Las Vegas is different now. I interned at UNLV one summer nearly a decade ago and got to know the city pretty well. I shopped at the grocery store where there were shootings. I bought tacos alongside prostitutes on their lunch breaks. I got to see too much of the real city and not enough of the fake. The internship money had to be budgeted to make it last the summer and into the school year. I didn’t want a job during the semester.
We, my internship buddies and I, learned the deals. There was the free monorail from the MGM Grand. There was the cheap gambling at O’Sheas and the $1 beer at Casino Royale. We’d get the food deals at Terribles and take visitors to the free art gallery at the Bellagio. We were able to nickel and dime the city and live alright, but we still joked that if we won it big we’d instantly leave. Las Vegas is a 3-day-visit city. A summer here is a long time.
Fast forward 10 years. The cheap shit is still here at the dive casinos. You can get a $1 beer at the Casino Royale, but instead of a Beck’s import it’s now a Michelob domestic. Gambling at O’Sheas still appears to be cheap and Terribles still has food deal billboards all over their casino. But the nice places have changed. Most noticeably, there are penny slots in every casino now instead of just at places like O’Sheas. It used to be impossible to find them, but now they’re everywhere. The monorail has been expanded and is now $5 a ride – more than double what it costs to ride the train in Chicago – $5 to get the parking-garage view of the strip from a Disney World gimmick train. Insane. And the Bellagio now charges $18 to look at their handful of paintings in their masturbatory gallery. Lame. And now there are “resort fees” at nearly every hotel in town – extra charges in addition to the room rate that the hotels tack on just because they can and because they probably need to. Annoying.
So it was with this backdrop that we entered Aureole, one of the nicest restaurant on the strip, for what was to be a splurge Christmas present. It went quickly to shit.
Aureole is divided into two dining areas that occupy the same room and get food from the same kitchen and share the same menu. One has “nicer” service and a quiet atmosphere and the other has more “energy” and bustle. Oh, and you pay $10 more for the same food on the “nicer” side, the Swan-something dining room. The normal-price area is where the cool wine column thing is with the women on ropes that grab the bottles from the sky like angels. The swan side has a fountain with … wait for it … swans swimming in it.
We arrive a few minutes before 7:00 for our reservation. We’d made the reservation on OpenTable because we like OpenTable — it’s easier than trying to talk to somebody at a loud restaurant to negotiate a table time. Our table was ready, we learned, and we were led back through the restaurant, past the cool wine column thing with the wine-grabbing angels, past row after row of empty tables, into a booth big enough for six at the ass-end of the place.
Were we in the Swan room with the bonus pricing? We didn’t know. We were not asked our preference on OpenTable and the hostess hadn’t given us a choice. We couldn’t see out the windows to see if there were seven swans-a-swimming outside.
We got the wine list – a Windows XP tablet computer with a very, very sensitive stylus. Check the box next to whatever you want to drink, we were told. So we started to browse. (Just like on the computer at home! Yay!)
We ordered a bottle of wine and were given menus. We were in the Swan section. Multi-course only menus. We wanted a la carte. The cheap option was $85 … the same thing that would be $75 a few feet behind us.
“I don’t want all this food,” Lisa confessed. She asked for the a al carte menu. This stunned and surprised the waiter. He stammered and stuttered and stalled and caught himself. “Of course!” he finally said and brought the menu over.
“Now I feel cheap ordering off it.”
“Cheap? We’re the only ones here.” And we were nearly the only ones there. There was one other couple at the table across from us, and they had brought a photographer with them. The photographer set up his flash in the corner and started snapping pictures. Flash! Flash! Flash!
The couple next to us ordered candy-colored cocktails. Flash! Flash! Flash! “Get one of the toast,” we hear the man say to the photographer. Flash! Flash! Flash!
Lisa goes back and forth on the menus. “I don’t like this,” she says. Flash! Flash! Flash!
“Let’s just leave,” I say. We had not received our wine yet and hadn’t ordered anything. Flash! Flash! Flash! This is our standard tactic when faced with a potential restaurant mistake – better to leave early than to get stuck where you don’t want to be. Flash! Flash! Flash!
“I’m just getting the tasting menu,” Lisa says. Flash! Flash! Flash!
“Why? You’ll never eat all of it.” Flash! Flash! Flash!
“I don’t like this,” Lisa says again. She’s frustrated and on the edge of tears. This isn’t how the night was supposed to go. Lisa had been here a few years before and she had a great time. She ate at the bar and befriended a couple customers and the bartender and scored a free glass of wine after having a glass of sparkling and loved her food and wanted me to feel the same fun and tastes and have a good time and here it was all falling apart, getting more expensive by the minute, and the goddamn people next to us were having a fucking photoshoot with the most annoying … FLASH! Flash! Flash!
Our wine arrives. Lisa dabs her eyes with a napkin. We seek refuge behind our flutes. Flash! Flash! Flash!
I get the waiter’s attention. “Do you know how long this is going to last?” I ask about the photoshoot. He doesn’t. “It’s a little much,” I say. “We’re happy to sit anywhere else in the restaurant,” I suggest, asking to be moved. “It’s almost finished, I’m sure,” he says. Flash! Flash! Flash!
It’s not. The photographer is now outside shooting in through the window. We’re in the background of these pictures, so we make funny faces and photobomb their pics. Flash! Flash! Flash!
The couple then goes outside for some outside shots. Flash! Flash! Flash! We look at a clock. It’s been nearly 30 minutes of flash photography. I switch my phone to camcorder mode and record some evidence of our experience. Holy mother of Christ. Flash! Flash! Flash! There are five flashes in the first 60 seconds of the recording. It starts to wrap up after they order a bottle of red wine later determined to be too strong tasting by the woman of the group. Supertaster, I sure.
We order food. I go multi-course and Lisa goes a la carte. Lisa’s soup is lukewarm, my “salad nicoise” is just seared tuna gone cold on frisee leaves – no nicoise olives, anchovies, etc. Our main courses are fine. I get a side with mine – Parmesan cheese fries – but they’re unnecessary. My main course comes with mashed potatoes and Lisa’s comes with polenta. The sides are just a money-grab, a useless addition to the menu to give the appearance of value. We get a “molten” chocolate cake for dessert that’s dried out and crumbly. We get hooked up with a couple scoops of sorbet because we endured 30 minutes of constant flash photography. Sigh.
When we leave, we see that the Swan room is about 80% full, while the rest of the place is more than 80% empty. It all becomes clear. The Swan room, and its up-charge, is just a way to boost revenue when crowds are low. Nearly all of these people have come to the restaurant because of the wine column gimmick, and they’re seated out-of-sight of it. They, like us, were duped into the back room so that the restaurant could pocket a few more bucks. And the computerized tablet wine list? If it was about being high-tech and awesome and trendy, it’d be on an iPad by now. It’s about being too cheap to re-print a wine list filled with one-off trophy bottles that need to be removed immediately from the list if ordered so as not to put a high-spender in the foolish position of ordering an over-priced bottle only to find that the table next to him got the last one.
Dammit. The place was fine, but a restaurant like this has to be more than fine to be worth it. At some point, you’re not paying for food – you’re paying for something extra and special. And you’re certainly not paying to be blinded and nickel and dimed. We suggest you dine elsewhere when you’re in Las Vegas.