Want to experience French culture, but you feel intimidated by rumors of rudeness and unsanitary conditions and dudes in berets? Do you feel that there's just not enough video poker in France to meet your needs? Perhaps a visit to the French-themed casinos of Las Vegas is the answer to your plight. Or not. What follows are reviews of how well two prominent Las Vegas casinos create La Vie Francaise.

The Riviera

Where? North Strip
When visited? 3 p.m. on a Sunday
Whose? Riviera Holdings Corporation

Ostensible theme: This casino appears to be similar to the Stardust; it has a glamorous name but no glamor whatsoever inside. From the name, one might expect a South of France flavor, but it's minimal.

Clientele: The Riviera is a stomping ground for the elderly and for washed-up celebrities.

Employee costumes: The change folks wear maroon polo shirts. Cocktail waitresses, clad in copper and black shiny mini-dresses with puffed sleeves, resemble office ladies who happen to be serving drinks.

Carpet and other decor: The Riviera attempts to dazzle the most jaded passersby with a mirrored exterior encrusted with neon stars and jewels and rolling neon coins. The focal point of all this ornamental activity is a glittery marquee for their in-house extravaganza "Splash." This means, however, that the Riviera can't just get rid of the show without some heavy-duty renovation.

Throughout most of the casino, the carpet has large red peonies, bordered by gold fleurs de lis, but the folks at the Riviera are not averse to a little variety. Walkways are carpeted in maroon and gold, and in the arcade, the floor is sprinkled with ersatz confetti. The ceilings should look pretty familiar to anyone who's been in a few casinos: lots of white lights and brass with red and pink neon accents. The chairs at table games are emblazoned with the Riviera's emblem, a gold swoopy R inside a gold diamond.

The focus is really on the machines, which provide lots of color and flashing lights. Architectural flourishes would just be distracting. For those into world records, the Riviera bills itself as having the World's Loosest Corner of Slots, conveniently marked with neon stars and starbursts in blue, red and yellow.

Large eggshell colored pillars with white lights at the top surround the Frenchily-named Le Bistro Lounge, and the background consists of swaths of coppery gathered fabric. It doesn't take much to perfectly reproduce a Vegas lounge and this décor works just fine.

The well-hidden restrooms have coppery marble counters which set off the institutional white fixtures nicely. The curved entrance with mirrors is pretty impressive, but only one seat is available at the grooming area. What if there's a mob of women who need to be groomed?

Food: Kristofer's offers Continental cuisine, but the disgusting smelling food court with Burger King and Panda Express cancelled any possible positive effects.

Games: If folks at the Riviera wrote geography books, the map of France would be littered with names like "Nickel Heaven," "Jackpot City" and "Dollartown USA." For a good fright, check out the giant slot machine with the head of a mustachioed elderly gentlemen on it.

Entertainment: Le Bistro Lounge (one of the few French phrases used here) features a very non-French Elvis impersonator. Other entertainments include the Don Rose Classic Starband, "Jazz on the Strip," "Splash" and "Crazy Girls." For the theme, they should change the names to "Le Jazz on the Strip," "Le Splash" and "Le Crazy Girls."

Services: "Annee of Paris" Beauty Salon awaits your wildest coiffure fantasies in the Monaco Tower. There are also shops and a spacious arcade with lots of driving and fighting games.

Did it work? Non! There's nothing here to distinguish it from any other decrepit casino.

Suggestions? Really, it would be too much to ask this place to look like the south of France, but perhaps they could update the décor to reflect a little more chic, a little more old school glamor. The current clientele might get a kick out of it, and it might make younger people more likely to visit, too.

Where? The Strip
When visited? 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday
Whose? Park Place Entertainment

Ostensible theme: I see Paris. I see France. I see gamblers' underpants!

Clientele: The crowd skews pretty young here, but Paris attracts the tourist crowd just like the other newish city-themed casinos do.

Employee costumes and demeanor: Paris may be the only casino in Las Vegas where the security guards and the cocktail waitresses wear the same outfitS sorta. Anyway, they both wear the blue and red military uniforms and pillbox hats of French gendarmes. However, the waitress uniforms are backless. It's not exactly Givenchy. Dealers wear navy or maroon vests with tiny Eiffel towers all over them. The change folks wear silky blouses printed with silver and gold coins.

