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Hometown: Las Vegas

In a Vegas hotel, the loo of luxury

The restrooms at Zeffirino Ristorante, in the Venetian, nearly won a national contest. Now they stand as monuments to a fading era of opulence.

September 27, 2009|Ashley Powers

LAS VEGAS — They were almost -- almost -- America's Best Restrooms.

Zeffirino Ristorante's restrooms couldn't quite elbow out Radio City Music Hall's in the annual publicity-stunt contest. Or the marble-columned facilities at the Tremont Plaza Hotel in Baltimore. Or the winning entry, at the Shoji Tabuchi Theatre in Branson, Mo. (The men's room has a pool table. And a fireplace!)

But the men's and ladies' rooms at Zeffirino Ristorante, with marble floors, butter-pecan-colored tiles and other Italian imports, still hold significance on the Las Vegas Strip.

That bathrooms at the Venetian would vault into the contest's top 10 is somewhat remarkable: Casino lavatories usually evoke all the charm of their airport cousins. Add to that the scent of Captain Morgan, Marlboros and Lysol and -- at least in the ladies' room -- the murmurs of women primping for men or crying over them.

More notably, Zeffirino's (almost) award-winning restroom is a monument to Las Vegas' luxury era.

In 2006, before the recession chiseled away at profligate spending, the Italian restaurant in the Venetian poured nearly $1 million into transforming a private dining room into a pair of lavish lavatories.

It made perfect sense that, on the ever-more-ornate Strip, a women's restroom would boast a limestone lion's head trickling water into a basin filled with fresh roses.

(Well, for a time. The region's hard water corroded the limestone, and a florist had to replenish the roses daily.)

Now, with the economic downturn trimming the average Zeffirino dinner bill by about a third, the bathrooms are examples of Strip excess to be gawked at by bargain-hunters.

On a recent afternoon, tourists briefly marveled at a delicate Murano glass chandelier before dashing off to happy-hour specials.

The America's Best Restroom contest was sponsored by Cintas Corp., which makes restroom supplies. The public was invited to vote online, and the results were announced this summer.

The contest website notes, "In one recent survey, more than 75% of respondents said they would not return to a restaurant if the restrooms were not well kept."

The website didn't offer specifics on the survey, but added: "In the face of statistics like this, we felt it was worth giving credit where credit is due. At this site we are honoring companies and organizations who go above and beyond the call of duty to present a pleasant, even memorable experience in a public restroom."

When Zeffirino Ristorante, a spinoff of a family-run eatery in Genoa, Italy, opened in 1999, owners had pumped $11 million into its look, said managing director Giuliano Berto, who grew up outside Venice and wanted Zeffirino's to have an old-money feel. The restaurant is next to the casino's Grand Canal Shoppes and its serenading gondoliers.

Nearly all the decor was shipped from Italy, including a wishing well from Naples with carved figures of maidens. The restaurant's ceiling was painted to suggest centuries of water damage, though the Venetian opened only a decade ago.

The original restrooms were stylish -- the women's was festooned with angels -- but too small for a place that served hundreds of people nightly.

And the new lavatories needed to match Zeffirino's Italian villa decor.

"Do we want to build a bathroom so-so?" Berto recalled thinking. "Or do we want a million-dollar bathroom?"

At the time, the answer was obvious. The buzzword on the Strip was opulence. From Wynn Las Vegas to the still-under-construction CityCenter hotel-condominium project, the new hotels were all upper-crust.

In fact, in 2007, Mix Lounge in chic Mandalay Bay (almost) captured the America's Best Restroom title.

So, at Zeffirino, a rainbow-hued mosaic of the masked Italian character Arlecchino now grins outside the bathrooms.

The urinals are framed with red drapery.

Inside the women's restroom are marble tiles, cherry-wood doors and four stalls, each with its own Murano glass sink, rococo-style mirror and hand towels emblazoned with a yellow stripe and the restaurant name.

(The cloth towels only appear at certain hours. Lunch patrons must settle for paper towels: The bathroom attendant only works at night, and the pricey linens are often stolen.)

Berto is convinced that better pictures of his bathrooms would have clinched the Best Restroom prize.

Still, his landed in the top five and qualified for the "America's Best Restroom Hall of Fame."

And he can boast that Zeffirino's still beat out Chicago's Drake Hotel -- it has palm tree murals and a chandelier -- and six other restrooms, none of them in Las Vegas.

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ashley.powers@latimes.com

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