Sunday, March 29, 2009

Trip Number Two – A Return to Las Vegas

Before I get into my second visit to Las Vegas, I have to explain a change to this site. After thinking about it long and hard, I have decided to allow advertisements to appear here on my site. On one hand, I’m loath to do so. I think crass commercialism is already too prevalent in this society. There are ads everywhere and having a place to escape those appeals to me. But, I have to face the reality of my situation. The only way I generate an income is through two means. One is the equity on my house, and just like everyone else, I’m facing the end of that cash flow within a month or two. The other way I get any income is to sell things on the internet. Depending on what I have to sell, that can generate good money or not much of anything in any given month. Right now, with the economy the way it is, I’m not generating much. The demand for collectables is not very high when people are afraid to spend. Like millions of other people, I’m facing the all-to-real possibility that I may be homeless by the end of summer. So, any way I can generate any income is a welcome prospect for me at this time. If I can raise a few more bucks by placing ads on my blog, then that’s what I’m going to do.

But this only works if you click on those ads. So I’m asking every reader of this blog to please do so each and every time you visit this site. The more money I can generate, the longer I can keep a roof over my head, and the longer I can keep writing this blog. If I’m living in a box in downtown LA, there won’t be any electricity for me to plug in my computer and write and post these things. So click on those ads. Every time you do so helps me out tremendously. Thanks and I hope you understand.


It had been just a few short weeks since we had last visited Las Vegas, but we found ourselves packing up the car to return once again to the City of Sin. Usually, the drive from Los Angeles doesn’t bother me that much, but for some reason, the trip this time seemed to take forever. I usually break down the trip into segments; LA to Victorville; Victorville to Barstow; Barstow to Baker; Baker to Stateline; and Stateline to Las Vegas. Breaking the trip into smaller segments seems to make the trip go faster, at least psychologically. But doing that this time didn’t seem to work and the drive just kept going and going. The drive usually takes about 4 hours, but we finally pulled into the Mirage parking lot a little over 5 hours after we started. I guess traffic and road conditions slowed us down more than I would have liked.

We dragged all of our luggage into the Mirage Hotel & Casino ( and found the check-in desk. The clerk at the desk told that there was a good deal going on that week. For only $30 a night, we could upgrade our room to a suite. We agreed that it was good deal and went for it, and a few minutes later we found ourselves dragging our luggage through the casino to the elevators at the back of the building. I don’t really understand why these hotel/casinos always put the elevators at the back. It’s a pain in the ass to drag suitcases through all the Midwest yokels wandering around looking for just the right slot machine to park their asses at. I guess they’re hoping to introduce you to the casino right away in the hopes that you’ll throw your luggage in your room and run down to whatever gambling poison you’re addicted to and start losing your hard-earned cash immediately.

We managed to escape any major accident with the gamblers and made it to what we found was a private elevator to the floor our room was on. There was a security guard planted in front of that elevator and he demanded to see our keycards before he would let us pass, but he quickly became civil once he saw that we in fact belonged right where we were.

An elevator ride and a short walk down a hallway and we found ourselves in front of our room. The front door was a large double-door with a doorbell affixed in the wall next to it. We opened the door and walked in. Now, we had expected a large room. What we found was a room that was slightly bigger than our own house. It was HUGE! As we walked in, there was little kitchenette/wetbar to the right that opened up to a monstrous living room with a television and computer station and an attached dining room. That led into the king-size bedroom, complete with a television that rose out of a wooden chest with the push of a button. The bathroom took up a full third of the space, with a large glassed-in shower and a Jacuzzi bathtub along one wall and a giant walk-in closet along the other wall. There were only two floors above us and the view of the strip from our room was breathtaking. I would say that this was well worth the extra $30 to upgrade into.

But we were running late, so after ooh-ing and aah-ing at the room for a few minutes; we quickly changed into more presentable clothes and headed downstairs. The first thing we wanted to do was pick up our tickets for the Cirque du Soleil show we were seeing that night, “The Beatles’ Love” ( We found the box office and were immediately given tickets that were in the fourth row from the stage. Now it was time for dinner.

We had dinner reservations at our favorite restaurant in Las Vegas, Picasso at the Bellagio (, which was on the other side of Caesar’s Palace from us, or about half a mile away. We had eaten at this restaurant almost a decade ago, but we were running late to a show (I believe it was the Pet Shop Boys at the Hard Rock) and we had to rush the meal. We had always regretted that, as the meal was amazing and rushing it like that just seemed sacrilegious. So we were happy to get the chance to eat there again at a more leisured pace. We were going to the show that night, but that wasn’t until 9:30 and our restaurant reservations were at 5. We had plenty of time to relax and enjoy.

