Archive for November, 2012

A block and a half beyond the Freemont Experience in downtown Las Vegas sits Insert Coin(s), a “Videolounge Gamebar” at 512 Fremont St. I haven’t been to every big retro arcade across the country, but I hit a lot of them while working on my book Invading Spaces and had hoped to hit Insert Coin(s) the last time I was in Vegas. Unfortunately we had the kids with us that time, which meant we ended up visiting the family-friendly Pinball Hall of Fame over the more adult-oriented Insert Coin(s). This time around, no kids meant I was able to finally swing by the arcade.

Although the walk to Insert Coin(s) from the Freemont Street Experience is a short one, those two blocks make a difference. Perhaps at other times the sidewalk is more well it and filled with revelers; at 9:45pm on a Friday night with the bright lights and crowds to our backs it was dark and kind of scary.

Outside the barcade we spoke briefly with the bouncer who informed us that after 10pm Insert Coin(s) has a cover charge — $5 for locals and $10 for out-of-towners. We arrived roughly fifteen minutes before the club started charging a cover, which was a good thing as I had three people in tow who were only there to appease my curiosity, none of whom would have dropped $10 to do so.

In stark contrast to the other retro arcades I’ve visited, including the 1984 Arcade in Missouri, the Arkadia Retrocade in Arkansas, and FunSpot in New Hampshire, Insert Coin(s) is definitely a playground for the 21 and over crowd. Those other arcades are well-lit places, full of color and children. Insert Coin(s) on the other hand is a throwback to the “darker” (and I mean that literally, not figuratively) arcades of the past. Other than the glowing monitors, marquees and televisions, the main source of light in the room comes from the room’s centerpiece, a glowing bar that changes color.

The right-hand side of the room is filled with over-sized vinyl booths that sit behind home gaming consoles hooked to flat screen televisions. According to the arcade’s website, patrons with a bar tab of $25 or more get to play those systems for free. The rear of the bar housed a DJ setup. There wasn’t a DJ there during our visit, but that didn’t stop a couple of drunk girls from dancing with one another.

The real draw for me were the sixty arcade games lined up down the left hand side of the room. The lineup of games was exactly what I was both expecting and hoping to see, with machines ranging from the classics of the early 80s to the hottest fighting games from the late 90s. Along with all the usual classics one would hope to find, a couple of less-common machines caught my eye including Star Wars Trilogy, Tapper, and 720. Other than 720, it looked to me like all the machines were turned on and had good, working monitors. (I can tell you from personal experience that 720 machines are a pain in the ass to own.)

Insert Coin(s) offers retro gamers a different side of the token to consider. With their resident DJs and omnipresent glowing bar, there’s more to Insert Coin(s) than just a large selection of classic games. And, of yeah, they have a large selection of classic games! A different business model than the other retro arcades I’ve visited results in a different experience. Although I was only able to spend a short amount of time in the arcade, I’ll be adding Insert Coin(s) on to my “must stop” list of Vegas hot spots. A quarter is bound to last me a lot longer in Donkey Kong than it will in a slot machine!

We were a bit disappointed that our visit to the Neon Boneyard didn’t work out, but our spirits were quickly lifted once we arrived at the Ethel M Chocolate Factory.

According to Wikipedia, “Ethel M is owned by Mars Incorporated and was named after the mother of Forrest Mars, Sr. Forrest E. Mars, Sr. created Ethel M Chocolates in 1978, which opened in 1980, as a project to cure the boredom he experienced after retiring. According to researcher J.G. Brenner, “Forrest established the venture in Nevada because it is one of the few states that allowed the sale of liqueur-filled cordials.” So that explains why there’s a chocolate factory in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Upon entering the facility, visitors begin a self-guided tour. There are two or three rooms that all look a lot like this. Seriously, all I know about making chocolate came from watching Willy Wonka 800 times. The original, not that crappy Johnny Depp remake. Anyway, Ethel M does not employ Oompa Loompas and the first five minutes of the tour looked like this:

Not only were there no Oompa Loompas, but there weren’t any people or chocolate either. Then you enter the next room and WHOA MOMMA IT LOOKS LIKE CHOCOLATE HEAVEN.

