09/02/2004 11:00PM

Hooters takes leap into casino scene

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When I read the Hooters press release I did a double take. The famous Hooters restaurant chain has signed a management agreement to take control of the Hotel San Remo, located off the Las Vegas Strip at 115 East Tropicana Avenue.

The casino-hotel, right now, is a rather nondescript place. Its marketing focus has been on Japanese tourists and bargain-hunting travel groups and is popular among airline pilots and flight attendants because of affordable room rates and its proximity to McCarron Airport.

All that is about to change.

Hooters is getting ready to jump into Las Vegas with both feet after dipping a toe into the water the past two years. Local franchise owners are operating two area locations, one inside Sunset Station in Henderson, and a second restaurant on West Sahara Avenue. I've eaten at the Sunset Station Hooters. The place is always packed, but I can tell you it's not because of the food.

Hooters, which opened its first location in Clearwater, Fla., in 1983, is famous for its more than 15,000 "Hooters Girls." The girls serve customers food and beverage in a uniform consisting of a tight white T-shirt and form-fitting orange gym shorts.

The makeover of the 711-room casino-hotel will take until the end of 2005. The property will stay open during the renovation. Tentative plans call for a Dan Marino's Fine Food and Spirits eatery, a Hooters Beach Club, expanding the swimming pool area to three times the size, and remodeling every room into a "Florida casual" look. Think Miami Vice nice.

A big Hooters logo will be the first thing drivers along Tropicana Avenue will see of the property.

The Hooters founders are applying for a Nevada gaming license. This is a prelude to Hooters possibly buying the San Remo outright from its current owners.

The news fits right in with a sexier trend in Las Vegas. The marketing direction of Las Vegas isn't turning away from family entertainment to a sexier version; it's veering away.

In January 1994, a Time magazine cover story called Las Vegas, "The New All-American City." The article quotes Steve Wynn, who developed the Mirage, Bellagio, and Treasure Island, and is less than a year away from opening Wynn Las Vegas.

"Las Vegas exists because it is a perfect reflection of America," said Wynn in the story. "You say 'Las Vegas' in Osaka or Johannesburg, anywhere in the world, and people smile, they understand. It represents all the things people in every city in America like. Here, they can get it in one gulp."

Time also wrote that Las Vegas need not apologize for being sexy because "at 116 Hooters restaurants in 30 states, the whole point is the battalion of bosomy young waitresses in tight-fitting tank tops who exist as fantasy objects for a clientele of high-testosterone frat boys and young bubbas."

Hooters will now be joining mainstream Las Vegas.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up radio show.