It was “a trailblazer,” an “iconic hub,” and now this is the “end of an era,” a chance to get one more drink at the “bar that changed Las Vegas nightlife forever.” There’s certainly a lot of hyperbole floating around the announcement that the Hard Rock Hotel is closing down its infamous Center Bar this weekend. And yet this is the rare occasion when overstatement is appropriate. The Center Bar really did change the game.
The resort on Paradise Road opened in 1995 as the extrapolated, Vegas-style version of the globally recognized Hard Rock Cafe brand, and it was immediately welcomed as something very different from that era’s casinos. As Harry Morton, son of Hard Rock Hotel creator Peter Morton, told me a couple years ago, it “promoted the sin of Sin City” when other new resorts seemed more family friendly. The Hard Rock was where the rock stars were, the movie stars, the party-ready celebs and anyone who wanted to be around them, and the Center Bar—smack in the middle of the oddly circular, sunken casino floor—was where everyone met.
If you went out at all in Las Vegas between ’95 and ’03, you spent plenty of time at the Center Bar. This was the spot you were most likely to see a celeb back in the days before they were being paid for nightclub appearances. You’d find industry pros and local college kids partying together, before, during and after shows at the Joint. It was always so packed, my crew used to buy beers in the gift shop near Pink Taco and reassemble at Center Bar to avoid the long wait for drinks.
Things have changed, as they do, and the bar is ready for a makeover. The center casino space will be renovated and reopened in September when the $30 million project is complete. Until then, pay your respects Sunday night with the Final Toast, where there will be drink specials and probably lots of nostalgic storytelling.
It’s just fine that the Center Bar is changing, because it was really a product of its times, the convergence of a great, fun, rowdy idea with a whole lotta people looking for exactly that. And it did change Vegas. For proof, just look at the casino that kinda stole the Hard Rock’s thunder when it opened—the Palms. Pretty nice center bar over there, too.
Final Toast at Center Bar June 28, 7-10 p.m., Hard Rock Hotel.