Viva Luxe Vegas

Robert Whitman

A cadre of ambitious developers is attempting to reinvent The Strip as the world’s newest and most over-the-top luxury destination. Stephanie Mansfield antes up in the City of Sin.

Gaze out any plate-glass window in Las Vegas today and you’ll see the same sight: streaming neon against mammoth construction cranes, tractors, hard hats, Dumpsters, dust, and dirt. Huge craters where old casinos have been imploded and new ones rise from the ashes. It’s like a trash-and-flash war zone. The traffic is a nightmare, the streets are gridlocked, and everyone seems a little grumpy compared with years ago when the only congestion was guys in cowboy boots and gals in bustiers lining up for the $5 buffets.

Vegas’s gaming scene—and the industry that surrounds it—seems immune to the economic downturn elsewhere in the country. Every patch of desert sand seems to have been claimed by a sold-out high-rise condo, a lavish casino, or one “Coming Soon,” complete with indoor shopping malls, designer chef restaurants (tasting menus in Vegas?), and Broadway shows.

This fury is being fueled by a flotilla of young, hungry, competitive entrepreneurs who see the old Vegas as a tacky vacation destination for their parents. Their new collective vision is to reinvent the city as the world’s most luxurious playground and reap millions in return. The glitz is still not as chic as some would hope, even with $15,000 hotel suites, chauffeured Bentleys, private jets, and trendy, celebutarte-opened nightclubs serving up Opus One and Cristal by the riverful. The casinos still ring-a-ding-ding and the showgirls still sport feathered headdresses à la Bob Mackie, whose mom was—yes—a Vegas showgirl.

Where Bugsy Siegel once invented a Shangri-La that was a mirage for the mooks, his successors are teasing a different clientele: NBA stars, rockers, dot-commers, and hedge funders. Ask anyone what’s changed the most in the last ten years, and they will tell you the same thing: It’s younger and hipper.

Vegas is a sort of American Dubai, a shining construction project of a city rising out of the desert. Or maybe it’s our Shanghai, a furiously futuristic city of glass and steel.

“No city in the world has more energy or offers more experiences than Las Vegas,” says George Maloof, the 42-year-old developer behind the Palms Casino Resort. A soft-spoken curly-haired young bachelor (who once dated Tara Reid), Maloof is drinking a glass of Merlot at Alizé, the Palms’ utterly refined rooftop restaurant, and cutting into a prime piece of green peppercorn–encrusted filet mignon.

Maloof is overseeing the finishing touches on Palms Place, his 47-story condominium-cum-suite-hotel-cum-spa extraordinaire, which will have its grand opening later this spring. The wily Maloof has sold all of the condos, and he’s tapped superchef Kerry Simon for the restaurant.

When it comes to the new luxury in this town, “there’s a definite sense of one-upmanship,” Maloof says. Grinning.

In past decades this palm-treed, sun-drenched oasis of arrested development was better known for its sequins, fishnet stockings, and hangovers. The high rollers, called The Whales, were comped by casino owners with hermetically sealed hotel rooms and watered-down drinks.

Nobody came to Vegas to eat or to shop. For art there was Le Musée Liberace, and nightlife was limited to boozy floor shows and Don Rickles. Shopping meant a shot glass and a snow globe. Gourmet dining was as scarce as real blondes.

“We were way behind the curve,” says Libby Lumpkin, director of the Las Vegas Art Museum and wife of art critic Dave Hickey. “Now there’s less Disney and more good design.”

For sure, names like Guy Savoy, Joël Robuchon, and Mario Batali have succeeded early pioneers such as Wolfgang Puck, one of the first who saw the potential for upscale dining. Why, you ask, have Valentino and Lacroix opened boutiques here, of all places? When you consider that on any given night, you have what is probably the highest per capita income audience in the world, it’s not hard to do the math.

