Lisa Guerena came to Las Vegas for her 21st birthday and never left. Well, sort of. Then a Milwaukee hairdresser, she fell in love with the excitement and opportunity of Vegas, and after one of the girlfriends on that birthday trip made the move, she followed. “It was just completely different from what I was used to, so open here,” she says.
That was a little more than 10 years ago. Guerena never would have imagined then that she’d end up running a Vegas bar. Well, sort of. She’s not just running it; she resurrected it. And it’s not just any old bar, it’s the Sand Dollar Lounge, a 36-year-old institution of blues and booze.
Guerena slipped into a career as a bartender when her cosmetology credits didn’t transfer from Wisconsin to Nevada. “Trying to remember all the bars I’ve worked at is the hardest thing,” she says. She bounced back and forth between tourist spots, like King Ink at Mirage and locals’ video poker joints, the Calico Jacks and Tomfoolerys of the world. “I like the local atmosphere much better, and that’s the kind of place I look for—the smaller, sh*thole bar that might be a little older, laidback, and it’s your favorite place to go. The place where they always have your drink ready.”
Now, Guerena is trying to return that friendliness to the Sand Dollar. After decades as one of the Valley’s most prominent blues bars, the Spring Mountain dive struggled in recent years, closing and then returning as the much different Bikini Bar. Having grown up on blues, Guerena couldn’t understand why anyone would take the place in a different direction, giving up on “some 30 years of customers and life.” When she found it for sale, she assembled two partners, put together a quick deal and took over in July.
Officially changing it back to the Sand Dollar and bringing back the music were the immediate priorities. This week will feature the house band on Thursday night, a Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute show, local bands on Friday and the well-known Moanin’ Blacksnakes on Saturday. In time, the bar might shoot for live music seven nights a week, and Guerena said a little “cosmetic love” is on the way, too, but not too much.
“I don’t want to change it too much, because this is the place people love,” she says. “Having people come in after being gone for years and hearing them say they finally have their home back, it just makes my heart smile. I think it was a huge loss to the community.” And now it’s back.