A little perspective: Downtown didn’t start when a cool new bar opened on Fremont Street. In fact, Downtown didn’t start when a cool old bar opened on Fremont (Atomic Liquors, in 1952). Downtown started when Vegas started, a hundred years ago, and it’s always been cool and real, even when it’s been kinda fake.
Las Vegas has been talking about Downtown and what could and would come of it for as long as Las Vegas has been talking. It’s been a super-hot topic in recent years because of its high concentration of new fun—an arts boom with the arrival of the Smith Center, Mob Museum and fully operational Neon Museum, paired with a unique, small business-oriented redevelopment effort. At an accelerating pace, the original neighborhood is becoming the cultural hub we’ve longed for.
But there’s a long way to go, and it won’t always be moving this fast. The only certainty is that right now, Downtown Las Vegas is where we want to be, smack in the middle of all that new fun. Where should we meet up?
WHERE TO EAT
A city’s center is almost always a great place to get a feel for its flavor, but that hasn’t been the case with Las Vegas—until now. Against all odds, Downtown is suddenly our hottest and edgiest food neighborhood, even though it’s in the early stages of dining development. There is a big three, a power triangle dangling from Fremont East that has set the hip, delicious tone: Le Thai (523 Fremont St., 702-778-0888), the ferociously fiery and constantly packed spot that kinda launched this wave in 2011; Eat (707 Carson Ave., 702-534-1515), the homey breakfast and lunch eatery that made suburbanites wanna brunch Downtown for the first time; and Carson Kitchen (124 S. Sixth St. #100, 702-473-9523), another comfort-food classic from the mind of Kerry Simon. If you haven’t had Carson’s crispy chicken skins with smoked honey or its bacon jam or its butter burger, you know where to start.
Once you’ve mastered those, head directly to Pizza Rock (201 N. Third St., 702-385-0838). There you’ll find a bigger and better selection of regionally faithful, totally crave-worthy pizzas than at any other restaurant in town, maybe across the country. Just next door, there’s the reliably satisfying Triple George Grill (201 N. Third St., 702-384-2761), where steak, seafood and San Francisco-y comforts have been served for more than a decade.
Though you’ve gotta give props to the George and other longtime Downtown diner-survivors—Mexican at Casa Don Juan and Doña Maria Tamales, Italian at Chicago Joe’s, Cuban at Florida Café, Cajun at Lola’s—it’s really all about the new stuff. There are toasty gourmet sandwiches like roasted mushrooms with sweet garlic fondue at the Goodwich (1516 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702-910-8681)—set to move into new digs at Soho Lofts soon—and much-needed-in-the-neighborhood sushi at Bocho (124 S. Sixth St. #150, 702-750-0707). Some of the city’s best and most creative doughnuts are being crafted by chef Crystal Whitford at O Face Doughnuts (124 S. Sixth St. #140, 702-476-3223), where apple-bacon fritters and Mexican chocolate with horchata pudding are just the beginning. Newer still, discover innovative, indulgent small plates like oxtail empanadas at Therapy (518 E. Fremont St., 702-912-1622) and pastrami salmon flatbread at Glutton (616 E. Carson Ave. #110, 702-366-0623). Deliciously healthy fare awaits at the Ogden outlet of local fave Rachel’s Kitchen (150 Las Vegas Blvd. N. #160, 702-778-8800) and the meatlessly fab VegeNation (616 Carson Ave. #120, 702-366-8515). Hip urban coffee shops Makers & Finders (1120 S. Main St. #110, 702-586-8255) and PublicUs (1126 Fremont St., 702-331-5500) are elevating the simple cup of joe to artful levels, with impressive culinary complements, too.
Boil it down and Downtown Container Park is a mall, which might be why its tasty food options have been overlooked. There’s solid meat-smoking going on at Big Ern’s BBQ (702-834-7845), contrasted by the savory vegan creations of Simply Pure (702-810-5641). Next-level eats are available in the form of the bacon-wrapped and chipotle-guava sauce-topped El Mexicano at Cheffini’s (702-527-7599), the gourmet hot doggery that graduated from a Fremont Street cart, and at the irresistible Pinches Tacos (702-910-3100), cheap-and-easy Mexican food so good, it has already expanded to the ’burbs. The Container Park also boasts the Perch (702-854-1418), its only full-service spot, offering global flavor-infused fare for lunch, brunch and dinner—plus killer cocktails.
