SLS Las Vegas

[The Incidental Tourist]

First impressions: How far, how cool and how different is SLS Las Vegas?

The grand opening of SLS Las Vegas on Friday, Aug. 22, 2014, on the Strip.
Photo: Erik Kabik / Retna /

Champagne bottles have been popped, fireworks lit and the smoke cleared; now we’re left with nothing less than a brand new casino at the northern tip of the Vegas Strip. SLS Las Vegas has arrived—the first major resort opening since Cosmopolitan in late 2010—and though it’s only been in business for a few days, it’s never too early to dive in.

After attending a pre-opening tour, a press conference and a mega-party in the hours leading up to its August 23 debut, and stopping by for a lazy mid-day wandering two days later, I confess that SLS is getting more and more interesting with more time spent there. Some preliminary thoughts:

Getting there

SLS is, of course, a top-to-bottom renovation of the old Sahara, built in 1952 at the corner of Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard. Much has been made of how separate this site is from the rest of the Strip, how barren the north end of the Boulevard has become, and how much risk was taken by Sam Nazarian’s SBE and financiers Stockbridge to stick with plans for the property through the recession.

So how much of an island is it? It’s a half-mile from its closest neighbors, the Stratosphere to the north and Riviera and Circus-Circus to the south. SLS is more than a mile away from Wynn, the undisputed big dog of this part of the Strip. It’s not a great distance, but for pedestrians strolling in our lovely, dry desert heat, without other casinos, shops, bars and fun spots to break up the journey, it might as well be a marathon.

Still, Vegas vacationers love to check out the new, and they will ... even though they’ll mostly be taking cars, cabs or maybe even the Monorail. SLS also expects to draw lots of locals, hoping its proximity to sizzling-hot Downtown and accessibility from the east or west will be enough to get over the notion that those who live here don’t like to go to the tourist corridor. It’s an ambitious plan.

I’ve arrived at SLS from the north and from the south, by car and by foot, and it’s definitely easy to get there, easy to park and primed for a party.

A quick tour

The casino’s main entrance and valet facing Las Vegas Boulevard is a study in all-white, South Beach-style freshness. Scuttle up a few steps and hit the glass doors and you’ll notice two flashy LED installations that represent what president Rob Oseland called the resort’s signature elements, the SLS version of Mirage’s volcano. The first is the bright, color-changing floor tiles beneath your feet; then, straight ahead is the casino’s Center Bar crowned with a massive, off-center LED fixture. Flashy lights are the calling card, apropos for a Vegas casino built in Hollywood and assembled on the Strip. The most impressive piece might be the insane 3-D images projected on the parking garage’s white-screened wall during parties at Foxtail Pool Club.

SLS Las Vegas Grand Opening

If you recall what it felt like inside Sahara’s casino, you’ll immediately notice those low ceilings are long gone, lending an open, somewhat industrial vibe to contrast the swanky modern designs of Philippe Starck in collaboration with Gensler Architects. Bear left and find your way to Umami Burger (which contains a beer garden and William Hill sports book), live music cove the Sayers Club, the 20,000-square-foot Life nightclub and Bazaar Meat by José Andrés. Move right from the front door and encounter mini-club Foxtail, the adjacent Foxtail Pool Club (and main hotel pool), casual restaurants the Griddle Cafe and Ku Noodle and the hotel side of SLS.

SLS Las Vegas Opens With Fireworks

If you’re checking in, use the back valet from Paradise Road. It’s closest to the registration desk, a minimalist affair with more LED background stuff (borrowed from Cosmo?) across from the playful, lobby-serving Monkey Bar and the Perq coffee stop. This is where Monorail passengers arrive, too, and there’s a private VIP entrance leading into a separate check-in for SLS’ top-tier Lux Tower.

Casino and hotel spaces are sprinkled with Fred Segal stores, 10,000 square feet of retail spread over seven different shops. Ride up an escalator to the second floor to find a collection of rock and movie star photos, the SLS Buffet, a long striped hall lined with clocks and meeting spaces named after famous apes where the Sahara’s famed Congo Room once lived.

Details matter

SLS is absolutely unrecognizable from what was the Sahara, even if the pool and registration desk have been built in or near the same footprints. By fitting so many more venues into these buildings, the casino space has been trimmed to 60,000 square feet, but it doesn’t feel cramped. If you’re gambling, you’re never very far from food or drinks or other fun. The Center Bar is the only true casino bar, as everything is set into its own pocket, somewhat like the much more sprawling Aria.

There are plenty of quirky details beyond the many, many monkeys. You’ve never seen so many different kinds of chandeliers. The Sayers Club is dedicated to its couch-only seating. The buffet’s “cabin-chic” motif might be genius. And the vintage Vegas-meets-Hollywood imagery embedded into carpets might create a new phenomenon: Instagramming the floor.

The SLS restaurant collection is undeniably approachable, especially for a property striving for luxury. Ku Noodle, 800 Degrees pizza, Cleo, the Griddle Cafe and Umami Burger are all affordably priced with dishes clocking in under $20. This is one of the key factors that execs believe will help them lure a diverse crowd.

Oseland said he expects Fred Segal to be a “key driver” of business. It’s the first time the iconic retail brand has expanded beyond its LA roots, and it’s nice to have something other than another Louis Vuitton or Hermés store on the Boulevard.

Nazarian is already a beloved figure on the Strip, and he’s made Las Vegas his residence.

“We’re not here to build a hotel and move on,” he said at the press conference, where he received a standing ovation. “This is who we are. And we’re going to give back more than we’ll take.” That’s a pretty endearing statement, not something you hear all the time, but it makes sense: SLS is the first Strip property to focus so ambitiously and explicitly on the local market.

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Brock Radke has been writing about Las Vegas for more than 15 years. He currently covers entertainment, music, nightlife, food ...

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