Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Escape From Douchery, Part 3: Frankie's Tiki Room

As you might have noticed, a lot of the places I'm recommending in my ongoing (and award winning) Escape from Douchery series are off The Strip. And yes, Vegas douchery is concentrated most fully under the glaring lights and blaring Kesha jams on The Strip, but there I promis that there are a few places in the thick of the action that I plan on recommending in future installments. But the point of these articles is to explore some of the more offbeat corners of Sin City, which is why I'm recommending the so un-hip it's hip, kitschy, and thoroughly awesome Frankie's Tiki Room in downtown.

This great Vegas Tiki bar is an homage to a dying breed of watering hole that was once prominent. After World War 2, Tiki culture spread like a wildfire. Hollywood's Don The Beachcomber started the trend, spreading the gospel of thatched roofs, Tiki-god statues and tropical drinks all over the country. Vegas was not immune to the trend, as Tiki Bars took hold in many major hotels throughout the 60s, including Sin City's own version of Don the Beachcomber at The Sahara. But the run of rum and juice infused drinks had to come to an end eventually, as most of the old Tiki bars either shuttered their doors or have become half empty watering holes for old drunks in Hawaiian shirts to gather at and sip on extremely strong drinks with names like Uga Buga, Lapu Lapu and the Zombie.

Not to be discouraged by the fact that the Tiki Bar trend had long since gone the way of the Dodo, Double Down Saloon owner P Moss decided that Vegas needed a place to enjoy super strong cocktails surrounded by kitschy takes on Polynesian culture, and thus Frankie's Tiki Room was born in Downtown.

Frankie's gets its distinct decor "Bamboo Ben," who is probably the best known Tiki bar designer in the world (not to mention the grandson of Eli Hedley, who used actual driftwood he found washed up on beaches to create the decorations for Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room, among other iconic designs). The place is filled with perfectly tuned kitsch, including hand-carved Tiki god statues and a "vice-tester" carnival-game designed by Shag (a world famous graphic artist who made his reputation exploring a swinging 60's influenced aesthetic that fits right in at the bar). 

The ridiculously strong cocktails are all served in different, whimsical mugs that fit into the tropical island theme. Frankie's serves some of the best Zombies I've ever tasted, but be warned... they're so strong that you're only allowed to drink two per visit (unless you ask nicely).

This tropical paradise in the middle of the desert is open 24/7, so you can enjoy their Polynesian infused, alcohol rich drinks late into the night. Good news too, because the bar is definitely off the beaten path,north of The Strip and a few blocks west of Las Vegas Boulevard at 1712 West Charleston. Sure, it's a bit of a trek, but it's worth the journey if only to check out the crowd.

Like The Double Down, the best thing about Frankie's is the people it attracts. This is not a bar that most tourists seek out, which means you'll have a chance to hang out with local artists, musicians and hard drinkers. And the Vegas visitors you do meet there are clearly cool since they got away from the crowds to check out this perfectly executed ode to Polynesian culture.

If you're looking for strong drinks, controlled kitsch and great crowds, then head into Frankie's for a few drinks. Just be prepared to stumble out significantly more intoxicated than when you entered if you sample any of the places' signature concoctions.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Sahara Next Classic Vegas Institution to Shut Down

The Sahara Hotel and Casino has been operating for nearly 50 years... so naturally, like all great things in Vegas, the old resort will be shutting down operations in May. The current owners planned to renovate the resort to make it relevant for the current (douchey) Vegas trends, but at this point the plan is to close the doors of the Rat Pack era resort. While the casino will not be imploded any time soon, that's probably because there's no money to start building a new mega-resort in its place.

The failure of The Sahara to attract visitors can be attributed to the economy, but that should have helped the resort in some ways as they offered some of the lowest room rates on The Strip. Equal blamed can be placed on the fact that The Sahara exists in a bit of a no-man's land, across from the empty lot where The Stardust once stood proud, and to the fact that the Sahara's style can't keep up with the slicker current trends. It's sad to see a classic go and it's just proof that what seems hot, sexy and state of the art right now will seem outdated and faded in a few short years.

I've already written enough in my Stardust piece about the changing face of Vegas the loss of old-school, Rat Pack style hangs. I'm not going to bemoan the sad loss of The Sahara... instead I'll celebrate it, with this slideshow of vintage images from the famous hotel, including a couple from when The Beatles rocked the resort.

And If you want a Sahara-style Vegas experience, your best bet at this point is to head Downtown.

Friday, March 4, 2011

First Friday Festival Celebrates The Vegas Art Scene (No Seriously, It Exists)

The Bellagio art gallery notwithstanding, Vegas is not really known as a great town for art; or at least it wasn't in the past.

For nearly a decade, the First Friday Art Festival has brought together the arts community in a city better known for neon lights and topless revues. A group of streets in Downtown are shut down to traffic and turned into an art crawl that draws children, hipsters, retirees and the rest of the local community for a monthly event that's turned into a tradition.

