One Day at CityCenter

Cultural correspondent James P. Reza goes beyond the ‘wow’ factor to find out what the new Vegas is all about

Editor’s note: Let’s us know about your CityCenter experience by writing to

4 p.m. Rolling up to CityCenter as a tourist is a rush. Fountains jump, towers rise and shine, and the place buzzes in a way that is an entire Vegas Era away from the aging Travelodge and the gaudy maze of Hawaiian Marketplace carts just across the Strip. The circular valet in front of Aria—backdropped by a massive, gorgeous wall fountain gushing with wave after perfectly timed wave of the desert’s most precious natural resource—feels like 10 lanes of shiny new pavement. I hesitate to drive on it.

4:10 p.m. Although the attendants are as quick as any at getting to my car, they don’t seem to be trying any harder—odd, considering what’s at stake. Chalking it up to a Saturday afternoon check-in rush, when the stream of taxis and private cars is relentless, my companion and I retrieve our rolling carry-ons and head toward the fountain, and what I hope to be the registration desk of Aria. Nobody offers directions, so I rely on intuition.

4:15 p.m. Already warned (if one can consider numerous reviews a warning) of a vanilla-scented registration lobby that purportedly “smells like a cheap stripper,” I pull open the door for my companion. “It’s more like an expensive stripper, if you ask me,” she says, as a heavy sweetness hits us square in the nose. She was right; cheap strippers don’t smell like anything you might want to bottle for later, much less pump into what is being touted as the most luxurious hotel in the world.

The room isn’t ready. No biggie; I’m a flexible and understanding traveler. But the issue was compounded by the fact that my first language and that of the desk agent were different, and a heavy accent wasn’t helping; neither of us could understand the other without repetition. I politely suggested that we visit the bar until they could rustle up a room; with occupancy rumored to be 50 percent, it shouldn’t be too hard, right?

The agent left the counter to whisper with a manager, and my companion and I exchanged “Uh-oh” glances—was this a portent of our stay?

I looked around the space. As someone who routinely chooses modern boutique hotels when I travel, I immediately felt comfortable with the style, if not the scale, of Aria’s expansive, glass-walled lobby. It was quite unlike any vaguely tropical, vaguely Mediterranean lobby that has been the de rigueur Vegas avatar for luxury since The Mirage opened in 1989. But without quality service, the best space in the world doesn’t matter, and so far, things might have gone more smoothly.

4:35 p.m. On that note, before we could escape to the bar, a ready room was found, so up we went.

Technology is a big part of the CityCenter experience, and waving a passkey in front of a door sensor seems a rather flashy Star Trek touch. It was only the beginning: Upon entering the room, lights brightened, music played, and curtains slid open. “Wow! That’s pretty cool!” I thought. Cool, that is, until the curtains were fully open, revealing what was unquestionably the dirtiest hotel window I’ve ever seen. Ironically, I may have never opened those curtains myself.

But the immaculate room itself, with its big and inviting bed, modern art and comfy chairs, felt like a loft-style condo. An iPad-like controller manipulates every tech feature, from lighting to temperature to the “Do Not Disturb” indicator, and offers a few pre-set “moods.” You can even wake yourself up with natural sunlight, if you like.

6 p.m. After freshening up in a bathroom right out of Dwell, we headed downstairs for a trifecta of cocktails, dinner and a nightclub. We cased Bar Moderno, which offers a democratic mix of live piano, video poker and an excellent cocktail menu, but being early on a Saturday, it was empty but for a few T-shirted guests. So we settled on the bar at Union, the Light Group’s requisite restaurant, where the crowd tends trendy and the service well-intentioned.

7 p.m. After a nice bourbon cocktail (the “Las Vegan”) and some sexy people watching, we were off to Sage, chef Shawn McClain’s Modern American restaurant and a fave of local critics. In short, the room here was exquisite (dark, romantic, and sexy), the service impeccable (with informed servers who engaged us and steered us right every time), the food impressive (rich and flavorful balanced by small portions), and the absinthe cart a sensual decadence. For me, dining at this level of price and service is reserved for very special occasions, and for that, Sage would be perfect in every regard.

11 p.m. We could have easily ended with a nightcap at The Deuce, a cocoon-like gambling lounge, but instead, it was off to brave the madness at nightclub Haze. Most modern Vegas nightclubs follow a strict formula: safe music played for an undersized dance floor crowded by bottle-service tables that basically print money. I’ll sum it up this way: If you’ve ever been to the Bank or Jet, a Saturday night at Haze offers nothing you haven’t already experienced.

3 a.m. It’s also important to note that, if you are staying in the Aria tower above Haze, you will hear/feel the music, all night long, from your room. While I couldn’t make out the words from the 26th floor, I could certainly feel the beat.

8 a.m. To our surprise, we abruptly awoke the next morning to the knocking of housekeeping. Certain that we had touched “Do Not Disturb” on the bedside controller, we checked the indicator on the exterior of the room and found it inoperable. At that moment, I wished for nothing more than a plastic door hanger, but it was too late.

10 a.m. After a delicious, well-presented and not-cheap breakfast at Aria’s 24/7 Café Vettro, we wandered the grounds, marveling at how much it felt like a foreign city we had never visited. If you stretched a theme around CityCenter, it would be one of urban international modernism. At Crystals—the high-end mall that is certainly spendy, but not any more so than, say, the Forum Shops— a common adjective used to describe the space is “cold,” with its bright white walls and terrazzo-style floors.

Modernism still comes across as unemotional to many Americans. Foreign visitors, however, hold a much different view. While Americans romanticize the idea of aging, isolated Italian castles overlooking lakes, Europeans live with the messy reality of really old stuff every day. For them, and many Asian travelers, modernism is the symbol for luxury. In fact, a British traveler, in line at Café Vettro, remarked that CityCenter represented the “ultra-high end” in terms of Las Vegas accommodations, and that its presence on the Strip “really raised the level of the entire area.”

I tend to agree, but there are plenty of people who don’t, and this conflict is most evident at the confluence of Strip foot traffic and CityCenter’s entryway. Here escalators from the Strip-level sidewalk crest at the elevated footbridge, and the uninitiated pedestrian comes face to face with the 800-pound modern gorilla—whether they want to or not.

“Wow!” was my reaction, but among many of the T-shirted, yard-long-margarita-clutching crowd the scene must have been too overwhelming. To some it was as if CityCenter itself was insulting them. “Do you want to walk up there?” I overheard one man saying to his fountain-struck female companion. “No, no. That’s OK,” she laughed nervously.

11 a.m. Before we hit the road, we stop at the friendly bar at Brasserie Puck in Crystals, where a Las Vegas native and second-generation bartender is busy mixing up a champagne cocktail. She is a Puck protégé, starting as a teenager as a hostess at Postrio, and working her way up. She is moving in and out of a conversation between two bar patrons—one a service industry worker and the other a visitor.

“Man, it’s got to get better out there,” the service industry guy says. “But there’s too much gambling everywhere now.”

“Yeah, you can add gambling to any city. But you cannot replicate Las Vegas anywhere else on the planet,” the visitor replies. “Las Vegas seems to be able to invent its own future.”

1 p.m. As I wait for valet, I think about the visitor’s comment. It’s odd to consider a Strip on which The Mirage is the new “Old Vegas” and the Riviera a mere relic, harder to imagine that there might be enough sophisticated, monied travelers to support CityCenter, where gambling is but a small part of the experience.