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BILL ORDINE Vegas gains a Buffett bistro

Saturday, January 31, 2004

Jimmy Buffett, the balladeer whose signature song -- "Margaritaville" -- is an ode to booze and warmer climes, has brought his own brand of hedonistic escapism to Las Vegas, a place that's quite familiar with the concept.
Buffett has opened a Margaritaville restaurant and bar at the Flamingo Hotel & amp; Casino, which has dedicated a healthy portion of its prime location in the heart of the Vegas Strip to the tropical-themed watering hole.
The Las Vegas Margaritaville is the latest location for the singer's mini-chain (the others are in Key West, New Orleans, Orlando, Jamaica -- Ocho Rios, Negril and Montego Bay-- and Cancun) and hopes to capitalize on the popularity of Buffett, whose concerts are invariably sold out and whose fans are so fanatical they answer to the nickname Parrotheads.
Carnival atmosphere
The Sin City version of the Buffett bistro, which has had a gradual rollout beginning with a December start-up and culminating with a scheduled grand opening soon, is a multitiered site with five bars, seating inside and on two outdoor patios, and daily entertainment. There is also a retail store selling all things Buffett, from CDs to clothing to glassware.
The centerpiece of the restaurant's first level is a giant volcano -- almost everything in Margaritaville is associated with a Buffett song, and one of his hits is called "Volcano." The theatrical element here is an eruption and "sacrifice" that occurs hourly over the Volcano Bar. To appease the angry gods, a comely young woman tosses a crate of tequila into the volcano. With the gods unappeased, the woman tumbles into the volcano herself. But not to worry -- she emerges on a slide, now transformed into a mermaid, swooshing into a giant blender of faux margarita mix. To the celebratory strains of Buffett's "Margaritaville," she is lifted away safely by a skyhook.
It's the sort of carnival atmosphere with which Buffett's music and concerts are associated and that restaurant operators pray will be nonstop, with stiltwalkers roaming among customers making parrot-style balloon hats.
Other areas of the 27,000-square foot restaurant are the Coral Reefer Bar, named after Buffett's band, on the main first level; the Clipper Bar (Buffett pilots a seaplane) on the second floor; and the 12 Volt Bar, named for a Buffett song, with outdoor seating and a view of Las Vegas Boulevard, on the third level.
On the menu
The menu, with entrees ranging from $8.75 to $19.95, has a tropical flair. Grilled sirloin steak is topped with a pineapple rum sauce, and fresh fish, such as grouper, salmon and tilapia, can be grilled or blackened and topped with pineapple salsa, Caribbean butter or jerk seasonings.
Naturally, there is a Cheeseburger in Paradise, named after another well-known Buffett tune that describes a diet-busting "big warm bun and a huge hunk of meat." It's a seven-ounce patty of ground Angus beef -- but contrary to the unapologetic carnivorous spirit of the song, there's also a veggie version.
Live entertainment at Margaritaville is scheduled from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily and will be largely in the Buffett mold -- island tunes with some rock tossed in. Restaurant hours are 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
For visitors to the Flamingo, Margaritaville will seem an appropriate fit. The casino-hotel, one of Las Vegas' original Strip resorts and built by gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, has evolved into a tropical-themed property that, although moderately priced, has one of the town's best swimming-pool areas. Near the pool, there's a wildlife habitat with African penguins and, of course, Chilean flamingos.
Credit-card perks
Two of the largest casino companies are now associated with credit cards that allow holders to accrue vouchers or credits good toward purchases at casino-hotels, restaurants, shops, shows and spas.
Neither credit card carries an annual fee.
Caesars Entertainment, which owns, manages or has an interest in 29 gaming properties under various brand names, is associated with a MasterCard that returns a 1 percent rebate in the form of vouchers for qualifying purchases made with the card. Cardholders receive vouchers monthly, rounded down to $10. So if a card user were to make $1,200 in qualifying purchases anywhere, the customer would receive a $10 voucher (1 percent of $1,000) with the remaining $2 balance added to the next month's dollars to calculate further rebates. There is a bonus $10 voucher for an initial card purchase. Vouchers can be used to pay for hotel rooms, dining, show tickets, spa services, even golf fees at 15 of the company's largest properties, including Caesars Palace, Bally's, the Flamingo and Paris in Las Vegas, and Bally's and Caesars in Atlantic City.
Harrah's Entertainment, which operates 26 casinos under various brand names, is associated with a Visa card that is tied to the giant casino company's comp program, called Total Rewards. Comp programs reward gamblers with free amenities in return for certain levels of casino play. Harrah's credit-card holders receive one Total Rewards Credit for each dollar in qualifying purchases.
The credits earned through credit-card purchases are applied to whatever credits the customer also may have earned by gambling in a Harrah's casino. Some quick calculations show that the credits earned through credit-card purchases translate to a rebate of roughly 1 percent or slightly higher. For instance, $3,200 in purchases would yield 3,200 Total Reward Credits -- almost enough for a buffet dinner for two at the Fresh Market Square at Harrah's Las Vegas, which has a cash value of $34. Total Reward Credits can also be exchanged for merchandise, such as televisions and DVD players.
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