Cocktails and mixed drinks fly fast and furious throughout this larger than life town, most however are culinary disasters. Thankfully, there are a few rays of hope which stand out, with the tantalizing promise of more to come.
While I don't gamble at all, I have been going down to Las Vegas for about 20 years now, and find myself down there at least once a year. As you might expect, there have been huge changes over the years. One of the most welcome changes is the appearance of fine dining restaurants up and down the strip. The casinos are competing with one another as to who can attract the biggest name chef, or open the finest restaurant. Sure, they are often pricey, but this focus on fine cuisine should have a ripple effect throughout the area, and help raise the awareness overall as to the value of taking pride in culinary excellence. Of course, as is often the case, there continues to be a culinary chasm separating food from drinking, and Las Vegas is not immune to this situation.
As you might expect, I naturally am always on the lookout for a great cocktail experience. I try to make it a point to head down with recommendations, and potential destinations, for bars and bartenders who illustrate a desire to bridge the culinary gap and apply craftsmanship and pride to the drinks they prepare. It wasn't until this year however that I finally stumbled across a nice little handful of bars which I would gladly recommend to others who want to have a great cocktail experience.
On one of my early cocktail scouting missions I went down with a number of recommendations from various people in the industry who were familiar with the area. Many of these were bars located in some of the popular casinos. The bars themselves were beautiful, the cocktails on their cocktail list were creative, and those drinks were executed quite well. But the moment you went "off menu" and asked for what might be your favorite classic cocktail that you regularly had back home... well, you might as well be at the roulette wheel. One problem is that these bars are situated such that every single tourist who comes through the casino passes by their threshold, and so their clientele is so diverse that it is virtually impossible for them to have a focused program or even allow their bartenders to settle into their craft. So I quickly learned that the bars inside of the casinos themselves, especially ones which were right on the prime traffic flow, should be avoided at all costs.
Eiffel Tower Restaurant
That said, there is one casino cocktail lounge which I have made it a point to visit every time I am in Vegas, and contrary to the above, it technically it's entrance is right in the prime traffic flow. It is the bar at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant at the Paris Casino. You walk right into the casino from the strip, and you are almost immediately faced with the elevator that leads up to the restaurant. The saving grace of course is that the elevator ride itself puts a wonderful barrier between the general rabble, and those who want to treat this restaurant as a destination. Another point is that people are going to the restaurant, and not the bar, and so the bar is rarely crowded with random tourists. It's not that the bartenders at the Eiffel Tower are expert mixologists, or that their stock of products is amazingly diverse, because neither is the case. What is noteworthy however is that their bartenders actually take an interest in what they are doing, aren't adverse to a little experimentation, and perhaps more importantly have been working there for many years. So on your next visit to the strip, take a couple steps out of the crowd and sit down at the bar at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant for a couple drinks.
Besides the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, only Commander's Palace had been able to provide a refuge from the banal cocktails which are found all over the strip. But unfortunately Commander's Palace was shut down when a new landlord took over the property they were located within. This year however I can finally been able to add some new locations to my list of recommended bars in Las Vegas where you can get a good, if not great, cocktail.
Downtown Cocktail Room
One of the first to catch my attention on this trip was the Downtown Cocktail Room. There were a couple aspects about this spot which got me interested even before I got there. One was that it was in "Downtown" Las Vegas, as opposed to being on the "Strip". This is typically a part of town that isn't on the normal tourist destination maps. It was also described to me as having a slightly hidden entrance, didn't have any gambling machines inside, and was more interested in trying to build a strong local clientele, than appealing to the "just in town for one night" tourist. Figuring out the door, was a brief momentary challenge, but easily negotiated. Once inside, the interior is dark comfortable, and relaxing. On my visit, there were only a few people scattered across the bar, and they eventually drifted out. Talking with the bartender, it quickly became clear that the Downtown is really trying to focus on a classic cocktail program. Their clientele is gradually warming up to this, but their strong weekend crowd is apparently still the generic "vodka &" group, so I guess I should consider myself lucky that I dropped in mid-week. As with any such oasis of cocktailian endeavors, it is often a problem to not only draw a customer base with the right level of interest and sophistication, but also to get the general staff which also shares the necessary interest and education. I've heard from others that your best experiences are going to be when George is your bartender (who was my bartender on that night), but hopefully his desire for the craft will gradually filter into both the staff and the customers, allowing the Downtown Cocktail Lounge to be a shining example of what cocktails are all about.
As much as hotel bars, especially Las Vegas hotel bars, rarely provide a satisfactory experience, it was with some misgivings that I hopped into a cab to head out to the Artisan Hotel. I had heard from several friends that they had really put together a great program, but then I've heard that of hotel bars before as well. As the cab veered off the strip, and down a rather non-descript road, I was getting a little concerned. My concerns only increased as he pulled into what looked like an empty parking lot, of what appeared to be a slightly tattered, if not abandoned, hotel.
