Image: Mix at Mandalay Bay
Mandalay Bay
Diners have a daunting choice at Alain Ducasse's hot spot atop THEhotel at Mandalay: sit on the terrace and enjoy up-the-Strip views or eat inside, lit by the 15,000-piece blown-glass chandelier.
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updated 9/13/2010 12:02:05 PM ET 2010-09-13T16:02:05

Ten years ago architect Adam Tihany was once again staring at an empty space. Plans called for a simple metal staircase to lead diners into a sunken restaurant in the soon-to-open Mandalay Bay, but it just didn't sit right with him.

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"There are already too many metal staircases in this city," he told Bill Richardson, then vice chair of Mandalay Resort Group. "You're sure there's nothing else we can do?" Richardson, unconvinced, gave the architect until the following morning to present a better idea.

The next day, inspired by a late-night showing of Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible", Tihany made Las Vegas restaurant history. His four-story glass wine tower at the center of Aureole Restaurant would be accessed by high-wire "wine angels," who would zip up and down the tower to retrieve bottles for the diners below.

Click for slideshow: Las Vegas’ designer restaurants

The logic that "this just might be crazy enough to work!" has been integral to transforming the blank canvas of Las Vegas into a world-class destination of uniquely designed restaurants. Tihany's $1.2 million tower went on to generate millions in free publicity, and the restaurant has one of the biggest, deepest wine lists of any restaurant in the country.

In recent years, as construction of new mega resort-casinos has slowed, the one-upmanship race on the Strip has turned into who will build the next more ambitious, more outrageous, more fantasy-fueled place to eat.

"We do have very, very generous budgets because of the economic basis for our business," says Todd Avery Lenahan, designer of three Wolfgang Puck restaurants on the Strip, "and we also have the luxury of real estate and space." In other major markets, such as Los Angeles and New York City, real estate comes at a premium. "In Las Vegas you have big, column-free spaces."

The emphasis on design marks a major sea change in a city once known as a culinary wasteland of standardized steak joints, dark rooms and sloppy buffets. Increasingly it's known as a modern paradise for ambitious designers who want dinnertime to be as entertaining as the stage shows. Nowadays the Bellagio has Picasso paintings hanging in a restaurant named for the artist; in the new Encore resort a restaurant called Botero is adorned by the sculpture of — you guessed it — Ferdinand Botero.

"A lot of designers of my generation looked at the restaurants that were here and thought, ‘How boring,'" says Roger Thomas, Steve Wynn's interior designer. "We saw the prospects for decor as entertainment, for decor as marketing. You used to very seldom see a picture of a restaurant room in an advertisement. But we've made it so that that element is used as a competitive angle."

In Vegas it's not enough to merely become one of the great dining destinations in the world. Chefs who once thought it unthinkable to even consider cracking an egg on the blistering Sin City sidewalk have, in recent years, clamored to build that mind-blowing something.

"Las Vegas is a great experimental design laboratory — one of the few places in the world where the clients are very receptive and open to new ideas and new concepts," says Tihany, who designed Circo at the Bellagio as well as the buffet Cravings at The Mirage. "It's a very unique place where people appreciate what a big role design plays in making fantasy happen. They're willing to pay for the added value of something that's innovative and over the top."

Even the buffets are being made over. Lenahan insisted on having an overhead skylight at the Wynn Las Vegas buffet to allow natural light and decorated the dining areas with flowers and massive fruit-laden topiaries to "put forth a sense of wholesomeness, quality, real ingredients and a sense of wellness that comes from the Earth. That skylight was an architectural extravagance, but I thought it was critical."

