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Nightlife: All Night Long

Posh clubs offer sophisticated entertainment alternatives to traditional shows and lounge acts
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Vegas, Mar/Apr 2006

(continued from page 1)

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.

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