LAS VEGAS — My cabbie had warned me that First Friday on West Fremont Street would be a complete zoo, with wall-to-wall people crowding the bars and enjoying live music on the streets.
“It’s a madhouse,” he said.
So, I went. Nah, not a madhouse. The streets were, indeed, filled with happy people, but the crowds weren’t any more intense than those at Austin’s First Thursdays on South Congress Avenue. In fact, it felt a lot like First Thursday, but with a lot more bars.
What I liked about this collection of humanity was that it was largely local. Oh, sure, a few of us tourists infiltrated, but I didn’t see one Las Vegas T-shirt or pair of white tennis shoes. A lot of these people work on the Strip in the daytime, and at night they want to be far, far away.
Locals tend not to gamble, go to clubs and shows on the Strip and eat at celebrity-chef restaurants (in part because they can’t afford to). You, however, are likely to want to do some of those things. It’s Vegas.
But when you can tear yourself away, it’s fun to spend some time following in the footsteps of the folks who deal your cards, make your meals and dance around on that stage. Here’s the plan:
1. Plant yourself downtown. Well, it’s either that or the suburbs. Most locals live in suburban-type neighborhoods such as Summerlin and Henderson (part of Las Vegas, but as far from the Strip as you can get without being the desert). But Vegas’ downtown — like Austin’s and virtually everybody else’s — is becoming a place to live, to the point where several hotel employees I spoke with throughout the week told me they were hoping to sell their houses and move into downtown condos.
The downtown restaurant and bar scene is super-hot right now, spurred primarily by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (“Shay” if you run into him), who has invested his cash in the downtown scene, especially West Fremont Street, which is poised for a major reinvigoration.
You probably won’t be buying a condo, so choose a downtown hotel for this foray. If you’re really edgy, you could do El Cortez (600 Fremont St., elcortezhotelcasino.com), where rooms go for as little as $21. The place was built in 1941 and still carries a ’40s vibe, but the rooms have recently been renovated. It’s the longest continually operating hotel-casino in Las Vegas.
I, however, kicked it up a notch and spent $79 for a weeknight and $129 for a Friday at the Golden Nugget’s upscale Rush Tower (129 Fremont St., goldennugget.com). Downtown’s rooms typically cost less than those on the strip, and at the Nugget’s Chart House happy hour you can get a good glass of wine for $5 (impossible on the Strip) and delicious munchies for less than $10.
The Nugget sits right next to the noisy, touristy Fremont Experience, with its on-the-hour rock light show. It was easy to walk to the locals’ part of Fremont, which starts about three blocks west of the Experience.
2. Eat like a local at downtown spots such as Le Thai (523 Fremont St.: unfancy, unpricey Thai food), Park on Fremont (506 E. Fremont St., sandwiches and mac ‘n’ cheese) and a tiny eatery called Eat (707 Carson Ave., a block off Fremont), which serves up chicken pot pies and monstrous grilled cheese sandwiches to a mix of hipsters and lunch-breaking business folks.
3. Drink like a local at bars and restaurants downtown. In the Arts District (around South Main Street and Casino Center Boulevard) Velveteen Rabbit, 1218 S. Main St., is a good divey sort of place. West Fremont has a bunch of good bars — Commonwealth, Insert Coins, Beauty Bar, the Griffin (a bit gothy) and Don’t Tell Mama (piano bar) — on Fremont between Fifth and Sixth streets.
If you’re there on a First Friday (firstfridaylasvegas.com), by all means dive right in. Walk back behind Beauty Bar and the Griffin and you’ll sometimes find a live band.
4. Go to shows like a local. My daughter and I went to the Smith Center to hear Clint Holmes. The what? To see who?
Smith Center (361 Symphony Park Ave.) was built a couple of years ago specifically as an entertainment venue that would attract locals. I first heard about it from University of Texas graduate Kristen Hertzenberg, who starred in Las Vegas’ production of “Phantom of the Opera” and is now doing a lot of solo work around town. She said she goes to Smith Center a lot.
Holmes has been singing in Vegas since the ’70s and is a favorite cabaret act with the locals. He does a lot of Sinatra and American Songbook. Each show is different. The night we caught him, he was doing Burt Bacharach and the Beatles and asked a guest artist come out and join him for a few numbers: Kristen Hertzenberg. What a nice surprise.
Holmes and others like Billy Stritch sing in Smith Center’s 250-seat cabaret venue, while acts such as Willie Nelson (Aug. 13), Chris Isaak (Aug. 14) and Lyle Lovett (Aug. 16) fill the main hall. See the complete lineup at the smithcenter.com.
5. Hike like a local when it’s cool enough to hike. And that would not be now. But most of the locals I talked to said they like hiking Red Rock Canyon (redrockcanyonlv.com) about five miles west of the city when the weather’s cooler. Do keep in mind that Red Rock offers a 13-mile drive through its gorgeous redness, and you can do that air-conditioned comfort.
6. Do what locals do when it’s hot, like it is now: Jump in a pool.
“When it gets hot like this, we find a friend with a pool and hang out and barbecue,” says Amy Chasey, who handles marketing for the Golden Nugget and lives in Summerlin. You’ll have to skip the barbecue, but your Vegas hotel probably has a pool. The Nugget has one with a fish tank you can zip through in a tube as well as an adult pool.
Enjoy your foray into the Vegas locals’ world, but know that even locals do occasionally venture into the bright lights of tourist territory. John Unwin, CEO of the Cosmopolitan Hotel on the Strip, tells me he spotted a familiar face recently at his hotel’s Chandelier Bar.
“It was Tony Hsieh,” said Unwin, who stopped to ask the downtown entrepreneur what he was doing in enemy territory.
Hsieh’s reply: “I come here all the time.”