detroit: From the Aria lobby it's a short walk. From further in the casino, it's a longer walk either through the casino or outside past the outdoor waterfalls and the taxi/luggage stuff. From the far end of the casino , you might even just consider just taking the tram.

March 23, 2010 4:54 PM Posted by mike_ch

parchedearth: There really is no good reason to be outside Crystals. The sidewalk gives up a path up to the upper level around Harmon, and if you want to cross the CityCenter driveway you're going to have to go up to use the bridge anyway.

One would think that the upper level shopping would be filled with stuff people just passing by would want to stop and shop at, while the bottom floor would be the Mr. Moneybags stuff, but no.

March 23, 2010 7:50 PM Posted by Jeff in OKC

Lefty-you comps are perfect. About the same as M.C. We stayed at Encore in October, had lunch at TI coffee shop. Price OK, we thought, ($15-18 for sandwich, side and drink. Tasty & more than we could eat) not interested in price shopping. I don't really do anything on the Strip looking for cheap, I just hope I don't get screwed so bad I can't stand it. That's what translates into value, kinda like going to Disneyland.

March 23, 2010 8:28 PM Posted by atdleft

Mike C-

"TI's problem isn't the room rate"

And I agree. I haven't knocked TI over its rooms.

"The price confusion has been everything downstairs."

And again, I think you hit the nail on the head here. As I've said before, I just don't see this "downscaling of amenities, upscaling of prices" scheme as a potential winner. Ruffin may think hotel guests will be too lazy to walk to Harrah's, but I doubt it... And in fact, they don't even have to do that. All they need to do is take the tram to Mirage to find better stuff at better prices.

"I can't remember the precise rates at the Steakhouse for the new Italian menu, but it's closer to Sinatra or Lupo rates than the Italian dinners I've been having at The Megaplex in these past few write-ups."

Yep, the price point is quite close to Sinatra's... But the menu looks like a snoozer. Again, why go here when one can have the real thing at Wynncore or Venelazzo? Or head over to Mirage and still get better grub for less?

IMHO it's a VERY risky move.


I dunno... Whenever I've been to CityCenter, I've seen a good crowd on the tram from Bellagio to Crystals. However, I do agree that it's harder for Crystals to attract non Monte Carlo-Mandarin Oriental-Aria-Vdara-Bellagio guests because of the limited Strip access.

March 24, 2010 4:36 AM Posted by Jeff in OKC

Lefty- I don't see Ruffin's move as risky. There is a big percentage of the population that doesn't go to Venetian or Wynn because "those places are too snotty". To them "gastric adventure" equals two hours in the bathroom. This doesn't mean they're cheap, just not exotic in their tastes. The kind of person who would go to Gilley's on the Strip.

March 24, 2010 5:32 AM Posted by detroti1051

Jeff, I agree. A woman I worked with for many years goes to Vegas once a year with her sisters and sisters in law. They always stay at Flamingo or Harrah's. When I told her there were some good bargains at both Wynn and Bellagio, she told me those places were "too snooty". She and her family thoroughly enjoy Las Vegas, but the high-end (or "moneyed world" as she calls it) is not for her. I'm sure she'll check out Gilley's and consider TI.

March 25, 2010 6:28 AM Posted by jinx

Mike_ch love the reference about the P.U.B being in the equivalent spot of the armpit. So true, it does look severely out of place and weird in it's configuration there.

April 13, 2010 5:39 PM Posted by Kenny

The Tropicana is making progress very quickly. The casino is starting its renovation, the facade is being redone and most of the new rooms are finished. Lots of people as well as I are very excited to see the Trop after the remodel is complete! Here are some recent pics:

April 14, 2010 10:14 AM Posted by detroit1051

I thought the entire "Tiffany" ceiling was coming down. It's still there?
Here's an interesting press release from 1993: