Searching for the Old Las Vegas

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In today’s post, Bob Sehlinger, author of The Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas, tells us where to find the old Las Vegas, at least what is left of it.

It is common for friends to ask where to get a taste of “old Las Vegas.” Unfortunately, old Las Vegas exists primarily as an artifact. Today’s sin city doesn’t comport with its historic reputation. Though the myth of old Las Vegas persistently lingers on in the minds of most visitors, it differs starkly from reality.

Though a few old gourmet rooms, showrooms, and lounges have survived, the Las Vegas of loss-leader buffets; cut-rate hotel rooms; cheap drinks; and cramped, smoky casinos is long gone. More remarkably, gone also is the hotel’s dependence on gambling as its main revenue source. Luxury guest rooms, expensive entertainment, meals for two topping $250, world-class spas, and immense open casinos that are tourist attractions unto themselves are the new normal. Today, for many hotels, nongaming revenue sources make up 60% and more of total income.

Old Las Vegas

At present, all but roughly a dozen Strip hotels target the luxury market. Middle-market properties have in large part been brought to luxury standards by new owners—or demolished. Every place is now a “boutique” hotel—never mind some properties have hundreds of rooms.

When we began covering Las Vegas some years ago, the casinos were predominantly independent. Each had a distinct identity free of the corporate veneer that blankets Las Vegas today. Personality, or the lack thereof, was defining. As with cakes at a church fund-raiser, what was on the inside was what mattered. Now it’s the icing that attracts attention, or, expressed differently, the icon in the front yard: Statue of Liberty, pyramid, volcano, Eiffel Tower, canal with gondolas . . . you choose. Inside, the product is largely the same. Four casino corporations now run most of Las Vegas.

On the Strip it’s worse. Two companies—Caesars Entertainment (CET) and MGM Resorts International (MRI)—own every Strip casino except the Tropicana, Venetian, Stratosphere, Cosmopolitan, TI, SLS, Casino Royale, and the Wynn Resorts—19 out of 27 casinos. Standards for restaurants, hotel rooms, entertainment, theme, and just about everything else offer all the predictability of an upscale chain hotel.

The maverick casinos and their rough-and-tumble owners are all but gone, and with them the gritty, boom-or-bust soul of this gambling town. Making a clichéd joke a fulfilled prophecy, Las Vegas has, in fact, become Disneyland.

Dining has seen the same transformation. Hotel restaurants formerly covered a whole range of price points. At present, however, mid-range eateries are scarce, with few options available between famous-chef, expense-account restaurants and the hotel coffee shop. Buffets, once bargain central, now cost upward of $40 for the better ones. Nightclubs and lounges, likewise, have become prohibitively pricey and increasingly exclusive. Ditto for entertainment, with 55 shows selling tickets at $100 and up according to the Las Vegas Advisor. Vegas for visitors has become a have/have-not town.

You can still find bargains, but you have to work harder and dig deeper, and that’s assuming you know where to look. We’ll point you in the right direction, but Las Vegas for the budget conscious will be evermore a challenge.

A bright spot is that a lot of condos and timeshares have been built in the past eight years. Most don’t have casinos, but splendid accommodations can be had for amazingly good rates through Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO) and resort rental management agencies. Home-share and rental powerhouse Airbnb.com offers more than 300 choices in the Las Vegas Valley. The vacation rentals compete directly with hotels for heads-in-beds and have had some moderating effect on hotel rates.

During low and shoulder seasons, a number of hotels not only discount rooms, but they also throw in free show tickets and other sweeteners. The Mirage promoted $85-per-night rooms packaged with a $40 dining credit and admission for four to its Secret Garden attraction. To find deals coupled with sweeteners check your favorite search engine for “name of hotel and promotions”—for example, “Caesars Palace and promotions.” Also check lvahotels.com.

So, coming full circle, if you’d like a taste of the old Las Vegas, there are a few vestiges remaining. Live the myth while you can. Tomorrow, or soon after, it will largely be gone. While possible, linger over a steak at Top of Binion’s Steakhouse, or treat yourself to the duck flambé anise at Hugo’s Cellar at the Four Queens. Make no mistake, this is not slumming; each example represents the best of Las Vegas in both a current and historical sense. And if you wait too long? Well, enjoy the new Las Vegas: systematically planned, highly polished, absolutely regimented, and totally plastic.

Though we loved the sultry, wide-open, sinful feel of the old Vegas, we can’t argue that corporate Las Vegas has built an Oz that no maverick dreamer could have envisioned. Whether the old Las Vegas or the new Las Vegas is better, we’ll leave you to judge.

If you are planning a trip to Las Vegas, check out The Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas by Bob Sehlinger. If you enjoyed this post, sign up for our newsletter here.

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