Contrary to public opinion, there is an excellent chance of actually surviving a day spent in downtown Vegas. This assumes, of course, that you are smart enough to not wander too far away from the two-block-long, traffic-free area that houses what the P.R. folks refer to as the Fremont Street Experience.
Downtown’s 10 casinos have for a few decades now taken a back seat to the Strip’s glitzy properties, settling for table scraps and existing on a diet of locals and low-budget visitors. It has an edge, especially during the day, but at night the brilliant canopied, computer-generate light show that envelopes the entire operation helps cover up the warts.
There are no 10-acre fake lakes and no faux Eiffel Towers and no pirate shows and no propane-fueled exploding volcanoes downtown, but if you’re looking for a genuine taste of what Vegas once was, it’s a good escape from the phoniness.
Start your day with lunch around 2 p.m. at the Golden Gate, whose main claim to fame is the 99-cent shrimp cocktail. The dish is actually an anomaly because it now costs $1.99, but if the extra buck bothers you, you probably shouldn’t be on vacation, anyway. It’s a nice deal – in fact the Golden Gate web site calls it the best tail in town (get it?).
Island Sushi and Hawaiian Grill
For another option head to the Plaza at the north end. The Island Sushi and Hawaiian Grill will try to give you a Hawaiian experience and help you forget that slot machine which now owns a few of your $20 bills. The Plaza, was recently remodeled by cannibalizing a Strip property which halted construction when the economy went sour.
Golden Nugget Hotel-Casino
Next, head to the venerable Golden Nugget Hotel-Casino, a 4.5-star property that sits in the middle of it all. If you see a downtown Vegas scene in a movie (Leaving Las Vegas, or the Bond classic Diamonds Are Forever), chances are good you’ll recognize the Nugget. The Nugget was featured on a reality TV show several years ago called the Casino.
If you decide to spend a night or two in one of the 2,355 rooms, while checking in you can check out what is billed as the world’s largest nugget of gold –– an 875-ounce rock dubbed the Hand of Faith.
Binion’s Gambling Hall & Hotel
Right across the street from the Golden Nugget is Binion’s, which was founded by the legendary Benny Binion. Binion was a Texas criminal who headed west and became a Vegas legend as the first casino owner to offer free drinks to gamblers. Now this is a standard operating procedure to comp drinks in almost every casino in North America. Binion, who died 22 years ago, also was the architect of the World Series of Poker, which started with 7 players in 1970 and now draws thousands [the event has moved several times, and last year was held at the Rio, located about one mile west of the Strip].
Note to people who hate change: Binion’s no longer has a viewing case that contains one million dollars in cash.
Serious gamblers –– those who try to find the game most advantageous to the player –– in Vegas often find their way downtown, where the slot machine payoffs are usually a bit better than on the Strip and blackjack rules aren’t as predatory as the 21 games offered at the semi-criminal enterprises on Las Vegas Boulevard. Downtown casinos such as the Golden Nugget, Plaza and Fitzgerald’s will almost certainly offer better Blackjack games than at the Bellagio, Caesars Palace, Venetian and Wynn.
For dinner, if you’re looking for classy dining, your best move is the Hugo’s Cellar, located in the Four Queens. This upscale eatery stands up impressively to most of the overpriced celebrity-chef restaurants on the Strip. Go a bit early and have a drink at the bar, its old school and you can really get a sense of the place.
Meals begin with salad cart, a salad bar delivered table side. For a main course you can’t go wrong with the ribeye or the filet with bleu cheese topping and a side of garlic mashed potatoes.
After dinner wander around the hotel and play a little craps or the slots, you will feel like its 1975.
After a bit of gambling, head to Fremont Street, as it definitely puts its best foot forward at night, when the canopied light shows cause thousands of people to stop in their tracks and gawk upward for five minutes every half hour. It’s a good take, and while there are things you don’t want to remember about downtown, the show provides good video memories you can access from your Smartphone.
What & Where:
Golden Nugget Hotel-Casino (129 Fremont St; 702-385-7111)
Binion’s Gambling Hall & Hotel (128 Fremont St; 702-382-1600)
Golden Gate (1 Fremont St; 702-385-1906)
Island Sushi and Hawaiian Grill (9400 S Eastern Ave # 103; 702-221-1600
Hugo’s Cellar at the Four Queens (202 Fremont St; 702-385-4011)