The Youngs take on Las Vegas

We met Kenley’s parents and the youngest Young brother, Kaith, in Las Vegas in June. It was their first trip to Sin City — and the second time in recent memory that we were able to persuade Mr. Young to board a plane and fly across the country.

Kenley’s middle brother, Logan, had suggested that we meet in Vegas instead of the Youngs making a second trip to L.A. But sadly, it turned out that Logan couldn’t join us.

It was the third trip to Vegas for Kenley and me, and we felt were getting to know our way around the city pretty well.

Kenley’s parents were staying two full days in Vegas, and we planned an itinerary aimed at introducing them to the different casinos and a few of our favorite restaurants.

Day 1

Kenley and I arrived in the late afternoon to check into the Aria Resort and Casino. We chose the Aria first of all because of its great location in the center of the Strip; you can easily walk to destinations to the north and the south. Aria also has a modern — not kitschy — vibe, and it’s not as expensive as the Bellagio or the Wynn.

When Kenley and I checked into the Aria, we received a free, unrequested upgrade to a suite (which was larger than our L.A. apartment)! There were four flat-screen televisions, two wet bars and a table that could seat 10 comfortably. You could control the TV, the lights and the blinds from an iPad-like device next to the bed. We briefly considered not leaving the room our entire trip.

But instead, we had a late dinner at Todd English P.U.B. in Crystals at the CityCenter shopping complex, which is next to the Aria. Todd English is a fun, casual comfort-food spot with good happy-hour specials. It’s a nice place to have lunch or dinner if you’re staying nearby, but it’s probably not worth going out of your way to visit.

The Youngs’ flight out of Charlotte had been delayed, so they missed their connection and had to be rerouted through San Francisco. They ended up arriving in Vegas at 2 a.m. Not a good way to encourage them to fly more often.

Luckily, Vegas stays up all night. I crashed, while Kenley went to pick up his parents.

Day 2

We had brunch at Mon Ami Gabi in the Paris casino. It’s the one place Kenley and I have eaten at all three times we’ve been to Vegas — not necessarily because the food is amazing, but because of the location. The restaurant overlooks the Strip and is right across the street from the Bellagio’s dancing water fountains. I also knew that it would give Mrs. Young — a former French teacher — a good first impression of Vegas. And I was right. (If you go, order the ham-and-cheese crepe.)

It was already hard to tear Mr. Young and Kaith away from the blackjack and roulette tables. You could see from the twinkles in their eyes the false confidence of visitors who have won a little and not lost much — yet. We eventually got them to Caesars Palace, a Vegas classic, where we walked through the Forum Shops (with the faux-blue skies) and stopped along the way for some video poker.

From there, we strolled through the Bellagio and its elaborate gardens.

For dinner we went to Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak in the MGM Grand Casino. Kenley and I had chosen Craftsteak because the food is simple yet flavorful, and the meal is served family style.

However, the friendly but pretentious waiter who tried to direct us to the $125-per-person tasting menu and $100 bottles of wine was off-putting and clearly misread our style. We ordered (a la carte) the braised short ribs, free-range chicken, hangar steak, sweet corn, green beans and potato gratin, and it was more than enough for all five of us. The food was good, as Kenley and I remembered. And our meal ended up being $35 per person, which is pretty reasonable. Still, Craftsteak’s formal atmosphere is perhaps best saved for special occasions.

After a few rounds of blackjack, Mr. Young was far more impressed by the sheer size of the MGM Casino. He and Kaith would have been happy to have stayed there the rest of the night.

Fortunately, we had places to go and people to see. We found out that two of our L.A. food-night friends, Jasika and Claire, also happened to be in Vegas — and staying at the Aria — so we met up with them for drinks back at The Cosmopolitan’s Chandelier bar. It was great catching up with them, and it also meant that Mr. Young and Kaith got to explore the Cosmo’s casino, too.

Day 3

Everyone should experience a buffet on an inaugural trip to Vegas, so we used our meal credits at the aptly named The Buffet at Aria for breakfast. (Go at 10:30 a.m. for breakfast and stay to try the lunch offerings, which are put out at 11). As Southerners, we were impressed that they got their grits just about right. And you’ll definitely want to save room for dessert, provided by Jean Philippe Patisserie, which has a location on the edge of the casino floor.

