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Chris Jones

Golden Nugget: Shine On, Shine On

19 April 2006

A real golden nugget never rusts or tarnishes.

But it's not so easy to keep a 60-year-old hotel-casino from losing its luster, regardless of what it's named for.

Fans of Las Vegas' Golden Nugget need not worry: With a $100 million upgrade well under way, the property's latest owner is working to spit-shine, polish and otherwise preserve its uptown ambience in downtown Las Vegas.

"We've got guests who have been coming here for 40 years," Andre Carrier, Golden Nugget's chief operating officer, said during a Tuesday tour. "We have to, out of respect to them, continue to improve this product."

And if the changes lure in some new customers, so much the better.

Houston-based Landry's Restaurants, a publicly traded company best known for chain eateries such as Joe's Crab Shack and Rainforest Cafe, last year spent $325 million to buy downtown's Golden Nugget and its sister resort in Laughlin.

The deal closed in late September, ending Poster Financial Group's hype-inflated two-year reign. Once it had the helm, Landry's wasted little time pumping much-needed cash into its gaming flagship.

A fourth hotel tower will break ground near First and Fremont streets this June, adding an as-yet undetermined number of beds to the Nugget's 1,907-room inventory. Other changes -- some subtle, some dramatic -- are already complete or in progress.

Landry's management team is building around the Golden Nugget's central pool to offer guests an outdoor atmosphere that complements its inside amenities. Similar efforts have proven popular at Bellagio, Wynn Las Vegas and Green Valley Ranch Resort, Carrier said.

Likewise, Station Casinos adopted an indoor/outdoor theme for its new $925 million Red Rock Resort in Summerlin, which opened Tuesday.

Bulldozers are digging three stories below First Street to create the Nugget's new signature pool. Plans call for a 30-foot-deep aquarium filled with coral, sharks and other undersea creatures. A clear wall will separate its waters from an adjacent swimming pool, giving guests the opportunity to come nose-to-nose with Jaws without listening to Richard Dreyfuss whine.

Portions of the property's first-floor sports book were temporarily enclosed so workers could build the Grotto, a casual Italian restaurant and bar. Some of its 240 or seats will be placed near the pool, Carrier said, allowing guests to dine al fresco.

Above the Grotto, Landry's is renovating the buffet with live cooking stations and an enclosed pool view. One floor up, the Golden Nugget's intimate theater will expand from 400 to 600 seats, adding modern lighting and sound systems to a room still known as the place Frank Sinatra once played.

"This will be like The Joint, only for a different demographic," Carrier said in reference to the Hard Rock Hotel's small-but-popular concert venue.

The Golden Nugget's fitness center, spa and two-story suites have also been touched up to help maintain the AAA Four-Diamond Award status the hotel-casino enjoyed since 1977. Plans also call for a new sports book, lounge, poker room and multistory nightclub overlooking the Fremont Street Experience, Carrier said.

Many of the Golden Nugget's upgrades will be completed in time for the property's 60th anniversary on Aug. 30.

A revamped lobby was recently unveiled, right down to glass lighting fixtures dipped in amber to shed a softer tone. The new look in many ways resembles its predecessor, a slight change designed to preserve what's long been one of downtown's most distinctive spaces, Carrier said.

Nearby, the former Zax restaurant space was reshaped into Vic & Anthony's, an upscale 140-seat steakhouse concept that's proved popular with diners in Houston, Carrier said. An enclosed VIP check-in lounge is directly across the hall, complete with a secluded entrance to the casino's high-end slots and tables.

The Golden Nugget isn't the only downtown property that's trying to improve. The Henry Brent Co. in February closed its Lady Luck to begin its yearlong renovation. MTR Gaming is continually tinkering with Binion's, which it acquired from Harrah's Entertainment two years ago.

Improvements are badly needed downtown, where gaming revenue has declined in eight of the past 10 months through February, Nevada Gaming Control Board data show.

David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, on Tuesday compared Landry's changes to those former owner Steve Wynn made when he took over the Golden Nugget in the early 1970s.

While nearby businesses struggled, Wynn added the Nugget's first 579-room hotel tower in 1977, followed by the upscale Spa Tower in 1984.

"History is repeating itself" with Landry's, Schwartz said.

Looking long-term, he said the Golden Nugget and its neighbors could benefit from a potential extension of the Las Vegas Monorail and added bus service from "The Deuce," a two-tiered bus system operated by Citizens Area Transit.

As room rates continue to climb on the Strip, he said downtown will receive more attention from bargain-hunting visitors.