Monday, May 21, 2012

Escape from Douchery, Part 18: Downtown Cocktail Room

I've mentioned The Downtown Cocktail Room a few times in recent posts, and realized it was high time the place got an entire article devoted to it's unique brand awesome-ness.

I'll start this endorsement by admitting to being incredulous about the place before my first visit, mostly because I'm bored and annoyed by the whole faux speakeasy trend that seems like it will never come to an end (especially with the success of Boardwalk Empire on HBO). It's become a huge cliche to open justify the prices of your expensive cocktails at bars by attempting to sell an old-school prohibition era speakeasy feel, complete with costumed staff, vintage projections on the walls, 1920s era music playing on the speakers, and secret passwords uttered to gain entry. It was a fun gimmick when it first started, but I've been to far too many bars where customers are dressed up in striped suits, fedora hats, and ugly fake flapper girl dresses purchased at Forever 21 for it to be cute anymore. Manhattan's Please Don't Tell (or PDT, for those who are too cool to say full words) has a secret entrance through a telephone booth in the back of a hot dog shop where you have to say a password into the phone to get in. All of this is fun and nice, but the vibe of mot of these places place is thick with unearned pretension and smugness, like a Jason Reitman film given solid form. What's the point of going to a place just to boast that you've been there? The whole trend to me is the depressingly uncreative side of the cocktail culture trend; creating a speakeasy theme in your cocktail-centric bar is as lazy as wine bar owners who make their guests sit on wine barrel stools and use "clever" grape puns in their names.

The Downtown Cocktail Room does, in fact, employ the "speakeasy" label; yes, it does feature an entrance that's hard to find even when you're looking for it, and yes, the bartenders wear silly hats as they pour you complicated cocktails. But that's where the speakeasy BS ends, as the bar is much more relaxed than other places that use the "S" word. The Downtown Cocktail Room never seems to be populated by annoying people dressed up in "look at me" outfits (but perhaps that particularly annoying observation is something I notice more simply because most of the speakeasy bars I've been to are in Los Angeles, of all cities). The Downtown Cocktail Room's vibe can only be described as "totally effing chill," with DJs spinning relaxed tunes (as opposed to aggressive club bangers) and intimate corner booths where you can enjoy private conversations with your friends where you can actually hear each other speak (or enjoy some low-lit, sexy-times makeout sessions with a date).

Even though their fedora hates do carry the whiff of douchery, the bartenders know their stuff cold. I'm normally a beer guy, but when you go to the Downtown Cocktail Room, you have to indulge in their spectacular libations. Their Old Fashioned is one of the very best I've had in Las Vegas, and the lead bartender is always switching up ingredients behind the counter depending on the season. While fruity drinks are rarely my thing, I've had a few cocktails at the place made with muddled fresh fruits that made me rethink my stance (and my entire life philosophy, they were so damned good).

It helps that DCR owner Michael Cornthwaite (who also runs The Beat Coffeehouse and Emergency Arts) is evangelical about the possibilities of the emerging neighborhood, a pioneer who was on the first to believe that a cool local business could survive in the area. According to local origin myths, Cornthwaite famously sold Zappos CEO and Downtown Vegas savior Tony Hsieh on moving his company to the area (over stiff drinks at the bar, of course). Hsieh was more than sold... he decided to move his company into the former City Hall and invest much of his personal wealth into revitalizing the area. Nowadays, Hsieh can often be found sipping on seasonal libations in what has become his favorite bar in Las Vegas.

With an owner who is truly passionate about turning the derelict neighborhood that surrounds the place into a community, a quirky sensibility (the bar's website lists house rules such as "talk of religion and politics is strongly discouraged unless you are a priest, rabbi, or politician. In that case, it is probably past your bedtime)," and some of the most mind blowing adult drinks that Sin City has to offer, The Downtown Cocktail Room has become the unofficial ground zero of the neighborhood's slow but steady rebirth.

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