JCK Las Vegas 2014 Special: Cool New Restaurant and Nightlife Options

As any veteran traveler to Las Vegas will tell you, no two trips are alike. In fact, the city is known as a destination point for unique experiences, and this year promises to be no different. From a bustling culinary scene to expansions on the entertainment front, a host of new offerings at the south end of the Strip promises to impress even those who attended JCK last spring. Just one caveat: In a city that never sleeps, you might not either.

To Live and Dine

“We’re out to have a good time,” says chef Rick Moonen of his steampunk-themed restaurant Rx Boiler Room, which opened last July in the upstairs space of RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay. The decor takes inspiration from the Victorian era and Jules Verne (think red velvet curtains, baroque furniture, and candlesticks), while the specially crafted libations are a nod to Moonen’s inner science geek.

Smoked Whiskey & Cola on the rocks at Rx Boiler Room

“It’s a laboratory of cocktails,” he says of the center bar where bartenders act as alchemists, concocting drinks using an extensive array of bitters, mixers, and house-made syrups. The house favorite? The Smoked Whiskey & Cola (George Dickel Tennessee whiskey, house-made cola syrup, Bittercube cherry bark vanilla bitters, Fever-Tree soda water, and smoked cherrywood chips), which is poured from a skull container over ice tableside.

While the show at the bar may steal the spotlight, the inventive menu deserves your attention as well. Described by Moonen as comfort food redefined, dishes such as Inside-Out French Onion Grilled Cheese, Chicken Pot Pie Nuggets, and Squid-e-o’s (a play on ­SpaghettiOs, but with squid rings) invite you to have a little fun with your food.

Moonen, a veteran of the fine dining world, isn’t the only one exploring the casual side of the culinary scene this season. James Beard award winner Shawn McClain introduced his first casual concept, FIVE50 Pizza Bar, at ARIA last July. (The temperature at which pizza is baked inspired the name.) Inside you’ll find wood-fired ovens and a high-energy bar that hosts a daily happy hour at 5:50 p.m. In addition to a wide selection of McClain’s signature pizzas, the menu includes small plates, handmade pastas, and an impressive list of craft beers.

The Captain’s Table at the Jules Verne–inspired Rx

Beer is just one of the many things on tap at Michael Mina’s PUB 1842, which opened at the MGM Grand just after JCK last June. Like Moonen’s Boiler Room, this is the ideal place for those looking to have some fun and give in to comfort food cravings. Named after the year pilsner beer was invented, PUB 1842’s beer selection includes more than 50 ales, pilsners, stouts, and lagers; playful takes on classic cocktails are also available. Mina tackles traditional pub food with elevated versions such as the Lobster Corn Dogs and Crab Louie Deviled Eggs. In true pub form, there is also an extensive burger list. Never had a Peanut Butter Crunch Burger? Now’s your chance.

If your evening calls for something more upscale, Mandalay Bay’s newest restaurant, Kumi, is just the place. Occupying 10,000 square feet, the space pays tribute to traditional Japanese design: raw natural woods, red lacquer, and painted cherry blossom trees decorate the walls, while the ceiling is adorned with sweeping Japanese calligraphy. Lounge chairs upholstered in kimono fabric provide the finishing touch. All of this is merely a sophisticated backdrop for executive chef Akira Back’s Korean-American spin on conventional Japanese cuisine. To get a true sense of Back’s creative touch, the signature rolls are a must. The current favorite happens to be Pop Rockin’, which features spicy tuna, crab, salmon, avocado, and—you guessed it—Pop Rocks.

Thriller Nights

ARIA’s FIVE50, where pizza is the dish du jour

For many Vegas visitors, dinner is just the first stop of several on a typical evening’s agenda. Luckily, there is no place better equipped to help you take your social plans into the late hours than the Las Vegas Strip. Among the many exciting additions to the nightlife scene is Mandalay Bay’s Michael Jackson ONE, a Cirque du Soleil production that Mandalay president and COO Chuck Bowling describes as “an enormous success.”

