Up close with the MGM National Harbor

What's it like inside the new MGM National Harbor? We found out.

MGM National Harbor, the newly opened casino and resort along the shores of the Potomac River, is larger than life. Its tiered base — reminiscent of a pyramid — leads to a sleek, glass-covered exterior, cove-like entrance, and 24-story hotel tower. The interior houses an array of shopping and entertainment options in addition to the expected table games and slot machines.

A visit on its first full day of operations made it easy to see where its $1.4 billion budget went: celebrity chef-run restaurants, a plush spa and salon, and designer shopping. The theater, with seating for up to 3,000, will host Bruno Mars (Dec. 27), Duran Duran (Dec. 31-Jan. 1), Sting (March 12) and a residency with Cher (starting March 17).

Want to spend the night? The 308-room hotel has 74 suites available.

On the first day, Dec. 9, thousands of visitors filled the 125,000-square-foot casino, which offers slot machines and table games for levels starting with beginning gambler all the way up to high-roller.

Here are some of the top things to do and see at the resort — and the reaction from guests.

'Portal' by Bob Dylan

"Portal," a sculpted iron archway designed by Bob Dylan, is a 26-by-15-foot piece framing the west entrance of MGM National Harbor. It is the first permanent public work of art by the singer-songwriter (and now Nobel laureate).

The raw-looking, welded work is meant to reflect the country's industrial past, and it reflects Dylan's roots in the iron-ore mining area around Hibbing, Minn.

The structure includes shapes of wrenches, chains, cogs, spokes and gears. The result is a sort of chaotic order that parallels what's going on in the casino.

Casino floor

The main attraction has to be the casino floor.

Sparkling black granite floors are flanked by multicolored fields of carpet, peppered with various poker, craps, black jack and roulette tables. (There are close to 130 card tables in the casino, including 39 poker tables.) Flat-screen televisions — set to various sports channels — are placed in between.

The ceilings are adorned with sparkling gold fixtures and crystal chandeliers.

On opening day, there's a motley crew of guests: women dressed in an array of fur jackets; frat boys in sweat shirts or sports jerseys; groups of balding men in their 40s dressed in sports coats, jeans and sneakers carrying their mixed drinks in search of the next hot table; and a large number of seniors moving from slot machines to card tables.

The scent of rum and Cokes, whiskey and even, faintly, freshly smoked cigarettes and marijuana cut through the air as more people enter the smokeless casino from outside.

Playing the slots

Mike and Jackie Timm are big fans of casinos.

The Sumerduck, Va., residents visit gambling sites every other month.

"This is the best on the Eastern seaboard," Mike said after finishing up on the Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory-themed slots.

His wife said the two were attracted to this particular game because they are fans of the movie.

"It's big and bright," she said. "And you can bet from a penny to $6."

MGM National has 3,300 slot machines, with themes that range from Michael Jackson and Britney Spears to "The Walking Dead."

The Timms spent about four hours that day in the casino — mostly on slots (losing $20) and roulette (losing $50). They stayed at National Harbor for the weekend.

"There are plenty of machines of every style and amount," Jackie Timm said. "It's the next best thing to Vegas."

Table games

Nearby, Cheryl Morton of Temple Hills was ending her run at roulette.

How did she do?

"Not good," she lamented. "I just lost 50 bucks. I thought I could win more money playing roulette. I thought I could win big."

Morton said she intended to stop at Starbucks and get something to eat.

"Then I'm going home," she said. "I'm done."

Morton said she will likely return to her favorite casino, Dover Downs.

"Dover lets you win," she said. "I haven't heard anyone hollering and screaming like they won here."

The conservatory

One of the most breathtaking aspects of the resort is the conservatory, a 15,000-square-foot space with marble floors bathed in sunlight from a glass ceiling and walls.

The atrium, open 24 hours a day, provides a spacious, fairly calm reprieve from the hyper happenings of the resort. The decor will change five times a year, according to MGM management.

Guests should make sure to look up, because that's where the fun begins: Hanging from the 85-foot-high ceiling are massive gold and silver metallic ornaments that sparkle with flashing lights.

Below are marble islands festooned with larger-than-life silver metallic and flower-covered gift boxes and Christmas trees.

In keeping with the current holiday theme, the stand-alone marble display beds are decorated with of white ivy, orchids and poinsettias — 150,000 of them. The splashing sound of small water fountains in the center of one of the three islands creates a tranquil feel.

The result is a wow moment.

At least it was for casino patron Amy Perkins, from Waldorf.

"I like the displays, the coloring and decor," she said. "I like the flowers."

Perkins said she was also impressed with the size of the conservatory and the overall property.

"I love this casino. I like the atmosphere," she said. "It's comfortable, and there's plenty of room to walk."

Pappas

Regina Robertson, a Bowie resident, had never been to Pappas Restaurant, but upon spotting its branch in the casino, she knew she wanted to eat there.

"I love seafood," she said. "I'm a Marylander."

Amid Shake Shack, Starbucks and the other food court offerings, Pappas offers a taste of the Baltimore region.

The popular seafood eatery — Oprah Winfrey has listed Pappas' crab cakes among her favorite holiday gifts — has set up within National Market, a casual food market toward the center of the resort.

"I didn't know that," Robertson said when she learned about the restaurant's celebrity following. "Wow. I'm going to get the crab cakes."

Robertson stood in front of the sleek, black granite wraparound counters, where customers can see the food prepared before them in the open kitchen. Chalkboard menus are covered with the day's offerings.

"I'm a pescatarian, so I eat a lot of seafood," said Robertson, only the second person in line that day. "I knew this would be my only choice. And it smells great."

Marcus

Located in the conservatory area is celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson's namesake restaurant, Marcus.

