Posh clubs offer sophisticated entertainment alternatives to traditional shows and lounge acts
Robert Frey stands on a glassed-in catwalk at Pure, a nightclub in the Caesars Palace casino on the Las Vegas Strip, and surveys the controlled tumult below. Frey, 41, is short, with eyes that narrow to a squint. Surrounded by some of the most seductively attractive-and most funkily dressed-women and men anywhere on this Friday night, he wears a brown denim jacket and a Charlie Brown smile. Since its debut in December 2004, the $15 million, 36,000-square-foot Pure has helped revitalize the entire Caesars Palace brand.
Before opening Pure, Frey ran a cigar business with his brother, Michael. Prior to that he sold pizzas. But in Las Vegas, five years is a generation, and second and third chances seem to come with your apartment lease. With nightclubs, Frey finally has found his calling. Together with partner Steve Davidovici, he presides over a growing empire that caters to a broad range of guests, from A-list celebrities to convention-goers just off the plane. His unthreatening demeanor serves as an asset. "People want to feel comfortable," he says. "The thing that's different from Miami, L.A. or New York is, we don't have a cool crowd. Everyone who comes to Las Vegas wants to have fun."
At Pure, Frey has four distinct areas of pulsating music, including a terrace with a panoramic view of the Strip. Shaquille O'Neal is an investor. So is Celine Dion. On this particular Friday night, Jimmy Iovine, arguably the most powerful man in the music industry, has shown up in a baseball cap and sunglasses. He's downstairs in the Pussycat Dolls Lounge, accompanied by the current incarnation of Robin Antin's Pussycat Dolls, a Los Angelesóbased all-girl band and dance revue with two smash singles. They are watching a replica troupe of Pussycat Dolls perform in tribute to the original. More than any sit-down extravaganza in the Strip's theaters or arenas, it is currently the hottest show in town.
In the cavernous main room on the other side of a crowded hallway, Hustler Magazine is having a party. Word is that Larry Flynt is in the house, ensconced in one of the private boxes festooned with supersized love seats that ring the dance floor. Throughout the club, tables have been reserved with the purchase of a $400 bottle of Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon or a $400 bottle of Captain Morgan Rum, or something even more expensive. Down the Strip at New York-New York, the mid-range Coyote Ugly is "probably the highest-grossing per-square-foot nightclub in the country," according to Frey, who owns and runs that club, too. At Treasure Island, Frey's Tangerine caters to a more risqué crowd. Next for Frey will come an iteration of the Dick's Last Resort chain along with additional concepts of his own.
Frey is perhaps the most successful of the impresarios, entrepreneurs and promoters who have helped transform Las Vegas nightlife from a choice between sleazy or sleepy to sizzling. Others aren't far behind.
The ultra-suave Victor Drai-who lived with Jacqueline Bisset and married Kelly Le Brock-arrived from Los Angeles to invent the Las Vegas version of his L.A. after-hours club at Drai's, in the Barbary Coast hotel. Now he has Tryst at the Wynn Las Vegas, complete with an imposing waterfall and a teeming Hollywood presence.
At TAO Asian Bistro, Richard Wolf and Marc Packer bring New York sophistication to a four-level space in what will soon be the world's largest hotel, The Venetian. Jeffrey Chodorow's Mix, inside THE hotel atop the Mandalay Bay, features Alain Ducasse's culinary expertise but gets even more acclaim for a late-night lounge scene that plays out in black leather banquettes, and perhaps the best cocktails in town. And with the Palms, George Maloof and Chicago restaurant-and-nightclub mavens Scott de Graff and Michael Morton have created an entire hotel built around nightlife. Next comes another Palms tower, with a twenty-first-century remake of the old Playboy Clubs, and a high-end penthouse watering hole one floor above. Its signature feature? A retractable roof.
To be sure, anyone who loathes crowds or loud music can still find plenty to do in Las Vegas. Elton John's latest run at Caesars Palace continues through April 9, and he will surely be back. Traditional acts such as Vicki Lawrence and Dionne Warwick visit the Orleans later this year. Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" act plays at least one weekend a month through October at The Mirage's Danny Gans Theatre. Gans himself is a ubiquitous presence there. Reba McEntire and Barry Manilow alternate multiweek stays at the Las Vegas Hilton all spring and summer. Howie Mandel is featured at the MGM Grand.
