MGM National Harbor: Off to a Roaring Start

MGM Conservatory decked out for Christmas
MGM Conservatory decked out for Christmas

By Kurt Jacobson

MGM National Harbor
A long line of cars slowly entering the parking area

The MGM National Harbor luxury resort is now open for business! This $1.4 billion  property chose 11 p.m. as the opening for the general public on December 8th, 2016.

Maybe they thought there would be less madness with a late opening? The crowds were so overwhelming the doors had to be shut before midnight because the place was filled to capacity. The unlucky ones who didn’t make it on time had to wait out in the cold until there was room inside. No easy feat when the temperature is around the freezing point.

Star Chefs

Why did so many come? It could have been for the star chefs opening three top name restaurants. The Voltagio brothers, both Michael and Bryan opened Voltaggio Brothers Steak House. Josè Andrès opened Fish, and Marcus Samuelsson opened Marcus.

Gambling was not new to the region but this would be at Washington DC’s doorstep. Many did indeed come for the gambling, and from the short survey I conducted upon leaving, most ended up much lighter in the bank account.

One young man told me, “I lost thousands last night, but I’ll be back.”  Looks like MGM National Harbor is attractive to the gambling crowd.

I think most just came to see this high-profile hotel, casino, spa, shops, and restaurants on opening day as curious onlookers. The Theater looks to be a draw in the future when acts like Bruno Mars, Cher, Sting, Ricky Martin, and others will grace the stage of this 4,000 seat entertainment venue.

Enjoy the great outdoors

MGM National Harbor luxury resort
Celebrity chef Jose Andres being interviewed for TV

When warm weather returns, guests will love the outdoor areas where they can take in expansive views of the Alexandria, Virginia area. At José Andrès’ restaurant Fish, there are several outdoor tables for diners come spring to take in the views.

I visited on the day after opening to miss the first night’s madness. I was curious about the food scene and wanted to taste it for myself. The culinary journey started at the Bellagio Pâtisserie where I sampled an apricot Danish and a pear Danish.

The young woman who helped me didn’t know the difference between an apple or a pear Danish and had to have her supervisor help. Not a very bright beginning in the pastry shop. The pastries I tried were delicious and I’ll be back for more.

I walked the whole casino, hotel, theater, restaurant, and conservatory area to see the sights. The conservatory is an eye-catching center piece with its soaring ceiling and featured more than 150,000 flowers. I liked how the hotel is separated from the casino.

In many Las Vegas MGM properties one has to walk through the casino area to get to the reception desk to check into the hotel. Not here at the National Harbor. They also separated the restaurants from the casino area, a big plus in my book.

Wagering or donating

Bellagio Patisserie at MGM National Harbor
Bellagio Patisserie at MGM National Harbor

The video poker machines called to me and I grabbed an open machine at The Center Bar. All around me the casino was buzzing.

With high hopes I inserted a $20 bill and hoped for the best. I managed to play on $20 for almost half an hour, but in the end the MGM was in possession of my donation.

I overheard a bartender say they had opened for the employees to come in and play the part of regular guests.  This gave staff a practice run before they opened to the public.

MGM did this for two days, which I’m sure was needed. I looked up occasionally from my poker machine to watch as three of the bar tenders were trying unravel a mystery with the computerized cash register. They were working on their problem for more than 15 minutes and I’m not sure if they ever got it figured out.

MGM National Harbor
Mlife line at MGM National Harbor

There were hiccups elsewhere. The line for MLife, MGM’s reward card, was about 50 people long, and moving at a glacial pace. At the bar I overheard three well lubricated young men who had been at the gaming tables all night.

They were trying to get the bar manager to summon someone higher up than the pit boss to hear their case. Apparently they thought they were the recipients of a bad call on the gaming table and needed someone to intercede.

For good measure they ordered three beers while the bar manager listened politely. I left to explore lunch options.

A shake at the shack

The National Market is a food court type of space with everything from sushi to milk shakes. The biggest lines I saw were for crabcakes at Pappa’s and for basic American fare at the Shake Shack.

Long line at the Shake Shack
Long line at the Shake Shack

I asked a lady in line at Pappa’s what she was there for and if it was worth the wait. She told me, “These are the best crabcakes around and definitely worth the wait!” I opted for a rice bowl and a hand roll at Bento instead.

Bento is a Japanese sushi restaurant and it was above average in freshness and taste. When it came time to pay and leave the waiter brought me the bill.  It was a good thing I looked it over. The bill had my hand-roll and unagi-bowl but added a dish I hadn’t ordered. Buyers beware!

MGM National Harbor
Bento sushi chef waiting for the first order of the day

I finished by walking out to the outdoor area that overlooks the Potomac River and Alexandria. Even in the freezing cold the brilliantly blue-sky day showed me this was a grand stage to hang out at and enjoy the view.

National Harbor

With the self-guided tour over I headed for my car and drove over to see the rest of the sprawling National Harbor. On my way out I had to pass the MGM National Harbor again.

This time I saw the traffic more backed up than when I arrived. There was a portable electric traffic sign that said the MGM was at capacity and closed to additional guests. Most if not all the 4,500 parking spaces must have filled up?

One can only wonder when the rush will subside, but for now it’s safe to say the world is beating a path to this entertainment giant’s new hot spot. If you go consider staying at the other hotels in the National Harbor if the MGM’s 308 rooms are sold out.

Free Shuttle. For Now.

Try the Westin or Gaylord and take the free shuttle MGM National Harbor operates from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. to and from the National Harbor. The shuttle is free for now but rumored to cost $5 in the future.

Still it beats driving into the madness, and will probably make your visit more enjoyable if you don’t have to drive.

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Kurt Jacobson
Kurt Jacobson lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and spent many years as a professional chef. Now he travels the world and shares his stories here and on other travel websites.