By E.C. Gladstone
There are some people that say if you haven’t been to the downtown Las Vegas hotels, you haven’t really been to Las Vegas. Centered around Fremont Street, where the town began as a railroad stop some 100+ years ago, downtown Las Vegas has weathered the ages, preserving a classic spirit while trying to keep pace with modern times. Despite what you may hear, DTLV is safe, friendly, and offers something for every visitor. Of course, you might want some pointers on what’s good, better and best. That’s why I’m here. Because there’s so much to cover, I’m actually splitting this topic into two blogs: this week, where to stay, entertainment and gambling; next time, restaurants, bars and some secret tips.
Where To Stay
Any discussion of downtown would have to center around the Golden Nugget, Fremont Street’s only 4-Star property, and truly a faded gem on the mend. While the GN may never completely compare to the best Las Vegas hotels on the Strip, it does manage to fit a lot of impressive experiences into a relatively compact space. The spacious North Tower rooms were recently renovated with tasteful neutral tones, and feature down feather beds, big Phillips flat-screen TVs and rainfall shower heads in the bath. The South Tower rooms are a bit smaller, but acceptable for a reduced rate. The Spa Tower is all recently remodeled eclectic contemporary one-bedroom suites, mostly two-level, and including 2-person Jacuzzis and large steam showers — definitely comparable to the finest Strip suites. And then there are the Scarlet and Vegas Baby suites, surprisingly hip habitats.
The entire property revolves around The Tank, a futuristic $30 million pool ringing a 200,000 gallon tank with 5 species of sharks (hand fed twice a week), topped by two floors of well-appointed cabanas, and a tube slide that goes through the sharks. Yes, you read that right. The pool stays open till 8 p.m. — later than most — with the hot tub, poolside gaming tables, and bar open until 2 a.m. Patrons of other downtown hotels can use the pool for a $20 fee. The GN also has a moderate, classically elegant spa with services and amenities that rate with some of the best in town. When their new tower opens in November, expect everything to improve even more.
On the East end of central Fremont, the historic El Cortez has been making some notable upgrades, including the Cabana Suites building, a boutique hotel with rooms that aren’t really cabanas or suites, but ultra-stylish, with lime green walls, houndstooth ottomans, a puckered white vinyl headboards, retro bathroom tiling. Amenities include premium plush beds, LG flat-screen TVs, iHome radios, coffeemaker, mini fridge (empty for you to fill yourself), soft towels, soap and shampoo by Archive. EC’s also spruced up some of its original ‘40s-era rooms maintaining the Southwestern spirit but expanding them to junior suite size, a nice alternative to the typical Vegas vibe.
Elsewhere, while the rooms at the Plaza and Vegas Club won’t win any style awards, they are generally spacious and well maintained (The Plaza actually has tennis courts, volleyball and even a horseshoe pit!). Four Queens rooms are more compact, but have recently been remodeled, nicely upgrading the bathrooms. Those looking for a more quaint or historic experience (In Vegas?!? Oh, yes) might like Golden Gate, the oldest hotel in town. And if you really want to experience the iconic ’70s/’80s-era Vegas? Binions is where you’ll find those rooms (and a small but cool rooftop pool deck).
Entertainment & Gaming
Entertainers seem to change more often downtown, however there are several fun shows here — particularly talented singer-impressionist Gordie Brown at GN — while Holly Madison herself says the Superstars of Magic at Vegas Club are a must see. Singer Frankie Moreno at GN’s mod-ish Rush lounge is an impressive hidden talent, and of course, if you haven’t seen the Fremont Street Experience overhead video display, well, you need to check that out at least once. And maybe twice from the different p.o.vs of the Plaza’s Firefly Dome, GN’s Golddiggers club (also a prime spot when bands perform on Fremont) or Fitzgerald’s Vue bar. There are also action artists on the pedestrian-only street and other live performers.
First Fridays, on that day of every month, is an outdoor street fest featuring local artists, entertainers and fun food built around cool retailers like The Arts Factory, Valentino’s Zoot Suit Collection and The Funk House, that’s a great place to experience the new energy downtown (El Cortez offers a free shuttle).
Miss the clink-clink-clink of real coin slot machines? You can still find them at many casinos downtown, including Main Street Station, Vegas Club, Binions, LA Bayou, Mermaids and El Cortez. Sexy dealers and go-go dancers are in many of the casinos; Fetish Pit at Vegas Club wins for originality, though Golden Gate’s girls really shake it up!
Binions, famous home of the World Series of Poker, has a new, gorgeously appointed nine-table poker pit (with a cool Wall of Fame), though GN certainly has a comfy poker room too, as well as the nicest keno parlor maybe anywhere, and a swanky Sportsbook; the Plaza’s Sportsbook is also surprisingly spacious and low-key — and that’s the place to play bingo, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. If shooting craps with local characters is on your to-do list, consider Golden Gate, El Cortez and the Fitz. You can also find some of the lowest table minimums, best blackjack payouts and liberal comps all around downtown, too (look carefully).
Insider Tip: Mexican Independence Day is coming up on Sept. 16. Check out some of my favorite Mexican restaurants in the resorts for some great comidas y bebidas, con felicidades: Diego (MGM Grand), Border Grill (Mandalay Bay), Mi Casa (Silverton Lodge), Dos Caminos (Palazzo), Taqueria Cañonita (Venetian), and Pink Taco (Hard Rock).
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Veteran entertainment and travel writer E. C. Gladstone writes regularly for Las Vegas Magazine and the Las Vegas Weekly, also interviewing top Strip entertainers, restauranteurs, moguls and behind-the-scenes players for other local and national publications and websites. Like many Las Vegans, he sleeps only when absolutely necessary.