If we’re to be honest with each other, there are two things you need to know: The first is that I’m a scrub. I’m a guy with a taste for the finer things in life — stacks on deck, Patron on ice — without the means of achieving them. Could you find me hollering at you from the passenger seat of my best friend’s ride? Absolutely. Am I the first to talk about how great my last vacation was without having anything to back it up? You betcha! Did I eat at a fancy restaurant? No. Did I take the helicopter tour that everyone raved about when I told them them about a planned trip to Hawaii? Absolutely not. Did I consider riding a donkey down into the depths of the famed leper colony on Molokai? Sure, but when I saw the price, I realized that maybe I could just watch a YouTube video instead.
In short, I’m usually broke, painfully cheap, and still unable to reconcile who I am as a person and who I want to be — the guy who can drop dolla’ dolla’ bills with abandon. These days, I worry more and more that those are two parallel lines that will never, ever meet.
The other thing you need to know is that I love Vegas. It’s gotten to the point that my husband, who’s always trying to get me to try different things, recently informed me that if I mentioned visiting “the strip” and “letting luck be a laaaaaaady” one more time, we wouldn’t be going on a vacation at all. And then he reminded me, gently, of course, because I am both sensitive and volatile when I’m cornered, that in the five or so times we’ve been to Vegas together, I’ve never bet more than five dollars on anything, choosing to save my Jacksons and Hamiltons for the buffet at The Luxor, where the quantity always makes up for the quality.
I’m the exact opposite of the guys who rent a luxury suite at Caesar’s palace and then spend their entire lives letting everyone know about the crazy weekend they had hooking up in the pool at Tao. But that all changed this year, because for one glorious mid-week stretch, I lived in the lap of luxury, taking on Vegas in a way that I’ve never done before and (most definitely) never will again.
“It was like Robin Leach himself was narrating all my exploits,” I’ve told one nonplussed friend after another. “It’s like I wasn’t just watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, but I was one of them. For three days I was the Kardashian, except with even less taste and a more embarrassing flair for the dramatic. How about that?”
We arrive in Vegas late on a Tuesday evening after booking a flight on Liligo — a website which was easy to use and featured cheaper airfare than its competitors, my two sweet spots. The trip is fairly uneventful save for the goth teen in row 15 putting on a full face of make-up as the plane shudders through turbulence. In the back, the flight attendants gossip about a new colleague who had wandered out of an airport during a layover, left all her belongings, and then ventured to a “dangerous part of town” where she vanished.
“Honey, she just left her suitcases and then, poof, we never saw her again,” one attendant says to another. “I just don’t know what could have happened.”
There are questions to be answered here — “Why did no one call the police when a co-worker didn’t return to her post?” for instance — but the turbulence gets so bad that beverage service has to be cancelled. After a brief mix-up with our luggage, we’re on our way to The MGM, which is not only my favorite hotel — “we never stay anywhere else, so you don’t even know,” my husband tells me — but has offered us accommodations for the three days we are in town. I hope for a gigantic room, but my husband is much more reserved in his expectations, cautioning me not to make a scene regardless of whether we’re given a corner suite on the Penthouse floor or a standard smoking room overlooking the parking lot. It’s good advice and I choose immediately to ignore it while secretly allowing myself the totally reasonable option of whipping myself into a rage if my expectations are not met.
The fears that we’ll be relegated to a back corner somewhere are unfounded, however. Once we check in, we’re provided the keys to a Stay Well suite on the 15th floor, a room that normally runs nearly $2,000 a night and boasts everything from soft lighting that will help you recover from a hard night of partying to a specialized shower infuser that bathes you with vitamins and minerals as you wash an entire evening of drinking and gambling out of your hair. There’s a special menu, too, offering three-egg-omelettes and fruit parfaits at prices that equal the national debt of some small European principalities.
In other words: It’s fucking luxurious.
My first realization that someone has made a horrible mistake during the booking process hits when we step out of the elevator and begin the long walk to our suite, which lies enviably behind two gigantic double doors at the end of the hall. Passing by the remains of someone’s room service dinner, I have to choke back a scream when I realize that the guests who dined in their suite have actually discarded a full-on roast beef sandwich and an entire serving of fries.
I want to knock on their door to make sure that the sandwich hasn’t been abandoned due to some error, but am stopped by my husband who suggests that perhaps it’s not my business that there’s at least $50 worth of food just languishing in the hall. I’d like to grab the sandwich and run, whisking it t0 the safety of our room, where I will force my husband to devour it (I’m a vegetarian), but we leave the food where it is because we are suddenly certain there are cameras watching our every move.
It’s a colossal mistake. Not only are there no cameras, but we end up paying over $40 for a slice of pizza and a hamburger in MGM’s food court less than an hour later. Still, this moment offers a good reminder of who we are: two dudes with beer budgets who are way out of place in a regal environment.