I heard one employee-issued "Bonjour," while I was at Paris. Everyone else seemed too harried to parlais Français. But, on subsequent visit, I learned that the employees have to wish everyone "Bon Chance," whether they mean it or not. The most shocking revelation, however, was that the mimes talk. Sacre bleu!

Carpet and other decor: The Eiffel Tower has a prominent place in foreigner's idea of Paris, and it certainly has one here, whether you're indoors or out. The hotel has a blue roof and a bit of the 18th century frou-frou that says, "Hey, Queenie, watch your neck!" As one pulls into the parking garage, one also passes a mini Arc de Triomphe, and bunch of flags and statues of historic Frenchmen. In Paris' attempt to uphold the dignity of the French language, the parking garage signs are in French, as well as in English. I felt more like I was in Quebec, though.

Once inside, visitors are supposed to be transported to the streets of Paris, but a cleaner version. Art Nouveau posters decorate various surfaces underneath a blue sky with puffy clouds; punched-tin trashcans and old-fashioned streetlights alternate down the avenues. Street signs in French direct wandering souls to le Centre de Convention, Le Boulevard Shops and Restaurants, Eiffel Tour and Mon Ami Gabi. I wondered who's friend Gabi was until I found that the name refers to "Un Bar Americain," which happens to be housed behind a façade of the Louvre. Some of the Le Boulevard Shops have façades that lead to nothing, such as the "Ballets Degas" which according to the sign, was founded in 1897, more than a hundred years before this place was even built! I also noticed other details like the dozens of window boxes with fake flowers (the French used to plant window boxes with fragrant flowers to mask the sewer smell of the streets) and the prices in French currency in the bakery window.

The game room appears to be at the base of the Eiffel Tower; the metal scaffolding of the legs is visible and then stops abruptly at the blue sky ceiling. A replica of the Pont Alexander III bridge, ornamented with gilt and classical moldings, bisects the game area; it leads to the Eiffel Tour elevator, which is not too far from the Eiffel Tour shop, which sellsS you guessed it, Eiffel Tower crap. Another landmark in the game room is a fountain with demure draped ladies. I never did find the Seine, but I know it's supposed to be around somewhere.

The carpet, in a little bit of a departure from Vegas tradition, appears to be an impressionistic field of blossoms; imagine tromping all over one of Monet's paintings. Other parts of the floor have fake cobblestones. The chairs at the machines aren't bolted to the floor; they have wooden frames with royal blue upholstery and dingy tapestry seat backs.

Oh, and who could forget Les Toilettes? Oval, gilt-framed mirrors and sconces with winged women hang over the most bizarre sinks I've ever seen in Las Vegas. The porcelain sink bowl is painted with a mass of twining blossoms, matching the decorative wall tile. The stall doors, which have frosted windows, look like they lead to tiny offices; I don't suppose anybody could object if you brought your laptop and cell phone into the stall and got some work done. On the wall, there's a framed print of a baroque lady in a baroque swing, attended by 2 powdered gentlemen. Of course, we could just pee in the streets and be well within the theme, too.

The folks at Paris actually departed from the early 80s dance tracks found in most other joints; they have French chanteuses warbling over their sound system! Good for them!

Food: Hungry for a fresh plate of Roasted Artists? Head to La Rostisserie des Artistes and bon appetit! Napoleon's has an Empire style interior with lots of flags and dark moldings and neoclassical touches. JJ's Boulangerie offers big loaves of crusty bread and "outdoor" tables and chairs; you can lounge around and spout existentialist hoo-ha all you want there.

Games: The table games are under canopies named after Parisian districts such as Rivoli, Concorde and Pigalle. There are also Le Champagne Slots and Can Can Quarters, in which a player tries to get 3 can-can girls in a row. Getting three can-can girls is quite a feat, but certainly not unheard of back in Toulouse-Latrec's day.

Entertainment: The "Paris Theatre des Artes" hosts various events and performances, such as international film festivals. And, it couldn't be Paris without at least one joint called "Le Cabaret." And for more fun, guests can always harass the beret-wearing, balloon-animal making employees, but they might get beaned over the head with a crusty baguette. It's just a chance they'll have to take.

Services: Here, the shops don't seem as segregated from the casino as in other joints. There are certainly plenty of them, though. Paris is thoughtful enough to also provide a spa, a pool, 2 wedding chapels and all the balloon animals you could ever desire.

Did it work? Disney takes over Paris. They can have each other.

Suggestions? Throw the mimes into the Bastille!

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