Galleries along the crawl open their doors and feature new works from interesting local and visiting artists. Bands from around town play in the bars and on the street. Fire breathers, ice sculptors and fortune tellers provide atmosphere along the crawl. Kids (and adults who are kids at heart) are encouraged to make their own art on the street with chalk. Food vendors and local restaurants offer up their latest tasty concoctions. Best of all, it all takes place with the more touristy sites of The Strip pushed into the background.

The whole thing is pretty Utopian; a fun and exciting celebration of art and creativity embraced by a community that continues to evolve. In a city defined by spectacle, bombast, hype and elaborate fakery, First Fridays is further proof that there's more to Las Vegas than meets the eye.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Stardust Memories

On November 1, 2006, a gambler from Hawaii cast the last die at The Stardust Resort, which had been operating continuously since July 2, 1958. As guests filed out for the last time, John Lennon's Nobody Told Me played out of the resort's speakers (a nice and surprisingly unsentimental choice, I have to say). Less than a year later, the classic casino was destroyed in a controlled implosion in order to make way for the latest mega-resort, The Echelon Place.

An ambitious project that rivaled CityCenter in the scope of its vision, Echelon Place was budgeted at upwards of $4 billion and was set to  feature four hotels that would add nearly 6,000 new rooms to a city that already hosted more hotel rooms (by far) than any other city on the planet, along with 25 restaurants and bars, a 750,000 square foot convention center, a 400,000 square foot shopping promenade and a 140,000 square foot casino; these, of course, are all things that Vegas was sorely lacking.

While Echelon Place was scheduled to open its shimmering new doors last year, construction was halted in 2008 due to the collapse of the U.S. economy, and there is no sign that the project will resume anytime soon.

The site of the ambitious project is now nothing but an 87 acre hole in the ground, with half built towers standing empty and exposed in a pre-apocalyptic wasteland. The massive lot has been untouched by workers for nearly three full years; because of that, the demolition of the beloved Stardust seems even more pointless than it did five years ago.

Before it was demolished, The Stardust was one of the last of the classic, old-Vegas casinos, a slightly seedy echo of Sin City's extremely seedy past. This was a place that was once run by mobsters whose stories were told in Martin Scorsese's Casino. Singer Billy Daniels pioneered the long-term residency model that big name performers enjoy to this day in town. Siegfried and Roy got their first Strip show at The Stardust before becoming Vegas icons. Wayne Newton and George Carlin both had long-term residencies on the property.

Until it closed, the air in place was thick with old-time Vegas atmosphere. The dealers had that attitude as if they'd partied with Sinatra and were unimpressed by the smug frat bros wearing too much Axe-body spray and ditzy sorority girls that look like baby-hookers stumbling out of nightclubs. I remember one magical night half a decade ago, sitting at a video poker machine and sipping on comped and very strong Jack and Cokes with my girlfriend at the time as the bartender told us story after story about the fabled resort.

And now? The place is gone, and it's been replaced by... nothing. But even if the Echelon Place had opened, it would have surely been just another gleaming palace dedicated to commerce and corporate slickness, a place that would have been shiny, new, modern, hip, of the moment... and utterly lacking in character and history. No doubt a trendy chef or two would have opened a restaurant with a chic Eurotrash name and a mega-club would have been placed in the spot spot where I once drank with a guy who had been working in the same place for five decades and told me stories of seeing stars like Bogart, Beatty and Sinatra hold their liquor the way real men are supposed to.

Is there a lesson or a metaphor to take out of this? I'm not really sure. I just know that the old-school Vegas, the Vegas that Frank Sinatra and Elvis and Bugsy Segal would recognize, is a rare, endangered, dying thing. The business of Vegas is bigger than ever but becoming more and more corporate, increasingly uniform and lacking in character. Maybe I'm just feeling nostalgic for a time I didn't actually live and haunted by an era I only know through a hazy pop cultural lens (a symptom of my generation and one that is not helped by Mad Men), but I feel that what happened to The Stardust is just another example of how Vegas devalues its history even more than Los Angeles (if that's possible) and in its relentless quest to stay fresh, everything is starting to feel stale.

Look at the recent redesign at The Tropicana. The Trop is another one of the old classic resorts left standing, but they recently renovated the entire place. While renovation is preferable to demolition and the new rooms might in fact be quite nice, much of what made the place so charming and wonderful has been gone forever. The old-fashioned Italian restaurant that had a quiet, semi-secret lounge with  red leather chairs and bitingly strong cocktails is gone, replaced by slick and new facilities (though I'll give the designers of the "new and improved" Trop big props for at least keeping the funky old window ceiling above the main casino floor).

A hole sits silently where The Stardust once shined, but even if the latest and greatest mega-resort had opened in its place, there would still be metaphoric hole on The Strip, a smoking crater echoing with the ghosts of Sin City's wild, untamed past.