When In Vegas, Go Neon!

Heading to Vegas and can’t get tickets to Britney’s show? Or maybe you’re just in search of something a little more low key and more uniquely “Vegas?” Before you panic, keep in mind that shows in Vegas are mostly over-hyped, over-priced and sometimes performers don’t even actually sing. You’re paying for backing tracks. What to do instead? Here’s my suggestion, head to the Neon Museum. It is an overlooked gem in Sin City.

The Neon Museum in Las Vegas. My pick for a good night out!
The Neon Museum in Las Vegas. My pick for a good night out!

During the 1990’s, Las Vegas boomed with big casinos. At that time, the Allied Arts Council came together with the City of Las Vegas and YESCO (Young Electric Sign Company) to create a non-profit association to help preserve what is synonymous with Las Vegas. Their mission was to protect and preserve many of the historic neon hotel and casino signs in danger of being lost in the constant reinvention and revitalization of casinos. In 1996 they formally organized the Neon Museum and it officially opened for visitors in 2012.

Tours begin in the historical La Concha Motel. The shell-shaped building was designed by architect Paul Revere Williams and is considered “googie architecture” — a form of exaggerated design in the 50’s with up-swept roofs, geometric shapes and at the time bold use of neon, steel and glass. It’s a perfect introduction to what the museum is about since the La Concha was saved from demolition in 2004 and moved to its current location to serve as the Neon Museum’ lobby and visitor center.

After your group is ready, a guide ushers you through the “neon boneyard.” This is where you’ll see signs from the original Vegas strip – Freemont Street. The collection currently features some classics including the Stardust sign and Binion Horseshoe.

The famous Stardust sign on display at the Neon Museum. Its so large, it's almost impossible to get the sign in one photo.
The famous Stardust sign on display at the Neon Museum. Its so large, it’s almost impossible to get the sign in one photo.

Not familiar with Mr. Binion? Thank him, as the person responsible for putting carpet in casinos to make them nicer. Previously visitors would bring in their animals, specifically horses, and the floors were shall we say …quite dirty? Mr. Binion also came up with the idea of serving free drinks to gambling patrons. Okay. Maybe he’s not a great visionary, or inventor, but I for one enjoy the carpeted/free drink/livestock-free environment.

Tours run about an hour and are available day and night. That said, who enjoys neon in daylight? I strongly recommend a night tour so you can see the signs lit up. Because Las Vegas is in a dry, desert area and the temperature drops significantly at night, take a warm sweater and a good camera!

And unless you have a rental car, you’ll need to take a cab—all in all, expect to part with $50-$60, but unlike the slots, you’re guaranteed to walk away satisfied, with a sense of the history surrounding Las Vegas.

An old gas station sign visitors would pass on their way out of town. Free aspirin seems about right!
An old gas station sign visitors would pass on their way out of town. Free aspirin seems about right!

Vegas Eats

Along with the over-the-top shows, nonstop gambling and overcrowded bars, Las Vegas is chock full of great places to eat. I can rail on the “cheese” factor, or the obscene wealth and squandering of money, or the opulence that takes ones breath away. But I hand it to Las Vegas, they invest money where your mouth is. Unfortunately, it’s all horrifyingly expensive.

Your choices range from the affordable, say McDonald’s, to mid-priced, theme restaurants like Senior Frogs. From there, I didn’t notice anything but a sheer cliff up to the exclusive VERY expensive celeb chef places like CraftSteak. But let’s be honest, nobody comes to Vegas expecting to eat at McDonald’s. Locals, people with hangovers, or people who “let it ride” go to a Vegas McDonalds. I’ve been to Las Vegas several times for work and decided I know enough of a range to finally recommend a few of my favorite places.

Before i get to my little gems let me say something to those of you who’ve never been to Vegas. It’s it’s important to establish a budget for dining out. This place is not cheap. Even a small breakfast will run you $20, and you don’t want to be lightheaded and drinking if you’re gambling. It’s also important to know that it will be—as all Vegas—over the top. Theportions are massive and tend to be on the salty side, which can encourage you to drink. I recommend club soda on the side. With careful planning you can stick to any food regimen (i’m 4HB and found it easy to stick to the regimen) but again, you need to plan. All that said I never had a bad meal in Las Vegas. The food may not be to your personal liking, but it will never be bad.