The Buffet was better than expected, but on our next trip we’ll try the buffet at the Bellagio, which gets high ratings from everyone we’ve talked to. If you’re staying at Aria, The Buffet is perfect to fuel up at breakfast or lunch, but there are far better dinner options.

After lunch, Kenley and I took his mom on a walking tour of The Venetian, with a detour through The Cosmopolitan casino and its Chandelier bar. His dad and brother? They wanted to stay behind and gamble.

We met back up with the men for the Big Elvis Show, which has moved from Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall to Harrah’s just up the street. Kenley and I have seen Big Elvis each time we’ve gone to Vegas, and we knew Kenley’s mom would enjoy the show.

Big Elvis sings over karaoke-like recordings of Elvis tunes, and the audience is usually a generation or two older than we are. But this guy is one of the best Elvis impersonators in Vegas (TIME magazine voted him one of the top 10 in the country in 2010), and he has a fascinating backstory, which I’ve written about before on this blog. Plus, the show is free!

The new venue is a bit awkward because it also serves as a piano bar in the evenings, but the sound system at Harrah’s is much better.

This time, Kenley got invited “on stage” to sing with Big Elvis and several other older gentleman who were chosen from the audience. Kenley got a certificate, and after the show we had our picture taken with Big Elvis. Before leaving, Kenley made his best purchase of the trip — $10 plastic-gold Elvis sunglasses.

After the show, we walked over to Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall, another one of our favorite stops while in Vegas. Yes, it’s a total dive, but that’s why we like it — well, that and the affordable video poker and cheap beer.

For dinner, we had burgers at Holsteins in The Cosmopolitan casino. Holsteins has a fun atmosphere, and its Gold Standard burger was good, but probably not the best in Vegas (as it claims on its website). Holsteins does have a solid selection of craft beers and spiked milkshakes. Might be a good place for lunch or happy hour, but there are much better options for dinner at The Cosmopolitan, including Comme Ca, Jaleo and China Poblano.

When Kenley and I have gone to Vegas in the past, we’ve played the easy, low-risk and quite addictive blackjack games on the video poker machines. So we tried to pick up a few tips from Mr. Young and Kaith, who hit the tables for poker, roulette and war.

What I learmed from watching Mr. Young and Kaith is that you have to bet more than $10 at a time in order to have a decent chance at winning. But for me, it’s too hard to watch even $10 disappear just like that. I’d much rather watch $100 disappear on a great meal or a pair of shoes, or jeans, or sunglasses, or a watch, or … you get the idea.

After their two days in Vegas, I don’t think Mr. Young or Kaith had won big, but they weren’t down too much either. I think they are probably already scheming about when they can return. But it will probably have to be a guys’ trip. I’m not sure Vegas was Mrs. Young’s scene, though I do regret not splurging on tickets to one of the many Cirque du Soleil shows while we were there. I think she might have a different appreciation of Vegas after that.

Day 4

We dropped the Youngs off at the airport early Friday morning and returned to the hotel to claim a spot at Aria’s pool just as it opened.

After a few relaxing hours in the blazing desert sun, we got dressed and went shopping. Destination: One of the country’s three  Topshop stores. Topshop is a British clothing retailer that sells trendy clothes at relatively inexpensive prices — think Forever 21. Kenley and I actually visited the flagship London store a few years ago during our Europe trip. Kenley bought a Batman T-shirt there, which he still wears — a lot.

Note that there is absolutely no need to go to Vegas’ Fashion Show Mall except for the pilgrimage to Topshop. You can probably find the rest of the stores in your town’s mall or in one of the casinos, and there are not many good dining options. I made a few purchases at Topshop, including these sunglasses.

(Select Nordstrom stores and its website started selling Topshop clothing today, and I’ve already collected my favorite pieces on a Pinterest board. L.A. is getting its own Topshop at The Grove this winter or early spring.)

After the shopping excursion, Kenley was ready for an adult beverage, so we walked across the street to the Wynn. We hadn’t ever ventured this far up the Strip, and the Wynn is definitely worth walking through, if for no other reason than to window-shop at the Manolo Blahnik boutique — one of only two in the country! We had a beer at one of the bars near the casino. Next time, we might have to make reservations at one of the restaurants overlooking the lake and waterfall.

