The LEDs are bigger and brighter. The food is more diverse. The artworks are more defined. And they even have a sports team now! Yes, the Las Vegas Strip has been an ever-changing beast, but some of the changes across the last two years have been amongst the biggest the Strip has experienced for decades.
At the heart of these changes are two outdoor areas, the three acre development The Park and The Linq promenade, which are serving to redefine Las Vegas’s iconic strip. With most new attractions in the last decade bringing guests into the desert destination’s much welcomed air conditioning, these are the first major outdoor additions in some time. Part of the change has to do with a new philosophy: the strip isn’t just for tourists. The Park in particular has been designed with locals in mind, as the strip is set to welcome their first NHL team, the Vegas Golden Knights, for the 2017-18 season.
An outdoor “park” serves as the centrepiece for the area, with the stunning artwork Bliss Dance as its heart; a mammoth, breathtaking structure of a nude female that was originally engineered for the 2010 Burning Man festival, which takes place about eight hours drive away in the Black Rock Desert. It’s over 12 metres tall, weighs 3,400 kilos and contains some 3,000 LED lights which light her up in the evening.
The T-Mobile Arena, the city’s largest indoor venue, is the main attraction, stuck in between hotels New York, New York and Monte Carlo. Later this year, it will serve as the home for the city’s first NHL Ice Hockey team, for which the venue was built as a co-venture between MGM and AEG (Anschutz Entertainment Group). In the meantime, the venue holds concerts and other sporting events. The indoor, 5200 seat Park Theatre also sits as part of the area’s attractions, which is welcoming the likes of Ricky Martin, Bruno Mars and Cher is upcoming mini-residencies.
Dining is a big part of Vegas and the options in The Park continue that trend, with Beerhaus opening its doors last year, designed for visitors to the strip or to the arena, with outdoor and indoor seating. The menu focuses on beer, with your usual assortment of bar food to accompany it; from hot dogs to burgers and fried pickles to pretzel “chips” with beer cheese dip. The fried pickles with ranch and their hot dogs proving a particular highlight.
You’ll be surprised by their vegan hot dog, too – you would never have known it wasn’t meat (and it had a killer kick of spice to go along with it). And of course, there are the sweets – the Bye Felicia (pictured below), which is a sugar cookie filled with vanilla sprinkle ice cream, was a personal favourite, though you can’t go past the Red Velvet Whoopie Pie, either. If you’re not familiar with the Whoopie Pie, they look sort of like a Macaroon, but it’s actually two small pieces of cake, filled in the middle with cream or frosting.
But ultimately this Haus is all about the Beer, and they have the best selection on the strip, with no less than 21 on tap when we were there and an impressive selection of local Las Vegas breweries represented. My favourites from the menu included Big Dog’s Las Vegas Lager, the Sin City Amber and JK’s Scrumpy Cider (which is actually from Michigan), wich tastes like Apple Pie. It may be the best cider I’ve ever had.
Throw in games like Jenga and Connect Four on tables, regular events like a Wednesday trivia night, and you get the impression that they have built the bar for the locals as much as they have tourists, an approach that you’ll find in many of the city’s new additions. After all, locals are more accustomed to the heat, so the approach to encourage outdoor dining makes perfect sense.
Also in the park is Sake Rok, one of the city’s most exciting new dining attractions. It’s an experience in itself, with dancers and incredible presentations of their menu.
As you approach Sake Rok, you immediately hear yelling over a loudspeaker and wonder if it’s the destination you actually set out for. Is everything alright in there? Well, as it turns out, everything is more than alright.
Half entertainment, half fine dining, Sake Rok presents itself as a 360-degree experience from the second you walk in. Live DJ, professional dancers, outrageous presentations for every dish, and meticulously curated local art sprawled across the interior, nothing about the restaurant is lacking. Yet as the encompassing experience ensued, executive chef, Joseph Mosconi, took the spotlight.
Seriously, presentation does not take the backseat at this restaurant. Preceding all dishes, a Japanese whiskey flight adorned in a backlit, smoked Applewood box landed on the table and smoke poured across the table. Iwai, Akashi, Ichiro, and Yamazaki whiskies provided a beautifully abrasive palate cleanser between the Togarashi seared salmon bedaubed in Ponzu sauce, the Pork Belly with sweet potato puree and preserved lemon, and the Salt and Pepper Shrimp with shiso aioli.
Already satisfied with the appetizers, perhaps the most impressive show was the Ishiyaki Hot Stone – literally a slab of near-molten rock served as a tool to manually prepare your Australian wagyu striploin, served with aji amarillo, ponzu, and black truffle vinaigrette sauces. As if it wasn’t enough, the Elote faux Japanese soul food, Omakase Sashimi course and finale of the “Godzilla” cocktail made sure that the guest was completely KO’ed.
The staff is either a professional server, or professional dancer. Whichever one they are, they receive free training each week for dancing and hospitality service. It builds community and provides a new world for the staff to engage in. The staff seem to truly love Sake Rok, and it translates to your table.