What started in 1998 with Steve Wynn’s $1.6 billion Bellagio was the notion that a high-end hotel could exist as a separate entity from its egalitarian casino, that it could attract a jet-setting client who would never leave the premises, gorging on veal cheeks and Veuve Clicquot. During the nineties big-deal resorts began contracting out their restaurants, sharing control of the venues with designer chefs. Vegas became gourmet ground zero for three-star cooks.

Michelin debuted in Sin City in November and gave three stars to Robuchon for his joint at the MGM Grand. And Savoy, winner of three stars back in France, is at Caesars— his first and only venue outside Paris.

“This is not a critical audience,” says restaurant reviewer and food writer Gael Greene. “But if you want a built-in audience willing to spend big money, there’s no better place.”

With October’s gambling revenues up 19.8 Percent from those the year before, chefs aren’t the only winners. Vegas’s profits have left other cities in the desert dust. Hotels boast 90 percent occupancy rates; Asian gamblers drop millions playing baccarat (the dollar is cheap) while their size 0 wives devour the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. An average of 50,000 shoppers a day have made it the highest-grossing shopping mall in the country. Add to this vintage wines and sophisticated suites. Private plunge pools, grand pianos, and marble-appointed baths. This is Viva Luxe Vegas.

Spurred on by Wynn’s success—three years ago ago he opened the Wynn Las Vegas, with an 18-hole course—others have followed with their own gilded palaces.

Overnight, it seems, the Palms became the cool stay of choice for actors like George Clooney and dot-com billionaires like Mark Cuban. Opened in 2001, the resort probably helps define “over the tippy top,” with its slightly ridiculous $25,000-a-night Hardwood Suite. The only hotel room in the world with a private basketball court, the suite features three Murphy beds for your busty cheerleaders. Jimmy Kimmel celebrated his 40th birthday there, and Clooney liked it so much he scrawled “Boys, if you can’t get laid here, get out” on the celebrity autograph wall.

At the $40,000-a-night Hugh Hefner Sky Villa, there is a circular revolving bed, a glass elevator, and a Jacuzzi with its own Playboy Bunny logo overlooking the lights of Vegas. Kanye West performed in the suite for MTV. And the $3,000-a-night Hot Pink Suite has a stripper pole in the shower (the Show Shower) and is decorated in shiny white patent-leather couches reminiscent of Nancy Sinatra’s go-go boots.

Maloof believes his new Palms Place project—with its relatively minimalist decor and a 50,000-square-foot space featuring a pool and Vegas’s first hammam spa—will cater to a different audience: slightly older, maybe more mature, and richer still.

“We’re filling a need for people who are not our parents’ generation,” says Andrew Sasson, the 38-year-old owner of the Light Group, which operates and manages the nightclubs Jet and The Bank and will do the same for the upcoming Harmon Hotel, Spa & Residences. “When I first came here in 2001, none of this existed. This is a new, affluent market that has come of age.” The Harmon, he says, will be a private sanctuary—“no casino, no looky loos, no baby strollers, no elevators with drunks. We are,” he continues, “offering privacy within the chaos.”

As for his project’s sleek design and curved façade, created by architect Norman Foster: “Steve Wynn is a true genius,” Sasson says, “but he loves his crown molding.”

The Harmon is just one piece of the MGM Mirage’s $7.8 billion, 18-million-square-foot CityCenter complex—easily the largest development project under way in Las Vegas today but hardly the only. In January the Wall Street Journal reported that $35 billion worth of construction is expected to create more than 30,000 new hotel rooms over the next five years. Set to begin opening in November 2009, CityCenter alone will produce almost 5,000 of these, which will be spread across four hotels, plus 2,650 condos and a tremendous shopping and entertainment zone. Last February, when the residences at CityCenter’s Mandarin Oriental hit the market, 90 percent of those available sold in the first 14 days: That’s $600 million in real estate gone in two weeks.

“Las Vegas is getting ready for the next fifty years of success,” says 57-year-old Bobby Baldwin, the president and CEO of CityCenter. “The audience doesn’t want any stale products; they want it fresh and exciting. And it’s still very much not about the casinos.”

