Las Vegas freebies on the Strip and beyond

The Golden Gate, in downtown Las Vegas, turned 100 this year and is the city’s oldest operating hotel. It is a charming, vintage property where a room is $45 on weekdays ($70 on weekends).

That’s all fine and good, but what really gets in-the-know tourists’ attention is the shrimp cocktail. Lots of casino-hotels in Vegas offer shrimp for cheap, but the Golden Gate was the first to do it, in 1959.

For 32 years, a Golden Gate shrimp cocktail cost just 50 cents. “But we were losing $300,000 a year on the deal,” says owner Mark Brandenburg, so the price was hiked to 99 cents, where it remains, and at least 800,000 are served per year.

It’s still the best deal in Vegas, contends Anthony Curtis, based on weight and quality as well as price. Baby shrimp and sauce fill a tulip glass (if you want a version with bigger shrimp, the price jumps to $2.99).

Anthony is the Las Vegas Advisor, a guy who long ago learned how to separate the city’s substance from its hype. He arrived in 1979 as a UCLA wrestler, became enamored with Vegas antics, studied gambling and dropped out of school.

“Money won is better than money earned” is a mantra for some people in Vegas, and Anthony tested the possibilities. He began to play the games for a living, making blackjack a specialty, counting cards and working the casinos in gaming teams. “We got thrown out of many places,” he says.

For about 20 years, Anthony has offered advice, too, because he’s had to live off the deals that he’s discovered along the way.

Now film crews from the Travel, Discovery and Learning channels follow him around, to hear about the city’s best and least known values.

What else makes his top 10 list, which changes monthly? Try the sirloin steak dinner, served 24/7 at Ellis Island Casino, a block off the Strip. It’s $4.95 for 10 ounces of perfectly acceptable meat, salad or soup, potato and fresh green beans.

The catch: This deal isn’t on the menu, but it’s served to anybody who asks for it. The property makes its own good beer and root beer, too.

Anthony says Ellis Island and the Silverton, on the Strip’s far south end, are the rare Vegas casinos that still have blackjack tables that take $1 bets.

For good and cheap entertainment, head to Harrah’s for the fun and schmaltzy Mac King comedy/magic matinee. Look for coupon distributors on nearby Carnaval Court to get free admission (with a one-drink purchase) to the 75-minute show.

Dealertainers at Harrah’s are blackjack dealers who are dressed to look like celebrities: Janet Jackson to Little Richard, Elvis to Alice Cooper. In the casino pit is a small stage, from which they each will sing or lip sync the day/night away.

Nostalgic for Rat Pack entertainment? Hmmm … you’re showing your age. But the Sahara has impersonators performing nightly, in the Casbar Lounge. There is no drink minimum, and no admission fee.

To prove that Elvis still lives, go to the souvenir photo booth in front of Imperial Palace, where free snapshots of you, a large slot machine and The King are processed quickly.

The advice goes on, and on. There are adequate hotel rooms in the city for as little as $15 per night, Anthony contends. Circus Circus has the city’s biggest hot dogs. He knows where showgirls sunbathe topless, and which casinos have the best coupon books.

Not all of Anthony’s recommendations are about getting by cheap. Best Sunday brunch? Bally’s, he says. It’s more than $50 per plate but includes caviar, lobster, foie gras, champagne. Best Happy Hour? Try Café Ba Ba Reeba, in the trendy Fashion Show Mall.

“A lot of the best deals come from the locals’ places, and not from the places that make the cover of Time or Newsweek,” Anthony adds.

Go to www.lasvegasadvisor.com for more insight, or www.huntingtonpress.com for a listing of the books – gambling and other – that Anthony’s publishing house has produced since 1986.

The flash and excess of the Las Vegas Strip make it easy to ignore the city’s downtown – but that’s where the historic and cultural uniqueness are most evident and most precious.

We had a fine meal at the glass-domed Center Stage, in the Plaza Hotel & Casino that overlooks the Fremont Street Experience, an elaborate and jazzy laser light show with music and video accompaniment that begins after dusk. It’s also a good place to view the old-time neon signage that has long identified this city.

The restaurant is full of celebrity sketches – Buster Keaton to Leonardo DiCaprio — done the same artist. The menu is big on charbroiled steaks and pasta entrees. The portions are big, and prices are reasonable. See www.plazahotelcasino.com.

What other unusual free attractions did we find, outside of the tour with Anthony Curtis? The Tropicana has aerialists and other stunt performers presenting Air Play, free 20-minute shows, six times a day.

The juggling, swinging and twirling occur above the slot machines and under the world’s largest suspended Tiffany stained glass ceiling. It all makes for a surreal and dizzying setting, especially at 11 a.m., when you’re likely to be holding a cup of coffee instead of a martini. See www.tropicanalv.com.

Tours of free and inexpensive options in Las Vegas were a part of the Society of American Travel Writers’ 50th anniversary convention. For more about Vegas, see www.visitlasvegas.com.