Many results astound. The top-floor view down the Strip apparently wasn't enough of a stunner or conversation piece for Alain Ducasse's Mix at THE Hotel at Mandalay, so they tossed in a chandelier with 15,000 pieces of blown glass to envelop indoor diners. At the MGM Grand, the Japanese hot spot Shibuya greets guests with a 50-foot video wall behind the main bar as well as tables partitioned by striking floor-to-ceiling bamboo for a forest-like effect. Even the understated elegance of Fleur de Lys at Mandalay Bay has its design treasure: a leaf-shaped wall installation embedded with more than 3,500 fresh pink roses that accent colors in the restaurant's china.

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"There are budgets in Las Vegas — it's not a blank check. But on the other hand, if there's an idea that's over the top and unbelievable, you have a real opportunity to sell it," says Jeffrey Beers, who designed Rumjungle, Red White and Blue and China Grill at Mandalay Bay as well as Daniel Boulud Brasserie at Wynn. "If it's great, somebody will fund it."

To wit, what Vegas offers these chefs is the chance to build that restaurant of their dreams, the one they never could have conceived of when they were financing their original ventures by mortgaging their homes. The results are the bigger, bolder, more ambitious realizations that chefs could only fantasize about earlier in their careers.

"Very, very few independent restaurateurs could ever afford something of this level of quality, scope and design," says Paul Bartolotta, whose Ristorante Bartolotta di Mare includes mammoth terra cotta jugs and crystal chandeliers that hang down the center of a curved staircase heading to a dining room that offers outdoor seating next to waterfalls and a koi-filled lake. "Nobody could afford the level of drama you have here if it weren't a part of something like this resort."

That's not to say it always works. At Wynn the Mediterranean Italian eatery Corsa Cucina by chef Stephen Kalt saw underwhelming traffic when it opened in 2005. Thomas and Wynn decided the place was too closed off and dark, and by year's end walls were knocked down to open up the bar area to the casino. The restaurant later closed.

Since many of these restaurants are Vegas versions of eateries from elsewhere, there's always a debate about whether to try to recreate the original with some Vegas touches or to go in a totally different direction. Craftsteak at MGM Grand, for instance, recreates the look of Craft in New York with the steel-mesh separating the booths and rows of naked light bulbs hanging in the main dining room. Aureole, though, bore no resemblance to its namesake in New York--until it was shuttered and reopened in a new space this year, and looks more like its Vegas brother.

Most are hybrids. Tao Asian Bistro, a 42,000-square-foot restaurant-nightclub-lounge, is one such example. The original Tao in Manhattan is smaller, but some of the key design features —  a 20-foot-tall Buddha as a centerpiece and a worn-looking brick wall — are meant to evoke facets of the New York original. Yet even in some of those details, there's a "Vegasizing aspect"; the Vegas Buddha, Tao owner Richard Wolf says, "is sexier, the waist a little curvier."

"This is the project of our lifetime," Wolf says of the venture. "It's the biggest, most challenging restaurant we've ever done. To build in Las Vegas, where anything is possible — that is the highlight."

© 2012 Forbes.com

Video: Designer hotels are new travel trend

  1. Transcript of: Designer hotels are new travel trend

    AL ROKER reporting: This morning on TODAY'S TRAVEL , designer hotels. Several top fashion houses from Diesel to Betsey Johnson have turned their artistic eye to a larger

    canvas these days: Whole hotels. Many of them are offering reasonable rates. Nilou Motamed is the features editor at Travel Leisure magazine. Nilou , good to see you again.

    Ms. NILOU MOTAMED: Good to see you, Al .

    ROKER: So is this a real trend that's becoming popular?

    Ms. MOTAMED: It actually is a huge trend. In fact, the latest fashion accessory for designers is to have their own hotel . And it kind of makes sense, I mean, fashion is all about fantasy and drama...

    ROKER: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. MOTAMED: ...and hotels these days are all about bigger and better. And so how better for a fashion designer to show the 360 vision of their brand than to do a hotel ?

    ROKER: To do a whole hotel . And of course it's Fashion Week here in New York .

    Ms. MOTAMED: It is. So this is perfectly timed.

