by michael kaplan | May 1, 2014 | Lifestyle
From private vaults to secret restaurants, the real high-stakes action in Las Vegas takes place far from public view.
XS Nightclub’s managing partner, Jesse Waits, has an intricate software system for determining who scores the best tables in the house.
Las Vegas is a city of secrets. Although this town plasters its main thoroughfare with brand names, neon logos, and paths to seemingly easy scores, it also harbors exclusive pockets of discretion that most people will never see. They exist in the gilded back rooms, hidden hotels within hotels, and carefully secured safes—literal and figurative—where precious things reside.
The allure of access to those precious things is irresistible. According to Sara Wedeman, founder of the Behavioral Economics Consulting Group, anything that’s scarce or secret or difficult to obtain is imbued with value. For a visitor to Las Vegas, where indulging in rare luxury is often the very reason for coming here, the allure is magnified. “When you can go to a certain place or stay in a certain room, you yourself become special,” says Wedeman. “If somebody treats you like a person who is important”—by approving your iris scan or your bankroll or maybe just recognizing your name—“you must be important. They prove it with their behavior, which is more powerful than words.”
It’s the kind of importance that casinos confer when they offer a safety deposit box, with a level of 24/7 security that sultans can only dream about, to superstar gamblers for stashing their cash. Among high rollers, who simply call them “boxes,” they are coveted commodities. Professional poker player Phil Laak is one of the lucky holders of a box near the main cage at Bellagio. “I got mine 15 years ago, when the casino was still giving them out, but I remain wait-listed for one in the poker room,” says Laak, who contends that the casino’s 24-hour surveillance and round-the-clock operation make it more secure than any bank vault. “When Aria opened, I went to the poker room on the first day and got myself a box. It holds one and a half racks of chips and is liquid gold.”
During a busy night at the nightclub XS, inside Encore, information is worth more money than Bellagio’s largest box can hold. To keep his spenders happy, Jesse Waits, managing partner at XS and Tryst, continually puzzles together pieces that will merge to produce memorable nights. Among the 170 tables at XS, six stand out as elite spots: the four onstage not reserved for the DJ and his entourage and the two at the base of the staircase, overlooking the dance floor. Of course, everyone wants them.
Although tables are assigned early, by midnight the system can easily fray: Customers come and go, some fail to show up, occasionally the wrong person is placed at the right table, or maybe Steve Wynn himself materializes and wants his regular spot. To prevent a complete meltdown and safeguard the hundreds of thousands of dollars in bottle service potentially hanging in the balance, Waits’s software keeps things organized and allows for real-time shuffling. “When we figure who’s most important for a [prime] table, it’s not always about the money,” he says. “Maybe it’s somebody who doesn’t spend $100,000 in a night but has been coming here every week for five years. When somebody super-important comes in, we start moving people around.” That way a VIP doesn’t accidentally end up in Siberia.
The Paiza Club’s gatekeepers limit access to only the Venetian’s very best customers.
The front podium invariably becomes what Waits describes as “a snake pit,” with customers jockeying for impressive perches and hosts working diligently to get their clients what they want. In his column in the Las Vegas Sun, Robin Leach gave a widely disputed account of what can happen when things go wrong. Quoting a “highly reliable insider,” he revealed that a certain Middle Eastern billionaire was turned down for a table at a hot Vegas nightclub. The “disrespected” billionaire vowed to “open his own place to teach them a lesson.” Could a messed-up table reservation really have launched Hakkasan? Waits says he has no idea: “It’s possible.... You never know.”
It’s no secret why people strive to get one of the few prime spots in a club filled with pretty good tables and excellent service. “You gain limited access to something and it connotes your insider status within an already elite group,” says Wedeman. As for why it feels so good to be up on the stage at XS, among 100 people partying within 10 feet of a fist-pumping DJ, she says, “Gaining limited access is a marker for your identity.”
