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Stratosphere renovations give Vegas icon new mojo

LAS VEGAS — For years, the Stratosphere towered over the Las Vegas Strip as a monument to the past, like shag carpet under a chandelier.

As casinos to the south spent billions to be the brightest, the Stratosphere's best view in the city faded into the brown carpet of its rooms with an entrance that beckoned people away from the Strip and through a back door. But the past two years have seen a renaissance of rooms and explosion of gourmet food that have drawn visitors from middle America and across Europe looking to roll into Vegas on a tight budget.

The Stratosphere isn't the Bellagio or the Encore, but it's not trying to be.

"We're not necessarily going to be able to compete with the highest-end properties on the Strip, but we're certainly looking to be at the top of the moderate price segment," General Manager Paul Hobson said.

The $20 million in renovations that began two years ago at the 1996 resort still may remain hidden on the north end of the Strip, where the lights don't shine as brightly. But the new amenities are impressing people who may be wandering in merely to look out over the valley from 1,149 feet.

A new entry now welcomes traffic off the Strip, onto polished marble floors under a soft kaleidoscope of ambient lights in hues of purples and pinks, leading to a long hotel desk peppered with art deco lamps. Restaurants and gift shops that once felt closed in now have open glass fronts, and the casino floor has opened up, all to reflect a more 21st century aesthetic.

"People used to come up here for the thrill rides and the view," said Todd Ford, director of marketing. "But you can't make your money off the kids coming for the rides. You've got to get players in the casino."

The thrill rides still are a draw — one of the spots first lady Michelle Obama took daughters Malia and Sasha during their Vegas visit in late March.

But when spinning roulette or rolling dice, bargain odds and bonus specials only provide so much excitement. People want a classy place to play.

A new poker room has drawn some players who used to frequent the now-closed Sahara, Ford said. A recent day and night found the casino humming with business, while others waited in line to see the Frankie Moreno show, which began last fall in the new showroom.

Rows of new booths were designed to give an old Vegas feel to a showroom, complementing Moreno's jazzy, high-energy performance backed by a 10-piece orchestra. Moreno's tuxedo vibe revs up the evening for the late-night rock 'n' roll vampires "Bite," now in their eighth year.

The food and drink don't suck, either.

The Stratosphere also revamped its menu at the Top of the World revolving restaurant and Level 107 Lounge.

"We wanted what people eat to match what they were seeing," Hobson said.

Level 107 was redesigned from a place that used to be called the Romance Lounge, which sounded more like a place you'd find a guy with a '70s mustache, gold chains and a shirt unbuttoned to the chest.

"You want to be a businessman telling his wife over the phone, 'I'm going to have a drink in the Romance Lounge'? Click," Executive Chef Rick Giffen said.

The folks who run the Stratosphere like to boast that Level 107 has "the best happy hour in town."

But who doesn't?

Top of the World Chef Claude Gaty said he'll let the half-price appetizers back up that claim. Some of the most popular: a steak-sized grilled portobello mushroom, topping mozzarella and roasted red peppers; ahi tuna tatak, wrapped in Asian greens and wasabi vinaigrette; and a seafood sampler with sauces that burst with a blend of hot and citrus flavors. They're $6.50 to $7.50 during happy hour and washed down with 2-for-1 stiff martinis.

Gaty is a French-trained chef who has been around the world and learned to make Banh Mi in Vietnam, years before the sandwiches became trendy. He makes his twist with duck, piled with pickled carrots and daikon radish, cucumber, cilantro, mint and lemon basil on French rolls.

"People are just now talking about Banh Mi, but I've been doing them for 30 years," Gaty said.

The Stratosphere needed drinks to match the altitude.

Nine hundred feet above Vegas sits one of the few places you won't find a Starbucks.

The neon green Air Bar has displaced espresso on the observation deck. The bar does 10 times the sales as the Starbucks, Giffen said.

"People come up here and they don't want coffee," he said.

For those who like to stay closer to the ground, a steakhouse will be opening by summer where the Back Alley Bar used to be. It doesn't have a name yet, but Giffen said it will have a new twist on the Vegas steakhouse, combining Midwestern and Pacific Coast flavors.

"It's comfort food with imagination," Ford said.

The closing of the Sahara and lure of bright lights of the billion-dollar resorts to the south have made the north end of the Strip a little more lonely. Few people stroll the sidewalks and cars travel with barely a brake.

The Stratosphere depends little on foot traffic, however, with its needle visible from anywhere.

"It's become such an iconic part of the skyline, it's become a destination in itself," Ford said. "That's what's always drawn people here. What we wanted to do is give them something besides the view."

Information from: Las Vegas Sun,