"This is super," Samuelsson said. "Sometimes it is important to be part of something that is larger than yourself. This is iconic."

Samuelsson, whose restaurant Red Rooster Harlem is a tourist magnet, is looking to re-create the same buzz at the casino. And with many of the same dishes and welcoming feel as the New York restaurant, it appears to be working.

As Samuelsson walked around the restaurant, customers stopped the five-time James Beard Award-winning chef to shake his hand and ask for a photograph.

"With the light that he exudes, the food will definitely taste good," said Stephanie Hill-Wood, a Detroit resident waiting to be seated.

Samuelsson said he loves the energy and opportunities provided by the casino.

"It's an exciting opportunity," said Samuelsson, whose restaurant is the only one of the celebrity chef projects that operates all day. "We don't know when people are checking in. People want a great experience everywhere. We should be able to provide a great experience, whether that be in the room or the restaurant."

In addition to the food — check out Obama's Short Ribs ($44), the deviled eggs ($9), Sammy's Chicken & Waffles ($24) and Sister Fanny's crab dip ($8) — guests should take a moment to admire the decor.

The wood of the interior creates a comfortable, tavern feel, while the wooden coffered ceilings recall the grandeur of a French bistro.

Sammy's, a Prohibition-style supper club in the back of the restaurant, will be a place for music acts to perform.

"We want to build an experience that is world-class," Samuelsson said. "It's friendly. It's warm. It's majestic."

Fish

Fresh off the heels of Michelin accolades, Jose Andres has opened the casino's marquee restaurant.

Fish is Andres' first seafood-focused restaurant.

"The restaurant will be connected with many things of the Chesapeake," he said. "This will be an Americana fish place."

Andres' vision starts with the decor.

Rounded wooden tiles line the walls and create a scale-like appearance. Underwater photographs depict a model with various sea creatures. The restaurant curves to the semicirclular frame of the casino's entrance. The patio is huge, and the windows offer views of the Potomac.

The private dinning room, toward the back of the bar, features a cozy, eight-seat round table enclosed by a canopy of red fisherman's rope.

Andres plans to focus on regional cooking techniques and on sustainable varieties such as porgy ($26), rockfish ($24) and oysters ($19-$36). He also plans to take full advantage of his Josper oven, which combines a grill and oven and gives dishes — even vegetables — a smoky flavor.

Andres recommends the New England clam chowder ($16), the grilled oysters ($19) and the shrimp and grapefruit cocktail ($19), which is a spinoff from a recipe in the 1931 "The Joy of Cooking" by Irma S. Rombauer.

Toward the end of the long counter that provides an up-close view of the raw bar and kitchen is the restaurant's tempura bar, where chefs fry seafood in front of guests and serve them on the spot.

"I call it the 'Maryland Fry Bar,'" Andres said. The food "will be fried with a lot of love."

Voltaggio Brothers Steak House

Bryan and Michael Voltaggio have joined for their first restaurant project.

The two Frederick natives — known for being finalists on the sixth season of Bravo's "Top Chef" — have carved out their own distinct careers in the culinary world. Bryan has spent most of his time opening restaurants in the Mid-Atlantic; Michael has expanded his brand out west.

"Working with my brother is the most exciting aspect of this for me," said Bryan, who operates Aggio in Baltimore. "This is a homecoming for him."

Home is a recurring theme for the restaurant, which Bryan described as "us serving steak in our home."

It begins with the cozy foyer that leads to a warm, masculine-feeling bar made to look like a library. Multicolored books line the built-in shelves. Large, quilted club chairs in mustard and gray are arranged to encourage intimate conversations.

Each room, which can be separated from the rest of the restaurant to provide a private dinning experience, has its own personality.

Michael is partial to a large blue room with an oval wooden ceiling that he has dubbed "The Oval Office." Bryan likes the '70s-themed room filled with pumpkin-colored banquettes and retro plaid-patterned carpets.

As for the food, Bryan said that the goal of the restaurant is to take "familiar dishes and elevate them."

For example, the beefsteak tomato ($16) features burrata, basil and an olive crumb atop a Pomodoro tomato.

The branzino ($55) is served whole, boneless, with charred lemon, caper brown butter and small salad of herbs and greens.

And the steaks include American Wagyu 8-ounce flat-iron ($36), a 45-day dry-aged 16-ounce bone-in rib-eye ($56) and 36-ounce porterhouse ($120).

The Spa and Salon

David Eisen of Washington sought out some deeper relaxation after a long night of gambling.

"I needed a break," he said as nearby a water wall cascaded behind the salon's front desk a floor below. "I was here from 7 p.m. until 5 a.m. I went home and came back at 10 a.m."

After a couple of more hours of gambling, Eisen ate and then got a massage at the spa. Bright white walls, calming art and music filled the air.

"I was really hung over before," he said. "Now I'm a lot less after. I feel good."

Eisen said he won $12,000 the night before playing roulette and blackjack: "I'm having a good night if I win $20,000 to $25,000."

"My massage was awesome," said Eisen, who usually gets a massage every two weeks. "The heated tables and general atmosphere are nice."

The two-floor, 27,000-square-foot space also features a fitness center, barbershop and retail space, which sells Essie nail polish and Kevin Murphy hair products and Clarins beauty products. Clarins has designed the spa's menu of massages, facials and body treatments. The salon includes four stylist stations, a color room, makeup room, four manicure stations and six pedicure stations. More than 100 types of nail polish provide a colorful rainbow decor in the salon.

"We do all styles and types," said Rachel Knapp, the spa director.

The men's barbershop lounge provides a warm wooden decor, rugged leather chairs, flat-screen televisions and brushed-nickel tables.

The fitness center offers the traditional cardio machines and free weights, as well as yoga, spin, Pilates and personal trainers.

johnjwilliams@baltsun.com

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