A mass of travel journalists visited Las Vegas this week and made the Plaza its home base. These were members of the North American Travel Journalists Association, who spent three days canvassing the city, attending workshops and parties and taking tours of such attractions as the Mob Museum and Gold & Silver Pawn. They hit the Strip, too, dining at the new Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace and toured Henderson and Lake Las Vegas.
I was invited to give a presentation Wednesday morning, in the middle of this conference, during a breakfast session at the Plaza. Hidden gems in Las Vegas, focusing on downtown (or those areas abutting downtown), was the loosely structured theme. I constructed a list for the group, highly subjective, of course, and am posting what I shared with the visiting journalists:
Best Locals Celebration: The art walk and street party that is First Friday, celebrating its 10th anniversary … tonight, actually. Started by the nonprofit Whirlygig in 2002 and purchased last year by Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, the event is more viable and vibrant than ever.
Best Place to People Watch: In general it’s Fremont Street. Specifically, it’s the patio at Hennessey's Tavern facing the three corners of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street. That’s Neonopolis and Heart Attack Grill, the vacant lot on the northeast corner, and the closed 7-11 on the southeast corner.
Best Piano Bar: Don’t Tell Mama on Fremont East. Piano's open. Jump in!
Best Steakhouse (Elevated Division): The Top of Binion’s Steakhouse. It sits on the 24th floor overlooking Fremont Street and provides a high-up view of most of the Las Vegas Valley. Many visitors and a fair number of locals wrongly think the steakhouse closed when Binion’s closed its hotel in December 2009. Not so.
Best Restaurant (Open Division): Hugo’s Cellar at Four Queens. The food is excellent, and the staff is superb. Very low ceiling, a rolling salad bar that is a meal unto itself with 20 options.
Best 24-Hour Diner: You might hear about this place if you talk to enough locals, but Tiffany's Cafe at the old White Cross Drugs (scheduled to be turned over to White Cross Market by the end of November) is open all hours. Order at the counter. Great grilled cheese sandwiches and hamburgers, but don’t try to use a debit or credit card. The restaurant accepts cash only.
Best Karaoke: Dino’s Lounge, which has been a favorite Vegas tavern since the late 1950s. Also home to one of the city's heated competitions, Drunk of the Month.
Best Themed Hangout: Oscar’s Beef Booze & Broads, named for former Mayor Oscar Goodman. The three B's that helped make Fremont Street famous.
Best Lounge Singer: Sarah Frances Johnston, a great young vocalist who appears around town, at Red Rock Resort and Green Valley Ranch. I saw her at Oscar’s. She puts out a Diana Krall-Norah Jones-Adele vibe and is immensely appealing in a small setting.
Best Impressionist: Gordie Brown at the Golden Nugget, who started downtown about 10 years ago, was on the Strip for a time at the Venetian and is now back at the Golden Nugget.
Best Tribute Act: Purple Reign at the D. Starring Jason Tenor as Prince. He’s so convincing that when Mary J. Blige brought the Real Prince onstage at the 2012 iHeartRadio Music Festival at MGM Grand a few weekends ago, I thought he was Jason Tenner.
Best Place to Listen to Genuine Vinyl Records, Enjoy a Cup of Coffee and Make an Art Walk: Emergency Arts, in the refurbished Fremont Medical Building. This is where “Breakfast in America” by Supertramp meets French roast, local art and blueberry muffins.
Best Place to Enjoy a 99-Cent Shrimp Cocktail: Golden Gate, though it costs $2.99 these days. And you have to order them at DuPar’s, after the hotel’s renovation cleared out the hotel’s old walk-up cafe.
Best Production Show: “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” at the Plaza.
Best Historic Attraction: The Mob Museum. You can spend three hours in this place, where former federal law-enforcement officials share space with reputed Mafia overlords.
Best Gift Shop: The Mob Museum, again. Everything is Mob-themed there. You can even pick up a tin of Mob Breath Mints.
Best Speakeasy: Downtown Cocktail Room. Try entering this place. The first time I tried, days before it opened in 2007, I couldn’t figure out to push the silver door and wound up seeking access in the back alley. This is where you run into Las Vegans of all ilk — ranging from prominent attorneys, casino execs and even “Absinthe” cast members.
Best Use of Krylon: The painters you find along the sidewalk who paint landscapes and cityscapes. They use spray cans to paint the Strip or vintage-Vegas landscapes, mountain ranges, in less than 15 minutes.
Best Place to Buy a Nice Watch: Del Prado Family Jewelers on the second level of Neonopolis. Talk to proprietor Johnny Del Prado, one of the city’s most energetic ambassadors and a true survivor.
Best Place to Buy Odd Antiques: The Funkhouse in the Arts District. Old medical supplies, antique barber chairs, furniture, children’s toys, picture frames, antique crafts and trinkets — all of it at the heart of where First Friday started a decade ago.
Best Mexican Restaurant: Casa Don Juan in the Arts District. In a word: charming. In two: charming and authentic.
Best Space to Rent for a Party: The events room at Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, designed by Frank Gehry.
Best Monthly Music Performance Targeted Entirely to Locals: The Composers Showcase at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts’ Cabaret Jazz venue. Keith Thompson, music director of “Jersey Boys,” organizes and emcees the event. Some of the best performers across the city file in after their shows and try out original songs. A great, great time since it started at Suede restaurant in 2006.
Best Table Games: Binion’s. I say this because I have known dealers there who have patiently taught players the rules of table games. This happens elsewhere, sure, but playing cards at the casino that was the first home to the World Series of Poker is a pretty cool experience.