Our shock and awe doesn’t stop there. When we enter our room (which is the exact size we all imagined our giant apartments would be when we were kids), we’re completely paralyzed by the opulence that greets us. After a brief pause in the doorway to make sure we aren’t about to be surprised by a personal butler or a bevy of singing clocks, we explore our surroundings.
There are couches everywhere. There is marble everywhere. There are two bedrooms, one of which I immediately dub “the mud room” even though I have no idea what that is, and two bathrooms. Both feature the infused showers. One features a huge bathtub big enough for four. The bath products are Bvlgari, which, under normal circumstances, I’d be afraid of even sampling at a department store. At the edge of the tub lies a packet announcing itself as a “bath tea bag,” which is an idea so foreign to me that I freak out immediately, screaming “this is what the rich do! They don’t stew in their own filth! They steep in it!”
I take a bath. And a Xanax. I steep in my own filth for hours. At 4am, I pad into bed, kicking over a plastic water bottle as I go, not caring whether its contents spill all over the floor because there will be someone to clean them up when I leave the room, and slip under the covers.
Then I immediately get back up to make sure that I haven’t caused quite the mess I thought I had. The bottle, it turns out, is capped. Nothing has spilled, so I kick it around a few times, congratulate myself on tearing up the hotel room like I’m a member of New Kids On the Block, set the aromatherapy machine — the aromatherapy machine — on high, download the app that the room comes with to combat my nonexistent jet lag, and turn on the “dawn simulator” which promises to wake me slowly and gently at precisely 10am, which is when morning hits Las Vegas.
The next day, after another Bvlgari steep, a shower in the second bedroom — why should it go to waste? — and a photoshoot that starts with me curled up in a window ala ScarJo in Lost in Translation and ends with me slipping and falling on the marble entryway floor while wrapped up in a comforter, we leave the room to eat. As much as I’d like to spend the entire day in my new luxury cocoon, there is work to be done.
We have lunch at Mercato Della Pescheria, a casual Italian eatery at the heart of The Venetian that’s famous for its table side tiramisu. While the restaurant’s prices are reasonable — even by Vegas standards — this isn’t fast dining by any means. The manager whisks away our menus when we tell him to surprise us, bringing us drink concoctions fueled by Hangar One Vodka. My husband has fish, I have pesto pasta. The manager, Mickey, returns with another dish, this one not on the menu. He says he makes it for his wife and she loves it.
“Of course, I didn’t make this,” he says, “we have so much talent here. But I created it.” He places the plate in front of us, and while we swear we couldn’t eat another bite we devour the combination of pasta, vegetables, and the other secret ingredients that go into making Mickey’s signature dish. We’re members of an elite club now, and our food is made even more delicious by the fact that no one else is eating like we are. For two people who would normally be too polite to order anything “off menu,” the pasta sets off a spark of joy that we’ll continue talking about for weeks to come — reminding ourselves of it every time one of us has a bad day or we’re once again bemoaning the fact that neither of us was born into the family of a particularly generous millionaire.
“You have the best table in the house,” Mickey says, pointing at the tree we’re sitting next to. Our table is technically outside of the restaurant (while inside the casino). Behind this tree, Mickey says, we can watch others as much as we’d like. “But no one can see you.” If only we had something secret to talk about! Instead, my husband and I focus on arguing over which dish is our favorite and bemoaning the fact that our stomachs are only so large.
Mickey takes us on a tour of the restaurant before we leave, showing us everything from where the pasta is made, to the private dining room/wine cellar that holds, as he refers to them, “his babies” — bottles of expensive wine that live behind temperature-controlled glass panes and are proudly displayed to anyone who might like to take a look.
That night we dine at two places, just like we imagine royalty does. First, my husband and I have dinner together at Libertine Social at Mandalay Bay, where the food is impeccable and the service is first-rate. We’re seated at a bar that allows us a firsthand look at the kitchen and toast our trip (and our ever-expanding waistlines) with The Apple Cobbler and Luce Del Sol, fancy drinks that come in glass bottles versus the traditional glasses and tumblers. The Luce Del Sol — grapefruit vodka, aperol, clover honey syrup, fresh orange & lemon juice — tastes like summer and The Apple Cobbler, which is made with gin, ginger syrup, fresh apple, lemon, & cucumber juices, tastes like someone took an apple pie that your grandma made, liquified it, and then loaded it with enough liquor to tranquilize even the most savage of beasts.
I try not to chug it, but it’s so good that I can’t stop myself.
