The busiest intersection in Las Vegas, E. Flamingo Rd. and Las Vegas Blvd., was marked not long ago by the parking garage at an old-school casino named Bill's Gamblin' Hall and Saloon. Today you'll find one of the Strip's sleekest celebrity restaurants, Giada, with giant windows looking out on the passing parade. It's part of the sleek, new Cromwell Hotel, refashioned from the bones of Bills into a posh, boutique property.
If there's a symbol for how Vegas has changed, Giada and the Cromwell might be it. You'll still find those maddening escalators and pedestrian walkways that take you on a 300-metre-long trip just to cross a street – and, of course, plenty of giant casinos set way back from the road with huge driveways blocking the way of pedestrians. But this city is slowly growing more design friendly, not only on the Strip but in its booming downtown, which is filled with the sort of tattooed baristas you'd expect to find in Vancouver's Gastown or on Ossington Avenue in Toronto.
Besides Giada and the Cromwell, one of the biggest changes is the shopping/restaurant area known as the LINQ; a pedestrian-only laneway that runs from Las Vegas Boulevard to the new High Roller observation wheel, which can seat 41 people and can be set up as a private bar in the sky. The Caesars Entertainment development also includes coloured fountains, restaurants with outdoor patios and small, three- to four-storey buildings, giving the area the feel of a desert version of Whistler or Mt. Tremblant. Sure, it's manufactured, but it's on a welcome human scale.
Others have gone the same route. MGM Resorts has added an Irish pub to the Las Vegas Boulevard side of New York-New York, complete with a shady patio. There's also al fresco dining next door at Tom's Urban restaurant and Shake Shack, which lives up to its Manhattan parent's reputation as a bastion of greasy-burger goodness.
And MGM has big plans for the space between New York-New York and the Monte Carlo. Called the Park, a large plaza will provide a connection between Las Vegas Boulevard and the planned NHL arena (which folks here are quite optimistic about). Along with plenty of green space, it is expected to be home to a Japanese restaurant with a kabuki theatre, a Robert Mondavi wine restaurant and a country music restaurant and bar.
"Vegas is trying to bring the indoors outside and the outside in," says James Reza, who writes a column about the city in a local magazine called Seven. "They're getting away from the cave-like casinos."
Reza explains the changes in town over breakfast at EAT, a fairly new spot a block from downtown's Fremont Street where I go for truffle scrambled eggs and smoked bacon on a ciabatta bun. The place, which feels both modern and slightly retro, with a bare cement floor and avocado-coloured banquettes, is already attracting a youthful clientele.
Just a few blocks away is Container Park, a successful enterprise outside of the neon madness. Here, railway containers hold trendy shops selling local jewellery fashioned from colourful leather, a huge kid's playground and fun restaurants such as Big Ern's BBQ. Nearby is the Market which opened a few months back: It feels like a Whole Foods crossed with a New York deli, with fresh fruit and veggies on display, plus a well-stocked deli case, cool lighting and lovely Stumptown coffee.
There are still a lot of big things going on – it is Vegas, after all. MGM is spending millions to erect a permanent festival site in time for the Rock in Rio music fest in May. It'll be staged by Circus Circus on the north end of the strip, which is home to the new SLS Hotel but still looks a tad forlorn.
Down at Mandalay Bay, I toured the recently opened Delano, a second outpost of the South Beach brand. Formerly known as THEhotel, the property was given a huge refurbishment and reopened in September. Calling it a boutique property is a stretch given it has 1,117 rooms, but it's a gorgeous spot, featuring local rock and plenty of gleaming, polished wood in a subdued, sophisticated casino-free setting.
Rooms are generously sized suites with calming beige and white decor. The Bathhouse Spa features dark stone walls and hot and cold plunge pools. Della's Kitchen focuses on local ingredients, including Nevada beef. And in the spacious lobby area, you'll find quiet conversation nooks and a slick coffee shop.
A Las Vegas hotel that allows you to quietly sip a drink or hunker down in a corner and carry on a conversation with friends? The times, they are a changin'.
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