Las Vegas, February 2011:
It’s my first night in Las Vegas and by the time our party checks in to the hotel it’s 8pm here and 4am in Britain.
You don’t beat jet-lag by staying on home-time so half an hour later we’re in the Golden Steer steakhouse being shown into a private room. The lights are dim, the decor is formal and the table seats 14. This is Dining Room B: where the local Mafia used to meet.
From the late 50s to the mid-80s a nod or a wink at this table could mean life or death to a mobster: Hoodlum A gets promoted to “made man”, Hoodlum B gets rubbed out before breakfast. Any other business, fellas?
My jet-lagged eyes scan the walls. No bullet-hotels or bloodstains. And say what you like about the Mafia, they knew their food. A 16oz medium-rare New York strip steak is not usually recommended when your body thinks it’s five in the morning and you’ve been up for 23 hours. But my £25 cut is so succulent it slips straight down.
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr and friends – the Vegas Rat Pack – had a regular booth in the Steer while John Wayne, Elvis Presley and Natalie Wood liked to eat here too (see goldensteersteakhouselasvegas.com).
We’re in Downtown Las Vegas, the original heart of the city with all the character and history. Our hotel, the El Cortez, was owned by Bugsy Siegel, the mob boss who nearly 70 years ago began transforming this former dust-blown desert town into Sin City USA.
After 30 years in the shadow of the glitzier Vegas Strip three miles south, Downtown is coming back to life. Its hotels are more affordable than the Strip’s fancy towers – at the El Cortez an El Cabana suite (a huge room in day-glo green with wall-sized TV and iPod dock) costs from pounds 38 a night (see elcortezhotelcasino.com).
Fremont Street is the beating heart of Vintage Vegas, where you’ll find the oldest casinos in all their neon glory. And now there’s “Viva Vision”, a giant tunnel-shaped video screen covering the main drag where music and sport shows are projected day and night (see www.vegasexperience.com). There are outdoor stages with free live music or you can whizz overhead on an 800ft zip wire. On our second night we paid pounds 12 each for an exhilarating flight (see www.vimeo.com/lvflightline).
Time to go gambling. All the casinos feature ranks of slot machines as far as the eye can see plus blackjack, poker, craps and roulette tables. On the Strip if you want a table with stakes of less than $30 (£20) you’ll end up playing a computer. Downtown they still have human beings to strip your wallet of its smaller denominations.
Later that night we walked into the Golden Nugget on Fremont (www.goldennugget.com) hoping for beginner’s luck at the second-oldest casino in town. My self-imposed limit of $30 (feeble, I know) lasted all of 20 minutes at the roulette table. I quickly realised it’s not about how much you win… it’s about how slowly you lose!
We adjourned to the hotel’s Rush Bar, where a live band was playing early 70s Elvis songs rather well. I yelled out a request and the singer replied: “That’s a suggestion sir… do you know the difference between a suggestion and a request?” I didn’t.
“Five dollars,” he said, pointing to a tip jar on the piano stuffed with banknotes. Boom-boom went the kick drum. I paid up and they played Promised Land for me.
Afterwards the guitarist came over. He’d clocked my English accent and wanted to tell me how he met the late George Harrison. His sister was the quiet Beatle’s housekeeper in Hawaii. “Such a lovely man,” he said, on the brink of tears. What a strangely moving end to a brilliant evening.
Next morning a visit to The Beat Coffeehouse and Record Store near the El Cortez was a good start to the day, with coffee a dollar a cup, free wi-fi and lots of vintage vinyl (www.thebeatlv.com).
Staying Downtown doesn’t bar you from the Strip, of course. But in between is a no-man’s land of motels, pawn shops, tattoo parlours and wedding chapels. On the list of things not to do on impulse, getting married and having a tattoo must be Nos 1 and 2… but this bit of Las Vegas is here to help you make the wrong choices.
Unless your budget stretches to taxis, the best way to get between Downtown and the Strip is on either of two air-conditioned bus services: The Deuce (24hrs) and the SDX (until 12.30am). They cost pounds 4.50 for a day ticket or pounds 9.50 for a three-day pass. The transport website at www.rtcsnv.com has clear maps and timetables.
Once you’re on the Strip there’s an endless choice of stage shows and live music, from Celine Dion at Caesar’s Palace to Barry Manilow at Paris and Donny and Marie at The Flamingo. On a smaller scale, Matt Goss (yes, that one, from Bros) has a hit show in his own “Gossy Room”. It’s essential to book early for all shows (www.lasvegas.com).
If you go next year, the old town courthouse will have re-opened as The Mob Museum (www.themobmuseum.org).
A visit there and a steak at the Golden Steer? It’s an offer you can’t refuse.
WHAT’S THE DEAL
BA has daily flights from Heathrow to Las Vegas from £627 return including taxes. Visit www.ba.com or call 0844 4930787. For more info on visiting the city see www.VisitLasVegas.co.uk or call 020 7367 0979.
This article was originally published in the Sunday Mirror on February 27, 2011