And enjoy we did. We were very happy that after a decade, the quality of this restaurant hadn’t diminished at all. Our table was right at the window, so we could see the water show out on “Lake Como” easily. The real Picasso paintings hung around the walls were stunning to look at. The service was impeccable. And the food was just wonderful, especially Skip’s main course of stuffed and roasted pigeon that actually tasted like a wild game bird (as opposed to a farmed game bird) and could have been made in Heaven. But everything was great and about three and half hours later, we left the restaurant happily with a bottle of wine tucked under our arm to drink later in our room.

(I don’t think the restaurant was supposed to sell us that bottle. I know it’s against the law for restaurants to do that here in LA. But we were dying to try this wine and after begging, the restaurant allowed it. We never did get around to drinking it in our room. Once we got home, we opened it and found that it was corked, or spoiled. We got in touch with the restaurant and several days later, we received a box through UPS that contained THREE bottles of wine, including a very nice bottle of aged sherry. Now, that’s service, and it just endures us to this restaurant even more.)

We got back to the Mirage and dumped the wine in our room. We also took the time to watch the Mirage’s volcano eruption show from above in our room. Even without the soundtrack, it was quite stunning to watch the volcano “erupt” from that high up. We got back downstairs just in time for the doors to open for the late show of “Love”. We grabbed a drink and found our seats. The show was performed “in the round”, a large stage in the middle surrounded by seats on all sides. There were already Cirque performers in costume wandering around the stage and setting the mood for the upcoming show.

I’ve always been suspicious of these Cirque shows. I’ve seen bits and pieces performed various times on TV and it just never appealed to me. It all just seemed like gymnastics in costume and I got very bored very fast watching the routines on television. But I’d heard so much about this show and, after all, it was set to the Beatles’ music and was sanctioned by all the various Beatles’ parties, so I felt it was something I needed to experience. And I’m glad I did. The show was great. There was some of that costumed gymnastics aspect to it, but mostly it was like a beautiful modern dance performance linked together in theme by the Beatles’ music. One of my favorite parts came during the song “Yellow Submarine”, when the performers covered the entire audience with a large, white satin bag, letting everyone experience John & Yoko’s “Baggism” project. All the while, projections of the Yellow Submarine were coasting over the bag. It’s hard to describe here, but it was a wonderful moment. The show was full of wonderful, beautiful moments though, and got a well deserved standing ovation when it all came to an end.

Skip and I were too jacked up about the show to retire back to our room, so instead we used free passes to get into the Revolution Lounge (, which was designed by the Cirque organization to add on to the Beatles experience of the show. It was a nice looking bar, but was sparsely populated by what seemed to be Eastern Europeans and the music of choice that evening seemed to be early hip-hop, which made no sense to us at all. So we fled after a few minutes and made our way to BLT Burger (, which was one of the only late night restaurants still open in the area. It turned out to be a great choice. We split a wonderful burger and I enjoyed a great caramel/vanilla milkshake spiked with Makers’ Mark Bourbon. It was a perfect way to end the day.

We woke up late the next day and took our time getting ready. By the time we left our room, it was well past noon. We walked next door to Caesar’s Palace ( Forum Shops and watched the statues come to life before having lunch at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois ( It was a nice lunch of upscale Chinese food, but it in no way came near the brilliance of the Chinois here in Los Angeles.

After that we walked back over to the Bellagio and visited their Gallery of Fine Arts (, which was presenting a modern art show called “Lichtenstein, Warhol and Friends”. It was a rather small instillation, but featured a couple of wonderful pieces I had never seen before, including Sol LeWitt’s “Floor Piece #4”, making it well worth the time to check it out.

It was getting late in the afternoon, so we went back and got our car and drove over to the Stratosphere ( This is the tallest hotel in Las Vegas. You can see it poking above the other hotels from miles away. I was there because I wanted to ride the thrill rides that had been built at the top of the tower ( I had ridden Big Shot several times before. This is a ride that shoots you straight up at 45 MPH, until you are over 1000 feet above the Strip. I rode it again and it was no problem for me. Thrilling, but I’ve done it before at other parks, although not quite so high up. The roller coaster that used to run around the top of the tower had been removed thankfully. I had always found that rather dull. But two new rides had replaced it and those were what I was there to ride. The first one, Insanity, is a mechanical arm that swings out over the Strip and twirls you in your seat at 3 Gs until you are staring straight down at the ground. This was rather nerve-wracking and I was glad when the ride was over. But it was nowhere near as horrifying as the final ride. This one, named X-Scream, is a large teeter-totter that propels the car you’re sitting in 28 feet over the edge of the tower. It then swings down so you’re facing the ground, before swinging back up and then down again. I came close to losing it completely on that ride. I have to say that now that it’s over and done that I’m proud of myself and I’m really glad I rode those rides. But I doubt I’ll ever do it again. And I’m someone who really liked the extreme rides at most parks.

