Hotel Food to Stay For

Why ever leave your hotel when so many accommodations now offer a wonderful spread for their guests, like the freshly renovated Auden Bistro and Bar at the Ritz Carlton? Where once the bar and dining room of this classic hotel exuded old, musty money, the newly revamped space brings a clubhouse vibe and chef Mark Arnao’s modern-meets-traditional bistro cuisine. Hotel guests and diners can choose whether to look at the view over Sixth Avenue or at their plates of regionally sourced nibbles. Over at the bar, the team has carried over the regional bent and offers many local spirits and beers, all poured by bartender Norman Bukofzer.

Of course, Auden Bistro and Bar stepping up their game comes long after the boom of laidback, yet fine dining. Not too long ago, Reynards made waves by opening up in the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Yotel also entered the game with their fun FOUR at Yotel and Dohyo, which looks like it should be in a hip-hop video, which is just might. Oh, and Ace Hotel has the joy of hosting April Bloomfield’s babies, The Breslin and John Dory Oyster Bar.

Todd English spread his, ahem, seed to the Plaza Hotel a couple years ago with the Plaza Food Hall, which is more like a fancy food court that hosts guests as well as permanent residents like Tommy Hilfiger and family. Yes, I am told he is a regular.

Lest us not forget the institutions that have made hotel dining a fine and glorious thing, such as Alain Ducasse’s Adour in the St. Regis, or the famous King Cole Bar next to it. The Trump Hotel also features a world-renowned chef’s self-titled eatery, Jean Georges. In fact, New York’s shift out French food and the start of fine dining featuring American cuisine began in The Four Seasons.

All of this sure beats the continental breakfast low budget travelers (like most of my friends and I) are faced with. True, nothing beats a good cup of cold orange juice from a machine or gooey, prepackaged cinnamon roll, but sometimes, it’s nice to have a little bit of bubbles added to it.  

The Legend of Vegasmas: Spending Christmas in Sin City

Good ideas are often spontaneous and usually involve booze. Starting a new holiday tradition called Vegasmas was no different. Three days after Thanksgiving, there was still leftover Tofurkey in the fridge and already I was bombarded with imagery from that otherwise miserable holiday called Christmas. A few beers deep, I was on the living room couch watching the Lakers when my girlfriend Kelly came home with what she thought was terrible news. “I have to work Christmas,” she said sorrowfully, as if I was destined to burst into tears. After nine years, I thought she would have known what a terrible person I was because to my ears, this was like getting a free ticket to hear Jimi Hendrix jam with Keith Moon, John Entwistle and Eazy-E. An early Christmas present, if you will. Maybe it was the Pabst Blue Ribbons talking, but I couldn’t pretend to be upset because for twenty-eight years, I had been at the mercy of either my girlfriend or my mother when it came to Christmas. Kelly’s inability to celebrate gave me the courage to stand up to my mom and do what I’d flirted with doing since the day I turned 21: Go to Las Vegas for Christmas.

Like a reliable neighbor with a fully stocked bar always willing to share, Sin City had a track record of making bad times good and good times great. Christmas, I figured, would no different. Instead of decking the halls, I’d be getting hammered at a casino, blowing money on me, not shitty presents no one wanted. Years past I woke to the sounds of children rummaging through boxes, wrapping and bows, but something about the thought of getting up at noon in a strange bed with a hangover and only the sweet sounds of slot machines seemed to fit me much better than watching A Christmas Story while faking a smile when my family asks if I like my Army green sweater.

When I was younger, I’d make the six-hour trek to Vegas without a hotel reservation because when you’re 21, sleeping in your car is a totally viable option, one that saves more money for debauchery. But I had no idea what I was in for regarding Christmas, so like a responsible adult (my two least favorite words) I called ahead and found two nights at the Excalibur for approximately $100. One debit card number later, it was official. I was going to Vegas.

The original plan was to fly solo, but one mention of Vegasmas to my friend Chip — whose girlfriend was flying home to Ohio for the holiday — and he was in. So was our friend Deryck, a Trinidad and Tobago native whose girlfriend was also leaving the state for a few days. I had no qualms about partying by myself, but with these two on board, Vegasmas was transforming from some stupid word I made up to escape Christmas into an actual event that required its own greeting card section at the corner market.

A major curveball nearly derailed Vegasmas before it began, but nothing can stop the proverbial train that is three guys in their late 20s and early 30s who decide they’re going to Vegas. My girlfriend had to recognize this when, on Dec. 15, she told me she got someone to cover her shift so we could spend the day together. That was fine by me, as long as she understood our day together was going to be spent in Nevada, not Long Beach, Calif. She wasn’t thrilled, but similar to the power that Santa gets from all them cookies and milk, Vegasmas was marching along and wouldn’t be denied.

The best part of Vegasmas revealed itself the week prior to that other holiday the rest of the world was celebrating. Every conversation I heard was about people being stressed regarding long lines, parking lot traffic jams, not being able to find the proper gift and insufficient funds. Not me. Because I wasn’t making a familial appearance on December 25, there was no need to buy presents. While the world sweated holiday bullets, I was doing the only thing I’ve ever been good at, which is relaxing.

