Travel

Las Vegas Is More than a Pure Pleasure Palace

Finding the heart of Sin City, from Rat Pack enclaves to modern, gilded dining rooms
Photos: Todd Coleman

While driving down Las Vegas Boulevard, I stopped off to admire and photograph a sleek, yacht-like, vintage tan Cadillac parked in front of a motel in what had to be an homage to the movie Casino—deadpan colors and all. Suddenly, a half-dressed Elvis impersonator in an unbuttoned, shimmering turquoise shirt ran out onto a balcony, took off his enormous shades and while waving his bejeweled hands yelled, “Hey! What the hell are you doing?!” If I wasn't sure I was in Vegas before, I was certain now.

I was here to try to get a read on this fabled place—elusive to some, pure pleasure palace to others—by tracing a route from the old to the new, from mythical Rat Pack enclaves and the vestiges of late-night, cocktail-fueled high roller dinners to newer amusement park flourishes and the flashy luxuries of a high-end chef invasion. These are the people I met on that gilded journey, helping decode a place that's always in transition, begging for translation.

The excitement started even before my plane landed. We were about to touch down in Las Vegas when someone suddenly stood up early from their seat. Subtle mayhem ensued. Vegas has that kind of effect: People can’t wait to get their fun on.

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First stop: the Mob Museum. In an act of utter ruthlessness, it’s housed in the old courthouse downtown, where mobsters themselves were prosecuted. This was the perfect place to kick off a Vegas adventure: entrenched in the lore and mystery of the city's organized crime roots. The museum outlined the transformation from sawdust-strewn Western casinos to fancy “carpet joints.” A narrative unfurled throughout several floors of exhibits, where I learned how out-of-town smarty-pants gangsters skimmed millions of dollars from casino profits right under the noses of everyone, and about the crafty MacGyver-like tools and gambits used by card sharks and ne’er-do-wells to cheat at games of chance. There was also a 1950s menu from the Flamingo featuring Baltimore oysters stewed in cream, baked potatoes (but only offered after 5 p.m.) and something called the Avocado Princess. After browsing the gift shop's Fuhgeddaboudit T-shirts and jaunty fedoras, I stood outside on the courthouse steps as Frank Sinatra bellowed from the PA overhead, feeling a little euphoric. Vegas, the one I’ve dreamt of, seemed within reach.

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"You're sitting in Sammy's booth," said my waiter, Ali, at the Golden Steer, a 75-year-old steakhouse somewhere between Downtown and The Strip, as he regaled me with stories of where Dean Martin and Sinatra sat as they dined with Mr. Davis Jr. (During segregation, this was one of the few places the performer could dine when he was in town.) Mysterious and dimly lit, the interior had the look of a Victorian railroad baron's parlor. "I grew up seeing the Steer sign outside and always wanted to come here," Ali, who's originally from Afghanistan, said with a huge smile. "When we finally came to eat, my mom had bought me brand-new white clothes for the occasion—I immediately splattered tomato sauce right down the front of my shirt. She was so upset." I ordered something that seemed appropriately stiff and proper: a tender pink slab of prime rib (Diamond Jim cut, please) and what they call "the largest baked potato in Las Vegas," while my eyes darted around looking for a precautionary bib. Waiting for my order, I watched Ali deftly make a Caesar salad tableside next to a huge portrait of Martin. The juxtaposition of showy spectacle seemed fitting.

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Atomic Liquors, the oldest freestanding bar in town, seemed like the best next step. Apocryphal stories—like much of Vegas—abounded. Barbra Streisand's old high-back chair had been restored at the edges of the bar; she used to hang out here. When the place was refurbished, they found a supply of bottles of Old Crow whiskey in the basement—Hunter S. Thompson loved Old Crow, so he probably came here, too. Probably-maybe. But that's only natural for a city steeped in legend. I ordered that Old Crow in the form of a whiskey smash, mint and ginger muddled together with a tingling touch of soda. It was the perfect drink to sip and take the place in. The original popcorn ceiling. An actual Geiger counter behind the bar. A recently discovered floor safe behind a looking glass. It achieved a thing almost impossible: the comfort of a locals-only joint where no one was a local.

Drinks aside, you can't visit this town without hitting a breakfast buffet. In a past life, that's how you ate all your meals: delicious, cheap and plentiful. Nowadays, they're harder to find, but the A.Y.C.E. (sounds like a sports club, but stands for All You Can Eat) hits the right mix of tradition and, well, non-tradition. It was a little bit like an old Howard Johnson's that the crew from A Clockwork Orange dropped by to graffiti. The food was great. Mini, sculptural hashes. Crispy slices of ham in little casseroles with puddles of just-cooked egg yolks. It even had a childhood favorite of mine, rarely seen on the East Coast—chili pie with a cornmeal crust. It was the place to get myself right, amid the sleepy high rollers and beaming families.

 

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"We try to keep the old-time aspect," John Dorweiler, the manager of the quintessential Vegas hotel and casino El Cortez, said. "But it's always changing." I'm not sure what's changed exactly, but I hope they don't change a thing: It was resplendent in the glory of bygone Vegas. He took me up to the Jackie Gaughan suite, where the founder and brainchild of El Cortez lived for many years. It was preserved in late-70s splendor, and there are few better ways to describe it than as being right out of Casino. "You could check in every week on The Strip and not see the same people," Dorweiler said. "Not here. We have a small front desk—we know your name." And the prime rib dinner—the litmus test meal for Vegas—was a majestic $10.95.

