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Off the Strip, bring on the bacon martini

Special to The Times

THE Strip resorts are known for nightclubs, lounges and “ultralounges.” But the local bar scene in Las Vegas is at least as eclectic as any of the establishments in the billion-dollar babies of the Strip. Light up. That’s right, if you’ve got cigarettes, smoke ‘em. Last call? What’s that? And if you put some money in the video-poker machine at the bar, your drink is likely on the house.

A weekend tour of the bars and dives off the Strip -- from the venerable Double Down to the modish Art Bar -- is a sort of soused keyhole into local history.

Like many off-Strip bars, Champagnes Cafe, on a dingy area of South Maryland Parkway, doesn’t have a nonsmoking section. “I wouldn’t even know how that would work,” says bartender Pat Wolahan, who has worked at Champagnes for five years. He says he knows about 70% of his customers by name, noting that the local bar has a crucial communal purpose in a city that truly never sleeps. “It is comfortable here,” he says.

As we talk, Bobby Shaw, a heavyset 66-year-old, croons karaoke to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long (All Night).” It isn’t even 9 p.m. For six years Shaw has hosted karaoke on Fridays and Saturdays at Champagnes Cafe. The club hasn’t changed. “It’s always looked like a whorehouse bedroom,” Shaw says.

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But in recent years his act, as well as the club, have become popular with University of Nevada, Las Vegas students. “I used to walk in here, and it was one person sleeping at a corner booth and one person maybe sitting at the bar,” Shaw recalls. But, he says, one day the UNLV students just started showing up. On Thursday nights now, a local feminist group meets there. Shaw is mystified. “I don’t have a clue. I am older. With the kids, it is surprising to me that they enjoy it as much as they do.”

Shaw knows his entertainment isn’t what pays the bills. Nor does the alcohol. As in most local saloons, video-poker machines line the bar. “You can’t survive without gambling in this town. Gambling pays the rent.” On the positive side, this means that there is seldom a cover charge to get into a local bar. But the omnipresent machines present a special challenge to performers such as Shaw. “You have to entertain people without distracting them from gambling, or you have a problem.”

Adele Bellas, owner of the Dispensary Lounge on Tropicana Avenue for the last three decades, remains amazed at the importance the gambling machines have assumed at her establishment. “Now with these little bars, our emphasis is all on our machines. When we opened we had none at all. The machines bring a lot of revenue. People want video poker. Being a bartender today is more than serving drinks. You have to handle the gaming portion.”

With the Dispensary’s neighborhood now distinctly urban, Bellas recalls how different things used to be on Tropicana: “Out here was all dirt roads in 1976. We had people tie their horse out front and come in for a drink.” Inside, though, the decades have brought few changes: With its plush carpet and friendly art, the Dispensary seems like a bar mated with your grandma’s living room. Server Lisa Malbasa worked at the Dispensary Lounge in 1980 before spending 19 years serving cocktails at Caesars Palace. In 2000 she returned to the Dispensary. “It hasn’t changed at all, really, in 30 years. It’s like a time warp,” she says.

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Champagnes Cafe and the Dispensary are old-school fun. But of course Vegas has a hipster side too, and for those in the know, the local bar of local bars for the last 14 years has been the Double Down Saloon (located a short walk from the Hard Rock Hotel). But the Double Down, with its signature bacon martini, has been there far longer than the Hard Rock. P Moss, who owns and operates the Double Down, recalls the bar scene before he opened. “In Las Vegas, every corner bar was like living in Billy Joel’s greatest-hits country. I made this place comfortable and the jukebox the centerpiece. It’s never strayed from its initial purpose.”

These days the Double Down jukebox still covers a gamut from the MC5 to Louis Prima. But the explosive growth of the neighborhood has resulted in the Double Down being the rare local bar that does a hefty tourist trade too. So successful has the bar become that in a city that always imports, Moss recently did the unthinkable -- he opened a second Double Down in New York in March. “There is a great deal of pride involved in taking something that works in Vegas and making it work in New York. It is basically the same vibe, and we have big name recognition there thanks to Vegas.”

Not that New York is anything like Vegas. “The problem is that we have to close at 4 in the morning in New York. In Vegas our busy time runs until 8 or 10 in the morning with the off-duty strippers and all of the other interesting people,” Moss says.

The success of the Double Down has inspired other bars in Vegas too. In September, Nate Bruce came here from Los Angeles to open a bar with a partner. Bruce freely acknowledges that his Divebar (located not too far from the Dispensary on Tropicana Avenue) used elements of the Double Down as a model. “I love the Double Down, but it was the only bar out there.” To compete, Bruce has placed the focus on live music seven nights a week and collected a customer base of punk rock and rockabilly fans.

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Another recent effort to attract the younger crowd is Art Bar downtown. Owner Jesse Garon, 35, is a well-known local Elvis impersonator. “I’ve probably done more weddings than any other Elvis in the world. But you can’t be Elvis forever. Elvis died at 42.”

Like at the high-end casino ultralounges, the Art Bar has numerous private booths and alcoves; the difference: The Art Bar is first come, first served. The clientele reflects the curious demographics of a city dedicated to growth and pleasure. “We have everything from hookers and judges to the workers doing all the skyscrapers.”

For locals, the main attraction of Art Bar is that Garon allows one wall to be a free exhibit space for artists who, he says, can keep any money from work that sells. “We ask that they throw a party for the opening, and hopefully some people will come in to the party and do some drinking and gambling, and everybody wins.”

In the end, Moss of the Double Down thinks that what really makes bars here so special and customers so loyal is the lack of a closing time so that, like a best friend, your favorite Vegas bar is always there for you. “It is an important thing to go to a bar and never have to go home. You just don’t get that in other cities.”

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For more on what’s happening on and off the Strip, see latimes.com/movablebuffet.


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