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Finding the Real Las Vegas

Las Vegas Travel Guide Atomic Liquors sign

For a city with such an interesting history, Las Vegas just loves to blow it up. So where does one go looking for some old-school Las Vegas that managed to escape the wrecking ball?

The Las Vegas strip is world famous and instantly recognizable, but not the place for historical preservation. Gone are classics like the Sands, Desert Inn, Stardust, Dunes and Frontier, replaced by mega-casinos evoking far away places – the pyramids, New York, Paris, ancient Rome – that have turned the city into an adult playground. That makes for a fun weekend but for fans of history, the “real” Las Vegas lies far from the strip.

Las Vegas Travel Guide Frankie's Tiki Room

Opened in 1958, Golden Steer is the oldest steakhouse in Las Vegas still serving red meat the way Frank, Dean and Sammy, even Elvis enjoyed it. Tony “The Ant” Spilotro – the inspiration for Joe Pesci’s character in the movie Casino – was a customer as well.

The old saying about not judging a book by its cover definitely applies to the Golden Steer (308 W. Sahara Avenue, 702-384-4470, website). From the outside of the building, you would never know what lies within. The facade looks like a run-down strip mall, but inside the dark elegant space with its red leather booths, white linens and tuxedo-clad waiters hasn’t changed much in fifty years. The overall experience is memorable in spite of the pricey food, and locals and regular visitors alike frequent this place. For a touch of class, the excellent Caesar’s Salad ($11 per person) is prepared tableside. The rib eye is delicious ($39) and if you have a big appetite, the 24 ounce Diamond Jim prime rib is outstanding ($40). Fans of potatoes should not miss the Lyonnaise Potatoes for $9.

Not too far from the Golden Steer stands Dino’s, the self-described “last neighborhood bar in Las Vegas.” However, Dino’s was not always Dino’s. Originally known as Ringside Liquors (named for the boxing murals on the ceiling), the bar and package store was bought by Dean Bartolo in 1960. It soon became a local hangout and Dean changed the name to Dino’s Lounge.

Dino’s is a different Las Vegas than what the typical visitor is accustomed to. Here you get the “real” Las Vegas – real people who make Las Vegas home and a real bar. Karaoke nights, cheap beer and kamikaze shots are the popular draws for the young crowd.  Also known as the place for “getting Vegas drunk for over 45 years,” Dino’s is located in the Arts District at 1516 Las Vegas Blvd South (702-382-3894), website.

Atomic Liquors (917 Fremont Street, 702-384-7371), about a 10-minute walk from the Golden Nugget downtown, is one of the oldest continually open bars in Las Vegas still run by the original owners, and supposedly holds city liquor license No. 00001.

Just look for the tall sign marking the Western Hotel and Casino, described in the Las Vegas Sun as the “gritty underbelly” of Las Vegas, and you are practically at the front door. Gritty is an understatement for a part of town that has seen better days and is definitely another side of Vegas much different from fake volcanoes and upscale casinos.

Atomic, named for the time when customers watched atomic blasts from the roof, opened in 1952. Like much of old time Vegas, Atomic has showbiz in its veins – The Rat Pack and the Smothers Brothers used to drink here after shows and some of the bar scenes in Casino were filmed here.

Atomic is a regular blue-collar neighborhood bar and it attracts a colorful and interesting clientele to say the least. They serve the standard beers and bar drinks. Cans of Busch go for a buck or you can take a full 12 pack with you for $6. Mixed drinks and shots go for $3, so you won’t spend much money here.

Keep in mind that walking in this part of town is only recommended in the afternoon so plan to get back before sundown. Atomic closes at 11 pm and you have to be buzzed inside at all times.

Just three blocks away is the oldest standing casino in Las Vegas, El Cortez (600 E. Fremont Street, 702-385-5200, website), with an ambience definitely from days gone by. This is by far one of the best places to enjoy Old Las Vegas, so walk around and soak it all in.

Once owned by Bugsy Siegel, the hotel and casino’s true history lies with a real Las Vegas legend, hotelier Jackie Gaughan, who bought it in 1961. Now 88, Gaughan, who sold the place last year, still lives in El Cortez and greets customers nearly every day. During his reign, mostly along Fremont Street, Gaughan was well known to tourists who viewed his casinos as friendly refuges from the more garish aspects of Las Vegas.

Las Vegas Travel Guide Tiki at Frankie's Tiki RoomCustomers go to the El Cortez for good gambling and friendly employees, not a plush atmosphere. Every day from 5 pm to 7 pm, El Cortez features Martini Madness, offering generous $7 martinis at every bar on the property. And for those nostalgic for “old” prices, check out the Chinese buffet ($8.95) and breakfast buffet ($5.95).

Away from everything, Frankie’s Tiki Room (1712 W. Charleston, 702-385-3110, website) provides a perfect paradise retreat from everything Vegas. Open 24 hours and the only authentic tiki bar in town, Frankie’s is a combination of South Seas exotica – traditional carvings and original Polynesian art – with just a hint of Las Vegas kitsch.

Situated in the same small space since 1955, Frankie’s was a neighborhood bar that only became Frankie’s Tiki Room in 2008. Designed by Bamboo Ben, supposedly the world’s foremost tiki room designer, it also doles out some pretty potent grog. Not only can you imbibe tiki classics such as a Mai Tai or Lapu Lapu, you can also knock back one of Frankie’s 15 original exotic cocktails such as the Lava Letch, a rum, brandy, raspberry liqueur and ginger beer concoction. All drinks are $8.

The friendly staff is more than happy to explain each drink and can recommend in which “order” to knock them back while you watch non-stop Polynesian videos and old episodes of “Hawaii Five-0” on the monitors behind the bar.

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