By this time it was getting late and we had dinner reservations we had to get to. We headed down the tower, found our car and drove across the Strip to the MGM Grand Hotel for our dinner at Fiamma Tratorria ( Several years ago, Skip and I enjoyed a meal cooked by Fiamma chef Carlos Buscaglia, during a guest stint at Napa Rose restaurant in the Disneyland Resort. It was an amazing meal and we were so enthusiastic about it that the chef came out to meet us. He told us that if we really wanted a good meal that we should come to his Las Vegas restaurant and let him know we were coming. After all this time, we were going to call him on that. We had written him several weeks before, but he told us that he was unfortunately going to be out of town on the day we were visiting. But he also told us that he would let his staff know and they would take good care of us. That they did. Skip and I had decided to share an opener and then ordered a main course each. But the kitchen sent out so much food that we couldn’t eat it all and we ended up passing on dessert completely (which always breaks my heart). Everything was amazing, but the highlight of the meal was my Pink Snapper with Roasted Vegetables and Pine Nuts. It was wonderful in the simplicity of its preparation and flavors. The Spaghetti and Kobe meatballs the kitchen sent out were pretty wonderful as well, as was Skip’s Lobster Gnocchi with Black Truffles. It was a great meal and I hope we can return again some day.

But now we had to run as we had less than an hour to get out to the Stateline and Buffalo Bill’s Hotel & Casino so we could see Blondie ( play at their arena. We arrived just in time and made our way to our third row center seats we had bought several weeks earlier. I had seen Blondie several times in the 70’s, including a show at the Whiskey in Hollywood where they opened for Tom Petty and the place was less than half full. This was when they had their original, and best, bass player, Gary Valentine. But I had never seen them once they hit the big time and Skip had never seen them at all. I was there mainly for Skip’s benefit, and entered the show feeling suspicious about the whole thing and convinced I was going to have a terrible time. I tried, but the onslaught of so many wonderful hit songs and the fact that even at an advanced age, Debby Harry still had an exuberant stage presence, and before I knew it I was enjoying myself, while watching in wonder as aging gamblers danced in front of the stage with their walkers. (To be fair, the young ones seemed to be dancing a lot as well.) I had to admit it was a great show, and we left for the return to Las Vegas happy and exhausted.

We woke up the next day early, as we had a wine tasting event in Los Angeles, so we needed to get home. We packed up our belongings and took the elevator downstairs to check out. Somehow or other, the total check we received from the hotel was about $60 lighter than what we expected. We saw that the show tickets were only $99 each, and we had been quoted $124 each. There were a few other discrepancies, but since it was all in our favor, we kept quite and enjoyed the fact that we had upgraded to an amazing room without it costing us any more in the long run.

We had a quick lunch at Simon at Palm’s Place ( on our way out of town. Kerry Simon’s restaurant here in Los Angeles is one of our favorite mid-priced restaurants. This one in Las Vegas is a beautiful room, but the food at lunch, mostly salads and sandwiches, was only okay. We’ll have to return someday for dinner.

And with that we were gone again. In these two trips we managed to see and do everything we had wanted (with the exception of a few restaurants). We had missed a lot in the nine years since we had last been there. I feel liked we’ve caught up now. We’re hoping for a return trip before the end of the year. Then we can stretch out and visit friends and see the city through their eyes. I’m sure the local Las Vegas will be an entirely different experience than what we had as visitors.


Next week I’ll be back with the final trip of the three in Rome, Italy. There are a few more trips coming up. We are going to Arizona for 5 days in a couple of weeks. We’ll be visiting relatives in Tucson and Phoenix. We’re also taking a quick trip to San Francisco right after returning from Arizona so we can see Throbbing Gristle perform live. I’ll wait until after those trips to decide about writing about them. I’m hoping to get to some band and record store stories soon. Until then, thanks for reading and enjoy yourselves. And click on those ads!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Trip Number One - LAs Vegas

It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything in these pages. Most of the reason behind that is that I’ve just been so busy traveling that I haven’t been able to take the time to write. My travels aren’t over yet. Next month I’ll be spending a week in Arizona to visit my family and another 4 days in San Francisco to see the band Throbbing Gristle play live. After that, I have no concrete plans. I would like to travel more and have plans in the back of my head to visit both Thailand and London, England. Lack of money may sidetrack those plans though. The next few months will tell. But for now, let me tell you about the last month or so and the events that have taken up all my time.