My hands down favorite for a special occasion or to celebrate a job well done is Nobu at the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel. I recommend skipping the menu and putting your faith in the server. There are two reasons for this. First, the chef will know which cuts of fish are the best that day, and which dishes turned out the best. Second, it makes it an adventure, and Vegas is one big adventure.

The server will ask you a few questions about allergies, desired spice/flavor, if you want sushi included. If you have a strong to aversion to something (say sea urchin), this is an excellent time to speak up. Be sure to give the waiter a price point (“I don’t want to spend more than $$ per person), or you’ll have a heart attack when the bill comes. To give you an idea, three people having two drinks each and sushi cost about $500 with tip. After that, sit back, relax and eat your heart out. Food items range from sea bass, salmon belly, lightly fried crab and steak cooked on a hibachi.

If you are looking for a fun place to get drinks, i recently discovered The Chandelier at the Cosmopolitan. It’s a small three floored bar/lounge surrounded by crystals, as the name might imply. Drinks are not cheap ($15, but healthy pours), but if you are networking this impressive place is my recommendation.

For the sports fan in all of us, i recommend Lagasse’s Stadium. Yeah, that’s the guy who goes “BAM” on his cooking show, and the walls shake when he pours an entire bottle of wine over eight cloves of garlic. At least he used to. Anyway, the food is bar/pub food but you aren’t going for food. You are going to watch sports, which is why the TV screens are about the size of a movie theater. The added surround sound makes it feel like you are standing on the sideline of your favorite NFL team on any given Sunday. It’s impressive.

For something more laid back and on the cheeky side (good, cheesy, silly fun), try the Fireside Lounge. On the other end of the strip, compared to the Chandelier, it’s actually closer to Freemont Street than the Vegas strip. This dinner/cocktail lounge is a throwback to the older days of Las Vegas. The good old days—not the best old days, if you ask me…not the Rat Pack, or Sinatra Live at the Sands. That’s not the vibe you’ll get here. The decor is like walking into the Brady Bunch house, waitresses donning black—if  you are lucky enough, sit by the fire pit. (Tip of the hat to to a former ConAgra client who told me about this place. I return every time because it’s a relaxing experience, you don’t have to dress up, it’s relatively low-key, and comparatively affordable (drinks are $10). Like any place in Vegas, it is affordable, but it can get expensive real quick.

For brunch, the restaurant Bouchon (not the bakery on the strip, a “to go” place which is lovely), located inside the Venetian remains my favorite. I first ate at Bouchon five years ago and can still recall the French toast. Usually that kind of recall is reserved for Mr. Os, and special occasions, so what I’m saying is you’re money will be spent, but it will be memorable for more than the check. The French Toast is art on a plate.

For a more casual breakfast, i recently discovered Jean Philippe Patissere inside the Aria Casino. This small cafe packs a punch with sweets, pastries and sandwiches. Not to mention, they make some really great coffee. Mr. Os weighed in to say that last statement should be put in italics…because complimenting coffee is not what I do.

Hate to end on a “let down” but, well, even though Vegas is known for its steak houses and i’ve been to many of them. Unfortunately, I haven’t found one that I can recommend. Every one runs like a Swiss Watch, but a glass of wine with the steak (no sides) will already put you at about $75.00.Maybe I’m harping too much on money in this blog. But I want to make sure any reader who is planning to go is properly prepared. Even over prepared would be good. And, if you happen to hit the jackpot, well then please disregard the above.

For steak places, the majority tend to be excellent cuts of meat that are well cooked, yet often overly salted.  One final recommendation: make a reservation wherever you go. Otherwise you will be waiting a looooong time. In fact, make a reservation before you fly out, while you’re waiting to board your flight. Trust me now, thank me later.