    ROKER: So you must be all-twitter right now. I know that, I know that. OK. So let's start off with the Pelican Hotel in Miami , Florida , created by the clothing company Diesel .

    Ms. MOTAMED: Now Diesel is a very cool Italian-based kind of jean and casual wear company, and they were actually very ahead of the curve with Miami .

    ROKER: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. MOTAMED: They came in in the '90s and saw this low-slung '40s motel and they saw the potential and they turned it into a very cool destination on Ocean Drive .

    ROKER: And it's reasonable.

    Ms. MOTAMED: Oh, my gosh, it's under $200, which is great, and even lower during low season, which is right now.

    ROKER: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. MOTAMED: And the rooms are so funny, they're all themed differently. One of them is called Me Tarzan You Vain , so you don't know whether that's a translation thing from Italian...

    ROKER: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. MOTAMED: ...or whether they just were being clever, and I think they were being clever, they're definitely tongue-in-cheek. And the cafe there is very, very cool, definitely a place to see a lot of -- a lot of beautiful people walking down Ocean Drive .

    ROKER: All right. Now we're going to -- out to the West Coast , the Parker Palm Springs , Palm Springs , California , designed by Jonathan Adler . He was kind of ahead of the curve, 2004 .

    Ms. MOTAMED: He was ahead of the curve in terms of doing a new thing with interiors, he does these gorgeous ceramics, people love his work. And so he decided to go to the old Merv Griffin resort, now that really takes you back.

    ROKER: Ooh .

    Ms. MOTAMED: And it needed -- it needed an update. But what's great about Palm Springs is it has all this history, it has that Rat Pack glamour.

    ROKER: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. MOTAMED: So he added a little touch of the mod '60s, a little bit of the feel-good '70s, and turned this into a great destination hotel and spa. They have wonderful -- three swimming pools, one of them which is all-salt water. They have clay tennis courts, they have croquet, they have petanque, so it feels a little old world.

    ROKER: Petanque! I like the sound of that.

    Ms. MOTAMED: You like that, right? And again, under $300 a night to stay there, and you can get better deals even than that.

    ROKER: Let's go across the -- across the pond to Edinburgh , Scotland , the Missoni Hotel . I'm guessing it was designed by Missoni .

    Ms. MOTAMED: Honestly, you're -- nothing -- you can't pass anything by you, you're too good. So Missoni is known for bright poppy colors, lots of great textiles and texture, and Rosita Missoni , who is the designer, the head designer, she's taken all of those influences and put into their first hotel , which is in Edinburgh .

    Ms. MOTAMED: Now this is on royal -- the royal mile there, so it's a kind of an interesting clash with kind of an Italian brand that's coming to Scotland .

    ROKER: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. MOTAMED: But it works perfectly. And what's great about this hotel , if you book a month in advance, which is I think a reasonable amount of time to plan your trip...

    ROKER: Not bad.

    Ms. MOTAMED: ...ahead, you get 25 percent off their rates.

    ROKER: Nice deal. Let's go to Ireland , the G Hotel in Galway , designed by a hatmaker?

    Ms. MOTAMED: Designed -- yes, in fact, designed by not only just a hatmaker, the hatmaker to Lady Gaga .

    ROKER: Oh.

    Ms. MOTAMED: We saw a lot of her at the VMAs .

    ROKER: Wow.

    Ms. MOTAMED: To Sarah Jessica Parker , to Madonna .

    ROKER: 'I -- I'd like a hat in meat, please.' What -- how do you pronounce his name?

    Ms. MOTAMED: Philip Treacy.

    ROKER: Ah. OK.

    Ms. MOTAMED: And he's a very famous Irish hatmaker and he -- Galway , as you know, is a beautiful part of western Ireland . And so there's a nice combination -- again, it's a contrast, this very modern hotel , it feels like " Alice in Wonderland " in the middle of this very charming town where there are great pubs and lots of places to have fish and chips and cozy stuff to eat. So I think it's a -- it's a good one. And again, the price is very reasonable.