The first two trips we took were to Las Vegas. This is going to piss off several friends I have in the city. We had a very limited time there and we decided not to tell friends we were visiting either trip so that we could make complete use of that time. All I can do is apologize and let you know that we have tentative plans to visit again and this time we will make time to get together with friends we rarely see.

The first trip was at the end of January. It came about because Buffalo Bill’s Hotel ( in Primm Valley on the Stateline offered us a free two night stay. We couldn’t pass that up. Primm is about 40 minutes from Las Vegas and we decided that we would drive to the hotel and get there late on Thursday. We would pass up all the free offers that Buffalo Bill’s tried to give us. (Those included a free showing of their show “The Sin City Kitties” and free tickets to see Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers play live in their auditorium. We did take them up on their $25 of free gambling for each of us. Skip turned that into a $100 profit and I made and extra $25.) Instead, we would spend all day Friday in Las Vegas. Then we would leave early Saturday for home.

That was pretty much how it went, except that we arrived a lot earlier on Wednesday then we thought we would due to a lack of traffic. We took advantage of this by driving into Vegas and having dinner at Lavo Restaurant ( at the Palazzo Hotel. We had eaten Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s food several times before here in Los Angeles at several food festivals. He is a very creative chef; one dish I remember is pasta with shrimp in a cinnamon cream sauce, so we were looking forward to eating his food at his own place. Unfortunately, we found a rather standard menu and when we asked about it, our serve told us that the menu was very creative at the beginning, but it was confusing all the tourists, so the owners made the chef tone it down. That was depressing, but there’s no accounting for taste, especially when it comes to the mainstream American tourist. The food was very good, but unremarkable, with the exception of a plate of various Crudo (Italian style raw fish) that was just amazing. So we left our first meal rather disappointed.

We would have loved to have dined at Restaurant Charlie ( in the same hotel. This is Charlie Trotter’s new place. Trotter is a chef from Chicago who is one of America’s finest. The best meal I’ve ever eaten in my life was at his Chicago restaurant. But this restaurant in Las Vegas is too expensive for us at this time. We figured that to do it correctly would have cost us about $600 each. That’s not do-able at the place we are right now in this economy. But after Lavo, we walked over to look at the restaurant and when the receptionist saw us staring in the doorway, she invited us in and gave us a full tour of the place, including the kitchen and the chef’s table. They even gave us chocolates that were being freshly made by the pastry chef. That was a really nice thing to do and the restaurant looks great. Someday, if we ever win the lottery, we’ll try to eat there.

After our Restaurant Charlie tour, we made our way upstairs to the Double Helix Wine Bar ( where we enjoyed a couple of glasses of great wine from their impressive “by the glass” list. We talked for awhile with some of the servers about wine and travel, but it was getting late, so we decided to head back to Buffalo Bill’s and call it a night. We were afraid that the rooms would be cheesy and cheap, but our room there was large and very comfortable. Quite a deal for free!

We had a lot to do on Friday. It had been nine years since we had been to Las Vegas and the whole strip had grown and changed so that it was barely recognizable. We wanted to tour each and every hotel and casino on the Strip and we started out early to do so.

We walked the whole way, from one end of the Strip to the other and we managed to see it all. Some of the older hotels, like Caesar’s Palace, hadn’t changed much at all, except for some new towers that had been built onto the hotel. But others, like the MGM Grand, had completely changed on the inside, adding many more shops and restaurants to areas of the hotels. We also saw the Palazzo, The Wynn and the Encore, and the new Trump Hotel, where we actually saw Donald Trump as we were sitting in the bar enjoying a glass of champagne. (A very expensive glass that was provided free due to the bar being out of the bubbly we originally wanted.) And we managed to walk up and see the Palms Hotel that was used in MTV’s “Real World Las Vegas”. We also studied the new “city-within-a-city” being built, called “CityCenter” ( between the Monte Carlo and the Bellagio. This place is massive and is the most expensive privately funded construction project in US history. It’s really going to be impressive when it’s done. There are at least several more construction projects going on. The growth is insane. But I also found it distracting. You used to be able to stand on the Strip and make out each and every unique hotel/casino placed there. Now, so much has been built that it kind of all fades into one big mess, with bits of Italy, France, New York, etc. sticking out here and there. It’s kind of stunning and overwhelming to see, but it substitutes the artificial beauty that I love about the Las Vegas of a decade or more ago, with an artificial chaos that is not as pleasurable to experience.

