Eat, drink and play like a native in the rehabilitated heart of Nevada’s most notorious city.
When hacking through the human jungle that is the Las Vegas Strip, one encounters the expected nightlife wildlife: Gamblers, gam-flashing girls, and wannabe wise guys, oh my! Perhaps the only thing more abundant in “Sin City” than stereotypes is neon. But Las Vegas locals will tell you that what happens in Vegas... doesn’t really always happen in Vegas. “My life is not The Hangover,” one born-and-raised native told us. “I don’t get drunk and gamble every weekend, I don’t have a tiger in my bathroom or a naked man in my trunk. And I’m sick of hearing ‘Viva Las Vegas.’”
So what’s a local to do in LV? Well, away from the bejeweled bachelor parties, wide-eyed tourists and thonged throngs of the Strip, there’s a radically revitalized Downtown where the natives like to play. Over the past few years, the original strip along Fremont Street has been transformed from a bad neighborhood into a buzzing hub of locavore culture, where small businesses, stylish bars, art galleries and family-owned eateries mingle with old casino foot-traffic. Betty Ford herself never saw such a startling rehabilitation. And while we certainly appreciate the visual jackpot of “Big” Vegas, letting locals show us around and share the secrets of their city offered a far bigger payout.
Play Like a Local
For a casual off-the-strip experience, start your day at The Beat Coffeehouse and Records (520 Fremont St., 702-385-2328, thebeatlv.com), housed on the ground floor of the old JCPenney building. Vinyl junkies spend hours here digging through crates of records, but breakfast is a big draw, too, with a menu that includes flaky, buttery croissants and pretzel rolls from local purveyor Bon Breads, hot sandwiches and potent coffee (the Mothership Drip Roast really straightens the eyeballs out after a long night of flashing neon). The Beat building also houses the Burlesque Hall of Fame, the Emergency Arts galleries (a collection of about 45 different spaces) and the Fetish Spa Parlor.
Further east down Fremont sits one of the wonders of the new downtown: Container Park (707 Fremont St., 702-637-4244, downtowncontainerpark.com), a complex of shops and bars constructed from recycled shipping containers. Every shop and restaurant inside is locally owned, from boutique jewelers Art Box to salon Bolt Barbershop to the Simply Pure vegan and raw food eatery. The park’s centerpiece is a giant treehouse with a 33-foot-tall slide, which teems with giggling kids and adults alike. No one younger than 21 is admitted after 9 p.m. (and no booze goes in or out after that), but an after-dark visit is a must, if only for the giant, fire-breathing praying mantis at the entrance to the park. The 35-foot-tall metal sculpture was featured at the annual Burning Man festival in northern Nevada, and now delights – and sometimes scares the crap out of – passersby by suddenly shooting streams of flames from its antennae. It’s art at its most incendiary.
Speaking of art, the 18b Las Vegas Arts District (18b.org) might make you jealous of its First Friday flock. Every month, crowds of thousands pack the 24 galleries that constitute the art walk, perusing everything from murals in alleyways and vintage items at stops like Retro Vegas to innovative prints at Photo Bang Bang and high-end interior design displays at Inside Style. The man responsible for financing much of the downtown revitalization, Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh, frequents the artwalks (we ran into him at off-the-beaten-path-but-packed-to-the-gills gallery Blackbird Studios).
Did you know the phrase “I heard you paint houses,” was mafia code for “I heard you’re a hit man?” Get wise at one of Las Vegas’ most unusual attractions, The Mob Museum (300 Stewart Ave., 702-229-2734, themobmuseum.org). Here, you can pose for a photo in a faux suspect lineup, wander through an old gaming room replica, and ogle artifacts like Lucky Luciano’s fedora, Bugsy Siegel’s rings, and Tony Soprano’s outfits from The Sopranos. But the shooting star among the three floors of exhibits is a bullet-riddled brick wall. This is the actual wall from the infamous 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, in which seven associates of Irish gangster Bugs Moran were tricked into thinking men dressed as police were busting them for bootlegging, and then shot in the backs when they lined up against the wall.
Should the Mob Museum put you in the mood for entertainment not rife with violence, the new Smith Center for the Performing Arts (361 Symphony Park Ave., 702-749-2012, thesmithcenter.com) has your ticket. This gleaming, $150 million art deco paragon of 19-foot-tall chandeliers, Italian marble tiles and brass railings hosts a variety of performances, from national acts like comedienne Lily Tomlin (May 11) and crooner Johnny Mathis (May 30) in the five-tiered Reynolds Hall, to local favorites like resident artist (and former Joan Rivers sidekick) Clint Holmes, who combines singing original songs and jazz standards with storytelling in the Cabaret Jazz theater.