Not that this matters to the sea creatures that have pride of place at Wynn’s Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare. Chef Paul Bartolotta is known for delectable spiny lobster, tasty brown crab, and peerless langoustines, mostly flown in from the Mediterranean and kept fresh until they’re served up for delighted diners. The crustaceans are shipped live, then coddled in holding tanks to reacclimate them. Then they’re transferred to larger tanks prepared by a marine biologist with precisely the correct oxygen, salinity, and temperature levels—all in an effort to make the chef’s grade-A sea assets feel as if they never left home. Bartolotta pampers his crustaceans as if they were guests in a Wynn Tower Suite. “They’re jet-lagged, man, and highly sensitive,” he says. “They’ve traveled all the way from Europe. I need to feed them what they’re used to in their environments.” He also needs to keep them safe and secure: “I lock my tanks, with real locks, at the end of the night. You don’t want a night cleaner grilling a dozen langoustines that you’re going to sell for $45 a piece.” All of this cosseting treatment is lost on the langoustines, but Bartolotta’s diners are acutely aware that their dinner is truly something special. And if the price sounds steep for several bites of sublimely sweet seafood, rarity and mystique are part of the allure.
“When you know the story behind an ingredient, that increases value,” says Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and the author of Predictably Irrational. The idea of feasting on superior-tasting sea creatures flown to Las Vegas from exotic coasts is irresistible to alpha diners. As Ariely explains, “The fact that something is rare gets people thinking that the things might not be there again and it signifies desirability.”
A peek through the glass: This is the best view that most people get of Venetian’s exclusive Paiza Club.
Pampering of a different sort takes place across the street from Wynn inside the Paiza Club, at Venetian and the attached Palazzo. A member-by-invitation-only operation, the club is an alluring complex of private gambling rooms as well as 24/7 fine dining, cocktailing, and cigar smoking for the casino’s best customers—usually from Asia. The zebrawood-paneled lair is set up so that players from the Far East can check in and feel right at home, literally. A Hong Kong–worthy four-star dinner can be whipped up at 4 am—which is 7 pm, or dinner hour, in Hong Kong. Once they’re stashed in the Paiza, Sheldon Adelson’s favorite customers become the casino’s most precious possessions and are happily treated as such.
One of the most compelling features of the Paiza is that high-stakes gamblers can play baccarat or blackjack for ungodly sums behind closed doors, a rarity in Vegas. “We had a customer here playing for 24 hours,” says Ken Wong, who helped create the Paiza and now oversees it. “Many of our Asian guests come and play for $200,000 or $300,000 per hand. That is their main reason for visiting Las Vegas, and they want privacy. We can serve a full meal at the gaming table, or they can come into the dining room and the chef will prepare a tasting menu based on what they like. Usually, though, it’s the simple things. They love having traditional noodle and congee dishes, made exactly as they would be at home.” Other times it’s a special variation on steamed eggs, a staple in China that’s rarely made in America, accompanied by 12 channels of Chinese TV. “We concentrate on everyday food that is difficult to get here,” says Wong. “We want them to feel like they’re at home.”
The private Van Cleef & Arpels showroom at the Shops at Crystals offers an intimate view of its high-end jewelry.
No matter where they stay, it’s a good bet that Vegas’s most pampered guests will end up visiting the Shops at Crystals, where those looking for rare gems may find themselves in the luxuriously appointed back room of Van Cleef & Arpels, a sanctum sanctorum of consumerism. Millions of dollars’ worth of cashew-size diamonds and impossibly green emeralds reside back here, never making it to the front counter. The lighting has been designed to be warm and inviting; patrons are made to feel as if they’re in someone’s home. Free-spending customers who would prefer more privacy are invited inside to sip Champagne, admire the fabric-wrapped walls and velvet drapes, and gaze upon mindblowing jewels. Like the $84,000 Midnight in Paris watch, whose face subtly changes each day so that its constellation always matches the real one in the night sky over Paris, or the Féerie watch (price upon request), whose fairy is fashioned from white gold and diamonds, her wings fluttering to signify the minutes, her magic wand indicating the hour.
If the surroundings and the merchandise—handled by a black-gloved salesperson—don’t make you feel special, then this advisory from store manager Ruth Fung may do the trick: “We want you to try something on that you won’t see elsewhere. They’re pieces that, perhaps, if you pass them up today, you will never see them again.”
Conforming perfectly with Ariely’s research, the statement is delivered as a slightly starchy yet still friendly warning about the pleasurable problems you may encounter upon falling through the rabbit hole of secret places in Las Vegas and brushing up against the city’s most precious commodities. Even if you’re not buying rare stones while sipping Champagne, or stashing a cool million at the Bellagio, or eating Peking duck at 4 am, just knowing that you could conceivably do these things is a bit of a trip. Aren’t you feeling a little more special already?
photography by jeff gale (van cleef); barbara kraft (xs); courtesy of the venetian (reception)