Right up front there’s a girl with a tray of chocolates, offering you free samples. Well, I don’t mind if I dooooooooooo. So after a few of those it was off to the glass counter, where you can mix and match tasty chocolate morsels. I ended up with half a dozen mini chocolate “kegs” with different liqueurs inside — Irish creme, whiskey, bourbon, and a few others. Susan picked out a few others to round the batch up to an even dozen. Then we picked up a few chocolate bars for the kids.

The Ethel M factory is also known for its large cactus garden. I can’t even pretend that it was interesting. A sign notes that there are 300 different kinds of cacti in their collection — all of which belong to the “green and prickly” family, I noted. The entire garden was adorned with “over half a million” Christmas lights, which I’m sure is much more impressive to see at night.

There’s an episode of Storage Wars where Barry, one of the show’s regulars, buys a sign and takes it to the Neon Boneyard in Vegas to get it appraised. The sign turned out to be worthless, but the Boneyard itself looked amazing. It showed up on our radar, so we decided to stop by and check out this awesome collection of vintage and historic Las Vegas signs.

Upon entering the Neon Boneyard, we learned two things — one, the tour is $18 per person, and two, the tour sells out weeks in advance. (Every link on the entire Internet says that the tour costs $15. I swear on all that is holy that we were told $18. Maybe it’s $15 if you make reservations?) Then when Susan asked if she could use the bathroom they told us no. They also told us that there was a possibility of getting us in on a tour in three hours.

Based on what I have seen online, the Neon Boneyard is a really cool place to visit. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for us. Instead, I snapped this picture by sticking my phone through the shielded gate and snapping random pictures.

The tour is highly rated and if we had known there would be such a wait, we would have made reservations. But we didn’t, so instead we saved $80 and ended up going on the Rick’s Restoration tour (which was free) and the Ethel M Chocolate tour (which was free). Maybe next time, Neon Boneyard!

If you’ve seen the reality show Pawn Stars more than once or twice, you’ve seen the handiwork of Rick Dale. Rick, the owner of Rick’s Restorations, is the guy that turns the Pawn Stars’ junk into beautiful pieces of work. In fact, Rick and his crew are so good at what they do that his restoration business was spun off into its own television show, American Restoration.

Rick’s Restorations is open to the public. Inside the building is a lobby full of restored items on display (and for sale) and a gift shop. There’s also a free behind the scenes tour that takes about 10 minutes to walk through. No photography is allowed during the tour.

Here’s a picture of the lobby. Those gas pump globes on the wall were $375 each. The blue Pepsi machine on the left hand side was $7,500. In the middle of the room stood several restored gas pumps and Coke machines, most of which have been featured on the show as well.

The Rick’s Restorations Tour takes you into the working area of Rick and his crew. Unfortunately we went on Saturday, so Rick and his crew were elsewhere, off enjoying their weekend. The tour takes you essentially into a single hallway with five or six large windows, each of which looks into a different room. There’s a machine shop, there’s a work room, there’s a disassembly room, there’s a … I don’t know man, there were four or five rooms and they all had workbenches and tools in them.

As with Pawn Stars, there are entire message areas and websites dedicate to how fake reality shows such as American Restoration are. Reality shows most definitely contain set ups, scripts and actors, there’s no denying that — there’s also no denying that Rick and his crew are a bunch of talented guys who do some really, really nice restorations. If you’re a fan of Pawn Stars, American Restoration, or simply appreciate restored classics, definitely check out Rick’s Restorations while in Vegas.

Last year when the fam and I were Vegas, Mason and I visited the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop, aka the home of the his television show “Pawn Stars,” while Susan and Morgan stayed out in the car. This was my second time to visit the pawn shop, and the first time for Susan, Tim, and Dawn.

The Gold and Silver Pawn Shop is much smaller than it appears on television. After entering the store you will be funneled into the store’s current, which feeds down the right hand side to the back of the store and then back up the other side until you reach the exit. Depending on the amount of people inside the store it can actually be difficult to stop and look at things.

