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Special to the Times

Where are you? It's between 4 a.m. and whenever, and you're under attack. By strobe lights flashing like Morse code on crack. By clusters of people jumping like fleas trapped in a Petri dish. By the music banging against the walls of your ears. No wonder you can't tell time -- it's all you can do to put one foot in front of the other without a'tumblin' down.

Welcome to the Las Vegas after-hours scene. Here, the parties don't start until Midwestern farmers wake up, don't end until the sun is heating the valley, and temporal and sensory disorientation isn't a maddening affliction but a pleasurable experience. And an expected one at that.

Back in the late '90s and early 2000s, when the scene was in its infancy, the after-hours circuit was a drug-fueled romp as small as it was intense, with revelers overdosing with a frightening frequency. "You would call paramedics at least two, three times a month," says Gino LoPinto, managing partner at Empire Ballroom, a club which hosts some of the city's most popular after-hours parties.

These days, however, instead of selling $5 bottles of water to people free-falling on ecstasy, after-hours clubs are selling $500 bottles of liquor to people with private jets. In this way, the after-hours scene's evolution mirrors that of the Vegas nightlife scene over the years in general; with the death of rave culture, being high-class is now more important than being high.

Plus, in a city that never slumbers, and where boozing never ceases, a night-on-the-town can more aptly be described for many as a morning-on-the-town. Says LoPinto, who started one of the first after-hours parties at gentlemen's club Spearmint Rhino in 1999: "A lot of people just go out later." Way later.

So where are you? You're at one of three clubs that have cornered this niche market.

The big daddy of them all is Drai's. Named after owner Victor Drai and located in the "basement" of Bill's Gamblin' Hall and Saloon (formerly the Barbary Coast hotel-casino), this gourmet French eatery that morphs into a late-night party den has outlasted most of the competition with little to no advertising and without any special promotions, such as booking big name DJs.

Its success is due in part to its staff's reputation for courtesy. "We appreciate the business," says Jesse Waits, who, along with twin brother Cy and Shawn Chester, form the staff's core.

The other reason for Drai's success is its beautiful, sophisticated interior. While it only has a capacity of about 500 people, Drai's labyrinthine lay-out gives it a much roomier feel.

There, you can join clubbers dancing in the main room ringed by tables as one of its four resident DJs pumps out house music; jam to hip-hop in another room equipped with a small bar that serves drinks in glasses affixed with a plastic top and straw so you don't spill; or hang-out in the "library," a European manor-style room stocked with shelves of books and couches so soft they practically swallow you when you sit down.

A rave-party warehouse it is not.

Empire Ballroom's sprawling, wide-open interior, on the other hand, is a kind of throwback to such spaces. The main room features two bars, a dance floor overhanging which is a chandelier worthy of a swing from the Phantom of the Opera, and a stage that often hosts some of house music's biggest names.

Upstairs, on the outdoor patio, it's a whole different, day-lit world. Resident DJs from the House Society collective can spin funky electronic music up here on weekends until as late (early?) as noon. Sunglasses are highly recommended.

Back in the day, this was the place where many a legend was made when the building Empire now occupies housed the nightclub Utopia, a venue many veteran scenesters credit with igniting the casino-club craze currently boring full-fog-machine ahead. That LoPinto was involved with Utopia at one time shows the scene has evolved with one of its founding fathers still in the game.

Another guy who's been there since the beginning is Brian Hart, who helped open both Drai's and Empire before jumping ship to his current gig at Seamless, a gentlemen's club that turns into an after-hours club at 4 a.m. Here, there's something for everybody: Quality house music often spun by national acts for the sound's diehard fans; a gorgeous interior (walls are composed of materials ranging from L.E.D. screens to chain mail to water) for night-owl esthetes; and discreet lapdances for those seeking to make sure what happens in Vegas, well, you know.

If partying well past dawn isn't your thing, then stop by Ivan Kane's 40 Deuce for "Deuce til' Dawn." which ends around the time places like Seamless gets going. The L.A.-import hosts two burlesque shows a night accompanied by a live band, and resident DJ Graham Funke's sets incorporate more hip-hop and rock than house.

"You're going to get the same energy [after 4 a.m.] as you're going to get at 1 a.m.," he says.

Now do you know where you are?

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