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Cocktails: Drink your way through history at classic drinking (and eating) spots that span the decades
Story by Lissa Townsend Rodgers and
Photography by Christopher Smith
and Drink Styling by Matt Myers, Assistant Director of Beverage, Bellagio
The Golden Gate Casino (1 Fremont St., 385-1906) is Las Vegas’ oldest hotel. How old? It opened in 1906 and the telephone number was 1. Originally the Hotel Nevada, the Golden Gate has renovated, but remains distinctly old school: wood moldings and wainscoting, ceiling fans spinning, blackjack dealers in suspenders and sleeve garters. Today, the baby grand player piano is pre-empted by Michael Jackson remixes and the go-go girls in fringed bikinis were definitely not here when Theodore Roosevelt was president. Actually, Roosevelt had a slight hand in the birth of new rum drinks during the aughts: Both the daiquiri and the Cuba Libre were invented in the Caribbean around the time of the Spanish-American War, and the recipes were imported stateside along with the bottles and cases of booze. After a nice period cocktail, you can saunter over to Du-Par’s and partake of the era’s other new flavor sensation, the French dip sandwich. Maybe even have a nice slice of pie — thankfully you’re not being choked by a celluloid collar or steel-boned corset, so chow down.
Las Vegas was officially incorporated in 1911: The beginning of the city, but the beginning of the end of the Wild West mining town. However, if you want an idea of what it was like to hit the bars back then, take a trip to Goodsprings, where the Pioneer Saloon (310 W. Spring St., 874-9362) has been serving drinks at the top of the hill for nearly a century. It’s exactly as you’d imagine it, too, from the pressed-tin walls and ceilings to plank floors and cast-iron stove. Even the bullet hole in the wall is authentic 1915 with a coroner’s report to prove it (cheating at cards, don’tcha know).
But these were also civilized times. Drinks went proto-exotica like the gin-brandy Singapore Sling. Or they paid homage to man’s newfound ability to fly with the Aviation, a gin-based potion whose pale hue evokes clouds and sky. However, the Pioneer Saloon isn’t exactly the bar for drinks that require a cocktail shaker — but don’t worry, both Budweiser and Pabst were in business back then. Conveniently, refrigerators had just been invented.
With Prohibition running from 1919 to 1933, there isn’t much in the way of surviving bars from this decade — but not because Las Vegas lacked them. There were plenty. In Vegas’ notorious Block 16, an area between Ogden and Stewart avenues from 1st to 3rd streets, drinking went the way of gambling and prostitution — to the back room. The Arizona Club was the area’s foremost saloon, with an ornamented brickwork façade and long oak bar. The Arizona was known for its sloe gin fizzes, but gimlets were also popular: Just make certain yours is mixed with both Rose’s lime juice and fresh lime juice — taken singly, the former will make it too sweet and the latter too sour.
All the buildings are gone now (parking garages), though there are still a few bars in the area. Pull up a seat to the enormous horseshoe bar at Triple George (201 North 3rd Street, 384-2761) and sip a neat Scotch while paging through Dorothy Parker, or perhaps go proletarian and peruse your Sinclair Lewis over some suds in the white tile-and-copper vat setting of Main Street Station's Triple 7 brewpub (200 N. Main St., 387-1896). Either way, make sure you’re wearing a hat.
Boulder City is the closest thing we have to the ’30s preserved. It’s about a half-hour drive from Vegas, but worth the trip. And go ahead and eat all the junk food you want on the way: This was the decade of Twinkies, Fritos, Snickers, Lay’s, Carvel …
The center of the hamlet’s historic district is 1933’s Boulder Dam Hotel (1305 Arizona Street, 293-3510), whose white-pillared “Dining – Cocktails” splendor has hosted royalty such as the Mahajara of Indore and Bette Davis. There’s even a mini-Grand Hotel shopping arcade with a tea room and a jewelry store peddling paste replicas of Bette’s canary diamond ring or, if you prefer, Marlene Dietrich’s rubies. The hotel dining room closes mid-afternoon, but that’s still plenty of time for a chicken salad sandwich and a sidecar or two. Afterward, cross the street to the Big Horn Restaurant (1300 Arizona St., 293-0273), housed in one of the Edward Hopper-esque storefronts, and pull up to the mirrored deco-style bar for a margarita — on the rocks, not that Slushee stuff. The margarita was invented in the 1930s — there are more than a dozen pretenders to the originator’s throne, but it seems to have been the concoction of some hotel bartender somewhere in Mexico. If tequila can make memories of last night hazy, imagine what it does to recollections of the previous century.
Bugsy Siegel’s brief and explosive Las Vegas legacy began downtown at the El Cortez Hotel and Casino (600 Fremont St., 385-5200). He basically picked the joint up as a headquarters for his racing wire operations but, as we all know, he soon got bigger ideas.
