A big gamble

The Baltimore Sun

LAS VEGAS - Is this the worst moment ever to open a fancy new casino?

You're entitled to wonder that, given that Steve Wynn's 2,034-room, $2.3 billion Encore took its first bets last month in the middle of a national financial nervous breakdown.

But here's a question more suited to the time and place: What's in it for me?

The answer at Encore is plenty. With its big rooms, top-notch service, Asian influences and playful design, Encore is a casino-resort that was designed to grab up the wealthiest, most sophisticated visitors in town and charge them top dollar.

In the face of the recession, however, Wynn and company have slashed nightly rates to as low as $159.

My opening-night room was about 745 square feet (that's as small as they get), the television was 42 inches and sat on a 180-degree rotating base so I could watch from bed or from the sitting area near the floor-to-ceiling windows. Thanks to remote controls, I could open and close the drapes and dim the lights (and activate a "do not disturb" warning) without leaving bed. (Many of these features also are found next door at the Wynn Hotel, which opened in 2005.)

And because I landed on the east side of the 52nd floor, I had a drop-dead view of snow-dappled mountains, the pulsating lights of the Strip below and only the forlorn former site of the Frontier (where most recent projects have stalled) to remind me of the money trouble that stalks Las Vegas and the rest of the country.

In the public rooms below, you see a lot of red (including those gaming-area chandeliers), and a lot of quasi-paisley butterflies, a many-colored motif by designer Roger P. Thomas that subtly connects with the flower motif at the Wynn.

You also see an unusually large amount of the outside world. In an advance on tactics Wynn used at the Wynn, the Encore has a lot of big windows, neighbored by thick greenery, that allow filtered natural light to wash into places that old-school casino folk won't expect.

XS, the Victor Drai nightclub that opened on New Year's Eve, has room for 3,000 revelers, its space spilling out into a broad pool-and-patio area where 29 cabanas can be rented by day or night. Gold-tiled columns jut beneath golden chandeliers and a trio of sculpted golden female torsos loom over one bar.

The hotel's December opening was a study in optimism. With temperatures outside dipping into the 40s, hundreds of visitors and locals nevertheless lined up in the cold to await admission. Inside, the jewelry shop played blazing lights on the prune-sized Wynn Diamond, a 231-carat marvel that is billed as "the largest cut pear-shaped diamond in the world."

At the gaming tables, Wynn schmoozed the invited high-rollers - and gave them a few million dollars to open the betting with - then set it all in motion by taking the microphone to declare, "Let the games begin!" Cue Frank Sinatra on the sound system, crooning "Luck Be a Lady Tonight."

This resort is such a sidekick to the Wynn next door, with shared resources and connecting arcade, that some people might be tempted to see Encore as a hotel-expansion masquerading as a new property. Whatever. More of a good thing is better.

The Wynn, where rates have fallen as low as $149, is bigger all around: Apart from its own golf course (the only one on the Strip), it has 2,716 rooms, 111,000 feet of casino space, 22 food outlets and 47,000 square feet of retail, including Ferrari and Maserati dealerships.

Encore, a bronzed skyscraper like its older sibling, has 2,034 rooms, 72,000 feet of casino space and 27,000 square feet of retail space (the Esplanade) - its 11 boutiques stretched along an indoor walkway that connects it to the Wynn. Maybe you've seen the TV ad with Steve Wynn perched on top.

But just how high is he? As with many skyscrapers, the elevator buttons are designed without a 13th floor. And here, there are no floors numbered in the 40s, either, because the number four is considered bad luck in Chinese culture. (It sounds like the Mandarin word for death. Since opening a casino in Macao two years ago, Wynn's people have brought back several Asian touches.)

So did I lose at the slots because my 52nd-floor room, once you do the math, was really on the 41st?

Even without white tigers, dancing waters or a volcano or a pirate ship - features that Wynn's previous projects have included - the more restrained Encore took 21/2 years and an estimated $2.3 billion to build. It has five restaurants, seven bars, a nightclub and a big spa done up in soothing celadon hues.