During this trek, we stopped frequently for a drink at one bar or another, but we made three longer stops. For lunch, we ate at the Mesa Grill (, which is Iron Chef Bobby Flay’s restaurant in Caesar’s Palace. With that, I have now eaten food from each one of the Iron Chef’s! We had been warned that Mesa Grill was not very good, but I found the food tasty and very good, although not remarkable. I suspect it would have been much better at dinnertime.

We stopped at Red Square ( in Mandalay Bay for glasses of really good vodka and found that they had a Happy Hour offer of a free ounce of great caviar for every two shots of Russian Vodka ordered. We drank two shots and consumed an ounce of the wonderful caviar each. Good caviar has gotten so expensive that I rarely eat it these days. This was such a great deal that I wanted to sit there all night, but our dinner reservations were calling and we had to leave.

Dinner that evening was at the MGM Grand. We wanted to eat at Restaurant Joel Robuchon, but we were faced with the same expense problem that we faced at Restaurant Charlie. It was just too much for us to afford. So we opted for his next level restaurant right next door, L’Atelier de Joel Rubuchon ( This restaurant was more affordable, although still a bit expensive. We couldn’t resist eating food from one of France’s greatest chefs though. In fact, he is known as “the chef of the century” in most food circles. It is a one-star Michelin restaurant. This restaurant was a strange and different experience. Most diners sit at a counter facing the kitchen where you are able to watch your dinner prepared right before your eyes. (There are tables, but they are reserved for larger parties.) The plates are all small and designed to be shared. It was absolutely delicious, easily one of the best ten meals of my life. There were too many dishes to list here, but everything was wonderful. There was not a bad dish among them. And the wines that were paired with each phase of dishes were lovely and spot on. This is just an amazing restaurant. The food and wine, added with the overall experience makes it a one-of-a-kind special kind of place. I hope I can return someday.

It was late by the time we finished dinner, which took us more than three hours, so we decided to call it a day and return back to Buffalo Bill’s.

The next morning we woke and decided to ride the roller coaster at Buffalo Bill’s, the Desperado, which for a short time a decade or so ago was the World’s tallest and fastest coaster. It was still a whole lot of fun, although a bit old and rough these days. As we were getting ready to leave, Skip saw a poster saying that Blondie was playing the hotel in February. Skip had never seen Blondie back in the day and made a quick decision that we were going to go see them now. So he went to the hotel’s ticket office and managed to get tickets for the show that were in the 5th row center.

While we were walking around the hotels the day before, we made our way to the Mirage. The big show there at the moment is a Cirque De Soleil production called “The Beatles’ Love”. I’m not much on Cirque shows, but we discussed how if we were going to see any of them, this would be the one since we were both huge Beatles fans. So, instead of leaving for home as we originally planned, we headed back into Las Vegas to see what kind of deal we could get on a room/show package at the Mirage. We got a good one that included two great seats for the “Love” show and two nights for the price of the show and $30 for the room. We booked that for the night before Blondie. That meant we would be returning to Vegas within a few weeks.

It was now well past noon and we realized that we were very hungry, so we walked to the Bellagio Hotel and had lunch at another restaurant we had been wanting to eat at for awhile. Olives (, the Las Vegas version of Todd English’s original Boston restaurant, was another very good restaurant that would probably be great at dinner time. My salmon was a wee bit overcooked, but was still delicious. I’m not used to eating that much food that early in the day though, and I left overstuffed and uncomfortable. I should have stuck to a salad or a sandwich, but that’s my own fault.

And with that, we left for the four hour drive home. There were a few things that we hadn’t got to yet, such as the ultimately scary rides on the top of the Stratosphere, but we knew we would be back soon, so I wasn’t too worried about missing them.

That’s it for this segment. I’ll be back soon with the tales of our second trip to Las Vegas, a trip that included room upgrades, late-night burgers, Beatles’ music, and those rides that took the fight out of me.


By the way, I heartily recommend “Coraline” ( if you haven’t seen it by now. See it in 3D if you can. It really adds to the experience. The story is rather dark and scary, so I would leave the youngsters at home. But it was still beautifully written and animated. It should easily be one of the animated pictures of the year.

The other movie I’ve seen this year is “Watchmen” ( I liked it. In fact, I really liked it. But I didn’t love it. It was beautiful to watch and they stayed true to the source material. I think they did the best job possible with a movie I never thought could be made. But the film also felt like it was trying to hard. I kind of wish the director would have stayed truer to the heart of the story instead of trying to shove so much information into every second of the film. I recommend it, but only for people who know the original graphic novel.