Back in The Windy City

Work took me back to Chicago last week for the BlogHer conference. Our client event was a great success (thank you bloggers who participated!) and we had a little bit of time to enjoy some great restaurants and… The Skydeck!

As i mentioned previously, i have always wanted to visit the Skydeck. I’ve heard the views are astonishing but my real reason for going is to make progress towards overcoming a deep-rooted fear of heights. I don’t want this fear to paralyze me from living life and taking risks (acceptable risks like going on a Skydeck, not stupid risks such as not wearing a seat belt).

Weather be damned, since the skies were grey and a bit rainy, i grabbed two co-workers and dragged them with me. It’s a complete tourist attraction but it was so much fun. I could feel my stomach drop and my head started playing tricks on me as i stepped out on the Skydeck for the first time.

This is me (and two co-workers) 1,353 over Chicago. We like this photo because the shoes represent our personalities.
This is me (and two co-workers) 1,353 feet above Chicago. We like this photo because the shoes represent our personalities.

If you go to the Skydeck, i strongly recommend putting down your own camera for a few minutes and walking around to observe other visitors. Yes, they are tourists but seeing how others experience this is interesting. Everyone has a different story based on family dynamics, age and their own fear of heights.

Part of the fun of the Skydeck is watching other people stand on the deck.
Part of the fun of the Skydeck is watching other people stand on the deck.

In the event the Skydeck and conquering a fear of heights is not your thing, i am happy to pass along On the Go Joe’s brunch recommendation.  I’ll let his video explain the rest.

Prior to attending the conference, Patrice Yursik (aka, the amazing @afrobella) shared fantastic recommendations for what do, see and eat in Chicago. I can’t recommend this post enough and hope you’ll check it out. In addition to offering her personal favorites, Patrice offered excellent alternatives for places to get great deep-dish pizza and hot dogs. Of all the “what to do” posts i saw, this was the biggest differentiator and what makes hers the best.

Not so juicy thoughts about going to BlogHer

Today, i am heading to Chicago for the blogging conference, BlogHer. This is not my first trip this rodeo. I know for sure its my second, possibly even my third but i lost track.

What’s different about going to BlogHer13 is that i finally stopped talking about blogging on my own and started doing it. HoRAY!! This will actually be my first time attending a social media conference where i am doing what i spent a lot of time talking about doing. (To think, i never would have called myself a procrastinator.)

As i fly the friendly skies i’m wrestling with what to do. I’m attending for work and have a full conference pass where i could participate in sessions outside of work/client commitments. Or, i could use my free time in other ways and continue exploring Chicago.

I’m conflicted about this decision and probably shouldn’t be. Why might you ask? For one thing, i am a terrible networker. I like people, i am just painfully shy and uncomfortable in new situations. It’s hard to network let alone strike up a conversations when you choke after ‘hi, nice to meet you.’ Then of course, i’m attending the conference on behalf of/with a client so if someone says something good/bad/indifferent am i obligated to report back? I think yes, even if i’m at a session on my own time.

And where does transparency fits into all of this? If i meet interesting, like-minded people shouldn’t i immediately volunteer that i’m in PR? That should be fun (not, but still necessary) and certainly won’t make being shy and socially awkward more obvious.

What i wrestle with the most is how conferences like this bring out the best in some people and worst in others. Having been to BlogHer and Blissdom (with clients, as an exhibitor) i’ve seen how conferences are a learning, networking and relationship building event for most. And i’ve seen how they are complete swag-fest for others. That same swag was (sometimes) thoughtfully selected by company’s is often trashed when people realized it wouldn’t fit in their suitcase on the way home. I’ve been yelled at by conference-goers, for not having the right food, samples, brochures and premium items. I take pride in my work so this is frustrating and upsetting. In the end, you can’t win them all. And by no means, am i saying this best of/worst of phenomenon is unique to blogging. It’s not. My own industry is equally bad when it comes to big events and celebrations. (Words that are true but will no doubt haunt me for years to come.)