At the same time, the Wynn Las Vegas is bringing Spamalot and other Broadway shows to the Strip. Mandalay Bay currently features Mamma Mia! A truncated version of The Phantom of the Opera opens in June at The Venetian, and Paris Las Vegas hopes to add The Producers soon. The Blue Man Group, which formerly performed at the Luxor, began a run at a new 1,700-seat venue at The Venetian last October. The phenomenally popular Cirque du Soleil has ongoing shows at the Bellagio, the MGM Grand, New York-New York and Treasure Island. And in late May, a new in-the-round Cirque du Soleil production featuring Beatles music, and tentatively titled The Boys, replaces Siegfried & Roy's show at The Mirage
The most important boxing matches in America still take place in Las Vegas, and the relocation of an ATP men's tennis tournament from Scottsdale, Arizona, may signal more big-time sports to come. Mayor Oscar Goodman has been talking with baseball's Florida Marlins about moving to the city. That would add some 80 nights of family entertainment in a yet-to-be-constructed ballpark.
But when those diversions-or a three-hour, continental-style dinner at, say, Joël Robuchon or Guy Savoy, two of the newer additions to the culinary scene-come to an end around 11 p.m., the clubs are only starting to rev up. These new venues give partygoers, gamblers and conventioneers alike a chance to drink, dance and meet the opposite sex somewhere other than a strip bar or the blackjack table. For the first time, visitors are coming to Las Vegas for the nightlife alone. "We've become the playground for L.A.," says Drai.
It wasn't long ago that nightlife terrified the city. Shows and dinners were designed to dump customers right back onto the casino floor, where they would participate in the city's primary industry by losing money at blackjack or slot machines until they gave up and went to bed. The new nightclubs, where hours glide by without strain, were inimical to that model. It seems stunning in retrospect, but when Hard Rock Cafe-a brand created by the success of its clubs and music venues in other cities-opened a hotel in Las Vegas in 1995, it didn't even include a nightclub.
Then Club Rio opened at the Rio in 1995, catering to a just-21 crowd. That same year, de Graff and Morton opened Drink, a stand-alone nightclub on the New York or Miami model with a clientele from 25 on up. Because they weren't casino owners, they had no fear of cannibalizing casino business. They looked to attract the girlfriends of dedicated gamblers, locals, insomniacs and any visitors who needed a break from rolling dice. "It was a definite change to this environment," de Graff says.
One of Drink's regular customers was George Maloof. A former University of Nevada, Las Vegas student who'd come up from Albuquerque, he and his brothers had opened a casino, the Fiesta, catering to locals, but with a rather sophisticated feel. Spending night after night at Drink, surveying the scene in the same way that he'd wandered through Palace Station and the few other locally oriented casinos before daring to create his own, Maloof began to perceive a business opportunity in the young, hip, Hollywood crowd. "Somebody who wanted to come to town, and didn't want to gamble," he says. "The 25-year-old female who just wants to dance. And the guys chasing right behind her."
Before long, the MGM Grand had put a 23,000-foot Studio 54 beside the casino floor, and the Luxor's Ra had managed to link an Eastern spirituality theme with pulsating house music. Thoroughly convinced, Maloof created the Palms, a hotel concept that seemed to exist as beds and other amenities wrapped around an array of nightclub options. The guest rooms were average, the service distracted (it has since improved), but the youthful scene was so inviting that celebrities and celebrity-spotters couldn't stay away. "The idea was, 'Let's create the ultimate party place, high-end, with its own identity,'" Maloof says. "It wasn't about taking The Venetian and making it like Venice, or New York-New York and making it like New York. Let's define it by the scene."
The hotel opened on Flamingo Road in November 2001. Armed with a private plane, Maloof helped his cause by ferrying the likes of Britney Spears, Leo DiCaprio and Dennis Rodman in for weekends, and out of nowhere the rooftop Ghostbar became the most talked-about party venue in Las Vegas. Maloof agreed to let MTV's "Real World" shoot a season in a custom-built suite, which, he says, "promoted the Palms lifestyle on television every night." And when DiCaprio chose the Palms for a blowout birthday bash one year in, the hotel's reputation was secured. "[Las Vegas] has always been this party town," Maloof says. "People who are good go there to be bad. The Palms gave them somewhere to go."
The Palms is a boutique hotel compared to the giants on the Strip. Just as Caesars, MGM Grand and the rest had rushed to find nationally known chefs once the Bellagio and The Venetian made them de rigueur, now the search was on to find nightclub concepts that would attract some of the buzz, along with a slightly older, even more affluent crowd. "The big boys had to copy this model," de Graff says of the Palms, in which he is a partner. "Now everybody wants a place like N9ne. Everyone wants a Ghostbar on top."
Within a year or two, everyone had one-or a reasonable facsimile. The Hard Rock had Body English, the Rio had the Voodoo Lounge, the Bellagio had Light. Far from hurting casino business, the nightclubs actually helped it. "They figured out that the people who want to gamble will find time to gamble," says Drai. Just not 24 hours a day.