The hotel’s exterior remains pretty much in period, a low brick building with fire escapes worthy of a hood’s quick getaway and some of the finest vintage neon signs downtown. However, the interior has been redone several times, with echt-’70s chandeliers and über-90s upholstery putting a wrinkle in the circa 1941 aesthetic. But some corners are still flush with MGM/RKO glow: The low-lit, half-spiral staircase by the front desk is perfect for slinky femme fatale entrances — and the bar below is a fine spot for an appreciative audience. The Flame Steakhouse sometimes offers a “vintage” menu of dishes like oysters Rockefeller and strawberries Romanoff. Or just pull up a stool at the lounge, but be aware that if you’re going to do full period, you’ll have to smoke cigarettes — filterless cigarettes — but ordering a Manhattan or a Mai Tai should be enough.
The ’50s has a set of neon bookends, with Vegas Vic going up in 1951 and the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign arriving in 1959. In between, the Sahara, the Sands, the Stardust and a half-dozen other casinos swung open their doors.
Still, nothing says old-school like a steakhouse, and no steakhouse is more old-school than the Golden Steer. The Steer (308 W. Sahara Ave., 384-4470) has served kings from Sinatra to Elvis and maintains the classic red plush/dark wood machismo that’s so swell with a T-bone and an iceberg wedge. For cocktails, try a stinger, the brandy/Crème de Menthe drink favored by ladies from Jayne Mansfield to Peggy Olsen. The look of the era should be easy to come by: Banana Republic’s “Mad Men” collection has plenty of floral-print sheath dresses and narrow-lapeled gray suits. The Golden Steer is also open in the afternoon — go ahead, ask for Dean Martin’s booth, then slide right into that two-martini lunch. How did all of these people get in your room anyway?
When they opened, both Caesars Palace and the Las Vegas Hilton were examples of over-the-top ’60s glamour at its finest, although both have been stripped virtually all of their swinging glory. But if your vision of the era is more John Cassavetes than James Bond, Decatur Liquors (46 S. Decatur Blvd., 870-2522) is in near-pristine, early-’60s condition, from woodgrain formica to groovy primary-colored fonts. It was a big time for White Russians, and this is the sort of comforting, off-the-path bar you could down a few in. Or order a bourbon, which Congress declared “America’s Native Spirit” and our national drink in 1964, punch up some Motown on the jukebox and see if the Munsters are on TV.
Still not sufficiently bathed in authenticity? Step through the side door to the adjacent lunch counter, where there’s still floral vinyl on the booths and Swiss steak on the menu … or the drugstore, where rows of bull’s-eye greeting cards and pink foot pumices take on a pop art all their own — and try to tell me that packet of disposable rectal thermometer sheaths hasn’t been there since the Kennedy administration!
In Vegas, the ’70s seem as well-preserved as a showgirl who married well, with a number of spots firmly stuck in the Bailey’s and Quaaludes decade. Naturally, the Peppermill (2985 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 735-4177) is at the top of the list: Burgundy plush, pink neon, fake trees and, of course, that bubbling fire pit and those waitresses in backless dresses. If it wasn’t for those infernal plasma screens,
In a way, the ’80s have to be the Mirage (3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 791-7111). When it opened in 1989, it was the first major casino to open in almost 16 years and the harbinger of new, slick, high-rise tower Vegas. And, well, what’s more “Miami Vice”-era than being under a glass dome, surrounded by oversized tropical foliage, contemplating a sushi menu while the Bangles blare over the sound system? How about the Sports Bar, with its Sharper Image-style signage, brass horse head railings and endless acres of digital sports scores dancing above your head? Pay gustatory homage to the era by ordering anything made with Absolut — bonus points if it’s a blue kamikaze — and getting a barbecue chicken pie from the adjacent California Pizza Kitchen.
Even the new areas feel retro. The Rhumbar may be Palm Beach chic, but the glossy white finish on everything and abundance of sunglass-wearing, cigar-smoking males are still kinda, “Say hello to my little friend.”
If you want to escape the casino and favor vibe over authenticity, there’s always downtown’s video game bar, Insert Coins (512 Fremont St., 477-2525), where every night is ’80s night. Sip a fuzzy navel while dividing your attention between Tetris on the little screen and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” on the big one.
The ’90s brought a slew of new casinos: The Excalibur, Treasure Island, New York New York — but let’s ignore that brief and foolish attempt at making Vegas “family-friendly.” No, head straight for the high-end that started this whole luxury casino ball rolling: The Bellagio (3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 693-7111). Stride boldly across the gaming floor, whose vaguely haute Euro style also set the trend in resort design until the current fad for Mid-Century Meh took over. Hit the Baccarat Bar at the Bellagio, sink into a beige velvet couch and call for a Cosmo. People-watch and debate whether that woman is a hooker, or just another tourist who thinks everyone in Vegas is supposed to dress like a hooker. Eavesdrop on the Johnnie Walker Blue-swilling stock brokers behind you, and recall that this was the decade that originated luxury liquor, the luxury casino and, well, Johnnie Walker Blue-swilling stock brokers. But we were more tolerant then, back in those innocent days when we thought the boom would never have a bust.
Pick up your Desert Companion today at one of these Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf or Jamba Juice locations.
Also available at Clark County and Henderson libraries.