An Off the Beaten Path Guide to Las Vegas — by Kate McCombs, Shelby Allison, Kristin Unger, Viktor Vanbramer, and Rhonda Turnbough
See this story in its original context in The Hometown Issue
When someone finds out you’re from Las Vegas, the response is often, very predictably, “Wow, what was it like growing up in Las Vegas?” BOR-RING. Actually that question and the answer to that question are the same. I have never lived in Phoenix, Arizona, but I imagine it isn’t too different—tract houses, strip malls, and sprawl. But I guess the key component to Las Vegas is the two other Strips: The Strip, and Strippers. The barely-legal, barely-clothed billboard beauties, and that seemingly never-ending beam shot nightly from the Luxor Casino’s crown (the world’s strongest light of its kind) can be bewildering to a teenager, with long-lasting effects.
The youth of Las Vegas are a creative bunch, though. Some of us survivors, now all of gambling age, have pulled together an Off the Beaten Path Guide (From a Local’s Perspective) to Las Vegas. Many were hesitant because they had trouble thinking of what to recommend in our hometown. Many of our favorite record stores and restaurants have gone out of business. The places to see live music change constantly due to strict ordinances protecting the teens of Las Vegas from the seedy nightlife. So some of our favorite places and memories just came out of our own ingenuity…
I remember one summer Rhonda went to a local high school and painted all of the cement bricks that denote parking spaces for the students with gold paint. “A Parking Lot of Solid Gold Bricks!” She was very excited. Jesse Jackson would play impromptu shows on his three-string, plastic guitar in places like the dumpster behind WOW Electronics. We would all gather around and watch intently, seated on the cement…
This guide is not meant to be comprehensive. Some of these places we visited often, others just once, but we feel all are worth considering for one reason or another. You might have just transferred to UNLV (or as us locals call it—The University of Never Leave Vegas), be planning a bachelorette party, or maybe you just got the awful news that your mother has been transferred to Vegas for work. Whatever the reason, we hope you find what you are looking for, and you win big.
2797 S Maryland Parkway Ste 14
I’ve never known a musician who could afford anything here, but Cowtown has an impressive collection of used vintage gear. I’m not a musician myself, but I know because my musician friends continue to visit this shop whenever they go through Vegas, just to look, perhaps in the hope that it’s become more affordable since their last visit. If gear-gawking is your thing, it’s definitely worth a stop. If you have the cash, even better.
Duckpin Bowling at Hootie and The Blowfish’s Shady Grove Lounge in the Silverton Casino
Silverton Casino, 3333 Blue Diamond Road
My parents discovered this bar and took my husband and me here as a bonding experience. It really has something for each of us, and we’ve been back many times. A typical Las Vegas casino bar, it is a floating oasis between card tables and jingling slots. The facilities became slightly confusing, but sort of cool, when on a routine visit we observed the décor had experienced renovation and changed its theme to “Hootie and the Blowfish.”
But this is not the only special thing about the Shady Grove Lounge. In fact, the best part is the duckpin bowling. Tucked in the corner is an indoor Airstream trailer, which houses two fully functioning mini-bowling lanes. No need to change your shoes, this is duckpin bowling. Everything is about half the size of a normal bowling lane. The balls are fed to you from an arcade-like vending machine, and they rest in your hand a la pétanque.
Cocktail waitresses poke their heads inside the Airstream to take your drink orders, and you even have the option of ignoring the people you came with and flipping channels on the television mounted near the scoreboard.
3770 Las Vegas Blvd
“Hi, Folks.” That’s his catch phrase.
And why would Lance Burton, one of the most marketed Las Vegas Entertainers, be off the beaten Path??? Not to generalize, but I fear there may be some of the Take the Handle readership that, without a little encouragement, would leave Lance and his very special show off of their Vegas itineraries.