In all, the resort is expected to add 5,300 jobs to the local economy, including one for singer-comedian-impressionist Danny Gans. Beginning Feb. 10, Gans will perform Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in the theater (tickets, $95 to $120).

But for now, I would say the stars are the ones working the floor, serving the food and cleaning the rooms. From the first to the last hours of my stay, it was clear the staff had been drilled rigorously in customer service.

The traffic-control guys remember to say "good evening." The cocktail waitresses know the minimum room size. The waiter at Botero can discuss the headliner-artist's work in detail. The guy sweeping the floor jumps to catch a closing elevator door for a guest. Most of the security guys keep their cool, even when being berated by guys such as the T-shirt-sporting opening-night customer whom I overheard bellowing, "Don't treat me like a ... 2-year-old. If I want to be treated like a 2-year-old, I'll go to Circus Circus!"

But basically, this was a resort near the top of its game. Even if this was first-night best-behavior, it was impressive. I can't see how it pencils out for Wynn at the current rates, but I'll take it.

The restaurant lineup includes Sinatra, a 152-seat dinner-only steakhouse by Theo Schoenegger that pays elaborate homage to you-know-who. On the stereo: Frank, Frank and more Frank. In the patio: orange chairs, because that was Frank's favorite color. At the entrance, a Grammy and an Oscar, on loan from the Sinatra family. On the wall in the semi-private Board Room dining area: a big photo of Frank and Steve Wynn, in 1981.

For dinner there, I had a tremendous little prosciutto-and-salty-persimmon starter, followed by an osso buco ($44) that wasn't quite as tender as I expected, given that it's cooked at low heat for 36 hours.

That's only the beginning of the food experience. Jet Tila (a specialist in Asian cuisines) runs Wazuzu, a modern Asian bistro (lunch and dinner) that features a 27-foot crystal dragon and a phalanx of golden pears at its entrance.

At Switch, a French-inflected surf-and-turf venue, the walls, ceiling and lights rise, fall and change color every 20 to 30 minutes. The chef is Marc Poidevin (formerly of Le Cirque at the Bellagio).

Also, there's Botero Steak, a dinner-only steakhouse named for the Colombian artist who likes his subjects pleasingly plump. The chef is Mark LoRusso (formerly of Tableau in the Wynn Las Vegas Tower Suites), and I had an excellent halibut there, surrounded by three Botero artworks and two of his sculptures.

For more casual meals, including breakfast, there's Society Cafe, which will focus on old-school Americana (including an epic $8 banana split), serving from 6:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., and until 3 a.m. on weekends.

Now let's step back to remember the harsh world outside these walls. After reaching an all-time peak in 2007 - 39.2 million visitors - Las Vegas has been slumping. Through the end of October, tourism for the year was down 3.2 percent, room rates were down 9.7 percent (to a median rate of $122 nightly) and gaming revenue was down 8.5 percent.

And even though some rival projects around town have been stalled or killed, other competitors are still rising. Even before Encore's doors opened, greater Las Vegas had added about 6,500 hotel rooms in 2008, most notably 3,066 at the nearby Palazzo and 1,282 at Trump International.

Nearly 14,000 more rooms are due to open this year, including the $9.2-billion CityCenter complex and the 3,889-room Fontainebleau Las Vegas, with additions at Caesars Palace, the Hard Rock Hotel and the Golden Nugget.

Some time in the next few months, Las Vegas will open its 150,000th hotel room.

That's a lot of flushes, especially for a place that gets 3.5 inches of rain per year, especially when the country is in worse economic shape than most people can remember. But for people who can afford it, the prices look pretty good right now.

That dry desert floor outside town is littered with the corpses of pundits who have proclaimed that Las Vegas is overbuilt. And there's probably a special section in that cemetery for people who underestimated Steve Wynn.

if you go

To book it: Rates at Encore start as low as $159 for certain days in January. For information: 702-770-7000, encorelasvegas.com

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