Ultimately, i hate seeing people behave poorly or treat others badly. That’s why i was never much of a party-girl, what’s fun about watching people drink too much and then do stupid things? I would be crushed to forego an opportunity to explore only to end up spending my Saturday sitting next to the person who was unnecessarily mean to me or a co-worker.

If you are attending BlogHer and this means anything to you, i would love to hear from you. And, gulp, maybe even meet up?  I muse about miscellaneous things, love travel, shoes, my nieces and nephew. I’m also quite the talker once feel comfortable with someone, which surprisingly does not take long.

If you are attending BlogHer and this doesn’t resonate with you, that’s okay. I would ask one small favor. When Brand X is out of freebies, or Company Y’s representative is not as hip as you’d like, be kind. These people are doing the best they can to make you, the blogging community, happy. Yes, there are hits and misses but ultimately they just want to make you happy and do a good job. Offer them a smile, or a kind word, say thank you. I guarantee you will make their day.

What A Difference A Day Makes

In a recent post i shared some thoughts and images, about the Hard Rock Hotel in Chicago. (Sidebar: As the owner of this blog, i took a liberty with the word ‘recent.’ It was not that recent. In my defense, I knew May would be hectic with work commitments but i underestimated just how hectic it would really be. As a result, my personal interests and passions, like training for my ride and this blog suffered. Sorry. Sadly, i’m human not Super Human. I am trying to get back on track and appreciate your understanding. End Sidebar) After my work in Chicago ended, i was off to Santa Barbara to attend another conference. I stayed at the Marriott Courtyard.

What a difference a day, and hotel chain makes. Here is what the Marriott Courtyard bathroom and furniture looked like. The facilities are clean, not full of grit or in need of a sand blast.

Marriott Courtyard

The furniture, while not new, is not full of cracks and otherwise on the brink of being kindling for a fire pit. Furniture

Even the staff was more accommodating: calling for cabs when i needed them and helping with a minor phone issue. And i being Southern California they had an outdoor fire pit!

Like most people, i love a great hotel with all the amenities. At the end of the day, i have a stronger appreciation for a hotel that gets the basics right. In this case, props to the Marriott Courtyard. I don’t stay at their properties often but this experience was great and i will keep their hotels in mind when i’m traveling for myself or making arrangements for clients.

After my previous rant, i felt compelled to share this experience. It really bothered me that people would think i’m a primadona  about where i stay. I guess we all have a streak of narcissism in us and now you know mine.

Where to Rest Your Head in Millennium Park, Chicago

If you read my previous post, you already know i’ve spent a fair amount of time in Chicago. While that time is limited to the area surrounding Millennium Park, i’ve been there enough to have some strong opinions on where to stay as well as a couple of eating suggestions.

There are a lot of hotels in this area. I’ve stayed at the Hotel Monaco, the Hard Rock Hotel, the Fairmont and a few others that i can’t remember off the top of my head. The Fairmont, if you have access to a corporate rate, is hands down the best. The property is well maintained (read: clean, everything works), the beds are comfy and the linens are clean and crisp. The gym on-site is SPECTACULAR and the restaurant, Aria, is also rumored to be excellent and quite the spot for night life.

If you don’t have a corporate account, or prefer a boutique hotel, the Hotel Monaco is terrific. Again, the rooms are clean, the beds are extremely comfy and the linens are generally in good condition. The staff is always unbelievably helpful, like they have actually been trained in customer service. South Water Kitchen, the hotel’s restaurant is great. It’s low-key compared to Aria but you can never go wrong with this place if you need a solid location for a meeting. My only compliant is they don’t have a fitness center.

I’ve stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel on three occasions and have to say, i will never stay here again. I’m old enough to remember when HRC was synonymous with quality and fun. I get the brand is about bringing the ‘rock star persona’ to life but every time i’m here, it falls so incredibly short on just basic stuff. On this occasion, my bathroom smelled like bleach, the shower was in serious need of a sand blast, the walls had scratches and the furniture had clearly seen better days.