While a fortunate few attendees of last year’s JCK show may have been able to score tickets to the production’s preview, this May is the first opportunity for most to take in the amazing theatrical performance set to Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. “Everything about the creation of the show was done in tribute to Michael’s musical legacy,” explains the show’s artistic director, Silke Ortloff. “We already knew his music is known and loved by millions of people, so the question became, How do we present this to Michael’s fans in a way they’ve never seen before?”

Some 60 artists from all over the world and representing different disciplines—dance, acrobatics, gymnastics, juggling, martial arts—orchestrate a thrilling performance that features more than 1,150 different costume pieces (including the iconic sequin glove and red leather jacket) and includes 29 of Jackson’s most beloved songs. Start to finish, the show aims to impress. In addition to the famous Cirque artistry and familiar music, visual effects such as projections, pyrotechnics, and falling snow guarantee the rapt attention of those in the audience. As you might imagine, ONE is destined to be the hot ticket at JCK: Take note and buy yours in advance.

Also new this year: PUB 1842 at MGM Grand, which offers Michael Mina’s take on traditional pub fare

Michael Jackson ONE isn’t, however, the only way to get your music and Cirque du Soleil fix at Mandalay Bay. Last June, the resort also opened LIGHT nightclub, featuring some of the industry’s hottest acts, such as A-Trak, Krewella, Dirty South, and Skrillex. These resident DJs bring their internationally renowned musical talents to a 38,000-square-foot venue that aims to rival the likes of those in Ibiza and the legendary Studio 54. LIGHT offers an innovative take on the classic nightclub experience. Above the dance floor, music literally comes to life, as outrageously costumed Cirque du Soleil artists stage live performances synced with the rhythms and beats of each song.

The circus theme continues at the MGM Grand, where in December legendary showman Jeff Beacher celebrated his return to the Strip as the host of Beacher’s Madhouse. Occupying the former Crazy Horse Paris burlesque space, the vaudeville-inspired show promises to push the boundaries of Vegas theater with unconventional performances and larger-than-life circus acts. If a crazy party is what you’re looking for, it doesn’t get much wilder than this one.

You’ve been struck by a “Smooth Criminal”: A scene from Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson ONE, now playing at Mandalay Bay

Evenings lasting into the early hours are best remedied with a good night’s sleep. While the rooms at the Mandalay Bay and its neighboring hotels are largely the same as you left them last year, the news this year centers on the opening of Delano Las Vegas, a partnership between ­Mandalay Bay and Morgans Hotel Group. After much speculation, the doors of the new hotel are set to open fall 2014, unfortunately a few months after the JCK show concludes.

It’s not, however, too early to vie for a reservation. The Delano Las Vegas will take the place of THEhotel at Mandalay Bay, contributing its trademark South Beach charm to the southern end of the Strip. “We’re very excited about what the new experience will bring to our island,” says Bowling, who believes the all-suite hotel will draw a clientele familiar with the esteemed level of service and sophisticated atmosphere associated with the Delano name. “We know that there are more discerning guests than ever before, and this will give yet another option to the menu.”

Guests can expect a high-end concept hotel burnished with personalized service: the true boutique experience, likely set against the Delano brand’s characteristic modern white scheme. Although a cloud of secrecy continues to hover around the project, Kim Walker, co-chief marketing officer for Morgans Hotel Group, makes this much clear: “Delano Las Vegas will be a place of reconnection, introspection, discovery, and pure escape.” Sounds like the perfect antidote to a long day spent on the show floor. (Calling all 2015 JCK showgoers!)

Even Bowling admits that the sum total of all the changes is quite remarkable. “This is a little bit of a monumental year,” he confesses. Given the many additions to the culinary menu and the major updates in the nightlife arena, attendees of JCK Las Vegas would have to try hard not to have fun this year. “People come here and want to see the new and exciting,” Bowling says. ­Certainly they’ll find plenty of both when they arrive.