Las Vegas's Center Bars: A Different Sort of Table Game

Just off the casino floor at Mandalay Bay Resort, the eyecandy sound lounge & bar offers a laid-back scene, a no-smoking policy and no cover charges.
Just off the casino floor at Mandalay Bay Resort, the eyecandy sound lounge & bar offers a laid-back scene, a no-smoking policy and no cover charges. (¿ 2008 Mgm Mirage)
Sunday, March 9, 2008; Page P04

It was late on a Sunday night in Las Vegas, and for most of our bachelorette party entourage, the evening was on its way out.

We'd broken even at the roulette tables at Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, worked ourselves into a vodka-fueled frenzy during a second-rate Justin Timberlake routine at Chippendales, then spent a few hours letting University of Texas fraternity brothers of dubious drinking age buy us drinks at Pure, a nightclub inside Caesars Palace.

En route to our rooms at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, it was only natural that a few of us missed the elevators up and fell instead into the eyecandy sound lounge & bar, which is so cool it's too good for uppercase letters and spelled-out conjunctions.

Center bars -- those open-to-the-casino-floor watering holes found in nearly every Vegas resort -- have a way of sucking you in, especially if you happen to be staying at the host hotel. And more and more these days, casino center bars are becoming drinking and partying destinations of their own.

Imagine you're a butterfly batting around a labyrinth of tables and endlessly chattering slot machines. Center bars beckon with the promise of temporary transport from the casino storm. Unlike the Vegas nightclubs that draw jet-setting Hollywood types -- Jet at the Mirage, for example, or LAX at the Luxor (where Nick Lachey and Vanessa Minnillo held a dual birthday bash late last year) -- center bars offer an egalitarian party scene that flows easily on and off the casino floor.

As is the case at eyecandy and other center bars, there are no cover charges. Dress codes are seldom enforced (particularly refreshing if you've ever been rejected at a club's velvet rope), and there's an overall approachable vibe. To be sure, center bars can emit a roll-off-those-blackjack-tables-and-drown-your-losses sense of desperation, too. But would it be Vegas otherwise?

"It's a desperate scene with some very bad dancers," observed Jobyna Whiting, 34, of Gainesville, Fla., as I surveyed the dance floor from one of the bar's circular pods. Still, Whiting admitted, she had ended up at eyecandy three out of five nights since arriving, drawn by the laid-back scene and no-smoking policy.

Eyecandy, which opened in October on Mandalay's main casino floor, is a large open space with pulsating colored lighting, a sleek, teardrop-shape bar area and plenty of plush seating. But the hottest spot to tuck away is in the semiprivate circular confines of one of four gauze-curtained pods, where you communicate with other pod dwellers via touch-screen tables.

Created by the Montreal company Realisations -- the same creative engine behind J-Pop Lounge at Mandalay Bay and Aurora bar at Luxor -- the technology at eyecandy is pretty cool. The touch-screen tables can process more than 72 groping fingers at a time, and playing on them feels as if you're operating an oversize iPod. (The round tables are three feet across and purportedly cost several hundred thousand dollars apiece.) Add to that a dance floor inlaid with more than 70 LED tiles that let your feet light up the night, and you've got one high-tech night-life experience.

On the table in our pod, we voyeuristically viewed scenes in the other pods that were projected by cameras. In one pod, a bleached-blond Christina Aguilera look-alike with glittery gems seemingly implanted in her forehead sat beside a pimplike character with fuzzy sideburns and horn-rimmed glasses.

Like the sideburns, the details are fuzzy, but I believe it was they who challenged us to a game of tic-tac-toe; a hastily drawn crisscross board appeared on our screen next to their pod number, and they quickly commandeered the center square with an "O." Then an icon asked us to accept or ignore their challenge. Game on. It was a suitably innocent introduction. The second we placed our "X," it would appear on our competitors' screen. Talk about live action.

Soon enough the pair had moseyed over to join our group at the metallic banquettes in our pod, and we proceeded to get into an abstract art war.

The girl with the gems in her forehead stared at me like a deer in headlights when I asked her where she had gotten them done. "She did it herself because she's fabulous," Fuzzy Sideburns answered for her. Between ogling our fabulous selves and creations, our group never made it to the dance floor. But if we had, we could have taken our iPods to three special tables and sent our music to the DJ's queue in hopes of having it included in the music mix (largely remixed British pop and '80s hits on this particular night).

The servers at eyecandy have their fun, too, doubling as matchmakers when they key in on budding romances between pods.

"If your cocktail server is seeing you're having fun with the pod next to you, they can rotate the pods so they face each other," explained Tony Angotti, vice president of food and beverage at Mandalay Bay, adding that making the touch-screen tabletops strong enough to withstand dancing was a no-brainer.

"Whether you make a table to dance on or not in Vegas, people are going to dance on it," he said. "It's a Vegas thing."

-- Terry Ward

The eyecandy sound lounge & bar is at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino (3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.). The bar is open 11 a.m. to 4 a.m.; the sound lounge is open 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. No cover.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company