On the right hand side, the front half of the store consists of three or four large display shelves. Everything is either under glass or out of reach. Some things have labels marked “AS SEEN ON TV.” There are swords and watches and a few other things that you’re not very likely to buy while on vacation in Vegas.

Once you get past those display shelves you hit the gift shop area, which is filled top to bottom, front to back, floor to ceiling of Pawn Stars t-shirts, Pawn Stars shot glasses, Pawn Stars Bobble Heads, Pawn Star Posters … you name it. Just past that area is a small room with some of the store’s larger items. Last time I was there, I saw a cannon. This time, there was a jukebox. Once you hit that area it’s time to turn around and work your way back toward the front. You’ll hit more merchandise again — more t-shirts, more bobble heads, more everything. There’s a cashier in the back in case you want to pay right there, but even if you did, you would still have to follow the flow of the crowd to get out.

Near the front of the store is a small alcove which is where people actually pawn things. There’s a big sign above the desk that says “no photographs in this direction.” The people we saw over there didn’t look like the people you see on television. They looked broken and hungry.

Like my last visit, nobody from the television show was actually at the store.

If you are in Las Vegas and are dying to get a Chumlee bobble head, the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop is your place. I suppose it’s worth stopping at if for no other reason than to see what the miracle of television cameras can do for a location. I doubt I’ll ever go back.

Saturday before the show, Susan, myself, Tim and Dawn met for a pre-show dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe. If you’ve not been to one, the Hard Rock Cafe is a chain of restaurants that combines lots of rock and roll memorabilia with good (but slightly overpriced) food. I’ve been to Hard Rock Cafes in Miami, Chicago and Las Vegas, and spent a few days in the Hard Rock Hotel in Chicago as well. They’re all kind of different, and they’re all kind of the same.

Here’s me in front of KISS (well, their outfits). The Las Vegas location features lots of playbills, posters and guitars belonging to bands of varying degrees of fame. The guitars hung up high belonged to Eric Clapton and Van Halen. The lower ones at table level belonged to Smashing Pumpkins, Slaughter, and Jakob Dylan.

I didn’t visit the gift shop this time around because they don’t carry t-shirts in my size. They do carry hats. I have three Hard Rock Cafe hats, one from each restaurant I’ve visited, and none of them fit quite right. I didn’t buy a fourth one.

Right before we left for the concert, Susan pulled out the “rockin’ bandannas” she brought with her and made me put one on for this picture. I wore it for 30 seconds, just long enough to take this picture. Fortunately I haven’t seen it since.

We are old.

Located in the Imperial Palace just off the Las Vegas strip is the Hash House A Go Go. According to the website there are seven locations nationwide, five of which are in Las Vegas. (The other two are in San Diego and Chicago.) The four of us (myself and Susan and our friends Tim and Dawn) showed up for breakfast/brunch (breakfast according to Las Vegas local time, brunch according to our internal clocks).

For breakfast Susan ordered a coffee with cream and sugar. I ordered a 20oz Watermelon Margarita. It was 8am. Welcome to Vegas.

You know you’re at the right place when the menu mentions “Man vs. Food,” “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and “Unique Eats.” Susan ordered a $12 plate of pancakes. I won’t lie, I thought $12 sounded high for pancakes. Then the pancakes arrived.

I believe that’s whipped cream, along with the eggs, bacon, butter and syrup on her pancakes. I ordered off the smaller menu and ordered the breakfast quesadillas, which were also about twelve bucks. I wish this picture showed the scale better, because it was gigantic.

The bill was higher than you would guess thanks to a couple of mixed drinks — yes, for breakfast — but everything we tasted there was fantastic. I’ve read complaints online that the service can be slow, and I can see that during high traffic periods as each dish is cooked to order. We personally had a great experience, and to anyone who enjoys big breakfasts that will keep you full until dinner, I would highly recommend a visit.

The Friday after Thanksgiving, Susan and I hopped on a plane and flew to Las Vegas and met our friends Tim and Dawn there. The purpose of our trip was to celebrate Tim’s 40th birthday by seeing Guns and Roses perform live at the Hard Rock Cafe. We arrived in Vegas Friday afternoon and flew home early Sunday morning.