Crossing the threshold into the hotel, my fears started to fall away, as the dark, eclectic, and slightly bizarre interior showed a level of creativity and quirkiness which just might give birth to a great cocktail bar.
The lounge itself was beautiful. Fairly large, with wonderful conversation areas, comfortable seating, and elegantly framed artwork festooned on virtually every open surface (including the ceiling). The bar was large, with a wonderful array of bottles and elegant nik-naks scattered throughout.
Sitting down at the bar, the lone bartender took my order for an Old Fashioned, and as I watched, she proceeded to make me almost, but not quite, one of the worst Old Fashioneds I've encountered. She did all of the wrong things. Sigh. I mentally scratched this bar from my list.
Apparently I had come in right when shifts were about to change from the day-shift to the night shift. As the first night-shift bartender came on duty, he passed by me and looked up and almost had a heart attack. He couldn't stop saying "oh my god, oh my god". Throughout all of this, the first bartender was wondering what bizarre episode of the Twilight Zone she might have accidently stepped into. Apparently the bar has been using my videos on SmallScreenNetwork.com as part of their normal bar training, so you can just imagine the night shifts bartenders amazement when he saw sitting at his bar the person who up until now they'd only seen in videos. The day-shift bartender was apparently freshly hired, and hadn't yet had a chance to have her "bar school" brainwashing replaced with "craftsmanship" methodology. To her credit, once she found out who I was, she quickly came over to get some pointers and tips, and her interest indeed illustrated the type of passion and dedication to the craft which I love to see.
The rest of my cocktails that evening were absolutely excellent, the only glitch for the rest of my stay, was that there was a large "networking" group that came in shortly, which filled the bar, and slammed the bartenders, with customers who had little interest in quality drinks.
I will most definitely be coming back to the Artisan Hotel on future visits, and frankly the overall atmosphere of the hotel, makes me want to stay there as well.
Morels French Steakhouse
On this visit, I tried a variety of different bars attached to different restaurants in various casinos. As is typical of such experiences, I often found the food to be exquisite, but the cocktails little more than vodka with various flavored sweet & sours. I can easily see the tendency to head in that direction, since customers rarely think about having a culinary experience in a bar; instead just wanting some drink which moves the party forward.
So as I was wandering around in some downtime I had before my next meeting, it was with very little expectation that I stepped into Morels French Steakhouse. My entire reason for choosing it was simply because it was one of the restaurants which I hadn't tried yet.
Their was just a lone customer at the bar as I sat down, and the man behind the bar was wearing a suit and tie, which typically indicates he isn't the real bartender, but usually a floor manager who is standing in for a bartender who hasn't shown up yet. Ordering my Old Fashioned, I had little expectations, but was at least appreciating the array of antique cocktail shakers and elegant glassware in a display behind the bar.
The Old Fashioned I was served was the best one I was to encounter on this visit. It wasn't topped with soda, it wasn't overly sweet, it had the right amount of bitters, and while the fruit was muddled, that isn't something I hold against anybody since so many people think it is "required" in this drink.
I was to learn from Shawn (who was filling in for a no-show bartender), that their cocktail program was created by my good friend Livio Lauro, and that Keith, their head bartender was extremely dedicated and passionate about making quality cocktails which would properly reflect the same dedication as the food which was coming out of their kitchen. I didn't have a chance to try the food on this visit, but will definitely check them out further on my next trip.
In all, I am extremely pleased as many of my discoveries on this trip through Las Vegas, and see that perhaps, just perhaps, we might be on the verge of a sea change in the offerings we might see coming forth from some of the other bars and restaurants along the strip. On your next trip, try some of the places I recommend above, as well as trying to have your own little adventures to discover little jewels which I may not have had a chance to visit yet. And if you are a bartender in Las Vegas, I would like to recommend that you drop into the Downtown Cocktail Room (especially mid-week, when they are slow) and chat with George, share stories, examine recipes, and try to build up a network which you can use to help transform how cocktails are viewed, if not in the city overall, at least amongst those bartenders who really care.
Eiffel Tower Restaurant Paris Resort & Casino 3655 Las Vegas Blvd. South Las Vegas, NV 89109 (702) 948-6937 http://www.eiffeltowerrestaurant.com
Downtown Cocktail Room 111 Las Vegas Blvd South Las Vegas, NV 89109 (702) 880-3696 http://www.downtownlv.net
The Artisan Hotel 1501 W. Sahara Ave Las Vegas, NV 89102 (702) 214-4000 (800) 554-4092 http://www.theartisanhotel.com
Morels French Steakhouse 3325 Las Vegas Blvd South Las Vegas, NV 89109 (702) 607-6333 http://www.palazzolasvegas.com/morels.aspx