This year, though, I thought it would be more fun to stay down and try to experience some of that “Old Las Vegas” magic—what’s left of it, anyway.
This, in turn, inspired me to write this latest blog post. I’ve done some research with the help of a couple of travel guides (The Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas 2018 and Frommers), and I learned some cool stuff I didn’t know before.
My goal is to share it with you here.
What Is Old Las Vegas and How Does It Differ from New Las Vegas?
It’s no secret that Las Vegas is always changing with the times. When I think of “old” Vegas, I think of some of the following:
- Cheap buffets
- Cheap hotel rooms
- Cheap (and free) drinks
- Cheap, high-quality entertainment
- Small casinos
- A focus on gambling
That last point is especially important. At one time, everything in Vegas was a loss leader for the real revenue generator—gambling. You could eat at dozens of restaurants in town for next to nothing. It cost almost nothing to say in a hotel room as long as you were willing to spend some time in the casinos—which were tiny and filled with smoke.
The focus on gambling isn’t exclusive. It just means that all the other activities in the city were secondary. You could easily go to Vegas now and not spend any time gambling, but in the old days, all of the other entertainment was just there to get you onto the casino floor, blowing your money.
In fact, Las Vegas has become a luxury destination. Only a dozen or so hotels on the Strip target something other than the luxury market. The moderately priced properties have either been upgraded or destroyed.
As with many maturing businesses, there’s been a lot of consolidation among casino hotels in Las Vegas. Many of these properties used to be independently owned, but now, you’ll find little difference from one hotel and casino to the next—especially on the Strip.
That’s because most of them are now owned by 2 companies:
- Caesars Entertainment
- MGM Resorts International
Sure, you’ll find some superficial differences on the outsides of the casinos. One casino has a volcano, another has fountains, and another has a replica of the Eiffel Tower.
But the rooms and the atmosphere inside these properties is now more or less the same. There are 27 casinos on the Strip. 19 of them are owned by one of the 2 companies listed above.
When you think of old-school Vegas, you think of a certain seedy kind of ingenuity among the owners. It was more Wild West feeling than modern corporate feeling.
One area in which new Las Vegas now excels over old Vegas is the availability of timeshares and condos. You can find lodging of that kind through Air B&B and VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner). If you’re traveling with a family or even a lot of friends, this might be the most affordable and convenient option.
Like the United States’ middle class, mid-priced dining options are disappearing fast in Las Vegas. Even most of the buffets are expensive. You’ll often stand in line forever and spend $50 just to help yourself to the all-you-can-eat options. These options are, admittedly, awe-inspiring.
But gone are the days when you could saunter up to the Surf Buffet at the Holiday Inn at Boardwalk and gorge yourself to the sounds of the Beach Boys’ greatest hits being played repeatedly.
The same goes for entertainment options. Almost 5 dozen shows in town now charge $100 or more per ticket. Sure, there are still a few lounges and showrooms with more moderately priced entertainment, but that’s becoming increasingly rare, too.
You can also still find hotels and casinos which throw in free dining or show tickets. The best way to get these is to stay when the hotel’s occupancy rates are lower. You’re more likely to find such deals mid-week. Try to arrive on Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday, and get out of town before Friday. Also, try to avoid traveling into the city during special events or conventions.
If you have a property that you like, try searching for the word “promotions” along with the words “Las Vegas” and the property name. If you can be flexible with your travel dates, you can often get deals based on when they’re available.
And here are a few recommendations for things to see, do, and eat while you’re in Las Vegas if you want to see what it used to be like. I think you should do these things, soon, too, because I don’t expect them to last, either.
Visit the Neon Museum. This museum is entirely devoted to the neon signs that are so characteristic of classic Vegas. The museum itself has only been there since 1996, but it’s a real tribute to one of the aspects of Vegas that made it Vegas for so long.
Some of the famous casinos you can still see and gambling at in Glitter Gulch include:
- Binion’s Gambling Hall and Hotel
- Fremont Hotel and Casino
- The Four Queens Hotel and Casino
- Golden Gate Hotel and Casino (This is the oldest continuously operating hotel and casino in Las Vegas, by the way.)
- The Golden Nugget (This is where we’re staying on our upcoming visit to Sin City.)