    ROKER: Two hundred and sixteen a night.

    Ms. MOTAMED: Honestly, these prices are cheaper than they would be to get any of the clothes from these designers. So...

    ROKER: So you don't have to get dressed, just stay in the hotel .

    Ms. MOTAMED: Just get under the sheets.

    ROKER: Finally, we're going to finish up here in New York City . The Plaza Hotel , Betsey Johnson . This is the -- this is the grand one here, this is...

    Ms. MOTAMED: This is the opulent, this is the OTT .

    ROKER: ...this is a personal suite designed by Betsey Johnson .

    Ms. MOTAMED: Now this is a suite -- not only is it designed by Betsey Johnson , but the theme is Eloise .

    ROKER: Ah.

    Ms. MOTAMED: Now Eloise is everyone's darling.

    ROKER: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. MOTAMED: The six-year-old precocious who lived at the Plaza . And all little girls want to stay in an Eloise suite and this one is one that they would never want to leave because of the -- of all the incredible attention to detail, the hot pink. There's actually a neon sign above the bed that says " Eloise ." And you get lots of goodies if you stay in this room, including a monogrammed bathrobe, a $100 credit down at the Eloise store down in the Plaza . Now if you can't stay at the suite because a little bit pricey, there is an Eloise tee at the Palm Court , which all little girls love and is a fun thing for anyone who's coming in to town with their kids to do.

    ROKER: You know who else who loves it?

    Ms. MOTAMED: Who?

    ROKER: Our director, Joe Michaels .

Photos: What's new in Las Vegas

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  1. 50 years of Danke Schoen

    Fifty years ago, a young Wayne Newton played his first gig in Las Vegas. Now, he tells the story of his iconic career over the ensuing half-century in a new show called “Once Before I Go.” Playing Tuesdays through Saturdays at the Tropicana, the show features a full orchestra, video clips and reminiscences from the man rightfully called “Mr. Las Vegas.” Show tickets are $88 and $110, with VIP packages, including a meet and greet session and photo op, available for $165, plus service fees. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Tropicana) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. City on the Strip

    If you build it, will they come? As the largest privately developed project in U.S. history, the new CityCenter complex on the Strip is part destination resort, part urban enclave -- and a major roll of the dice for its owners, MGM Mirage and Dubai World. Its size and style -- four hotels, two residential towers and a 500,000-square-foot "retail district," all designed by world-class architects -- are like nothing else in Vegas and may serve as a sign of the next step in the city's evolution. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for CityCenter) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Elvis avec acrobats

    What do you get when you combine Elvis Presley with acrobatics, elaborate costuming and state-of-the-art special effects? Why, Sin City's seventh production put on by those fun-loving fabulists at Cirque du Soleil. Viva ELVIS opens on Dec. 18, and will play several nights a week in a specially built theater at the Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter. Tickets are $87–$149 for preview performances (through Jan. 28) and $99–$175 thereafter, plus service fees. (Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Up, up and (hopefully not) away

    Looking for a new perspective on the Strip? If so, then climb aboard the new Cloud Nine Balloon, which offers tethered balloon rides to a height of 500 feet above the ground. Eleven stories high, the balloon carries up to 30 people in a circular gondola and provides a 15-minute panoramic “flight” before being winched back to earth. Daytime rides are $22.50 for adults and $17.50 for children ages 5–12; evening rides are $27.50 and $17.50. Children 4 and younger fly free. (Cloud9vegas) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Plush planet

    Apparently, CityCenter didn’t use up all the window glass on the planet: just across the Strip, the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino will open its own skyscraping hotel in early 2010. Managed by Westgate Resorts, the 52-storyPH Towers will feature 1,200 timeshare units along with a health club, meeting facilities and a tropical pool complex with its own sandy beach. As a vacation-ownership resort, it will also offer easy access to the dining, gaming and entertainment facilities at Planet Hollywood. (PR Newswire) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Ruck and roll

