Sometimes you can't kill a classic.
Atomic Liquors is the oldest bar in Las Vegas, a Downtown institution that hosted some of the most glamorous stars and seediest gangsters over the course of its six decade history. Opened in 1952, Atomic took its name because visitors could watch test blasts from the roof as they enjoyed a stiff drink. The bar holds the oldest liquor license in town, was issued the first package liquor license in Vegas, and was once occupied by a cafe (according to legend) named after Bugsy Siegel's girlfriend.
Over the course of its long history, The Rat Pack, The Smothers Brothers, Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro, Burt Reynolds, and Rod Serling spent time at the bar, rubbing shoulders with the equally flush yet less reputable mobsters who ran the town. Diva Barbra Streisand even had a personal seat reserved only for her visits. A memorable (and ultra-violent) scene from Martin Scorsese's Casino was filmed in the bar, while Atomic's iconic sign was used in various Vegas-set films, most recently in The Hangover.
Original owners Joe and Stella Sobchik ran the bar for nearly 60 years until they both passed away within a few months of each other, which led to initial shuttering of the classic watering hole. The passing of the couple, who had become an local institution as much as their place of business, could have meant that The Atomic would go the way of so many other iconic Las Vegas legends whose storied histories were decimated in dramatic implosions. But this is one story with a happy ending, as a group of industrious and ambitious investors saw an opportunity in the classic Vegas venue, leasing the place from the Sobchik's son and dreaming up elaborate renovation plans that would modernize the venue while retaining the classic spirit. This week, the new owners accepted the keys to the place and are already planning their extensive updates, with plans to open the new and improved Atomic Liquors in December.
The new owners include Derek Stonebarger, who runs Theater7 in Downtown, a small yet awesome venue that screens indie and art house film and hosts live performances. Stonebarger is a filmmaker himself and a true cinephile who plans to turn the bar into an even more ambitious outlet for artists and the creative community than his theater, which recneetly celebrated its one year anniversary.
Plans for the renovation include a brand new Beer Garden with views of The Fremont Street Experience, larger bathrooms, and an expanded back-bar area. The owners also plan to pay homage to the entertainers who drank at Atomic with The Rat Pack Corner, Smothers Brothers Alley, and Barbra's Seat (a restoration of the original seat reserved for the favorite star of Jewish mothers and gay men everywhere). The interior will be treated like a museum as much as a bar, with decor dedicated to honoring the history of the place and plenty of old school Vegas artwork and photos hanging from the walls. The bar is located next to a large garage which will be used for live performances, and the parking lot will be converted into The Atomic Drive In, where classic and indie films (as well as atomic blast test footage) will be projected during outdoor screenings.
Like the recently rescued from the brink of extinction Clifton's Cafeteria in Los Angeles (which is also going through its own series of ambitious renovations aimed at mixing in modern elements with the restaurant's classic, Disneyland inspiring kitch), what could have amounted to the loss of a old school piece of a city's history will be reborn anew.
Converting the old warhorse into a hip and vibrant bar, beer garden, museum, live venue, and theater is an ambitious undertaking, but it's the exactly what Downtown needs to keep evolving into a mecca for the young and creative. I can't wait to drink at the reborn Atomic for years to come... assuming the end of the world doesn't happen this year. But even if the Mayans were right about 2012, I plan on watching the nukes explode from the rooftop of The Atomic as I sip on their strong drinks, just like the original patrons did almost 60 years ago.