Caesars Palace planted Pure in the space that formerly housed Magical Empire, a cheesy, toga-themed dinner show. This not only led to a 10 percent increase in table games at the casino, but got Caesars talked about for the first time in years. "It creates an energy," Frey says now. "Even if people never walk into the club, they feel the energy of the line waiting to get in. They feed off the energy from the media, talking about the club. Plus, they'll come to eat dinner at the hotel before they go to the club."
The most expensive nightclub ever constructed in Las Vegas at the time of its debut (it has since been surpassed by TAO), Pure headlined Mariah Carey at its opening, followed by Elton John's birthday party. It has been a home-away-from-home for Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Nicky Hilton and plenty of gawkers and revelers ever since.
Wynn Las Vegas, the latest mega-hotel to open, in 2005, turned to Drai for even more Hollywood glitter. Born in Morocco and raised in Paris, Drai made his name in Los Angeles as a movie producer and, later, as a restaurant owner. He seems made for the Las Vegas scene. The sophisticated Drai carries off a look that includes an Italian sport coat and alligator-skin boots. He seems far too elegant to have struck it rich making the Weekend at Bernie's films, which is exactly what he did.
Drai was about to become a father in the early 1990s when he decided to change direction. He left the movie business and opened Drai's, a restaurant on La Cienega that replaced Le Dome as the epicenter of the Hollywood power lunch. In Las Vegas, he set up shop in 1997 at the Barbary Coast-a downscale hotel that advertises $3.95 breakfasts on its marquee-and promptly made his new eponymous restaurant-cum-nightclub the place to be seen during the small hours. When Wynn persuaded him to open Tryst in his new hotel, Drai brought his customer base with him. "I said to Steve, 'I will make you the sexiest club ever made,'" Drai says.
Without question, it is one of the most dramatic. A 90-foot waterfall is the backdrop for an indoor/outdoor floor, packed on a nightly basis with perhaps more celebrities per square foot than anywhere else. At least, everyone there looks like a celebrity. "If you're not elegant, I don't let you in," says Drai. "But if you're elegant, I don't care what you're wearing." At only 8,000 square feet, Tryst is a fraction of the size of Pure, TAO and many of the rest of the Las Vegas clubs, yet it still does an extraordinary amount of business. "What I realize," says Drai, "is that a lot of people in America have a lot of money."
TAO Asian Bistro at The Venetian is more than five times the size of Tryst. It takes a New York restaurant and blows it up to Las Vegas proportions. "You can have a complete evening and never leave the nightclub," says co-owner Wolf, as he strides past Mike Tyson eating dim sum at a corner table. "Have dinner, have a drink, go dancing-and if you can't close the deal with the girl you met, you can have a drink in the lounge." At TAO, levels lead to other levels and rooms to other rooms, each darker, louder and smokier than the last. VIPs ensconce themselves in skyboxes, surveying the teeming masses below. The music shifts from stunningly loud to even louder. "There'll be women dancing in bathtubs here," Wolf says, shouting to be heard over the din. "You'll see them later."
Only a few months ago, TAO was the most intriguing club in town. Then, on New Year's Eve, Drai opened Tryst and Andrew Sasson, whose Light was the first to offer the ultra-profitable bottle service at VIP tables (and currently Rémy Martin Louis XIII for $14,500), debuted Jet at The Mirage.
Those will be the novelties temporarily, but bigger, fancier, slicker and even more expensive competition is coming. Frey's BiKiNiS at the Rio, where women cavort in giant cocktail glasses, is rebranding. Rande Gerber, of Whiskey Bar fame, has a new outpost, called Cherry, at the Red Rock Station casino that is scheduled to open in April on the northwest side. And inside the second Palms tower, set to open early this summer, the Playboy Club, which recently was granted a special license to offer lounging and gaming together for the first time in Las Vegas, will be unveiled. "I asked, 'Who wrote the rules?'" says de Graff. "Well, we rewrote the rules."
The Playboy Club will be connected by an outdoor escalator to Moon, one floor above. The $50 cover charge, which will provide access to both clubs, will be double everywhere else on the Strip, de Graff announces with pride. "Vegas has just become so much more sophisticated across the board," he says. "We believe there's a market for this."
Through it all, Frey just keeps smiling. E! Network recently named Pure the best club in North America, and local accolades could fill an entire press kit. If someone is coming to Las Vegas for a long weekend in search of nightlife, Frey knows he'll get them at least part of one night. "We hit the market just right," he says.
Paradoxically, clubs seem to have a longer lifespan in Las Vegas than in New York or even London, where hot can turn to cool with alacrity. That allows a capital investment that would be foolish in a more fickle climate, which helps to create a striking atmosphere likely to impress each new planeload of tourists for many months to come. "None of this is about me," says Frey. "I just do the leases." Then Frey turns sideways to let a group of striking young women push past-and keeps his body turned for the inevitable gaggle of men who he's sure will follow.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.