When my family first moved to Las Vegas, we would frequent Lance’s dinner theatre show (then at a run down casino in Henderson, now at the Monte Carlo without the dinner). Though his venue has changed, his show has pretty much remained the same. This is a testament to his ability as a magician and entertainer, and an unabashed respect for craft. He starts each show with a musical number accompanied by his “lovely ladies” which takes the audience through the lineage and forefathers of Magic, and wraps up the night with a disappearing act involving a kid from the audience and a Corvette. But I’ve already told you too much. Mr. Burton has been doing the same act for over a decade, and I still can’t comprehend how some of his tricks are possible without him having a twin brother. No, it’s not mirrors. It’s magic.
Little Chapel of the Flowers
1717 Las Vegas Blvd South
It isn’t that difficult to get swept away in Las Vegas; hop a cab to the closest chapel you can find, with the most recent love of your life. Lucky for mine, I knew about the cool chapel in town. Lucky for everyone who made it to our real wedding, we cooled our heels and reality set in just as we were paying our cab fare. Ronnie Vannucci of The Killers fame was the wedding photographer here before rock and roll swept him away.
The Gun Store
2900 E Tropicana Ave
Ever want to fire an Uzi? Wonder what it feels like to stand behind a fully loaded MP40? I let curiosity get the better of me, and agreed to accompany my father here on my last trip home. The Gun Store in Las Vegas is a place where tourists and locals alike can make their gun fantasies come true. Not feeling like the standard gender/race neutral human body outline target today? The Gun Store is about options, and that is why they offer actual photographs of men and women from countries all over the world. For the child at heart, one can also choose to aim at a cartoon drawing of Osama Bin Laden as a zombie. As per The Gun Store’s website, there isn’t technically an age limit, but all minors must be accompanied by an adult.
The shop provides the ammo and machine gun rentals start at just $50.
Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing and Visual Arts
315 S 7th St
A common bond linking all the contributors of this article, the Las Vegas Academy is a magnet high school in downtown Las Vegas, sort of like Fame. You get to choose an artistic or linguistic major starting from your freshman year and follow it through for the next four years.
Our alumni include theatre students, Matthew Gray Gubler, now of (500) Days of Summer, and, cooler, Rutina Wesley, aka my girl Tara on HBO’s True Blood. This school was a saving grace for many Lost Vegas teens.
With an open campus during lunch, we would walk across the street to our nicknamed “Crack Head Deli.” Deli? Not quite. It was actually a run-down motel filled with drug addicts and prostitution. It served its purpose for us because the lobby had a cigarette machine, MTV (Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxer” is on repeat in my memories of this place, and I’m eating a Snickers), and you could buy frozen french bread pizzas from the lady at the reception desk, and she would microwave them for you.
Red Rooster Antique Mall
(Recently renamed Charleston Antique Mall) 307 W Charleston Blvd
A wonderful place to find ashtrays and poker chips from bygone casinos and hotels, a ceramic butter dish shaped like a hotdog, or a hand-stitched leather pipe holder for your stoner roommate’s belt loop. Of course, the best part of this antique mall was always the fact that it shared a name with a notorious northern Nevada brothel, so every recount of a trip to the Red Rooster was met with a pause, a raised eyebrow, and an “Oh, really…?”
1501 W Sahara Ave
The Artisan is my personal version of the Bermuda Triangle. Though it is located right off the freeway, I always manage to get lost between the exit and the parking lot. I’ve often heard about their beautiful pool, but despite many attempts at wandering around what feels like the entire property, I have never been able to find it; the same goes for the wedding chapel and restaurant. The one place I always found with minimal navigational trouble was the bar–straight through the lobby (outfitted with five houses worth of the gaudiest furniture you’ve ever seen), past a giant gold fountain, and into a room covered top-to-bottom with paintings in gilded gold frames and black leather. If you make your way through a cellar-like tunnel to the secret outside patio, make sure you have all of your drinking companions with you, because there is no way they’ll ever find you.
