Downtown Rising: The revitalization of Las Vegas’ city core pushes ahead

Photo: Wade Vandervort

Where can I get a beer around here?

The Las Vegas Valley now has another solid answer to that question: That would be the Arts District, the still-vital cloister of galleries that’s fast becoming more of a beer district by volume. Consider: Able Baker Brewing, Beer District Brewing, Hop Nuts Brewing, CraftHaus Brewery, Three Sheets Craft Beer Bar and the just-opened Nevada Brew Works are located within a half-mile of one another, and they’ll soon be joined by HUDL Brewing Company, beer bar Silver Stamp and bottle shop/taproom Servehzah. And that’s not even counting such neighborhood favorites as ReBar, 18bin and Cornish Pasty, all of which have resoundingly deep beer lists. In Downtown Vegas, the pathway to success is rapidly becoming a canal of suds.

Under normal circumstances, that would be a story in itself. The wave of institutional knowledge flooding into Main Street is immense. Silver Stamp co-owner Rose Signor ran several wildly popular specialty beer events at Atomic Liquors. (“Beer history will be a big thing at Silver Stamp,” Signor promises.) The Nevada Brew Works crew trained at Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology, the oldest brewing school in the United States. And HUDL’s team boasts former Pizza Port assistant brewer Joe Couzzo as its brewmaster. When all these places are open and at full, post-coronavirus strength, somebody’ll need to wander the length of Main, pour all these wonderful beverages down their gullet and make real-time assessments. (So, y’know, watch this space.)

But that’s not the only thing going on. Downtown Las Vegas is experiencing an across-the-board development boom. Fremont Street will soon welcome Circa, the first new-from-the-ground-up hotel-casino constructed Downtown since 1980. (Again, watch this space.) The Downtown Grand has added a new tower with 629 additional rooms. Over in the Fremont East corridor, Commonwealth/Park on Fremont operator Corner Bar is adding four new properties to the Entertainment District: the recently opened tequila cave Lucky Day, 6,500-square-foot dance club Discopussy, ice cream parlor and rooftop nightclub We All Scream and intimate variety showroom Cheapshot. Developer J Dapper is now rehabilitating several properties in three different parts of Downtown: the Arts District (the former Western Cab building), the Huntridge neighborhood (the Huntridge Shopping Center and, soon, the historic Huntridge Theatre) and near Fremont East (the post office building at 201 Las Vegas Blvd. South). New Arts District restaurants—among them sushi bar Yu-Or-Mi, “coastal Mediterranean fusion” spot Taverna Costera, Golden Fog coffee bar and the Tex-Mex-flavored Braeswood Barbecue—are opening soon. And there are several spots so new we’ve barely had a chance to visit, among them flower-strewn wine bar Cork and Thorn, the “uniquely European” Berlin Bar—another Arts District place with a killer beer list!—and The Garden, an LGBTQ bar and kitchen located within Art Square’s charming enclosed courtyard.

Yet all that good news is couched in uncertainty. COVID-19 has cut occupancies in half and put many thousands of locals out of work—the very people who usually pack Downtown’s bars and restaurants after a shift. Live entertainment, one of this town’s most durable support structures, now only happens on a small scale and at an impersonal distance. (Although, Majestic Repertory Theatre’s Troy Heard has discovered some ingenious ways to create entertainment within those limitations.) Tony Hsieh, the Zappos CEO who founded the Fremont-centric business development group DTP Companies (formerly Downtown Project), has retired from the online retailer and relocated to Utah, creating confusion on the ground about the fate of the properties within his portfolio. And there’s even more uneasiness about Vegas itself—anxiety over vanishing jobs and diminishing tourism dollars, and a sinking feeling that the virus has caused permanent damage to the city’s character.

But while there’s no predicting what could happen in the near future, undeniably exciting things are happening Downtown right now. Derelict buildings and potholed streets are being restored, beleaguered small businesses are finding their way amidst hardship, and visionary locals are still betting big on Downtown, readying new businesses to open. And residents, owners and staffers have positive things to say about their neighbors.

“We are a resilient community,” says Cathy Brooks, proprietor of Fremont dog day care spot Hydrant Club. “We lift each other up.”

Why build Downtown?

“One of the things I love to do is just literally stand on Main Street and watch people parallel park,” Good Pie owner Vincent Rotolo says. “It brings me back, man, to when I was learning how to drive in New York City. My mom taught me how to parallel park. Just looking at parallel parking on the street reminds me of her. She passed away several years ago, so it’s nice to have those little things that remind you of family and home.”