    If you can tell a grubber kick from a checkside punt, you’ll probably want to be at Sam Boyd Stadium at UNLV February 13–14 when the USA Sevens Rugby Tournament makes its Las Vegas debut. Part of the IRB Sevens World Series — and the only U.S. stop — the event brings together professional teams from 16 nations, along with thousands of rabid fans, for a two-day round-robin of mauling and mayhem. (The players have been known to get a bit rough, too.) One-day tickets are $35–$250, plus service fees. (Todd Warshaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. From Music City to Sin City

    Alas, it took all of five hours for Garth Brooks’ un-retirement concert series at Wynn Las Vegas to sell out, but country music fans can still get their boot-scootin’ boogie on this winter. This month, Trace Adkins plays The Pearl at the Palms Casino Resort on Dec. 9; three days later, Randy Travis takes the stage at Monte Carlo. Then, on Feb. 6, George Strait (aka “The King of Country”) and Reba McEntire (aka “The Queen of Country”) will hold court at the Grand Garden Arena at MGM Grand, with Lee Ann Womack opening. (Tami Chappell / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Downtown goes upscale

    As seen in this artists rendering, a longtime landmark in downtown Las Vegas, the Golden Nugget is in the middle of a $300 million renovation that promises to add new luster to Glitter Gulch. In November, the hotel opened Rush Tower, a 25-story addition with 500 rooms and suites, several shops and a Chart House restaurant anchored by a 50,000-gallon tropical aquarium. A new pool will connect to The Tank, the hotel’s existing pool complex where a three-story water slide shoots through a 200,000-gallon shark tank. Midwinter rates start at $69. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Making an impression

    You’ll probably never see Jay Leno, John Madden and presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush share a stage, so comedian/impressionist Frank Caliendo may be the next best thing. One month into a 10-year run at Monte Carlo, the "MADtv" and "Fox NFL Sunday" vet skewers all of the above, along with DeNiro, Pacino and dozens of other boldfaced names, four nights a week in the resort’s Lance Burton Theater. Tickets are $48–$81, plus service fees. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Exclusive enclave

    Hotel32 sits right on the Strip, but you’d never find it unless you knew where to look. That’s because it occupies the 32nd floor of the Monte Carlo resort, a hotel within a hotel for those who want a VIP experience at a reasonable price. Ranging from studios to two-bedroom penthouses, accommodations include roundtrip limousine service to and from McCarran Airport, private check in, butler services and complimentary breakfasts and evening snacks in an exclusive lounge. Special rates start at $170 per night. (Ogara Bissell Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Take the leap

    Leave it to the folks at the Stratosphere Hotel & Casino to find yet another way for adrenaline junkies to scare themselves silly. Already famous for its sky-high thrill rides, the resort is adding a new one called a Sky Jump that essentially lets guests throw themselves off the 108th floor — fortunately, while being attached to a harness/cable system that stops them before they hit the deck 107 stories below. The ride is modeled after one in Auckland, N.Z., but alas, you’ll have to wait to take the plunge since the Vegas version won’t open until April. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. He writes the songs

    Who? Barry Manilow, of course, who will end his current show at the Las Vegas Hilton on Dec. 30 and open a two-year run at Paris Las Vegas on March 5. While the former show was billed as a collection of his greatest hits, the new gig is expected to highlight classic love songs, many of which will appear on his next album, “The Greatest Love Songs of All Time,” which is set to drop Jan. 26. Shows are Friday–Sunday; tickets are $95–$299, plus service charge. (Paris Las Vegas via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Opening Of Wayne Newton's "Once Before I Go" - Show
    Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Tropicana
    Above: Slideshow (12) What’s new in Las Vegas - What's new in Las Vegas
  2. Las Vegas Strip Exteriors
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    Slideshow (23) What’s new in Las Vegas - Viva Las Vegas!

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