Karaoke at Dino’s
1516 Las Vegas Blvd S
Danny T. has been the KJ at this Las Vegas Boulevard karaoke bar every single time I have ever visited, no matter the hour or the day. He accompanies every singer’s selection with a personal anecdote from his karaoke glory days. He also provides backing vocals. Or, if you’re like me, by the end of The Bee Gees’ Tragedy, you’ll be the one singing backup. The drinks are absurdly inexpensive, the seats are plentiful, and the song selection is infinite—even on the rare chance your favorite song isn’t listed, Danny T. will help you through an acapella version, as he once did with a particularly earnest Goo Goo Dolls fan. Also, it’s across the street from The Olympic Garden where, on the evening of my bachelorette party, all the male dancers had the night off.
1 Bonnie Springs Rd
My grandmother often took me to Bonnie Springs in my pre-teen years, during the insanely hot Las Vegas summers. There are a couple of things about it that I remember fondly, and with a tinge of fear.
Here are some particularly vivid memories:
1. Being chased around the petting zoo by a llama that I was trying to feed terrible little pellets that you get out of the candy machines for a quarter.
2. Staring directly into the huge, wise, old face of a buffalo with fly-covered eyes.
3. Badly wanting one of the guinea pigs that they always had for sale.
4. And finally, the “Old West” play, in which they made a spectacle out of the dentistry of the times. In this lovely reenactment there was a huge pair of pliers, lots of screaming, bottles of liquor (to numb the patient of course), and fake blood (which may be an embellishment on my part).
Overall it’s well worth it to visit Bonnie Springs, if only to get out of the place to have a lovely picnic in the beautiful Red Rock Canyon.
Spring Mountain Ranch
8000 Blue Diamond Rd
Aside from being a state park, SMR is home to a refreshingly modest outdoor theatre. The sprawling lawn welcomes your blankets, picnic items, alcoholic beverages, and tiny tots. Shows start at dusk, and while they may be known mostly for their Jazz Fest and one-off Oingo Boingo bookings, the theatre is also host to a summer program of family-friendly, community-driven musical theatre. I spent a few summers doing my chorus girl bit there, and it was the closest I got to an actual feeling of community in my hometown. A great excuse to drive out of the city and surround yourself with natural beauty and guilty pleasures.
1775 E Tropicana Ave
If you gravitate towards Sin City’s glitzier aesthetic, then look no further than the Liberace Museum, a flamboyant tribute to “Mr. Showmanship.” Located off the strip in an unassuming shopping center, the museum is home to Liberace’s Rolls Royce, collection of rhinestone-encrusted pianos, and a variety of outlandish stage costumes. Liberace loved to shop, and his collection was so expansive that this museum actually occupies two separate buildings within the strip mall.
3557 S Maryland Pkwy
Tucked away in a sea of strip malls along Maryland Parkway, the spinning lights surrounding Champagnes are the only clue of what lies within its modest exterior. I started visiting Champagnes long before my driver’s license said 21, ducking in the back door and blending in with the heavy haze of smoke, desperate video poker locals, and kids ten years older (and ten years cooler) than me. With dark red velvet-flecked wallpaper, dimly lit booths, and well drinks cheaper than most cups of coffee, a night at Champagnes is like dying and going to dive bar heaven. Bobby Shawn, the most handsome and delightful old man in gold chains you’ve ever seen, hosts a jaw-dropping karaoke set every Friday and Saturday night, giving preference to pretty girls and anyone who requests Sinatra. I had the pleasure of Mr. Shawn’s backup vocals at the start of many adrenaline-fueled evenings during my time in Las Vegas, a sweet and somewhat sad remnant of the “old Vegas” entertainer he’s rumored to have been in decades past.
