Fox hunting

Enjoy Ellis Island—just be wary of becoming one of the regulars

Photo: Jacob Kepler
C. Moon Reed

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to drink cheap.” I don’t believe that quote is posted anywhere at Ellis Island Casino & Brewery, since I just made it up. But it should be.

I’ve probably been to the bars at Ellis Island—the seven-nights-a-week karaoke bar and the Casino Bar—more than any others in Las Vegas. In fact, when I was offered this column, I imagined that all of my installments would take place there. I remember swaying in a booth with a group of new friends to the karaoked strains of “Uptown Girl” in celebration of my new venture.

Unfortunately, the more exposure you have to a thing, the less you can see it. Ellis Island has gone blank around the edges, and the emptiness is growing inward with each budget micro-brewed beer I drink. Instead of a coherent narrative, the memories come in excited flashes of first-time discoveries, like when I realized that the beer was sold in a gradient of colors. I’d like the third to lightest beer, please.

The Details

Ellis Island Casino & Brewery
4178 Koval Lane, 733-8901.

When my drinking buddy (DB for short) first took me to Ellis Island, we were like the kids running into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory to the silent beat of an internal Death Cab for Cutie soundtrack: Look how cheap the drinks are! Look at the grittiness! This place is REAL. Look at the people—they’re working-class! Sure, the service can be terrible in the center bar. I’ve found myself sitting there forever, waiting to place an order. But once they see you, you’re like family. How picturesque.

We felt like royalty. We’ll have your finest bottle of wine, sir. Yes, we would like to sniff the bottle cap.

Unlike at the mega-casinos, which have many concepts housed under one Big Top, every bar and restaurant in the family establishment of Ellis Island has the same feel. Can the entire place count as a single bar? It’s about the same size as Blue Martini.

One night, we befriended a nearby table at the restaurant and then took our new party to the karaoke bar. DB and I sang and danced a duet. (Unfortunately, the Lou Reed song was a little too much for the audience.) Then my cell phone got stolen when I went to the bathroom. And when DB called it, the thief demanded a ransom of “$1,000 and a blow job or we run over it.” DB laughed, and the last he heard of that phone was a crashing sound.

In fact, the place is so well-known for being colorful that it feels redundant to mention the regular who wears an Elvis wig and the true talent that sings karaoke. One guy even plays saxophone and sells his CDs after his “set.” If it ever doesn’t feel exciting enough, DB retells the legend of how Ellis Island is near the place where rapper Tupac Shakur got shot.

DB and I have been to Ellis Island a million times. So much so that I have a favorite drink: root beer. Not the fancy root-beer float cocktail that Rare 120 at the Hard Rock serves. No, this is just plain root beer. It’s brewed in-house, same as the gradient of beers. There’s something that’s wonderfully luxurious about drinking root beer in a bar. It means that life is good enough that you can enjoy a drink for its taste instead of its intended effect.

Then the day came when we went, expecting the same self-aware, ironic fun. Though the initial Christmas-morning joy had worn off, I was still excited to go. Except that this time, it wasn’t fun anymore. The glitter of the gritty had faded. Now the place was just depressing. It was no longer a glorious novelty that we could drink for cheap. Suddenly everything had turned upside down. Or it was revealed to be what it was.

The day that Ellis Island ceased to be fun was the day that DB and I ceased to be visiting dignitaries and had become regulars. Going slumming is the modern-day equivalent of fox hunting: a fun, diversion of the upper class that preys upon the less fortunate. Nobody wants to be the fox.


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