Baldwin talks about a wider demographic. “A lot of people who used to come to Vegas still do, but it’s the younger group, from twenty-one to forty-five, that has grown disproportionately.”

The Las Vegas Sands Corporation’s $1.8 billion Palazzo debuted in January as a sister property to the Venetian—a 50-story tower with 45 pools, fountains, and “water features,” as well as suites with sunken living rooms. The developers have wisely brought on top chefs to compete with the MGM Grand and others, opening Carnevino by Mario Batali, Table 10 by Emeril Lagasse, and CUT, a branch of Wolfgang Puck’s celebrity-packed Beverly Hills steakhouse. Looking for retail therapy? Barneys New York has opened an 85,000-square-foot store on the ground floor.

And Steve Wynn is still on a roll despite the youthquake, racing to complete his $2.2 billion, 2,034-room Encore by the end of the year. No word on whether crown molding will be in place. Nor changing tables in the ladies’ room.

The new Vegas is obvious; where once it was chauffeured stretch limos, it’s now private jets on the tarmac. And although Russian sable and big fat diamond watches still sell, the latest fad is a pair of $18,000 Bishop of Seventh Iced jeans from Mojitos Resort Wear at the Wynn. The dungarees, encrusted with seven carats of five-point diamonds and designed with Japanese jeweler Taka Mizuno, are delivered by a Brinks armored car. (One word: marketing.)

Nowhere is today’s Vegas on better display than in the stores. It’s swipe central, from Chanel to YSL, Gucci to Pucci, Fendi to faux–Main Line Pappagallo princess Kate Spade.

The consumer frenzy is what truly reflects Las Vegas’s bizarre personality. They come for one-of-a-kind baubles, such as the $150,000 antique diamond tiara from Fred Leighton found only on the Via Bellagio. And Versace, at the Forum Shops, offers a bedroom set for $140,000.

“The taste level has changed,” says Sunil To- lani, who works at the Versace boutique. “There are more young people with more money, and they are all entrepreneurs.”

“It’s not the same old buffet crowd,” agrees Kenneth Harvey, manager of the Alexander McQueen shop at the Wynn. “These are world-class consumers.”

Over at the Forum Shops’ Pucci emporium, daughters of the Juvéderm set snag limited-edition 1971 classic rompers. Later they can be spied near the swankiest pools in tiny bikinis, muffin-top jeans, and scarf-wrapped high-heel sandals, sipping Perrier Jouët in private cabanas with plasma TVs. The Wynn’s “European pool” means tops (and swimming) are optional.

Vegas—God forbid it goes stale—has buttered up the biggest gourmet superstars.

Mr. Chow is set to open in the Harmon (“It just seemed like the right time,” says Eva Chow). Others, like Kerry Simon, will find a home at George Maloof’s Palms Place.

Simon moved to Las Vegas ten years ago to open Prime Steakhouse at Bellagio (with then-partner Jean-Georges Vongerichten) and “for the lifestyle,” he says. “I can go snowboarding.” He closed his Simon Kitchen and Bar at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino to open a new restaurant at Palms Place. “George [Maloof] really wanted somebody great—and somebody local. I think a lot of chefs come and go, and it’s important to have someone who cares.” As for the competition, he is unfazed. “You need to have a Ducasse, a Robuchon, a Savoy. There are so many different markets here.”

The arrival of Joël Robuchon—crowned Chef of the Century by the French restaurant guide Gault Millau, at the MGM Grand—was greeted with glee in Las Vegas. His plush restaurant offers a 16-course tasting menu for $385 and is booked a month in advance. The tab can easily run into four figures, and the menu is heavy on truffles, lobster, and, of course, ossetra caviar. The legendary Guy Savoy had his place at Caesars designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the same architect who created his original place in Paris. Zut alors.