Gandhi India’s Cuisine
4080 Paradise Rd # 9
The. Best. Indian. Food. I’ve. Ever. Had. While I’m not certain it’s actually the “best” by official Indian cuisine standards, Gandhi was my first Indian experience, so it has defined my idea of perfect food ever since. Nothing has ever measured up. With an endless lunch buffet and both á la carte and all-you-can-eat dinners, expect to leave in a saag paneer and navrattan korma coma for a cool $15. We’re talking unlimited garlic naan. It’s just heaven. While an Indian buffet might conjure up images of fluorescent lights and outdated heat lamps, Gandhi really classes it up with 30-foot ceilings and a gorgeous embroidered circus-tent tapestry, which I’m sure has more cultural significance than I’m giving it credit for.
Pinball Hall of Fame
3330 E Tropicana
The Pinball Hall of Fame is a dream place. The first question people usually ask when I take them there is “can you actually play the games?” The answer is “YES. Of course you can.” How terrible of a place would that be if you couldn’t play the games?
Nobody would want to go there.
But, in fact, anytime I go, there are plenty of people playing their hearts out, yet it’s never packed!
It’s great fun and you can get away with spending less than $10! They have a lot of super old pinball machines—I’m talking from the 1950s—that are fantastic to look at, although most of them are not that fun to play. Those ones cost only 25 cents, though, so you can’t complain. The newer ones that span up to the 1990s dominate the place and cost 50 cents.
There are many funny, ridiculous machines that are hard to believe anyone wanted to make: Rescue 911, Shaq Attack, Canada Dry, and Johnny Mnemonic, to name a few. But that’s just the beginning, they have all the classics and rarities that will make any pinball connoisseur drool.
If for some reason you want to take a break from pinball, there is a whole slew of old arcade games—all of them historical treasures such as Tron, Asteroids, and Paperboy. And let’s not forget AIR HOCKEY.
Luv-It Frozen Custard
505 E Oakey Blvd
Luv-It is a small place, run exclusively by one guy. There is no inside or place to sit so you have to either stand around, sit in your car or—my choice if it’s during the day—go for a walk around the neighborhood and look at some of the neat 1960s ranch houses in the surrounding neighborhood. It’s like a walking tour of Las Vegas architecture with frozen custard!
Vanilla and chocolate are available all the time with special flavors changing every day. You can check the website to see what the flavor schedule is for, like, two months into the future! You can really plan your life around it!
It is very close to the strip: just a 1/2 block east on Oakey.
1000 E Sahara Ave # 105
A lot of stuff goes on throughout the week at the Square Apple but I am specifically recommending Saturday nights. I have never been disappointed by the place. I went there one Thursday night on a whim and it was actually more crowded due to an open-mic audition. That night was amazing too. It’s definitely a place you just need to experience, but I will attempt to describe the magic of Square Apple.
First of all, you will want to dress up when you go. It’s not a very fancy joint but everyone else does, so it’s fun. The crowd is mainly older (40+), but they are very welcoming to everyone who walks in. The man you will probably meet first is quite a character, Frankie C. He’s a super Italian, Jersey-esque guy. He’s always looking quite spiffy in a suit of all blue. He wears shaded glasses and has hands full of sparkling rings. He is the maitre d’, comedian, and singer extraordinaire!
There is a rotating cast of musical acts for Saturdays; none of them have ever let me down. My favorite is Touch of Silk. They mainly do Motown covers and occasionally one of their own while dressed in matching outfits. Later in the night, Frankie C. will generally get up and do a couple numbers with the group, which is funny and charming.
If you get there around 10 you will have no trouble finding a table. The music goes until 1 A.M., but it’s open 24 hours a day. There is usually some dancing on their front-and-center dance floor. Even if you are a terrible dancer, your efforts will be appreciated here. You may get lucky and see some real cognoscente in attendance such as members of the Platters, the Coasters, the Marvelettes, and prizefighters. Yeah… they hang out there. And don’t be surprised if they are forced on stage to perform a song or two. Well… not the prizefighters.