Visit the El Cortez after midnight on a weekend and you might observe 20-somethings weaving their way through older folks at tables and slots, looking for a post-party bite or a cheap, cold beer to close out a night on Fremont East. Turn on the TV the next morning and you might see an El Cortez commercial highlighting the fact that the nearly 75-year-old Downtown casino is one of the only places in Vegas where you can still play coin-operated games: “There’s no sound sweeter than hitting a jackpot.”
Whenever Downtown started getting cool again is when the El Cortez started strategizing. The iconic property on Fremont and Sixth has been straddling the line between its traditional players and those bar-hopping millennials, trying to attract old reliable tourists and new curious locals, and attempting to preserve its history and authenticity while looking to the future.
A major move is about to happen. In a few weeks, the El Cortez’s former classic steakhouse space will reopen as Siegel’s 1941 (as in Bugsy), a 24-hour restaurant with a more refined menu than you’d expect. The opening will coincide with the closing of the coffee shop-style Cafe Cortez. “We’re trying to tackle the Peppermill a little bit in terms of serving a late-night crowd,” says managing partner Alex Epstein. “All the player favorites at Cafe Cortez are not going away. Siegel’s will have the matzo ball soup, the seasonal stone crab, the prime rib special. But the presentation will be so much better.”
Attracting business Downtown is not as simple as young or old. The new restaurant—which will operate seamlessly with the Parlour lounge and cocktail bar—should attract a more diverse audience, including older and younger customers and maybe even some of those young families that have found their way Downtown to visit the nearby Container Park. “There are a lot more pedestrians extending their walk down Fremont,” Epstein says. “More people are reading about the great restaurants we have like Carson Kitchen and Eat, and people are just more adventurous about Downtown today, whether they’re locals or visitors. Families bringing their kids Downtown for the day, that wasn’t happening five or 10 years ago.”
The restaurant reopening frees up the cafe space for the El Cortez to potentially install another new feature. Epstein says they’re not sure what they’ll do yet. The casino and hotel also owns several prominent parcels of surrounding land, including the parking lot across Fremont and the building that houses Emergency Arts and the Beat. The future of Downtown is wide open. “Looking at how we want to evolve is an interesting question,” she says. “We’ve been very methodical about that process so far, to the point that it might seem conservative. But we want to participate. We don’t see ourselves sitting out of the game.”