Writer Sheila Marikar on the garish—and timeless—allure of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
BY SHEILA MARIKAR
ILLUSTRATION BY PING ZHU
Cigarette smoke hit me the moment I pushed through the revolving door into a din of dinging slot machines. The buildup of millions of tar-filled butts seeped out of the carpets of Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, the first sign that I was in a vortex not entirely of this time. It didn’t bother me. Before descending upon the debauched desert strip, I packed away the part of me that prefers salads to burgers, flats to heels, and water to wine. Planes landing at McCarran should flash a sign: “Adjust your expectations.” Arriving in Las Vegas with the right mindset is key, because it is the TV dinner of U.S. cities. It lacks refinement, but it delivers a good time in the way that two minutes in the microwave delivers a Hot Pocket. And no one bites into a Hot Pocket thinking it will taste like a Neapolitan pizza.
Caesars is where Sinatra crooned, Ali boxed, and where you can now throw back vodka shots next to Justin Bieber in a nightclub whose giant chandelier moves up and down like an elevator. Nowhere else do history and contemporary culture clash so hard yet, somehow, sync. By the time I arrived at Caesars, I was of the same mindset as the bachelorettes in too-tight tubes and the beer-clutching bros. The colonnaded casino and hotel was celebrating its 50th anniversary on this sauna-like August weekend, and maroon banners draped the entrance: “Reimagining Vegas for Five Decades.” When the place was built, it cost four times more than the Dunes and the Sands, and set a new standard for Vegas opulence. Designer Jay Sarno wanted everyone who stayed at the hotel to feel like a Roman dictator, and to that end, its grand opening featured two tons of filet mignon and costumed cocktail waitresses who greeted guests, “Welcome to Caesars Palace, I am your slave.”
Since then, competitors have cropped up. The Cosmopolitan and the SLS vie for millennial likes with their slick, glassy interiors and of-the-moment offerings, like a sneaker boutique with no vowels in its name and an Umami Burger. What Caesars is currently reimagining, with its Greco-Roman exterior and smoky carpets, is unclear.
Innovation doesn’t always make things great. What Caesars should embrace is its innate cheesiness, that ooey-gooey factor that makes ballpark nachos so desirable at concession stands. Between the replicas of Michelangelo’s “David,” the row of tony fashion boutiques, and the hotel restaurant that bears the name of a famous sushi chef despite the fact that there isn’t a body of water around for miles, everything about Caesars is outlandish and excessive. Thank God for that. On Friday night, I took an elevator up to Mr. Chow, a sleek, white colored restaurant that serves Americanized Chinese food under nightclub lights. There were lychee martinis and chicken the color of Cheetos; iceberg lettuce and sweet, sticky shrimp. At one point, a chef ceremoniously slapped a wad of dough against a slab of stone until it turned into noodles. People clapped like children at a magic show—or adults, rather, since it’s Vegas. In New York or Los Angeles, this kind of spectacle would draw sneers. Here, it was perfect.
Caesars has another show on loop: people from all walks of life—not just the twenty- and thirty-somethings who throng the Cosmopolitan— assembling an alternate reality that, with any luck, will make their social media feeds gush “♥♥♥” and “!!!” and “OMG wish I was there.” At a time when the world is increasingly segmented—forget politics, we can’t even have water-cooler talk about TV because everyone’s watching everything at a different speed—it’s heartwarming to see a multitude of people come together, under one roof, in the great American pursuit of a good time.
Microwaveable entrées have tried to gussy themselves up in recent decades. I don’t blame Caesars for chasing modernity—the Chainsmokers, the DJs behind that annoyingly catchy “Selfie” song, performed at its snazzy new nightclub recently, and those maroon banners begged guests to deploy the hashtag #IAmCaesar. But I like to think of Caesars as a monument to the kind of unabashed revelry that took place before social media. Hail the good old days.