Meanwhile, The Linq brings the strip an outdoor laneway filled with unique shopping and dining spots – including one of America’s only In n Out Burgers that doesn’t contain a drive thru, all leading to the massive observation wheel, the 170-meter tall High Roller. It feels more like “Downtown Disney” than it does Las Vegas, though be prepared to experience the heat while you’re there; misting machines only doing so much to cool you down. Along the way you’ll also find a Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chip shop and a Brooklyn Bowl – the iconic New York establishment now bringing nightly live music to the other city that never sleeps.
Not all new additions to the city fit this ilk, however. As we move into existing hotels, you’ll find ever changing spaces and attractions that ensure the strip is always evolving. At Mandalay Bay, there have been new additions to their indoor dining options between it and its sister hotel Delano, one of the strip’s most recently updated accommodation options.
Libertine Social is one of these, having opened last August, and offers patio dining that overlooks the hotel’s iconic beach and pool area. Its menu features a mix of spectacular cocktails by a mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim who also is looking after the T-Mobile arena, and inventive dishes meant to be shared, courtesy of head chef Shawn McClain.
Highlights of the menu’s small plates include the caviar fried egg (pictured above with kaluga caviar, corn pudding and brioche, served in an egg shell), which was beautifully presented on a bed of salt and was easily one of the most inventive and delicious dishes I’ve ever tasted. Their oysters are not to be missed, with a tequila mignonette and tabasco gel, and be sure to get some shaved brussel sprouts on the side, with bacon, pear, almonds and cider vinaigrette. And off the Mesquite fired grill, the 10oz Wagyu Skirt Steak (pictured below) is divine, with grilled padron peppers and salsa verde. It’s all meant to be shared – so don’t hesitate to order a lot of food, and Tony Abou-Ganim’s cocktails are a must.
The venue next door, Aureole by Charlie Palmer, is worth a look, too, with a massive collection of wine (no less than 10,000 bottles are included) sitting at its centre – a structure so tall, a “flying wine angel” has to grab the bottle on request. Yep, you can find just about anything in Vegas.
At Treasure Island, the Marvel Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. opened up last year, giving kids young and old the opportunity to join the Avengers and explore the Marvel Cinematic Universe in an interactive experience that features costumes from the films – including an entire (incredibly impressive) room filled with Iron Man replicas of all varieties.
You are accompanied by a touch screen device as you go from room to room, answering questions about what you’re discovering amongst the interactive displays and encouraging you to take part on all the “missions” that are available to you, including the final “battle”, which is actually quite fun – so I won’t spoil here. You can find out more details about the experience HERE. You’ll want to give yourself at least an hour here.
And there are plenty of ever-evolving favourites still in action. You’ll find some permanent art galleries and museums hidden around the strip, including the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art in The Bellagio, with I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali exhibition about the legendary boxer, on now until September 30th. It’s a small, but packed-in exhibit, which explores Ali’s six core principles: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. These are explored through stories, heirlooms, photos, videos and a short film.
Madame Tassaud’s at The Venetian is always adding new wax figures to their collection, or responding to pop culture – with the notable separation of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie across the room. And there’s plenty of Las Vegas exclusives, from The Rat Pack, to The Hangover.
At The Mirage, The Beatles Love Cirque du Soleil show underwent a facelift last year for its 10th anniversary, with new songs, a new soundtrack mix thanks to Giles Martin (who also points to a new speaker system enhancing the aural experience), and the additions of new technology to give the show a more vibrant and immerse feel. And for a show that was already among the best not just in the city but in the world, and a must for Beatles fans everywhere, that’s saying something.
It’s particularly timely to see the production at the moment, too, with this month serving as the 50th anniversary of the band’s groundbreaking Sgt. Peppers LP; the store is filled with some special merchandise around the milestone, and a 3D version of the album cover sits outside, encouraging you to take a photo with the Fab Four.
At Mandalay Bay, you’ll also find the strip’s newest Cirque residency, Michael Jackson’s One. The show – which is something like a sequel to the touring Michael Jackson Cirque show The Immortal, which toured Australia, is a must see for any fan of the late pop star with some speculacular moments. These two productions are far from the only shows that the Montreal born company has on display in Vegas, however. Take a look at their official website to see the full range of seven Cirque du Soleil productions.
The Las Vegas Strip has always been in a state of change – but for the better part of the last two decades, this has focused on new the attractions within hotels, as well as new accommodation options for tourists. But thanks in part to a new focus on local sport, and a massive new observation wheel (which I hear you can order drinks in, because… Vegas) now the city is looking inward as well, offering exciting new dining and shopping options as well as stunning new experiences that will impress locals and visitors alike. And it seems to be just the thing that the city needs to make the infamous playground for adults bigger and better than ever.
Most airlines in the United States offer services to Las Vegas, with all Australian airlines that cross the Pacific providing convenient connection options – be you travelling with Qantas to San Francisco or Dallas (connections with American Airlines and Alaska Airlines) or Virgin Australia to Los Angeles (connections with Delta and Virgin America). United, Hawaiian, Delta and American all offer connections with their own aircraft.
While in Las Vegas, the writer stayed at the Mandalay Bay courtesy of MGM, who also provided the visit to Beerhaus and Libertine Social. Additional experiences were provided by Saké Rok, Cirque du Soleil, Madame Taussauds and Marvel, with additional kind support provided by Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. Sake Rok content written by Andrew Smith. Photos by the author except where mentioned.