The two best things about Downtown food are that a) It tends to be cheap—as you know if you frequently devour the Venezuelan delights at Viva Las Arepas (1616 Las Vegas Blvd. S. #130, 702-366-9696) and the soul-satisfying brats and pierogies at King’s Sausage (outside Banger Brewing at Neonopolis)—and b) The best bites are probably yet to come. Super-newbies Chow and Flippin’ Good Burgers and Shakes are only the latest waves in this crashing tide, which will soon see Le Pho (from the makers of District One and Le Thai) and Greens & Proteins arrive at Juhl, the Smashed Pig gastropub on Fremont and the greatly anticipated Harvest & Larder from acclaimed chef Brian Howard just off Main Street.
WHERE TO DRINK
Downtown has always been the place to drink. Always. The astonishing thing about drinking there tonight—we will be drinking there tonight, right?—is how many different places there are to get a superb pour. Chic crafted cocktails abound at Downtown Cocktail Room (111 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702-880-3696), obviously, but also at the eternally welcoming Atomic Liquors (917 Fremont St., 702-982-3000). If you want classics, they’re at the old-school swanky Parlour (El Cortez, 702-385-5200). Need a killer margarita, and not the frozen kind? La Comida (100 S. Sixth St., 702-463-9900) will keep you happy all night. Whiskey lover? Oak & Ivy (Container Park, 702-359-9982) is pushing brown-liquor boundaries every day. If you wanna sip wine, walk across the way to cozy Bin 702 (Container Park, 702-826-2702), and if you’re a beer geek, the taps at Atomic or Beer Garden (Plaza, 702-386-2110) provide diversity while Banger Brewing (Neonopolis, 702-456-2739) and Hop Nuts Brewing (1120 S. Main St. #150, 702-816-5371) bring the local flavor. (Very soon, longtime local brewery Tenaya Creek will be Downtown, too.)
In the Arts District, Artifice (1025 S. First St. #3, 702-489-6339) has been holding it down for five years with regular jazz, karaoke and goth nights, along with obscure visiting acts to forge your indie cred. And though we’ll always miss the Arts Factory’s funky Bar+Bistro, a third location of Crown & Anchor British Pub, the beloved local soccer stronghold, will fit right in when it opens in the same location sometime next year. Formerly Snick’s Place, Bastille on 3rd (1402 S. Third St., 702-385-9298) is the district’s only gay bar, a narrow poker hangout with a recent renovation that injects class into its divey past. And cocktail staple Velveteen Rabbit (1218 S. Main St., 702-685-9645) is a transportive hot spot that lends hipness to the artsy hood. On the fringey no-man’s land between the Arts District and East Fremont, find newcomer Classic Jewel (353 E. Bonneville Ave., 702-722-6750), an urban lounge that throws it back to Vegas’ glitzy heydey.
Most famous among dive bars is probably Dino’s (1516 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702-382-3894), the self-dubbed “last neighborhood bar on Earth,” known for its epic weekend karaoke, emceed by the charismatic Danny G. For cheap, smoky dives to hide out from the world, try Huntridge Tavern (1116 E. Charleston Blvd., 702-384-7377), the oldest continuously operating bar in the city, or Hard Hat Lounge (1675 S. Industrial Road, 702-384-8987), where you can catch live bands and get dirty with Cody’s Smokin’ Barbecue.
WHAT TO DO
Like the Strip, Downtown went through a lengthy period when it was only thought of as a place to gamble. Now it has much more to offer, including alternatives to the typical Vegas offerings. You won’t see a Cirque show on Fremont Street, but you will see Broadway productions, the Las Vegas Philharmonic, the Nevada Ballet Theatre and a whole lot more at the Smith Center (361 Symphony Park Ave., 702-749-2000), and ballsy rock shows and offbeat bashes (Bombshell Bingo!) at Backstage Bar & Billiards (601 E. Fremont St., 702-382-2227). Longtime local music staple the Bunkhouse Saloon (124 S. 11th St., 702-854-1414) is also set to reopen this month, with an inaugural concert November 13. Catch larger-scale concerts, boxing and other events at the outdoor Downtown Las Vegas Events Center (dlvec.com) kitty-corner to the D. Less spectator, more player? Blast across the Downtown sky aboard the zipline attraction SlotZilla (425 Fremont St. #160, 702-678-5780), or let the wee ones run you ragged at the interactive Discovery Children’s Museum (360 Promenade Place, 702-382-5437).
The Fremont Street Experience isn’t the only Downtown Vegas tourist attraction where locals also like to roam. The Las Vegas North Premium Outlets (875 S. Grand Central Parkway, 702-474-7500) just exploded with more than 25 new and expanded shops and restaurants. For more distinctive retail exploration, Downtown Container Park (707 Fremont St., 702-359-9982) boasts boutique local shops (plus live music and a cool treehouse-playground for the kids); Downtown Spaces (1800 Industrial Road, dtspaces.com) is a hip collective of galleries and media workspaces featuring everything from artful taxidermy to fair-trade crafts; and the newly opened Pawn Plaza serves as the shopping and eating accessory to the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop (713 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702-385-7912), where people still line up for the Pawn Stars experience.
