Downtown Las Vegas Loves the Old and is Proud of the New

Cameron Calloway, a local soul musician, wowed the crowd with his catchy and positive music at Backstage Bar and Billiards, during the Neon Reverb festival.
Cameron Calloway, a local soul musician, wowed the crowd with his catchy and positive music at Backstage Bar and Billiards, during the Neon Reverb festival.

We’ve been here for enough days to really get a sense of what downtown Las Vegas is like….and we’ve seen a lot of this vibrant city with a downtown that’s dramatically different from the famous Strip at the other end of North Las Vegas Boulevard.

The hotel where we’re staying, Downtown Grand Las Vegas, has only 400 rooms, which compared to MGM, with more than 5000, shows its scale. None of the downtown Vegas hotels are close to even the smallest Strip mega-hotel, which means that when you plan to meet someone in the lobby it doesn’t take 18-20 minutes just to get there.  The restaurants here serve food at reasonable prices, unlike the horror show of dropping $75 for a breakfast buffet at Caesars Palace, which one of the writers told me about. This two-year-old hotel was once called the Lady Luck which closed in the 1990s. The big building remained empty for several years before being purchased by a local group of investors.

There are many aspects of downtown that harken back to its colorful and mobbed up history which are used as marketing points.  One is the classic old hotel the El Cortez, where the restaurant is named for Bugsy Siegel, the original mob loanshark who helped build Vegas in the 1940s. I liked the sign outside the sprawling hotel, which explains how El Cortez remains the oldest continuously running hotel and casino in the city. “If you want gimmicks and glitter, head down the street, where it’s packaged and sold to the uninitiated. If you want visit the real Vegas, you come to the El Cortez. Our prestige is our pedigree.”

Our breakfast joint also was a trip in the past, Du-Pars is famous for its hotcakes and a line out the door. It’s inside the Golden Gate Hotel, the oldest hotel in Vegas, it even once had a phone number before any others, you dialed 1 on your rotary phone to call them. The land was bought in 1905 and the hotel opened back in 1906. Here in the casino, the dealers have the bowties and look of the old west, they have penny slots, and machines still chime and bark out their loud clatter as dice are thrown for the next bet.

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At Carson Kitchen, the spirit of the late 'rock and roll chef' Kerry Simon is channeled each night, with long lines and a sweet firepit terrace in the back.
At Carson Kitchen, the spirit of the late ‘rock and roll chef’ Kerry Simon is channeled each night, with long lines and a sweet fire-pit terrace in the back.
Golden Gate Hotel and Casino, which used to have the phone number 1.
Golden Gate Hotel and Casino, which used to have the phone number 1.
El Cortez prides itself on being old school Las Vegas.
El Cortez prides itself on being old school Las Vegas.

I asked many of the people we met when the downtown began its climb to becoming such a big important part of the booming Las Vegas tourism business, that last year claimed nearly 44 million overnight visitors.  It seems that it started in 1995 when the Fremont Street Experience opened the 10-story canopy that runs for four blocks and is a pedestrian area filled with shops, bars, nightclubs and restaurants.

But then it stalled out during the great recession of 2008, and some of the biggest projects such as City Center on the strip, almost didn’t finished being built.  But a few years later, around 2011, downtown once again boomed and the tourists have been mobbing the Fremont Street area ever since.

It’s not all that pleasant in some ways, walking on a Saturday night on Fremont. There are people wearing next to no clothes, trying to get tips, and ragged looking homeless people or just bums asking for money and not being dishonest that they just want another beer.  There are a lot of drunk people, carrying gigantic drinks and it can feel intimidating.  The police presence is pretty dramatic too, cop cars parked in the center of the road and the biggest bouncers you ever saw scrutinizing IDs and keeping big lines of rowdy people at bay.

But for many young people, this energy and frenetic noise, this din of loud house music and long lines to get into smoky dark clubs where you can’t hear anything someone says, it’s all very appealing.

We were glad to escape to the back room of one of the clubs, The Beauty Bar, and listen to a band that was part of the Neon Reverb music festival, which brings 90 bands to multiple venues across downtown for four nights. We listened for a while and then made our way to the Backstage Bar and Billiards where Cameron Calloway, a local hero, charmed the crowd with his acoustic guitar and soulful, playful positivity.  He contrasted mightily with the band we saw at the adjacent venue, two guys pounding out thrash rock,  piercingly loud. But that’s the best thing about a music festival with so many bands and venues, we just left and found music in another club that was more to our liking.

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The Fremont Street Experience is loud, raucus, and full of interesting and sometimes unsavory characters.
The Fremont Street Experience is loud, raucus, and full of interesting and sometimes unsavory characters.
At Atomic Liquors, named for the a-bomb tests that took place in the nearby desert, you can enjoy cocktails or buy booze to go.
At Atomic Liquors, named for the a-bomb tests that took place in the nearby desert, you can enjoy cocktails or buy booze to go.