Now open to visitors from all over the world, who can simply walk in and gamble with proper identification, the Casino at the Empire has brought a whole new element of cool to Leicester Square, which is already home to outsized movie palaces and crowded nightclubs. On Saturday nights the casino floor is jam-packed, Vegas-style, with waitresses scurrying to deliver drinks, while gamblers in everything from tuxedos to ragged jeans concentrate on the game ahead. Some of the women are dolled up in evening gowns, others prefer tight jeans and sparkly tops. The wildly mixed crowd reflects London's status as a global tourist magnet - Americans, Chinese, Koreans, Russians, and Eastern Europeans keep the conversation going in a multitude of languages. The casino is dotted with small restaurants and bars and hideaways and even has one - the Icon bar - with an outdoor terrace overlooking the pandemonium of Leicester Square from above. It's heavenly on a late summer evening when the sun fades at nine or 10 at night, and fun in winter if you're bundled up.
The new casinos have given a welcome boost to the nightlife scene in Britain's major cities, says Craig Doyle, group operations director of Maxwell's Restaurants Group, which manages a number of eateries. He says places like Fifty and the Casino at the Empire are making casinos cool.
"Fifty sets the precedent really; it's the top of the pile. But I also think the Empire is very good for Leicester Square," he says. "They are certainly bringing an element of quality to our business."
He cited a recent night when actors Pierce Brosnan, Anthony Hopkins, and Dennis Hopper were all seen at Fifty as proof that casinos are back in style. Fifty has also been used for fund-raising events that have drawn stars like Elton John and Kevin Spacey and former models Claudia Schiffer and Elle Macpherson. The resurgence of these venues also got quite a lift from the recent James Bond movie, Casino Royale, which was set in an impossibly glamorous fictional casino and featured a racy romance between Daniel Craig, playing the new 007, and Eva Green.