If happy days aren't quite here again, the happy hours are. Some even come with caviar.
No matter what level of consumer you are, the bargains are back in Las Vegas. The 99-cent monster dog never left town if you knew where to look, but now it's joined by the $9 Kobe beef sliders. Discounts and deals are no longer just the domain of Slots A Fun; they go all the way to Charlie Palmer Steak and the hottest Cirque du Soleil show.
Not long ago, it was getting tougher for Anthony Curtis, publisher of the consumer-oriented Las Vegas Advisor newsletter and Web site, to compile his monthly list of Top 10 deals. The values were still hidden "around the edges of the Strip," he says. But at the hot casinos you see on TV, "all they wanted to say was, 'Bring your bucks, and if you're cool you can come in here.' "
Now, he says, "everywhere on every level, they're trying to emphasize a deal or a bargain. In every place I walk through, I see something that cries out, 'We're going to give you a break here.' "
"This is the return of the fun book. Everyone's got something to give you," says Matt Weatherford (no relation to this reporter), a Denver civil engineer who runs the Web site Cheapo Vegas as a hobby.
Two years ago, "I wondered if the name was legit anymore," Weatherford says. Now, he's happy to report Las Vegas is "dirt cheap again," with $3 blackjack minimums in abundance on downtown Fremont Street and a $2 breakfast special back in the Binion's coffee shop.
Granted, bargains are relative. Special three-course tasting menus at MGM Grand restaurants such as Seablue and Diego range from $30 to $60 per person. They may not beckon the low-roller, but do open those high-end restaurants to a price range never seen previously.
Same with the "CaviHour" at Red Square during happy hour at Mandalay Bay. You have to buy two $18 Imperia vodka drinks and no, a couple can't split them and drink one each even though the drinks are huge. But the deal includes an ounce of Petrossian caviar, worth about $50 in its own right.
Designated happy hours weren't something the city without clocks used to be big on. But now they're up and down the Strip, with Koi at Planet Hollywood and Charlie Palmer Steak in the Four Seasons at Mandalay Bay prominent among restaurants cutting drink prices in half before 7 p.m. And Charlie Palmer -- which also features the $9 Kobe sliders and fries -- repeats its happy hour from 10 p.m. to midnight.
Granted, those deals aren't the bargains of Vegas legend; the $3 steak dinner at some small, dark casino where the waitresses smell of Aqua Net and bubble gum. They have a certain resonance right now, those shrimp cocktails, graveyard breakfasts and prime ribs that have been a part of the Vegas lexicon for years.
Slots A Fun is frozen in time on the Strip, with its $2 Heinekens and its half-pound monster dog for a buck. Depending on the time of day, you might even find space at the dollar blackjack table.
There's more cheap beer at Casino Royale, with a $1 Michelob or frozen margarita available at any hour, conveniently just across the Strip from The Mirage's newly rejuvenated volcano attraction.
Downtown has its own tradition: the shrimp cocktail at the Golden Gate. To get it at its original 99-cent price, you now have to take a few extra minutes to sign up for the casino player's club. Even at $2, workers say they have seen people with as many as six cocktail glasses lined up in front of them.
But when you want to sit down to a genuine dinner, only one special has consistently held a spot on the Las Vegas Advisor's Top 10 list through good times and bad: the $6.99 steak dinner at Ellis Island Casino & Brewery. It's a 10-ounce top sirloin with baked potato, salad and popular green beans based on an old family recipe, one that has been in owner Gary Ellis' family for years.
The Italian recipe is so entrenched that when the casino tried to switch the beans for another veggie last year, "there was an uprising," casino president Karen Dorsey says with a laugh. The special also includes a 20-ounce microbrew made in-house (or root beer if you prefer). The steak deal is available 24 hours.
Almost all the Las Vegas shows have been discounting, with even certain performances of Cirque du Soleil's Beatles-themed "Love" knocked down 25 percent to Internet shoppers. Another recent promotion for the same show preserved a $150 ticket price, but threw in drinks and dinner in the neighboring restaurant and lounge.
Most show discounts are short-term and targeted for specific times. When looking for standing values, it's hard to beat the comedy clubs with ticket prices that rarely top $40. The clubs also have a vested interest in attracting locals, who provide the word-of-mouth that big production shows don't need.
Bonkerz Comedy Club at Palace Station offers a standing $10 discount for locals, which brings the cost of each ticket to about $20. Locals can now get two-for-one tickets at The Improv at Harrah's Las Vegas, which sells its regular tickets for about $32 each.
Out-of-town readers shouldn't get too jealous, however. Ever since the economic downturn began, room rates have been the biggest bargain in town. "Everything's negotiable now," says Weatherford, who in January paid $11 total for three nights at the Four Queens. "You can quote them another casino's price and say, 'Can you match that?'
"Everyone is just trying to get you through the door."
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.