Soon, I’m drunk, but Libertine is an excellent place to be inebriated. Not just because it’s appropriate to be drunk at all times while in Vegas, but because its menu consists of elevated takes on comfort food that are classy — no one’s pretending you’re eating at home here — but not so fancy that they’re unrecognizable. The parmesan churros are crunchy, savory and delicious; the baked goat cheese is what I would call “divine” if I was allowed to use such words in my regular vocabulary without being mocked; the modern fried egg is an entire meal (plus caviar) baked into an actual eggshell with thick sticks of brioche on the side, meant to be dipped into the egg. Of course, I forego all the formalities and suck my egg right out of the shell.
The highlight of the evening — and there are many, from my husband’s Petaluma chicken to my barbecued carrots, which are so good that I forget I hate carrots — is the restaurant’s creamy garlic hummus, which boasts a $17 price tag (for hummus??) but earns back every cent with flavor. The restaurant makes the garbanzo bean dish in-house and the machine that makes it runs 24 hours a day, mashing beans and turning them into the paste that no hummus you could buy in a store will ever compare to. For a second I wonder if it’s all the alcohol talking — I couldn’t really be making a big deal over hummus and carrots, right? — but when I tell our server my thoughts, she assures me that the restaurant’s vegetarian offerings have created many a convert.
“They may not be vegetarians when they get home,” she says, “but what happens in Vegas…”
After our first dinner, we head over to Aureole, chef Charlie Palmer’s upscale eatery, to meet friends (even though it feels like we should never eat again). The food is great — we’re offered a tasting menu that includes everything from fresh-baked bread to bean soup (perfect) to tempura to a spaghetti squash dish that wasn’t just something you settle for (you know what I’m talking about), but an event in and of itself — but it can’t compare to the view. The centerpiece of the restaurant is a four-story glass-enclosed wine tower that features more than 10,000 bottles of wine. And they’re not just for show. Every time a bottle is ordered, a “wine angel” straps on a harness and flies up through the air, sometimes twisting and somersaulting as she reaches for the bottle.
It’s not quite Cirque Du Soleil, but, then again, a $200 ticket to O doesn’t come with a multi-course dinner that renders all other meals that you’ve had obsolete.
Our friends crash in our second bedroom that night. We kill another bottle of wine — the violent word choice is intentional — and remark upon our good fortune. When I go to the bathroom to brush my teeth, I notice that housekeeping has replaced yesterday’s wrung out bath tea bag and, overwhelmed by the urge to hang on to opulence in any way I can, I take another two-hour bath, complete with one loud knock on the bathroom door courtesy of my husband, who insists that 2am is no time to be singing the ‘audition’ song from La La Land over and over.
On the last day of our trip, we make one final stop. This time, we’re having a casual lunch at Beerhaus, a new restaurant in the strip’s recently unveiled Park complex, which mixes high-end upscale Vegas with restaurants and activities that even the locals — the ones who’ll do everything they can to stay away from the glitz and glamour of the casinos — will love. The Beerhaus resembles a massive warehouse. Exposed brick and metal finishes are everywhere. Each table comes equipped with a Jenga game, which I imagine becomes more and more perilous with each passing drink, especially considering that I send all our blocks flying before even sitting down.
Aside from a selection of over 100 beers — a shock for someone who only drinks Bud Light — the pub offers a dining selection that would please even the most ardent junk food aficionado. Hot dogs and sandwiches, primarily pork and chicken, rule the menu, but we’re most impressed by the warm pretzels with cheese dip and fried pickles. Paired with flights of beer that range from the very light (one tastes like donuts!) to dark (we’re served a shot of beer that tastes exactly like an iced coffee), it’s impossible not to have a good time. By the time we’re ready to leave I’ve devoured enough pickles to last me the rest of my life and knocked over the Jenga blocks so many times that it’s getting embarrassing.
And then they give us to-go cups. I don’t know about you, but there’s absolutely nothing more exciting than walking out onto the street after a good meal and double-fisting craft beers from plastic cups. That moment, when I’m drinking a cup of beer with one hand while accidentally spilling the other one because my coordination is shot, and screaming “happy birthday, TO THE GROUND!” is when I realize that no matter how fancy I’d like to think I am, there’s absolutely no turning me into a class act. And that’s okay, because in Las Vegas — still my favorite city — there’s a place for everyone, from the die-hard gourmand whose greatest pleasure comes from a four hour meal at Robuchon to a try-hard like me who can’t get over the fact that it’s okay to get drunk in public and smoke cigarettes indoors as if we were all still living in the ’80s.
If there’s one thing this trip has taught me, it’s this: Even scrubs like me should be able to treat themselves once in a while. And, if we’re being honest, there’s no better place to do it than Vegas, a place where the rich bathe with tea bags and the rest of us steal them from the hotel rooms, whisk them home, and take them out on special occasions, just to remember what “luxury” is all about.