Eat Like a Local
When it comes to food, Las Vegas is primarily known for two things: buffets and steaks. And while you won’t find a local foodie at any casino buffet, they do frequent some of the city’s signature steakhouses, like Joe Vicari’s Andiamo Steakhouse at The D Las Vegas (301 Fremont St., 702-388-2220, thed.com/dining/andiamo-steakhouse). Here among the high-backed, buttoned black leather booths and pristine white serviettes, you’ll find the Rat Pack-feel of old Vegas, along with hand-made pastas, extremely knowledgeable servers making Caesar salads tableside, and classic entrées like Frutti di Mare, lobster risotto and filet mignon. Another meaty beacon is the recently renovated N9NE Steakhouse at the Palms Casino Resort (4321 W. Flamingo Rd., 702-933-9900, palms.com/fine-dining/n9ne-steakhouse), where chef Barry Dakake creates all manner of extreme-size entrées, including a succulent and perfectly seared 48 oz. bone-in Tomahawk rib-eye. He also does a 3 lb. lobster Thermidor that looks like it could crawl off the platter, if it wasn’t freshly dead and stuffed from tail to claw with Gruyère cheese. Don’t be fooled by the classic hard rock blaring throughout the glitzy dining room – you may feel lowbrow hearing AC/DC and Led Zeppelin while picking at your pile of intensely blue-cheese-infused “garbage salad,” but this is still the house that high-end hedonism built.
For a more casual meal, locals love Park on Fremont (506 Fremont St., 702-834-3160, parkonfremont.com), home of brunches with “bottomless mimosas” for $20 and the weirdest decor this side of Wonderland. The aesthetic explosion includes dyed ostrich skin patchwork booths, black and white paintings of animals and children that look like a collision of post-mortem photography and Dali on acid, and taxidermied ducks displayed behind the bar. If such a setting seems too surreal to enjoy a sandwich in, the back patio takes it down a notch with a garden, a seesaw and a big Cinderella-like carriage on the roof. But wherever you sit, the food’s a hit, from cornflake-crusted chicken tenders and a guacamole-topped San Diego Burger to homemade clam chowder and the “Philly Mac and Cheese Steak.”
Another beloved native nosh spot is Honey Salt (1031 S. Rampart Blvd., 702-445-6100, honeysalt.com), where self-styled “culinary ninja” Joe Zanelli – who’s worked as a chef under everybody from Michael Mina to Wolfgang Puck – assassinates blandness with an arsenal of unbelievably good entrèes. Non-cloying monkey bread makes a great starter, balancing cinnamon with a citrus hint, while the corned beef hash, serrano ham, and spinach-stuffed weekend frittata all make applaudable follow-ups. Honey Salt sits in a strip mall with a modest storefront, but don’t be surprised to see a celebrity sitting at the breakfast counter. We saw prop-loving comedian Carrot Top.
Some of the best Mexican food in Las Vegas can be found at family-owned La Comida (100 Sixth St., 702-463-9900, facebook.com/LaComidaLV). A whimsical pink neon skeleton-monkey sign marks the spot, and once inside, diners are treated to what has to be one of the tastiest spicy tuna tostadas on earth. Also worth trying: a sweet corn cob swathed in spicy mayo, the camaron del golfo (shrimp cuddled with butternut squash and chorizo), and puerco ahumado (mesquite-smoked pork shoulder). The expansive margarita menu’s no joke, either – especially the Siempre Caliente made with Chamucos Blanco tequila, passion fruit, house-made sour mix and special hot sauce.
Drink Like a Local
One force-of-habit hazard of living in Las Vegas, locals tell us, is visiting bars in other cities, and making the honest mistake of walking out with libation in hand. Though swilling on the street is perfectly legal in Downtown Vegas, it seems vaguely shameful considering the bevy of boutique bars. Currently the best-kept secret among Downtown’s speakeasy-vibe cocktail coves, The Lady Silvia (900 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-405-0816, theladysilvia.com) is hard to find but worth the hunt. (Hint: the suite number, 140, is etched in absinthe-green on the door.) Once inside, you might feel like you fell down the rabbit hole: More than 30,000 books are artfully arranged on wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, framing whimsical furniture (purple velvet chaise lounges, shaggy gold chairs with anthropomorphic feet) set on black-and-white checkered tile. The artisanal cocktail menu features seven seasonals and seven signatures, such as The Surrealist (a blend of monk-made herbal liqueur Chartreuse, Angostura bitters, Barsol Pisco brandy and lemon and grapefruit juices) and the eponymous Lady Silvia (a fruity-fizzy fusion of Bombay Sapphire gin, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, Amaro Nonino, lemon juice and sparkling wine).