Rotolo’s soon-to-open, 2,400-square-foot Good Pie location at 1212 South Main Street is already a beautiful space, tin-ceilinged and filled with hand-chosen New York flourishes: black-and-white “tenement” tile; a custom-cast manhole cover, emblazoned with the letters “NYC,” that will be embedded just outside the front door; a slice window with its own separate oven for reheating. The larger space will allow Rotolo to add items to the menu he couldn’t offer at his Pawn Plaza spot, like fried calamari. And he’s even worked out a hands-free ordering system, which can be accessed through mobile devices.

To fans of Good Pie’s existing Pawn Plaza location—whose function Rotolo intends to reassess once his Main Street version opens—that expanded kitchen represents mind-boggling flavor possibilities. To beer-happy Main Street, that slice window will represent a tasty bulwark against daylong hangovers. But to Rotolo himself, this new space is an expression of his love for his adopted neighborhood.

“I grew up in a neighborhood where the neighborhood pizzeria was a special place for the community, and I want to provide something like that here,” Rotolo says. “When I was working on the Strip—I worked at Bellagio—I felt like I was able to have hospitality exchanges at a high level, but my life outside of work was unfulfilled. Here, my work life and my life outside of work have come together in the community. I live and work in this neighborhood, and my customers are my neighbors, my friends.”

The feeling’s mutual down the street at Silver Stamp, which co-proprietors Rose Signor and Andrew Smith are steadily building out at 222 E. Imperial Avenue, formerly occupied in part by Curtis Joe Walker’s studio Photo Bang Bang. (PBB, along with several other Arts District galleries and businesses, has relocated to New Orleans Square in midtown’s Commercial Center District—another indicator of the strong bonds that form among Downtown business owners.) Signor and Smith are outdoorsy types with lots of camping and backpacking hours under their belts, and they promise an environment that will feel less like a bar and more like a cozy, 1970s-vintage rec room, inspired by the small-town Americana they’ve taken in during their walkabouts.

“In the little desert towns,” Smith says, where they were inspired by community bars and restaurants that were, for all intents and purposes, “the only thing in town.” Silver Stamp will pay homage to those places with its vintage wood paneling; a general store-like bottle shop window; miniature bar rails set into pony walls, which should allow patrons to feel like they’re sitting at the main bar while maintaining distance (or, in a post-COVID world, to get a barlike seat when the main bar fills up); and its collection of vintage beer cans, signs and memorabilia. (“You know that beer arcade game ‘Tapper’?” Signor asks. “We’re trying to get our hands on that.”)

Signor and Smith have sunk a hefty chunk of their life savings into Silver Stamp, but to hear them talk, it all will prove worthwhile if they can build the kind of beer-loving community they knew at Atomic. (On a related note, the building they’re in belongs to Atomic owner Lance Johns, who’s opening a smaller “Atomic Tavern” just around the corner.)

“Already we’ve had people come in, see our [collection of vintage] cans and say, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t seen Billy Beer forever; I haven’t seen Schell’s,’” Smith says.

Fittingly, another Atomic veteran—chef Justin Kingsley Hall, who created the opening-day menu at the Kitchen at Atomic and once ran stellar pop-up dining spot SLO-Boy—is finding a new way to express himself in the Arts District. He’ll run the kitchen of Main Street Provisions, an all-new restaurant venture by former Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse executive Kim Owens.

“I had been hearing about what Justin was doing at the Kitchen at Atomic, and his level of comfort food was just on point with what I was looking for,” Owens says. “I jokingly tell people that I stalked him for a year, but I did! I went to every event he did; I went to his restaurant when he was there, and when he wasn’t there. … What I really wanted to find was a person who was not only a great chef and a great leader, but who cared about family and making things better for the people that worked for him. Justin fit the bill on all those fronts.”

Owens is building a space—directly next door to Good Pie—that should prove worthy of Hall’s prodigious talent. Like Rotolo, Owens is mixing old-school design elements (the ceiling support beams are artfully lit, a nice touch) with a high-tech bar and kitchen. And there’s a piece of equipment you’re unlikely to find elsewhere in the Valley: a charcoal-fired Fogarty oven, imported from the U.K., which the chef will undoubtedly put to good use.

But as is the case with her neighbors, Owens didn’t select this space for its utility or aesthetics. She chose it because her neighbors will be Esther’s Kitchen, ReBar, Garagiste Wine Room, Casa Don Juan, Velveteen Rabbit and, yes, Good Pie.

