Nugget: downtown’s Gold standard

May 9, 2006 4:22 AM

For several decades, the Golden Nugget has been the jewel of downtown Las Vegas hotel-casinos, but sometimes, even gemstones need polishing.

Enter Tillman Fertitta and his company, Houston-based Landry’s Restaurants, which purchased the property for $325 million last September from the Poster Financial Group.

Not satisfied with owning downtown’s only AAA Four Diamond hotel, Fertitta immediately began a $100 million expansion and renovation that will bring even more luster to the 60-year-old Golden Nugget.

"You better think out of the box here," said Fertitta, second cousin to Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta of Station Casinos fame. "If you don’t think out of the box, you’re going to get passed by."

Indeed, Fertitta is undertaking more than adding the customary nightclubs, restaurants and health spa that well-heeled customers come to expect.

In the center of the property, on the site of the old pool deck, bulldozers are digging three stories below the street level to create a massive pool/aquarium complex.

"We’re doing a shark tank in the pool so people can swim down and swim with the sharks," Fertitta said.

Actually, the 30-foot "aquarium" portion of the pool — complete with coral, sharks and other marine life — will be enclosed in the center of the pool with a clear plastic barrier, so that swimmers can view the sea life nose-to-nose, without fear of becoming lunch.

Another major expansion facing First Street is a fourth hotel tower, which breaks ground next month. It hasn’t been determined as yet how many rooms and suites will be added to the current mix of 1,907 guest rooms.

In the Golden Nugget’s sprawling casino, a new upscale poker room is planned with the existing room being gobbled up by an expanded race and sports book.

The Golden Nugget buffet, already heralded as one of the best all-you-can-eat rooms in the city, will be expanded with live cooking stations and an enclosed patio that will overlook the pool from its second story perch.

One level up, the Golden Nugget’s classic showroom, famous as a spot where Frank Sinatra once played, is expanding from 400 to 600 seats with more modern light and sound systems.

The nearby fitness center and spa is also undergoing modernization, and the famous two-story luxury suites are also getting a makeover.

Other dining upgrades include the addition of Vic & Anthony’s Steakhouse, a signature room that has proved popular with diners in Houston, and Grotto Italian restaurant and lounge, which will overlook the pool when completed.

The Nugget’s former Lillie Langtry’s restaurant has been converted to Lillie’s Noodle House, a trendy Asian eatery that serves an eclectic mix of cuisine, from Japanese sushi to Thai barbecued pork to Cantonese chow mein.

In addition to the upgrade in amenities and attractions, the Golden Nugget has made some subtle design changes. The hotel has added a porte cochere with a rainbow-shaped Golden Nugget sign at its main entrance, and the hotel lobby has been revamped with glass lighting fixtures dipped in amber to shed a softer tone, and the addition of a live piano player to add the proper musical ambiance.

Although Fertitta has been at the helm of the Golden Nugget for just a few months, he’s very upbeat about the hotel’s future prospects in downtown Las Vegas.

In just the second month of ownership, Fertitta said the casino "had its most profitable month in seven years."

With 30 percent of the Nugget’s business coming from Texas, Fertitta is hopeful those numbers will continue to climb.