As we made our way back toward CityCenter, we stopped in The Venetian and had a drink at the Public House, which is one of the best bars for craft beers in Vegas. The restaurant menu looked good, too. After that we stopped into The Bourbon Room for some ’80s nostalgia, in the form of a Bartles & James pomegranate-raspberry wine cooler. Remember those? Still dangerous!

The Bourbon Room had only recently opened in anticipation of the “Rock of Ages” musical, which is replacing the Blue Man Group show at one of The Venetian’s theaters. If I had to work in Vegas, I’d want to work at The Bourbon Room. The bartenders wear black leather leggings, cut-up band T-shirts that hang off their shoulders, and studded belts and bracelets. All your favorite hair bands’ music videos play on the large screens. Don’t need nothin’ but a good time!

For dinner, we had reservations at Jose Andres’ China Poblano in The Cosmopolitan. It’s my new favorite restaurant in Vegas. Kenley and I had eaten at Andres’ Jaleo the last time we were in Vegas. While Jaleo is a Spanish tapas restaurant, China Poblano mashes up Mexican tapas and Chinese dim sum in a little more relaxed environment.

We ordered both Chinese and Mexican dishes. We tried the Golden Pigs, which are fried steamed buns with Chinese barbeque pork, and we had the Dan Dan Mian noodies, which are wheat noodles with a spicy pork sauce. Our Mexican dishes included Papas Fritas (which are basically french fries with a mole sauce) and carnitas tacos.

Though Andres is normally known for his Spanish tapas, we enjoyed the Chinese dishes the most. We finished our meal with the Jericalla dessert, which was a chocolate custard with passion fruit and chocolate sorbet.

While walking back to the hotel, Kenley actually stopped for one of the Strip’s many street hawkers (who try to lure you into the “best deals” or the hottest nightclubs). The guy told us that the L.A. Kings hockey team — the recently crowned NHL champs — would be at Hyde nightclub in the Bellagio that night, with the Stanley Cup in tow! How could we refuse?

The atmosphere inside Hyde can best be described as a cross between “Mad Men” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” The cocktail servers wore Betty Draper-type aprons and danced on platforms while pushing vacuums and wearing opaque masks. Weird, but kind of sensual.

But what makes Hyde truly jaw-dropping and worth getting past the velvet ropes is its veranda, offering a large, wide-open, close-up view of Bellagio’s dancing water fountains and the Strip beyond.

I could have stayed and people-watched at Hyde for the rest of the night! But after two hours of smoke-fog machines, 20-minute waits for drinks, and thump-thump-thump house music, poor Kenley was ready to leave, without even a sighting of the Kings.

As we walked out of the Bellagio, we noticed that the guy holding the door looked like he had gotten pretty roughed up. We walked outside into a crowd and looked down. There, at our feet, was the Stanley Cup!

Turns out, that wasn’t just any guy holding the door. It was the entire Kings hockey team! We turned around and followed the team as they hoisted the Cup above their heads and walked through the casino to Hyde. There, they were met by the cocktail waitresses, who had changed into cheerleader outfits and held signs spelling out “K-I-N-G-S.” Kenley snapped a few photos. One of them was picked up by the folks back at and included in a gallery that followed Lord Stanley as “he” traveled the country this summer with members of the Kings organization. Check out slide No. 62.

On Saturday, we reluctantly checked out of our suite and had a final lunch at Mesa Grill in Caesars Palace. It was our only chance to try one of celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s burgers, since there’s not a Bobby’s Burger Palace on the West Coast,. The menu looked great, and because we felt bad just ordering a hamburger, we also got a shrimp tamale, which was excellent. The burger? It was pretty darn good, too. The service, however, was really slow and disjointed, which tainted our experience somewhat. Still, the Mesa burger gets our top vote for best burger in Vegas so far. (We’ve tried Central, Burger Bar, Holsteins and Smashburger.)

We don’t have another trip to Vegas planned at the moment, but I’m already making a list of places I want to check out next time. What are your favorite places to eat and stay in Vegas? Let us know in the comments.


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