In the heart of the action along Fremont Street is the exclusive Commonwealth (525 E. Fremont St., 702-445-6400, commonwealthlv.com), where weekend lines – of mostly locals – wind around the block. If you manage to snag a table on the upstairs patio overlooking Fremont, or downstairs in the industrial-chic main room hung with photos of classic Hollywood actresses, you might not want to get up; seats are so in-demand they practically release steam from the heat of the heinies that occupy them nonstop. The diva pop music blaring from the DJ booth belies the 1920s speakeasy-feel and the eclectic crowd, but once you get one – or several – of Commonwealth’s cocktails in you, you won’t even blush when you hear ‘70s disco-funk band Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love in Me.” Knock back a Moscow Mule (in a tin cup!) or a dangerously smooth “Ello Guv’nor” (Stoli Elit vodka, lime, simple syrup and cucumber soda). If beer’s more your style, the bar offers an extensive selection in bottle and on draft, including rare brews like Wells Banana Bread Beer and Magic Beaver Belgian-Style Pale Ale from Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery in Virginia (blushing yet?)
Continuing with the beer-brand innuendos, Banger Brewing (450 Fremont St., 702-456-2739, bangerbrewing.com) offers nine of their microbrews and three other Nevada crafts on tap. Hunker down with a flight at one of the tables in view of the glass-enclosed brewing equipment and enjoy Banger’s fine beers, which are not available anywhere outside the door (unless you bring and fill a growler). Highlights include El Heffe, a real kick-in-the-tonsils, unfiltered white rye pilsner spiked with roasted jalapeño and serrano peppers; and the Weisse So Serious, a smooth wheat beer with fruit esters proffering hints of banana and clove, and a slightly bitter pop from Chinook Saaz hops.
Stay Like a Local
Like all the hotel-casinos around the renewed nucleus of Fremont Street, the Downtown Grand (206 N. Third St., 702-719-5100, downtowngrand.com) – formerly the Lady Luck – underwent major renovations before opening in January 2014. Rooms feature plush Slushie-red carpet, walls decked with colorful ‘60s mod art, and great views of Downtown. It’s within walking distance of Fremont to the south and The Mob Museum to the north; aptly, the Grand’s Mob Bar is a concrete shoe’s throw from the museum, and makes a great place for dueling pianos and tipples like “Sicilian Kiss” and “Bloody Italian.”
Even if you don’t get a room, the new place to “totally check out” right now is SLS Las Vegas (2535 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 702-737-2111, slshotels.com/lasvegas). Constructed on the site of the former Sahara, positioning it as a unique anchor/bridge between the Strip and Downtown, it includes 1,600 posh guest rooms and suites housed in three towers; two pools; 30,000 feet of convention space; and more than half a dozen restaurants, including outposts of James Beard Award-winning chef Jose Andres’ hit Beverly Hills restaurant, The Bazaar.
Wherever you stay and however you play in Vegas, you can safely bet on one thing: Downtown has insider fun in spades.
Just One Strip Tease
There’s no shortage of places to play along the Las Vegas Strip, but for locals, only one is worth the weekend – The LINQ (thelinq.com). Located in a large pedestrian-only district behind The Quad Resort and Casino, this massive, brand-spanking-new entertainment complex features a plethora of restaurants, shops, live music at The Brooklyn Bowl (coming up: Primus, May 1-3; Jane’s Addiction, May 8-10; Steve Winwood, June 13-14; brooklynbowl.com), and the 550-foot-tall High Roller, the world’s largest observation wheel. And yes, you can take your frozen drink from Purple Zebra with you (we recommend the “Taste Like Heaven” made with Fireball Cinnamon Whisky and frozen lemonade, and the “El Capitan” with spiced rum and cola). Or grab something from the bar at Irish-style pub O’Shea’s, a beloved local haunt where Lucky the Leprechaun hosts beer pong tournaments.