Tuesday, March 19, 2013 | 11:43 p.m.
Slowly but surely, the revitalization of one-time dreary Downtown Las Vegas is under way and transforming itself into a vibrant, around-the-clock destination. Tourists and Las Vegas Valley-wide residents have begun to discover it and add to its newfound vibrancy.
Think of Greenwich Village and SoHo in New York before they became famous. Think of Austin before its music bars became known nationwide. Downtown Las Vegas is alive with Fremont East abuzz at the start of a similar transformation.
Think past yesteryear’s scrawny streets, faded and empty storefronts, grimy pawnshops and tacky tourist spots, and you’ll find hot new restaurants, chic boutiques and cool cocktail lounges as Dynamic Downtown springs to life.
There’s no doubt that the majestic The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and Symphony Park, which overlooks the area, is its Art Deco heart and reigning proudly over the rebirth. Its success in 12 months speaks for itself to rival other key U.S. cities; Smith Center recently announced Season 2 of its Broadway series.
Within easy walking distance is the stunning Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health masterpiece by Frank Gehry. A few footsteps more are two hot, hip restaurants -- Mondo in the World Design Center and Bar+ Bistro with Latin Caribbean treats.
There’s no doubt that Internet wizard Tony Hsieh of Zappos.com is the brain to spearhead many of the developments with his commitment to spend $350 million bankrolling much of the transformation. “You don’t even feel like you’re in Las Vegas,” he told The New York Times.
Now other business VIPs are following in his shoes. The two newest are restaurateurs Michael Morton and wife Jenna (N9NE Group, La Cave at Wynn and a new, unnamed project at MGM Grand). In three weeks, they will open their first venture off the Strip with the family-styled, 3,300-square-feet Mexican bistro La Comida. It sits on the site of the former El Cortez laundry and will feature an open kitchen and 25-foot-long cocktail bar.
“We’re mixing Mexican food with American rock,” said Michael before he gave me a walking tour of his new neighborhood. “We wanted a fiesta for our friends. We take familiar family favorites and twist them into the unexpected and irreverent. It’s for the simple taco lover or the mole connoisseur, but always with the warmth of tequila at the back of your throat.
“This is more about camaraderie than family style-eating. Comida is the meal shared by restaurant industry staff before they start their service. This was a dump that nobody thought could be changed. I saw it had the best ceiling heights and an alley and knew we could transform it into a 95-seat restaurant with 30 on the patio. Each new project that opens down here raises the bar for the next one.
Jenna added: “It’s so exciting to be working down here. Downtown is starting to change, and we’re watching it come alive. What was empty and abandoned five years ago is now fully leased. I don’t know if there’s one space now available. I’m certain La Comida won’t be the first and only project we do down here. Many other business friends of ours now have Downtown in their sights and want to create other opportunities here.
“We are on the front end of a revolution that’s in its infancy, yet growing bigger and faster every day. A school is being planned, a dog park, a children’s play area and even a theater for TED speakers.” (Go to Ted.com to understand those riveting talks by remarkable people all over the world.)
It seems as if new hangouts and hideaways are opening at the rate of once a week -- 30 at last count. Michael and Jenna took me to Le Thai. We walked into the former Checks Cashed that’s now the clothing boutique Coterie. Pass through the old-time, double-safety door chamber, and you enter a computer room of young entrepreneurs dreaming up new ideas for Downtown.
Follow our embedded downtown colleague Joe Schoenmann, who lives and works there to report for Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly. His Feb. 27 Las Vegas Weekly article listed 36 downtown developments and 20 Vegas TechFund investments by Zappos CEO Tony. Coming up, everything from the Inspire Theater, The Container Park and a fashion incubator, The Stitch Factory.
Radio City Pizza has just opened, Beauty Bar is booming, and Louie Prima Jr.’s big-band opening at Fremont Country Club in recent weeks dazzled me. Actor Verne J. Troyer was among the celebrity crowd for Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s ribbon cutting. The live-music venue can hold 1,000 fans.
It will present everything from standup comedy to runway fashion shows and avant-garde theater with an opportunity to hang with the performers afterward at the adjoining Backstage Bar & Billiards -- both created by Hollywood and Chicago nightlife royalty duo “Big Daddy” Carlos and Ava Adley.
“We’ll not only rival the Strip, but we’ll beat it by bringing back the intimacy that’s been forgotten in the mega-resorts. We’re bringing Vegas back to Vegas,” said Big Daddy. Longtime hospitality entrepreneurs Michael and Jennifer Cornthwaite have Downtown Cocktail Room, Emergency Arts and Beat Coffeehouse. Check out all the happenings at DTLV.com.
Jenna pointed out the giant, well-lit street illuminations and said: “The streets are jam-packed on weekends here. People have discovered so many new places to eat, drink and shop, and it grows every week with new things to see and do.”
First Friday, Vegas StrEATS and the weekly Downtown 3rd Farmers Market are helping bring about the tourist boom. This fall, a “Life Is Beautiful” festival debuts, and Season 4 of Project Dinner Table kicks off with MGM Grand chefs at The Neon Museum (ProjectDinnerTable.com).
For a true feel of Old Vegas, check out Oscar’s Steakhouse at The Plaza facing Fremont Street where former Mayor Oscar Goodman presides. The D Hotel has just opened Joe Vicari’s 20-year-old favorite Andiamo Italian Steakhouse from Detroit. Andiamo, with nine outlets in Michigan’s Motor City, is the largest independently owned and operated restaurant group there.
I checked it out for dinner and understood instantly why it’s hailed there as “Best Italian.” The chef has his fresh seafood flown in daily from across the globe and has partnered with the nation’s top butchers for meats and chicken. This isn’t just a sampling of signature Midwest traditions; it’s a true taste of Tuscany.
Strip producers Angela and Matt Stabile have opened up in Downtown. The producers of the sexy show “X Burlesque” at Flamingo have created topless revue “Raack ’n’ Roll” at The D with the hottest and sexiest striptease dancers yet seen Downtown. It’s hot and torrid with the topless routines set to today’s fiercest rock music, plus, a Robert De Niro look-alike impressionist who handles the comedic elements.
Check out our story today about The Scintas opening at The D early next month. It all proves that Downtown is the new hot and happening area of Las Vegas, and if you haven’t explored it recently, now’s the time.
Michael summed up: “This is definitely the new Las Vegas. They always talk up on the Strip how it reinvents itself every decade, but here Downtown, it’s reinventing itself every week with something new.”
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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