Despite the fact that we were in Vegas for less than 48 hours, we did a ton of things. Over the next few days I’ll be posting stories, pictures and reviews of the following places: The Hash House, the Hard Rock Cafe, Rick’s Restoration (from Pawn Stars and American Restoration), Pawn Stars, the Neon Boneyard, the Ethel M chocolate factory, Freemont Street, the Freemont Street arcade Insert Coin(s), and of course, the Guns and Roses concert. Did I mention we got to go backstage? We got to go backstage.

Posts should be going live live twice a day (6am and 6pm) through Friday.

Here’s Susan, Tim and Dawn in the rental car, ready for a fun weekend in Vegas!

Once a week, one of our local radio stations (98.9 – KISS FM) has a contest for the Gatti Town Kid of the Week. To enter your kid into the running, you simply have to submit an e-mail to the radio station explaining why your kid should be chosen.

This next sentence may make me sound like a pompous ass, but I’m going to say it anyway: when I enter things like this, I almost always win. I’m a good writer, true, but more importantly I write what these types of contests are looking for — a “feel good” list of things that separate your kid from other people’s kids, written with a sprinkling of humor and a modicum of proper grammar.

I’ve heard the Gatti Town Kid of the Week being advertised on the radio from time to time, but I never remember to write the e-mail when I get either to work or home, depending on which way I was driving when I heard it. Last Monday I heard the commercial while sitting at home, so I decided to open up my e-mail client and bang out a quick submission as to why Mason should be the Gatti Town Kid of the Week.

Two days later, I was notified that Mason was the winner.

For the record, I just as easily could have submitted a winning e-mail for Morgan, but Mason, with his current school activities including being elected class president, working on his school’s recycling program, and other activities made it easier to write.

Attached to the e-mail informing me that Mason had won was an mp3 recording of the letter being read on air. This is probably cooler to me than the actual prize Mason won. The winners are announced after I get to work, where I cannot use a radio (I work in a basement). I remember spending lots of time as a kid with the record button pushed in and my finger on the pause (or rather, “un”-pause) button trying to catch a recording of my own voice after talking to a radio DJ. Having the mp3 e-mailed to me was very cool.

Mason’s prize was four free buffets (two adults, two kids) to Gatti Town (formerly Incredible Pizza, which itself was like a super-sized Chuck E. Cheese restaurant) and $10 in tokens. Of course this free package ended up costing me an additional $20 in tokens; $10 for Morgan, $5 for me, and $5 for the Skee-ball queen.

Over the weekend I picked up the tickets. Walking into a radio station is always an exciting experience for me. I was told to report to the sixth floor. From there, while waiting, you can see into some of the DJ booths. Then came the awkward ten minutes during which the secretary could not find my name on any list, and seemed unconvinced that I was the father of the Gatti Town Kid of the Week! As a kid I would have been more nervous, but seeing as though I had my iPhone in my hand on which was (a) the e-mail the producer of the radio show had e-mailed me and (b) the mp3 recording of Mason’s name being read on air, I was pretty sure the mystery would be unraveled. It was, and soon I was on my way out the door with our Golden Ticket.

Last night Mason, his sister, Susan and I visited Gatti Town, gratis. Oh, like royalty we were treated! Captain Gatti rolled out a red carpet for our arrival. Our dinner assistant showed up to tie bibs around our necks and even offered to pre-chew our food for us! For the main course, we ate half-live baby seal!

Okay, none of that really happened, but we did eat buffet pizza for free. Mason and I played some air hockey. While the kids raced go-karts, I played Outrun 2 and the latest Afterburner game while Susan earned tickets playing Skee-ball.

And a good time was had by all, on the house. Congrats to Mason for being chosen as Gatti Town’s Kid of the Week. At the radio station I signed a piece of paper informing me that there can only be one winner per household every six months. Next May, I’ll send one in for Morgan and see how it goes.

Earlier this week, Mason was in a school musical/play titled “Go West!” The play was about going west in search of gold. Mason played Robert Fulton, who tried to lure some of the train and horse riding gold diggers into taking his steamboat.

Mason had several lines in the play and made two appearances. After the show I got Mason to pose with one of the stage props.