Deryck and Chip left at 9 a.m. Vegasmas Eve while I stayed in Long Beach with Kelly until noon. My friends traveled lightly and wanted to hit the road to not only avoid traffic, but to take full advantage of the pot of gold that awaited us at the end of the Interstate 15 rainbow. But with a female traveling companion, rolling out of bed and getting behind the wheel wasn’t happening for me. We (i.e., she) had things to do in the morning that prevented us from getting a quick start, even though she packed her bags three days prior. How a woman can be packed for days and still take three hours to get ready on the day of a trip is beyond me, but even with a late start, nothing could stop Vegasmas.

Nothing, that is, except traffic.

Kelly and I were stuck on the State Route 91 and going nowhere fast. We had already been gone for nearly two hours when the Vegasmas spirit caused me to squeeze my Toyota Corolla between two plastic dividers into the 91 Express Lanes, a toll road used to bypass all the schmucks in the congested lanes. A light but steady flow of cars sped past and once I saw an opening in my rearview mirror, I went for it. I careened into the lane and narrowly avoided hitting a Mercedes in the passenger door. The jerk honked, but I deserved it and let it slide. Besides, it was Vegasmas Eve and when you’re starting a new tradition, it’s of the utmost importance to make sure you get the first one absolutely perfect because no one needs the annual car accident as part of their holiday to-do list.

Four hours later, we rolled into Excalibur and I was surprised to see the parking lot at three-quarters capacity. Not since “Seinfeld” introduced the world to Festivus had I felt like maybe I wasn’t alone in my hatred of all things Christmas. I stopped for a beer before checking in, then got another round before getting to our room. After ditching our luggage, Kelly and I met Chip and Deryck at an Excalibur lounge where an ‘80s cover band was playing.

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Two vodka-cranberries later, someone decided we should make the short walk to Bar at Times Square at New York, New York and there was no disagreement from me. During our stumble through the casino, I noticed the family-friendly crowd often found at Excalibur huddled around a man in a Santa suit, but these weren’t the same Midwestern families I was accustomed to seeing at the hotel. I’m no linguist, but I swore I heard Indian, Hebrew and Chinese spoken before we hit the exit. This unusual array of languages didn’t register until we braved the cold rainy night and walked over the bridge to New York, New York, where I overheard an Irish family, a Scottish couple and group of Japanese in their early 20s.

The piano bar was half full when we arrived just after 10 p.m., which was fine by me because that place is absolutely the worst spot in Vegas to get a drink when it’s at capacity. The lack of crowd allowed me and my girlfriend to discuss what I perceived as a trend.

“Have you noticed anything about the people here?” I asked.

“You mean how everyone is from somewhere else?” she replied.

“Yeah, you noticed that too?”

“It’s pretty cool. Like we’re getting some culture with our vacation.” At that moment, I knew Kelly was knee-deep in the Vegasmas spirit and wouldn’t regret leaving our friends and families to get wasted in Sin City.

A group of seven Canadians proudly sporting t-shirts and hats with their country’s flag huddled around us and sang at the top of their lungs to “Purple Rain” while two Asian businessmen in suits stood against the bar, raised their beers and shouted the two-word hook each time the pianists got to that part of the chorus. My front-row view of the United Nations of drunken sing-a-long was interrupted by Chip, who tapped me on the shoulder with important news.

“Dude, look at Deryck,” he said. “Then look at the guy next to him.” I did as I was told and saw that my friend and this stranger were wearing the exact same shirt, so Deryck turned toward the guy and we pretended to take a picture of our friend at the bar. But what we really did was make sure we got both of them in the picture because this magical Vegasmas moment had to be captured on film.

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Unfortunately for me, the fun would not last. Somewhere between the beers at Bar at Times Square and the margaritas at the nearby Gonzalez y Gonzalez, I realized I lost my phone. This was a bummer; thankfully, if not for the Vegasmas cheer, I might have been more upset. Kelly and I looked around the casino for spots where it might have slipped out, but after a half hour of searching, I decided to call it a night. Vegasmas Eve was a party, but I needed something left in my tank for Vegasmas day.

The next morning Kelly suggested I call Excalibur security to ask if they had my phone. This was Sin City and there was no way anyone would find a phone and return it, but I did as she said because that’s what boyfriends do. Five minutes later, we were downstairs retrieving my cell. A Vegasmas miracle!

I celebrated the return of my phone by calling my parents with a mini-hangover to wish them a Merry Christmas. For the first time in longer than I could remember, I actually meant it. Kelly and I bought bagels, then threw on our scarves to walk the ghosttown-esque Strip, where the sole reminder of the holiday was a Christmas tree atop a structure being built at CityCenter. The iconic image didn’t bother me and I understood that, when not hit over the head with people ringing bells outside grocery stores, the pressure of having to explain that what I really want for Christmas is nothing and being subjected to David Bowie and Bing Crosby sing while I’m on a treadmill at the gym, Christmas really ain’t half bad. It’s the idiots who overdo the decorations, the cheesy songs and pressure to be happy all the time who ruin it for me.

Thanks to copious amounts of booze, the remainder of Vegasmas Day is kind of fuzzy, but I’m almost positive it was the best Christmas I ever had.

Neither my girlfriend nor my mother knows this yet, but Vegasmas ‘09 is in the works. With a $50 Christmas brunch featuring five spiced glazed duck, pan roasted Alaskan salmon and warm apple cobbler at DJT at Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, an average nightly rate at Planet Hollywood of approximately $100 that includes a free bottle of booze and two packages at MGM Grand that include access to Studio 54 or Tabu Ultra Lounge and tons of credit, Vegasmas the Sequel is destined to be even better than the original.