You know it’s good when a bar is lit as low as the night outside. You know it’s great when breakfast shares the graveyard menu with steak. And you know it’s in Las Vegas when the birthday parties are soundtracked by an artist trained at the Peabody Conservatory. That’s the beauty of the Bootlegger Bistro, and of old-school restaurant-bars like it. They don’t specialize in just one thing. They’re about tickling as many senses as possible on one tab.
The Bootlegger is familiar even if you’ve never been there, from candlelit rosiness to garlic in the air and the gloss on the piano. A wall of venetian blinds makes it feel like the bar is peeking in the restaurant’s window. It’s off-kilter and fun, like the menu of $9 cocktails (Italian mojito, anyone?). Bootlegger’s Negroni is lighter on my favorite gin, Tanqueray, to spotlight the herbaceous, bitter complexity of my favorite aperitif, Campari, finished with sweet vermouth. I wouldn’t have paired it with breadsticks, but the golden pillows brushed with olive oil appear. I try one in family recipe marinara, just to be polite. The entire plate is reduced to crumbs by the time Michael Shane takes the keys on a Thursday.
“L-O-V-E” to “Fly Me to the Moon,” Elton John to Dean Martin to Barry Manilow, Shane plays and sings old hits with a twinkle in his eye, welcoming requests. I ask if he knows “Satin Doll.”
“Are you kidding? You shake a tree in this town and it falls out,” he says, killing the Duke Ellington tune for a $2 tip. Through the dining room’s constant buzz he croons “Mr. Bojangles” and belts “Into the Mystic,” a consummate pro delivering the consummate Vegas lounge experience in front of a mural of the Rat Pack.
“We’re back to Frank Sinatra, and why not,” Shane says as a lead-in to “My Way.” “It’s the good stuff, after all.”
About 18 miles and a million degrees from the Bootlegger, Bonnie Springs Ranch is a curiosity in a stretch of empty desert near Blue Diamond. Curious because peacocks patrol the parking lot, crowing like Howard Dean at a rally. And because this vestige of an 1840s-era covered wagon outpost has a petting zoo, a wax museum, a replica mining town, horse/pony/train rides and a restaurant-bar with its own turtle pond. Just don’t touch the turtles.
Another sign says: “NO NECKTIES ALLOWED.” But ducking inside on a Saturday night, I get the sense that anything goes. From cowhide-patterned curtains to garlands of signed dollar bills and a painted burro resting on a vintage Kool vending machine, the décor is rustic kitsch. And the band is classic country—mostly. Ernie and Tom strum and sing through a songbook that includes Patsy Cline, Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash and … Collective Soul.
It’s beer music. Bottles range from $4.50 to $5.50, Red Stripe to 1554 Black Lager, but it’s hard to resist the sticky-sweetness of Sioux City Sarsaparilla, especially chasing a meal of awesomely greasy onion rings, lean bison burger and ribs with almost as many trimmings as the bar (and that’s saying something).
One patron freestyles with Ernie and Tom. Another buys them shots that they knock back without the slightest flinch. Ernie visits every table in the restaurant just to say hello and thanks for listening, true cowboy chivalry.
“Isn’t this a great place?” he asks a family of first-timers. It is, because even if you can’t cuddle the turtles, you can sing karaoke on Fridays, watch a gun fight or get married on horseback. It’s the good stuff, after all.
Bootlegger Bistro 7700 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702-736-4939. 24/7.
Bonnie Springs Ranch Restaurant 16395 Bonnie Springs Road, 702-875-4191. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m.