I’m not a big fan of Hemingway, but there’s a short story I’ve always loved about lonely old men drinking. A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, it’s called, and it deals with escape from consuming nothingness in the company of strangers.
- At Neonopolis, 471-0056. 24/7.
I thought of the café in the story when I walked into the bar at Denny’s. That’s not a typo. The Denny’s at Neonopolis has a bar. Come spring it’ll have a chapel, too, so you’ll be able to get sauced, get married and celebrate with Moons Over My Hammy. I was looking for a drink, not a husband, so I sat in front of the taps with my back to the giant windows (I’d seen enough of Smurfette for one night) and got cozy.
The cocktail menu, familiar plastic inside a sleek metal binder, offers spins like the Grand Slamosa (mimosa with a shot of Grand Marnier), classics like the Bloody Good Mary (with Major Peters’ mix, Bakon vodka and a horseradish sidecar), and dessert-in-a-glass like the Chocolate Toasted Almond (Kahlúa, Amaretto, vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate syrup and shavings). The most expensive cocktail on the menu is $6.50, though you can order a $23 shot of Martell Cordon Bleu Cognac. Beers run $2.50-$3.50, and a short list of red, white and sparkling wine runs $6-$14 a glass. Screw happy hour—this place is ecstatic 24/7.
I ordered a Cosmo ($4.50!) and struck up a conversation with a pair of guys at the bar. They had abandoned their buddies at a casino steakhouse and laughed when those buddies were still waiting for food by the time they tucked into hot breakfasts and enormous beers. Andy and Pete (both in the golf business, both from the Midwest) felt no guilt about ditching their friends for America’s diner. Pete mentioned that his “lady-friend” was hinting about marriage, and I asked if he would make her an honest woman at this Denny’s. He just smiled and gulped his drink.
As bartender Marco mixed a Grand Slamarita ($6.50!) to go with a jalapeño-laced burger the size of my head, he let me pour out my heart about long-distance love. I said I missed the everyday small things. “No spooning,” he said, getting it better than my best girlfriend. Then he shared a recent epiphany about the woman he loves, and his excitement about getting a second job, quitting smoking and starting the Insanity workout to pump up his “two-and-a-half-pack.” Marco taught me about Detroit ZipSauce, and that crickets can endure 100 times more radiation than cockroaches. That roped a tattoo artist named Eli into the dialogue, and he warned us never to put names on our skin. Soon bartender Rene was singing some Three Dog Night: “Eli’s comin’, hide your heart, girl.” I felt like a character on a show with a great ensemble cast and no plot. Even the hot-toddy drinker who chatted me up about corporate benefits was memorable.
Strangers became more, and nothingness got its ass kicked by connection. That’s what’s missing from so many Vegas bars and what Hemingway’s loners hoped to find in their clean, well-lighted place. Had they known about the $4 mojito at Denny’s, I think the story would have had a happier ending.