When ELV was but a mere sprout, his father would take his family (four siblings plus Marcella Ruth Schroader Curtas — D.O.B. 8.10.24 — The Official Mother Of ELV) to a restaurant in Orlando, Florida (as opposed to Orlando, New Hampshire) called Ronnie’s.
Ronnie’s represented a genre of restaurant that has gone the way of the Greek diner and the mom and pop soda fountain — the huge, Florida Jewish deli.
These iconic places (Rascal’s and Wolfie’s in Miami Beach, and Wolfie’s in St. Petersburg were others — now all gone) were like large cafeterias. But unlike those bastions of low-brow food, all took pride in their menus (kosher and non- ), as well as in their big bowls of half-sour pickles on every table, house-cured meats, in-house bakeries, dozens of sandwiches, and more offerings that you could work your way through in a lifetime. It was a glorious place to go anytime of the day or night, and the food was fantastic in the way only Jewish food could be in Florida in the 1960’s.
It had a huge, laminated, six page menu, giant ice cream desserts, hand-sliced pastrami, custard-filled eclairs, and small, moist, onion-filled pumpernickel rolls that we consumed by the dozens and can still taste to this day. (ELV can still remember the “Mambo Giganto” sundae that was the size of a bowling ball, had like fifteen scoops of ice cream in it, plus enough whipped cream to fill a kitchen sink. Despite years of begging to his parents to order it, he, his brother and two sisters were denied this essential foodstuff until he was old enough to pay for it himself.)
But as good as the food was, the real reason we went there was for the people watching.
When we went, (which was often), Dad (the world’s toughest customer when it came to where he sat in restaurants), always insisted upon the booth right next to the front door. This was so he and Mom could watch (and comment on) all the parties coming and going, to and from the restaurant.
Ronnie’s was also the only restaurant we’ve ever been in where a full-blown fistfight took place between two grown men, right in the middle of its two hundred seats. Our father jumped up from the booth as soon as the shouting started, and tried to shield the five of us from the language and the flying chairs. It was all over in less than a minute, but still made quite an impression on a ten-year-old. Given our momentary fright and the restaurant’s (temporary) lack of civility, we hoped a Mambo Giganto could be cadged from the incident to sooth our jangled nerves. Alas, it was not to be.
To such thoughts did our mind wander recently as we watched the human highway stroll past our outdoor table at the Smith & Wollensky Grill. Tucking into a more-than-decent burger, and a nice steak sandwich with sweet, grilled onions — we were amused by the phalanx of folks filing past ten feet away, plus those passing out flyers for “dancers” to come direct to your room in 20 minutes.
Regardless of these solicitations for semi-legal prostitution in our humble burg, there’s no doubt this patch of ground across from the Monte Carlo affords some of the best people watching on the planet.
Which got us to thinking, just what makes a great people watching venue, and where can one best indulge in this amazingly free and funny form of entertainment?
So without further ado, here are our criteria for superlative people-peeping places. For perfect peering, a place should probably provide:
> Good but not great food. No one should be paying attention to anything but what’s on the plate at Guy Savoy, Joel Robuchon or Restaurant Charlie, but you need at least decent, upscale food and booze to enhance the experience. If you don’t have those, you might as well be at Denny’s watching the proletarians pass.
> But not too expensive. You won’t enjoy people watching if you’re terrified of the size of the tariff. The price of the food and booze should be gentle enough that you feel free to grab another bite or glass while you prolong your amusement at other’s expense;
> Informality. A cafe or other informal setting that let’s you linger as the world passes by;
> Preferably outdoors. But indoor exceptions can be made (see below), especially in light of our summer weather;
> Lots of pedestrians. A heavy amount of foot traffic going to a from whatever attractions are close by is essential. Individual restaurants and bars may have interesting crowds coming and going, but the true people-watching epicure demands a potpourri of personnages of all persuasions;
> Hours from noon to midnight. The better to be able to lounge about, waste an afternoon drinking, pointing and laughing at the tourists (discreetly, of course);
> Proximity to a sidewalk. A level of sidewalk intimacy with the setting is essential. By this we mean, you have to be sitting at tables that place you close to the pedestrians, but also gives both you and them enough space to enjoy yourselves without intruding on each other;
The Best People Watching In Las Vegas:
StripBurger – Can’t afford a Wynn/Encore stay? Then sit here for an hour or three quaffing PBR with some cheese fries and be prepared to mock those who can.
Cafe Ba Ba Reeba – Same as above plus good tapas and great sangria. (Be forewarned however, the I-tune that’s constantly playing on the massive Fashion Show outdoor billboard — to promote the latest I-pod — will eventually drive you to distraction….and indoors.)
Spago Cafe – Grab a seat at the rail (ask uber-manager Carlos for one), and prepare to grab your sides laughing.
Palm Steakhouse – Ignore the steaks, order an excellent burger (or throw down for the best grilled lobster in town) and watch the hotties happen past.
Mon Ami Gabi – The granddaddy of our outdoor cafes, with raised seating, perfect bistro food, and a jaw-dropping show of virtually every type of human being alive. Plus, the Bellagio fountain show!
Smith & Wollensky Grill – A good burger, fun wine list, plus: “Girls direct to your room in 20 minutes!”…who really, really like you. Is this a great country or what?
Fleur de Lys – Chef/owner Hubert Keller’s appearance on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters has rejuvenated this finely feathered French. So has the new “outside” seating area.
Lupo – Watching all the prize fight freaks and nightclubbers come and go on a weekend evening is a lesson in douchebaggery.
But sadly, we’ve yet to see a fistfight.