Sunday, June 4, 2006 | 7:32 a.m.
Some Las Vegas casinos fly further beneath the radar than others, and this week I'd like to take the opportunity to applaud a few places that have made some improvements.
It has been almost two years since I've stopped in at Jerry's Nugget, the old-school, casino-only property on Las Vegas Boulevard, just north of the city line in North Las Vegas.
The place has always had a good locals vibe, but a few years ago its offerings seemed sort of stale and its decor a little worn.
No longer. The place looks great, with polished wood floors, more space between slot-machine banks and improved restaurant offerings including a brand new, cool-looking cafe called Jerry's Famous Coffee Shop.
The improvements were crucial to keeping customers from venturing to tough competitors operated by local kingpins Station Casinos and Boyd Gaming Corp. But Jerry's Nugget changes may help the property steal some business from nearby downtown Las Vegas.
The small Ellis Island casino on Koval Lane, directly east of Bally's, is another casino that doesn't get the attention it deserves. A bargain-hunter's delight, with its $4.95 steak dinner special, affordable microbrewed beers and gargantuan drinks, the place caters to locals and offers a great atmosphere.
Metro Pizza, good barbecue and, of course, the bargains, also make Ellis Island one of the sweetest places in town.
Downtown Henderson's Eldorado casino is another spot looking better these days. Boyd Gaming operates the casino-only property - the first place Chairman Bill Boyd owned and managed - and it's been getting some tender loving care.
New paint and carpet, new signs, and remodeled casino cage and slot clubs make the place a lot nicer, giving Henderson residents a fun, smaller alternative to bigger competitors such as the Fiesta Henderson, Sunset Station and Joker's Wild.
On the other hand, there are a few spots that have made changes for the worse. Henderson's Skyline once had a booming restaurant business with a tasty $3.95 T-bone steak special and a $4.95 prime rib deal as well as daily specials in the same price range.
No longer. Since automobile dealer Jim Marsh bought the property two years ago, the great deals have disappeared and - judging by visits a couple of times earlier this year - so have the crowds that used to pack the Skyline's restaurant.
And Binion's has abandoned one key element of the former Binion's Horseshoe's casino tradition. While the property looks good - and cleaner than it did under former owner Becky Binion Behnen - Binion's dice pit now has about half of the tables it used to have. That's a mistake if the casino wants to keep the "gambling first" atmosphere Benny and Jack Binion made famous.
Boyd Gaming's $152.5 million deal to buy a jai alai fronton in Broward County, Fla., is a shrewd move. Florida has incredible demographics, particularly near the Dania Jai Alai fronton Boyd is buying, and the facility will soon be able to add 1,500 slot machines. Despite what will be a confiscatory tax rate of more than 50 percent, limited competition should make the Boyd deal an excellent one.
Harrah's Entertainment Chairman Gary Loveman told me recently that he plans to keep the company on the growth fast track. He said the company's high-growth strategy counts on three mechanisms in addition to Harrah's traditional willingness to consider strategic acquisitions.
First, improving results at each of the property's casinos. Second, new spending in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. And third, aggressively pursuing new development opportunities in the U.S. and around the world.