The Incidental Tourist

[The Incidental Tourist]

Aria is becoming the elite resort it always promised

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Carbone at Aria.
Photo: Douglas Friedman

Carbone opened its doors at Aria last week, bringing flashy tableside service and hip energy to classic Italian-American cuisine. Another New York restaurant staking its claim on the Strip? Sure, but it wants to be something more.

“For us, the most important thing is telling the whole story,” managing partner Jeff Zalaznick says. “Our story is that around 1958, it’s the glory days of New York-style Italian food. Italian-American fine dining was at its peak. And a lot of the great things we are celebrating in New York were also happening in Las Vegas.”

This is why, when MGM Resorts came calling a few years ago, Zalaznick and his partners Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi were ready to listen. Carbone makes sense in Las Vegas. “We took over a 100-year-old restaurant on Thompson Street called Rocco, and I guarantee you there were people eating dinner at Rocco who were going to the Sands that weekend. There is a great parallel there.”

There are just as many nods to Vegas as New York in the new restaurant’s design—the black-and-white tile pattern in the bar mimics the swimming pool at the Sands, and Carbone’s striking Red Room is as Vegas glam as it gets, with unusually tall, shimmering gold booths under a sparkling chandelier.

It’s destined to become a hot spot, possibly even more so than Bardot Brasserie, the precise French restaurant from superchef Michael Mina that opened just steps away from Carbone early this year. Both are big moves, but Aria’s not done. December will bring Herringbone—the seafood-oriented restaurant that already has three bustling locations in Southern California—from chef Brian Malarkey and Hakkasan Group. (Herringbone will also mark the return of Geno Bernardo as executive chef, the guy who made Nove Italiano at the Palms into a locals’ favorite.)

These are just the latest turnovers at Aria, which opened as the intended centerpiece of MGM’s CityCenter complex in December 2009. In late 2012, the resort swapped out the underachieving Cirque du Soleil show Viva Elvis with the much more thrilling and successful Zarkana. The Light Group-created steakhouse Union—wholly unnecessary with mega-earner Jean Georges upstairs, between Bardot and Carbone—was quickly replaced with crowd-pleasing Mexican fare at Javier’s. The nearby Deuce Lounge, also a Light invention, was replaced by a more open bar called Gem just this week, and another nondescript casino bar transformed into the swanky Alibi Cocktail Lounge last year.

And then there’s Jewel, the next nightclub from Hakkasan Group, which will fill the former Haze space and Aria’s nightlife void. Dinner at Carbone followed by a party at Jewel ... get used to those plans. The club opens next year.

Aria’s strengths have always been obvious. It’s huge. The rooms are as good as it gets, especially the upscale Sky Suites. It looks great and unique. There’s art everywhere. Don’t forget, CityCenter was supposed to change the game, despite its bad timing opening during the recession. Its scale was unprecedented. MGM CEO Jim Murren tried to build the world-class urban gathering place Las Vegas didn’t have, with condo towers mixed among the hotel high-rises. That’s not the way it turned out, but it still looks the part—especially Aria.

It’s the programming of the resort that didn’t initially fulfill that promise. It felt too close to the familiar casino life at Bellagio, with similar restaurants, bars, clubs and shows. Now, things are different. MGM has clearly focused on bulking up the already impressive amenities at the centerpiece resort. CityCenter isn’t really a thing anymore. It’s all about Aria.

“Things are changing, and that commitment was important,” says Carbone’s Zalaznick, adding that his deal was only ever going to be at Aria. “What you see now, this upgrading and innovating and bringing this new chapter in, it’s a whole new feeling here. It’s an exciting place to be.”

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Brock is an award-winning writer who has been documenting life in Las Vegas for 20 years. He currently leads entertainment ...

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