This shower has clearly seen better (and cleaner) days
This shower has clearly seen better (and cleaner) days

Generally, i’m not a complainer especially if i’m traveling at the request of a client. After three stays, i just cannot recommend this hotel to anyone visiting Chicago. IMO, i think this hotel is still in business because guests are staying as part of a conference package, getting a discount. There is just no other reason to stay here.

I did not mention the above complaints upon check in. I figured it was no big deal. However, after complaining about the state of the room for the third time to my S.O., i realized how upset i was. When i checked out, the staff was indifferent to the concerns i shared. Ultimately, this is why i can not recommend this hotel to anyone. If the best the staff can muster is, “oh”, i’ll take my business and my recommendations elsewhere.

This damaged furniture is another example why my stay at the HRH was a total bummer. Shoddy all around
This damaged furniture is another example why my stay at the HRH was a total bummer. Shoddy all around

On a more positive note, if you are in the Millennium Park area, i suggest heading to Pastoral Artisan for a salad or sandwich. The vibe at this place is great and the sandwiches are delicious.

Pastoral Artisan, a fave causal lunch place in Chicago
Pastoral Artisan, a fave causal lunch place in Chicago

If you get there before the lunch crowd, there are a few tables in the restaurant. Another place i always find myself at is The Gage. This is a popular destination for happy hour and can get loud. Don’t let that deter you, it’s great for dinner. I’ve taken clients, co-workers or eaten at the bar myself and never been disappointed. My most recent dinner was Mussels Vindaloo with a Pinot Nero. Delicious!

Out (and sort of about) in the Windy City

Throughout my professional career (and at this point, it’s longer than i want to admit), i’ve traveled to Chicago for work. Every visit has been fantastic. On various trips i have been fortunate enough to visit Navy Pier, shop the “Mag Mile” and West Loop areas, and attend cooking school.

But over the years, i found my trips were limited to the same 10 block radius and realized i had never actually done much outside of my formal meeting schedule. If you travel for work you know how backwards this is. You fly in, meet, work, meet, check email, and fly out. If it’s an overnight trip you fly in, meet, work, meet, check email, meet for dinner, entertain, crash from exhaustion, get up, exercise, rinse and repeat.

I was back in Chicago last week for a conference. Since a 2013 goal of mine was to get out and see more when i travel for work, i was determined to break the typical cycle.

With that in mind, there are two things I have always wanted to do in Chicago. 1: Walk through Millennium Park. It has bothered the hell out of me that i was here on a regular basis for four years, working right across the street from this park, and never once walked through it.

After my meetings ended on Tuesday, i took a leisurely stroll through the park. It’s quick, takes 10-15 minutes at a brisk pace (making it even more pathetic that i never did this before). What i loved most about my walk was finally getting to see “the bean.”

"The Bean" in Millennium Park Chicago
“The Bean” in Millennium Park Chicago

It’s just a bean in the park, but it’s cool. It’s also symbolic of Chicago (to me at least) because there are all kinds of sculpture art around the city. I know other cities (NYC, Minneapolis even Washington DC) do stuff like this. It just stands out more in Chicago.

The bean looks a littler funkier from underneath
The bean looks a littler funkier from underneath

The second thing i’ve always wanted to do is go to the Sears/Hancock/Willis tower sky deck and stand on the glass balcony overlooking Chicago. Yeah, this is total tourist stuff. But i have a deep rooted, irrational fear of falling. I love views but the fear of falling has bordered on near paralysis at times. I wanted to do this to push myself waaaaay out of my comfort zone and see if i can start overcoming this fear.

Mother Nature, could have cared less, and sent the biggest, baddest storm to Chicago. There was hail, thunder, lightening and rumor has it the Causeway was closed as well as some schools. Total bummer.

This image does not even begin to capture the rain and how fast it came down. But hopefully you get the idea
This image does not even begin to capture the rain and how fast it came down. But hopefully you get the idea

While i fell short on my wish list, i think i get an A for effort. When i’m back in Chicago what should be on my to-do list?