It may sound like a crock of balderdash to start out a review of a luxury resort with a statement about how happy the employees seem. Or that the property has transformed an area by emphasizing local hiring and local artists. But cross my heart, the service people weren’t smiling at Maryland’s MGM National Harbor resort because they were Westworld robots. And the place has such regional roots that the very clay from the property construction diggings was the literal hands-on material for a giant artwork map that greets guests at the check-in desk.
For a place that dubs itself “Vegas on the Potomac,” the on-the-sweet-side vibe felt pretty legit to me. I’ll expand on that employee energy and local art shine, but let’s paddle on that Potomac for a moment: the hotel is on the eastern shore of the river, so the broad DC skyline is your oyster. So is the transformed National Harbor area itself, with its stylishly developed waterfront and its twinkling Ferris wheel that illumines the evening sky. The proximity to our nation’s capital gives any MGM visitor lots of touring options.
That is, if anyone wants to step outside. But there’s a whole lotta things happening inside to occupy your mind (and your mouth). But first let’s circle back to the people, by way of the numbers. This is a $1.4 billion-dollar project, so it’s not surprising that it has 4,000 employees. What might be surprising—the MGM being an international corporation and all—is that at least half of them are residents of Prince George’s County, the county where the MGM National Harbor lives. Prince George’s has had some rough patches in the past, with high unemployment and tough areas.
From the moment I arrived (and confirmed around most every turn), I noticed how genuinely happy the employees seemed. I had conversations with workers in the restaurants, shops, bars and elevators, and spoke to several of the people who attended to my room—their satisfaction with being there seemed tangible and real. Admittedly, this is still a honeymoon period, since when I was there the complex had only been open for a bit over a month. And, happy employees don’t always mean a great guest experience overall. But it means something.
Room to Move, Not Much Room Left to Eat
Courtesy of the media trip I attended, I was in one of the hotel’s lovely Corner Suites, whose floor-to-ceiling windows (even in the big bathroom) offered panoramic views of the riverfront and surrounding zones. This is a big suite, with a nice desk where I pretended to work, a lounging area, a sink-into-sweet-sleep bed and lots of electronic gewgaws like automated lighting and swallow-you-up flat-screens. I frequently retreated to the room from the ordeals of the press trip, which included sensuous gorging at some of the resort’s signature restaurants.
We got the celebrity treatment at Marcus, because the celebrity chef, Marcus Samuelsson, was there to greet us. Samuelsson comes to the table by way of New York via Sweden via Ethiopia, so some dishes have an international touch. And some, like many under the MGM’s restaurant roofs, are southern style, like that whole roasted crispy chicken with a couple of different Mac ‘n Cheeses with greens that brought forth toothy whoops of delight.
More thrilling moans emerged later at Voltaggio Brothers Steak House, where one of the Top Chef Voltaggio brothers (locals!) explained how they host hearty fare in a restaurant designed to look like a beautiful old home. The tuna tartare was splendid, the lobster/crab/Tom Kha soup/pickled oyster thing an avalanche of flavor, the Branzino fish dish delicately bewitching. Don’t forget the multiple cuts of beef, some beer-massaged. The salads, the bread, the wine. And the dessert. And then I died.
No Calories Were Cut
Miraculously resurrected, later meals at Ginger, the “Pan-Asian” place (Peking duck sandwiches!) and TAP, the refined beer hall (Lily’s Creole gumbo, with its dark roux, shrimp, smoked sausage—deep, deep) were great. Excellent and broadly international selections (even Oprah says so) in the casual dining section, the National Market, as well.
But I have to mention a behind-the-scenes look at one of the basic food groups: chocolate. We were treated to a chocolate sculpture demonstration from Sylvain Bortolini, the executive pastry chef at the MGM (by way of France, Mexico City, Miami and Vegas), who worked some wizardry in putting together a giant chocolate flower that must have been designed in the Garden of Eden, all the while explaining the nuances of chocolate making—“Chocolate is time”—while he worked his magic.
One of the world’s largest chocolate fountains is in the Bellagio Patisserie, Bortolini’s playground in the complex. There should be a second chocolate fountain in the resort’s spa, and though I felt its lack, the massage I got there was soothing.
Art Does More Than Its Part
I mentioned the local art angle at story beginning, and it’s worth elaboration. The resort’s assemblage of local and international art is impressive, and leagues beyond mere decoration. Their Heritage Collection of artworks is nicely curated, and includes subtle watercolors to stainless steel towers, mediums from clay to bronze to photography, spanning the whimsical and the grand.
When he’s not winning Nobel Prizes, Bob Dylan even gets in on the art act. His 25’ x 15’ found-objects ironworks sculpture, Portal, is the entryway to the complex’s 125,000-square-foot casino. Speaking of impressive entryways, the MGM’s main entrance piece is sixty feet, times three, of stainless steel DNA-like shafts: Unity, designed by local 90-year-old sculptor John Safer. “Monumental” is one of the guiding themes of the resort, and there are many instances of the art expressing that scope.
The Conservatory Is Crackling with Color
Speaking of the arts, there’s a centralized, thematic art “arena” in the complex that you flow into when you descend the wide staircase from the lobby. Right now, it’s a blastingly colorful (and flowerful) interpretation of the Lunar New Year, welcoming the Year of the Rooster. This blending of traditional Chinese themes and symbols (pagodas, Chinese lanterns) with modern accents (and thousands of roses) has elements, like its fire rooster, that are 30 feet tall. The display, designed by famed event designer Ed Libby, will be up into the spring. It was under construction when I was there, and it was amazing to see it progress day-by-day.
Play Nice with the Dice
Since this is Vegas on the Potomac, we do have to mention the casino. Gaming is no longer the central emphasis for many of the big resorts, and the MGM is no exception—the casino is just part of the entertainment. But it IS entertaining. And modern. There are slots (like the Breaking Bad examples) with very high-resolution video elements and surround-sound chairs. There are gesture-controlled Willy Wonka games, as well as takes on popular shows like The Walking Dead.
Of course, there is the full complement of table games, many semi-private high-limit areas, and colorful bars and lounge areas. I lived in Vegas for a while a long time ago, and had many painful moments at the blackjack tables. This time, I just stood and watched, kibitzing in my mind: “What, you stick on a 3 with a 9 showing early in the shoe?” I didn’t lose a dime.
The Pleasures of Being Theatrical
So, strolling the casino is entertainment itself. So is checking out the retail shops—Sarah Jessica Parker’s SJP is her first venture into retail, and in Maryland yet, but my size 13s don’t cotton to heels. I had cocktails in many of the slick bars. Check out Felt Bar for its at-table mixology, where a bartender whips up with a gleaming booze cart and does some sleight-of-hand magic—often with fire—to produce theatrical libations: we had a Joey Smokestack at our table that would have singed my eyebrows if I got up close. Drinking it was smoky enough.
But for formal servings of entertainment, The Theatre at MGM National Harbor is the 3,000-seat real deal. We saw the Kings of Leon there, and they cranked out some good and loud rock and roll. Bruno Mars, Ricky Martin, Cher and Panic! at the Disco were in the schedule, as were some big-time comics.
Parting Is Literally Sweet
Seemingly, the MGM is a place where a good time is had by all. Even, to my casual observation, by the employees. I hope they can carry that “all for one, one for all” sense past the honeymoon days. But, alas, all good things have to end (except in my case, considering the five or six pounds of chocolate I managed to cart away), but I hope I get out there for another visit. I’ll even risk some blackjack next time.