“The Arts District spoke to me,” she says. “So many great owner operators have chosen this area to develop their dreams and develop their concepts, and they work together as a unit. … Competition is competition. But what I love about this community is we all know that we succeed together and we fail together. Being successful together is the thing that will push everyone forward.”

It’s a sentiment that small business operators in every neighborhood could embrace, especially now, when there’s a real danger of local businesses being wiped out for good. (Keep your fingers crossed for Vickie’s Diner, formerly Tiffany’s Café, recently pushed out of its longtime home in the White Cross building.) Who knows if it’s born of personal chemistry, good luck or even parallel parking? Whatever it is, it’s keeping Downtown alive and vital.

Hanging on

Back in April, the Weekly spoke to various Downtown business owners about their long-term prospects under the cloud of COVID-19. Thus far, none of the businesses mentioned in that piece—ReBar, Velveteen Rabbit and Priscilla Fowler Fine Art—have been forced to shut down. But it remains a frightening possibility.

“I have a loan against my business, now,” ReBar’s Derek Stonebarger says. “The future is definitely uncertain, whereas before, we had everything paid off; we were in the black for potentially the rest of our life. Now we have half the occupancy.”

Nevertheless, ReBar has recently reopened, serving a limited food menu like its neighbor Velveteen Rabbit. And in keeping with the times, ReBar will also feature a “wear your mask” warning sign listing various local and OSHA fines ReBar could incur if social distancing rules aren’t maintained. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it still pains Stonebarger to deploy it.

“This is really hard,” he says. “We’re a customer service business. … [and] we have to change our customer service base. Where previously we worked for tips and would do anything a customer wanted, now we have to basically yell at them and police them. It’s a terrible time to be a business owner.”

The prospects for local bars that don’t serve food are even bleaker. Though Valley bars have received permission to reopen, their owners are clawing their way out of deep holes. They’ve lost months of income, taken on huge debt and shed valuable staffers, and they’re reopening at half-strength without much promise of state or federal aid. The plight of live entertainment venues, which largely remain shuttered with no end date in sight, is even more distressing.

The fate of Downtown music hub the Bunkhouse Saloon was already shadowed by the prospect of a lingering shutdown when its owner, Tony Hsieh, retired from Zappos and reportedly pulled stakes for Park City, Utah, taking a number of friends and staffers with him. (Hsieh did not respond to our request for comments.) Reps for DTP Companies, the Downtown Las Vegas redevelopment firm Hsieh founded, says very little will change in the wake of his departure. “Tony has always held the ‘visionary’ role … but a few years after inception, he employed many other decision-makers to dutifully run DTP companies, so there will be no significant impact resulting from his retirement from Zappos,” says DTP Companies representative Megan Fazio. But locals have been left wondering what changes might arise from not having Hsieh’s boots on the ground.

Still, “the Downtown community is bigger than any one person,” Hydrant Club owner Cathy Brooks insists. “This may set us back, but I don’t know anyone Downtown who’s a quitter.”

Ronald Corso, owner of 11th Street Records and its adjoining National Southwestern Recording studio, agrees that the Downtown community itself may be best empowered to choose its next few steps.

“From my perspective, Tony Hsieh has had—on this corner, at least—the final say on who gets the opportunities,” Corso says. “Maybe this will make more room for locals who were already making the best of this town on their own to start doing that again. That’s my hope.”

Stonebarger says Hsieh “did great things by getting things started with a lot of buzz, a lot of press and some of his money,” but “this might’ve been perfect time for him to take off, you know? Only time will tell.”

In the meantime, the Bunkhouse, like so many other Downtown bars and venues, is on pause due to COVID-19. “As soon as the governor authorizes bars to reopen and when business levels get back to normal across the city, DTP’s plans will resume based on demand,” Fazio says.

“Demand.” It’s a big ask, between the dual threat of a relentless virus and the economic ruin it has created. But where the Strip’s casinos have billionaires and banks to keep their lights on, many of Downtown’s small businesses are being driven to choose between bad and worse options to stay alive. The least Las Vegans can do is find out how we can support them—by frequenting their business, buying gift certificates and spreading the word.

Just take it from Vincent Rotolo, who so naturally understands and explains what makes Downtown worthwhile, he could have been the guy who invented it.

“There are very few walkable streets in Las Vegas where you can park your car, have lunch, do some shopping, see some art and get a great beer,” he says. “And I think that whatever neighborhood or area you live in, we can all agree that quality is quality. And that’s what I’m drawn to here.”

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