Julian Serrano’s Picasso has joined Sirio Maccioni’s Le Cirque at Bellagio. And at the Venetian, David Burke Las Vegas is drawing the swells with its ostrich-egg shell filled with lobster scramble and caviar, and Mario Batali has moved in with alluring, cozy wine-room seating at B&B Ristorante. Thomas Keller, with an outpost of Napa’s Bouchon, has come along for the gondola ride, too.

And the list goes on and on: Daniel Boulud at the Wynn, Tom Colicchio at the MGM Grand, Alain Ducasse and Charlie Palmer at Mandalay Bay, Bobby Flay and Bradley Ogden at Caesars, Michael Mina at Bellagio, Nobu at the Hard Rock.

The Caesars Palace branch of the Harlem-based and impossible-to-get-into Italian eatery Rao’s is worth the airfare alone for fans flush with cash and a taste for the restaurant’s lemon chicken.

The trend in hotel suites seems to be privacy, privacy, and more privacy. Private entrances are big, with most of the top-shelf guests bringing their own security. Imagine staying in a suite that costs the same as a car and wanting to be alone.

Where celebrities once flaunted their arrivals, hotshots now hunker down for the duration. One famous rocker even asked that the windows in his suite be completely shrink-wrapped to avoid the paparazzi. Or daylight.

Even if you never leave your room, Las Vegas impresses. And there’s no better room—or set of rooms, really—than the feng shui’d, antiques-filled, Gosford Park–appropriate Chairman suite (there are five of them, on the 34th, 35th, and 36th floors of the Venetian). With silk-covered walls, draperies from Tibet, zebrawood paneling, and a spectacular view of the Strip from the floor-to- ceiling windows, the four-bedroom suites each feature a dining room, personal spa and massage room, private gym, plasma television in the shower, platinum fixtures, Bulgari toothbrushes, and 24-hour butler. And for $15,000 a night, it can all be yours. The mind boggles. What more could you possibly want? Personalized stationery? You got it. For all those thank-you notes. Duh.

Privacy is also prime at the Skylofts at MGM Grand, with its guest-only elevator, check-in, and secure floor, and at the Villas at Bellagio, which even some veteran cabdrivers don’t know how to find. These “hotels within hotels” cater to a clientele that would never dream of walking through the tacky casino to get to the elevator.

What has lured this elusive crowd is a combination of the retro-chic (poker, the Rat Pack, Ocean’s 11 brio) and competition among entrepreneurs to conjure up international glamour amid the glitz.

Nothing old, except on purpose.

Back atop the Palms and midway through another dinner, this one of fresh Dover sole, George Maloof is told that he is the proud owner of a rare bottle of Hardy 1777 Cognac, Napoléon Bonaparte’s favorite. It is spied behind a glass case, resting in a plain wooden box. The sommelier gingerly carries the bottle to the table. At $36,000, it’s a relative steal considering there are only three bottles left in the world. The precious amber glistens, caught in the candlelight.

“Is this on the menu?” Maloof asks.

Assured that it is, he smiles mischievously, but with extreme satisfaction.

One more thing no one else has.

At least not yet.

Stays in Vegas

Top picks and rooms to request

Bellagio

The Villas, $7,000–$8,000; 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 888-987-6667; bellagio.com

Caesars Palace

Augustus Tower suites, $2,500–$35,000; 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 866-227-5938; caesarspalace.com

Mandalay Bay

The hotel suites, $160–$7,700; 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877-632-7000; mandalaybay.com

MGM Grand

The Skylofts ($600–$10,000; 877-646-5638; skylofts mgmgrand.com) and The Mansion at MGM Grand villas ($5,000–$18,000; 800-929-1111; mgmgrand.com); 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.

The Palazzo

Concierge suites, $500–$1,060; 3325 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 866-263-3001; palazzolasvegas.com

Palms Casino Resort

Fantasy suites, $3,000–$40,000; 4321 W. Flamingo Rd.; 866-942-7777; palms.com

The Venetian

Chairman suites, $15,000; 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877-883-6423; venetian.com

Wynn Las Vegas

Tower suites, $329–$2,400; 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877-321-9966