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"Welcome to Brooklyn!" Vincent Rotolo, the owner of Good Pie, said in a spout of earnest incongruousness. An NYC transplant, Rotolo is making pizza in a way that proves the water in Vegas is great for pizza. An incessant worrier over the details of his craft, he's never satisfied with what he's making day to day. "Wait until you taste what I'm working on next, man," he said while I tasted some of the best pizza ever, a maestro demuring. He's the kind of New Yorker that New York was built on: a self-made, soulful talker-meets-doer. He had a collection of grandma photos on one wall as his muse (Martin Scorsese's mother was there), the center frame remaining empty in what seemed like a bid for some self-projection. He chattered and tinkered as he whipped up pies with his team. "I like restaurateurs who bring you into their world—that's what I'm trying to do here." I had him make us The Good, the Rad & the Gnarly pie from the The Really Good Stuff section of the menu, and we sat down to eat it together. Sauce and mozzarella mingled with tons of garlic, jalapeño and Calabrian chile under the kicker: Mike's Hot Honey. While Rotolo worried over whether the center of pie was cooked within the proper percentage, I devoured three slices. His obsession with perfection delivered in spades.

 

Since I was trying to get a grip on the true Vegas, I decided to pay a visit to Patrick Hughes, the director of the Fremont Street Experience, an organization intent on making the voice of Downtown Vegas heard. "It's full on connectivity and affordability down here," he said, brimming with excitement and barely able to sit still. "The experience is different on The Strip. Two main companies own the whole thing over there, so the experience can be kinda sterile. You can actually walk around down here!" There's a definite rivalry between the twin halves of The Strip and Downtown. It's still such a young city, but one seeks preservation while the other a brand-new future. Hughes nodded his head: "It's old school here; you can't get that on The Strip."

Hughes sent me over to The Golden Tiki, a relatively new Polynesian bar in a Chinatown strip mall where the old is definitely meeting the new. As soon as I walked in, it was animatronic Pirates of the Caribbean all the way. There was a fake shrunken-head collection on display, featuring local celebrities from Carrot Top to Robin Leach. Besides drink, there was a lot to do: take a "shell-fie" in the clamshell love seat, dance under the giant octopus hanging over the DJ booth. It all made sense when I met the owner, Branden Powers, who is a not only a Disneyland freak but one of the original founders of the rave scene. Powers has strains of Vegas in his blood. He used to visit Vegas with his family as a kid and had to wear a suit, and now he wants to bring back that respect for style. "I went to Pavarotti here once, and people were wearing T-shirts, man. What happened to escapism? People want that. I'm on my own path, creating worlds—we're the Chinese Theatre of shrunken heads." Oh yeah, try the Dragon's Breath. And Goldie's Dirty Banana.

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The next day at my hotel, The Park MGM, I went downstairs to the Primrose, where I met the bartender, Emily Yett. A show-woman in her own right, she used to practice flair bartending in her garage for eight hours a day—juggling liquor bottles—before breaking into the cocktail revival. "It's all about the guest here," she said. "Making them the star for the day." One of her favorite cocktails is the Smoked Bijou, which she called the "perfect jewel." It's a mix of Bombay Sapphire (the diamond), Dolin Rouge (the ruby) and Chartreuse (the emerald). Like David Copperfield, she placed the finished cocktail in a glass box to fill with smoke, letting the customer open it to reveal their elegant prize. Here, a drink becomes an exhibit.

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The last thing I thought I'd do in Vegas was learn how to make paella. But there, I was at Jaleo in the Cosmopolitan in a literal ring of fire. "Hey man, we're just hanging out—I want you to forget you're in Vegas," chef Luis Montesinos said. But this was no place to forget you're in Vegas. Where else would they build a $2 million exhaust system for the fire pit and import bread made in a bubble gum machine from Barcelona? Orange wood was burning under cast-iron pans. Montesinos said it takes 45 minutes from start to finish to make a paella, as he added rabbit and fava beans to a huge pan. "We ring a cowbell every time a paella is finished," he said. "All at once, the staff yells out "Paella!" The show went on.

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In a town that's all about lavish display, who is more over the top than Gordon Ramsay? He's famous for creating a ruckus, like a modern-day Don Rickles of the kitchen. The Hell's Kitchen at Caesars Palace is exactly that. A restaurant built to resemble the set of the TV show, but it might as well be the actual show. The chef de cuisine—in the biggest meta-move ever—is the winner of the last season of the show. Dinner itself is a live event; every guest can't help but become invested in the experience. I was eating dishes from the show while looking at the show. Who wouldn't love it? One review from Yelp said it all: "I love watching Hell's Kitchen and I was lucky enough to be able to eat at Hell's Kitchen I had the Hell's Kitchen burger!" The beef Wellington was there, too, as well as the seared scallops. The show stealer, however, was the pineapple carpaccio. Liquid nitrogen was poured into the center of the dish tableside, creating creamy waves of smoke that filled the table with drama. I became the center of the universe, as everyone watched my table in awe. But only for a moment.

 

Todd Coleman is the creative director and editor-at-large for Tasting Table. Follow him on Instagram at @toddwcoleman.

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