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Worlds Collide in Las Vegas

Park MGM Las Vegas

As I enter the lobby of the Park MGM hotel, it’s hard not to feel a little like Alice in Wonderland peeking into a rabbit hole. Like most Las Vegas hotel lobbies, it’s a vast, bustling area anchored by restaurants, retail and game tables. But even at first glance, it’s easy to see that there’s more to this space than meets the eye.

From behind the concierge desk, Shoja Azari and Shahram Karimi’s hypnotic Dreamscape VI—a painting with video projected over it showing shimmering leaves and branches—transfixes passersby. Looking up, you’ll find another reason to stop and gaze: a ceiling sculpture by Henrique Oliveira, made of reclaimed wood that’s been shaped into a giant, gnarled nest. It’s meant to evoke what a tree’s root system would look like from underground.

Las Vegas always has been a larger-than-life wonderland. The classy casinos, epic entertainment and endless buffets are still easy to find—but even a destination as iconic as Vegas has to reinvent itself every once in a while. Nowhere is that reinvention more prevalent than in Park MGM (the newest hotel on the strip, on the site of the former Monte Carlo Resort and Casino) and the dozens of immersive dining experiences that have cropped up even in the past year. Vegas is now not just a destination in and of itself but a portal to virtually anywhere, no matter what sense of place, mood or feeling you’re seeking at any particular moment.

My first time- and place-warp is at Best Friend, food-truck king Roy Choi’s “Los Vegas” concept, which opened in December 2018. Unsure of what to expect, I head through a neon-lit, Korean-inspired bodega entrance past heavy PVC curtains (the kind you’d find in a walk-in cooler) into the dining room, passing by street art murals, a DJ spinning hip-hop and servers clad in matching tracksuits.

If I didn’t know any better, this might be 1990s Los Angeles, and the throwback photos of Choi included in the menu confirm that feeling. Choi calls his Vegas concept a “compilation album” of all the amazing work he’s done in the LA food scene. Korean favorites mingle with the street food for which he’s known to create a veggie- and seafood-heavy spicy, umami blend of tacos, rice bowls and noodles. As I comment that my pork belly rice bowl is painful heatwise but absolutely worth it, my server nods empathetically: “Just like Hot Cheetos.”

The next day, Eataly—the recently opened, 40,000-square-foot Las Vegas outpost of the popular Italian marketplace chain—enchants in a much different way. While there are sit-down restaurants and cooking classes, Eataly is designed so that visitors can meander from counter to counter, Aperol spritz in hand, buying a few Venchi chocolates here, some soppressata there, maybe a plate of greens with fresh Parmesan, olive oil and lemon to balance everything out. While I am fully aware that I’m in Las Vegas (thanks in no small part to a bachelorette party scrambling for the Nutella counter line), when the late-afternoon light hits the market just right, it would be easy to mistake this little piece of heaven for Milan.

If Eataly is a sprint, dinner at Bavette’s Steakhouse and Bar is a marathon. Inside the heavy doors lies another portal, this time to a Chicago steak house-speakeasy, full of Tiffany lamps, jazz music, red leather seats and a warm, inviting vibe that makes you feel like you could set up shop here for days. And you probably could. Two and a half hours magically pass as my dining companion and I sample all the classics: steak tartare, old-fashioneds, baked goat cheese, truffle macaroni and cheese, a perfectly cooked dry-aged steak and, finally, the pièce de resistance—a mile-high slice of lemon meringue pie.

After dinner, I sip a martini at the casino bar and suddenly realize that I’ve been in Sin City two full days and haven’t even gambled yet. Even though my $20 bill disappears nickel by nickel into a slot machine within seconds, I’m not disappointed—there’s likely to be a whole other world beckoning just around the corner.

Where to Stay

For another Vegas option, look no further than the top four floors of the Park MGM, which house the newest boutique hotel from NYC-based NoMad. Its nearly 300 rooms have an extra-sophisticated spin: atelier-style layouts, freestanding bathtubs, hardwood floors and gorgeous mosaic tilework. For those seeking traditional Vegas glitz and glamor, Bellagio Hotel and Casino boasts over-the-top artwork, high-end retail and dining and, of course, the iconic fountains.

Where to Instagram 

Glimpse the ghosts of Vegas’ midcentury heyday at the Neon Museum or take in contemporary works at Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. Yayoi Kusama’s iconic installation Infinity Mirrored Room–Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity—which allows visitors to enter into a room full of shimmering mirrored lights—is at Bellagio through June 30. 

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