Before the Strip became the predominant attraction in Las Vegas, this area of Downtown was the iconic representation of Las Vegas that you’d see in movies and TV shows. All the neon signs in the area are what give this area its name of “Glitter Gulch.”
“The Fremont Street Experience,” by the way, is in more or less the same location, but it’s not the same thing. Strictly speaking, the Fremont Street Experience is the canopy over Glitter Gulch that consists of over 12 million LED lights. Every night, they put on light and sound shows.
There’s also a zip line and free entertainment each night on 3 stages along the mall area.
Eat a steak at Top of Binion’s Steakhouse or at Golden Steer Steakhouse. When you think of views in Las Vegas, you’re probably thinking of the Stratosphere, which is magnificent, no doubt. But it’s not exactly old-school.
Las Vegas locals think of Top of Binion’s Steakhouse on the 24th floor of Binion’s. The romantic dining room features classic Las Vegas décor.
Unlike some of the more modern and expensive steakhouses, they serve their food with sides. You get the vegetable of the day and potatoes or rice. You also get bread. You can eat here for less than $100 a person, which is much less than you’ll pay at many of the newer steakhouses in Vegas.
The Golden Steer Steakhouse has a booth where Sinatra used to eat. The restaurant has been in continuous operation since 1958. At one time, this was the steakhouse where the celebrities ate, including folks like:
- Frank Sinatra
- Mario Andretti
- Muhammad Ali
Dine on Italian food at Battista’s Hole in the Wall or at Chicago Joe’s. Both are classic examples of red checkered tablecloth Italian food like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin would have enjoyed. Battista’s has been open and in continuous operation since 1970 (the year I was born). They include free house wine with your dinner.
Chicago Joe’s is located on 4th Street, in Downtown. It’s a more affordable option that Battista’s. Most of their pasta dishes are just a shade more expensive than $10 a plate. I saw the food described on Yelp as being very cheesy and garlicky. According to another reviewer, they serve the best lasagna in town. It’s also described as “unpretentious and cozy.”
I did see one thing in a Yelp review that disturbed me. The user complained that the prices listed on the menu at Joe’s website were different from the prices they were charging in the restaurant. Maybe don’t take the “just a shade over $10 per plate” too seriously.
Check out some of the classic lounge entertainment at Bootlegger Las Vegas. It’s an Italian restaurant, but it’s also a bar with classic lounge singer style entertainment. They’ve won multiple awards and been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.
The Italian American Club also features classic lounge entertainment. They’ve been open since 1960.
Dessert is free if you like chocolate-dipped fruit and whipped cream. If you want something else, they have a full menu of sweet specialties to choose from, too. Hugo’s Cellar is only open for dinner.
Drink at Atomic Liquors or Champagnes Café. Atomic Liquor originally opened in 1921, making it one of the oldest bars in the city. It’s no longer owned by the original family, but it’s been restored and re-opened by a group of investors who respect the bar’s history.
Champagnes Café is also a classic dive bar with karaoke on Fridays through Mondays. They also have open mike comedy night once a week. And they serve coffee 24 hours a day.
If you’re looking for cheap, check out Ellis Island Hotel, Casino, & Brewery. They’re probably most famous for their $7.99 steak special. They also offer $5 blackjack games. The place isn’t upscale, but it’s family-owned and has lots of bargains for low rollers and frugal gamblers.
Some of the ideas for this list came from Insomniac.com, which mentions several restaurants that are still open which were mentioned in a 1982 travel guide to Las Vegas that the author owns.
Wow. After writing this post, I’m even more excited about my trip to Las Vegas than I was before. My buddy is starting to get more excited, too, because I called him several times yesterday as I found more ideas for things for us to do.
I’m still trying to decide if I want to splurge on the king-sized spa suite at the Golden Nugget. I checked out the pictures online, and it looks fabulous, but I think it’s just too expensive even for a one-night stay.
The theme for this entire trip is going to be “old school Las Vegas.” I think everyone will have a good time. You can look forward to my trip report comparing and contrasting old Vegas with new Vegas, too, but you won’t get to read that until November.
If you have ideas for old-school Vegas stuff to see when I’m there, please leave a comment.