History doesn’t have to be a mystery. To learn about the Valley’s past, visit very-Vegas museums the Mob Museum (300 Stewart Ave., 702-229-2734) and the Neon Museum (770 Las Vegas Blvd. N., 702-387-6366). The former investigates all things organized crime, with a police lineup photo opp, a re-creation of the Kefauver Committee courtroom, and even a piece of a blood-stained brick wall from the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. On the lighter side, the Neon Museum rescues, polishes and gives a whole lotta love to several of the city’s iconic casino signs, such as the Stardust, the Fitzgerald and lesser-known gems like Sassy Sally’s.
For the city’s best record and book browsing, hit East Fremont’s 11th Street Records (1023 Fremont St., 702-527-7990) and the Writer’s Block (1020 Fremont St. #100, 702-550-6399), newish Downtown additions that up the city’s culture IQ. Also check out longtimer the Beat Coffeehouse (520 Fremont St., 702-385-2328) to peruse its art galleries and one-of-a-kind zine library. Community-building awaits at the Center (410 S. Maryland Parkway, 702-733-9800), an LGBT gathering space with a great café, library and events with inspiring speakers that celebrate community. The coolest Downtown pool is unquestionably at Golden Nugget (129 E. Fremont, 702-385-7111), for its shark tank, but even moreso for the clear waterslide that shoots through it. And Hogs & Heifers Saloon (201 N. Third St., 702-676-1457) is a biker’s paradise, where PBR comes in tall cans and surly lady bartenders cut down egos with a smile. When your pride’s gone, cheer up with a sundae at Luv-It Frozen Custard (505 E. Oakey Blvd., 702-384-6452), a Downtown staple that even stars we love can’t diss without consequence. Pro tip: Get the Western.
WHAT TO SEE
In recent years, the Fremont Street Experience (vegasexperience.com) has come to be known not for the 1,500-foot-long Viva Vision LED canopy that originally defined it as a pedestrian mall some 20 years ago, but for the sometimes costumed, sometimes mostly naked, sometimes supremely talented buskers that make for a very different show. Still, the original Fremont Street eye candy—the incredible neon draped around the casinos—is still brilliant. If you can catch the rich, warm pinks and oranges of the Fremont in the same frame as the icy blues and whites of Binion’s, you win. Similarly, you can’t help but notice the vintage signage once held in the Neon Museum’s boneyard but now sprinkled all over the area, from Third Street near the new bus terminal and bouncing down Fremont East. Even City Hall (495 S. Main St., 702-229-6011) gets in on the act, with an impressive night-time light show of its own; you might have noticed it heading north on the 15 and wondered: Which casino is that?
There’s a new spectacle on its way to becoming iconic, and that’s the fire-spraying Mantis at Downtown Container Park. Whether it qualifies as public art is for you to decide, but it’s certainly on the must-see list alongside new Downtown monuments like Tim Bavington’s colorful Pipe Dream at Symphony Park, David Griggs’ Vegas Arabesque bridge design stretching over Las Vegas Boulevard in the Cultural Corridor, and Jesse Carson Smigel’s giant kitten-head sculpture Snowball in Vegas at the corner of First and Coolidge.
Don’t wait for First Friday—build your own art walk. At Emergency Arts (520 Fremont St., 702-385-2328) catch local, national and international artworks at the scene-elevating Satellite Contemporary (satellitecontemporary.com), and emerging artists, many of them local grad students, at Rhizome Gallery (rhizomegallery.com). Down the street, Michele C. Quinn Fine Art (620 S. Seventh St., 702-366-9339) is known to host big-name career artists such as Damien Hirst and Ed Ruscha, and at Arts Factory, Sin City Gallery (107 E. Charleston Blvd. #100, 702-608-2461) specializes in erotica.
You can look at the city’s history Downtown at the Old Mormon Fort State Historic Park (500 E. Washington Ave., 702-486-3511), the crumbling adobe structure built by the first non-native settlers in the Valley in 1855, and at the Historic Fifth Street School (401 S. Fourth St., 702-229-3515), now home to several prominent arts organizations. Of course, the most recognizable Vegas history is still alive and well under all that neon, at Downtown casinos like the Golden Gate (1 Fremont St., 702-385-1906), opened in 1906, and El Cortez (600 Fremont St., 702-385-5200), opened in 1941. These joints have been updated but retain their original Vegas character, something we hope can be said about the entirety of the new Downtown.