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Away from the Strip, far from the tourists, our search for the heart of the new-old Las Vegas takes us to where the food is good, the drink even better and the fun continues way into the night. In recent times, the bet with the highest stake was not made in some casino along the Strip but in a run-down area of old Downtown Las Vegas.
In the last century, at Downtown the first hotel and the first casino were opened, the first traffic lights lit up and the city’s first phone started to ring. Today this area is involved in one of the United State’s vastest urban redevelopment projects: a pedestrian walkway of five blocks surmounted by a roof that comes to life in the evening with lighting and sound effects. When you get to Freemont Street you have to turn East: the place to be in town is here.
The Downtown Project
It was here in 2013, that entrepreneur Tony Hsieh headquartered Zappos, the online footwear and accessories store acquired by Amazon, and one year later launched the Downtown Project, a redevelopment investment worth 350 million dollars. 200 million went on building acquisitions, 50 to support small firms, 50 spent on education and 50 million dollars on start-up technologies, as well as the opening of community spaces, the creation of a festival and a relentless makeover of the entire district involving a copious use of spray paint and street art.
As a result, this district has become the liveliest part of town in terms of restaurants, venues and events: 6 blocks covering the area between Las Vegas Boulevard, Carson, Stewart and Maryland Parkway. In the daytime, under the glaring sun of Nevada, DTLV still retains some of the desolation typical of city outskirts, but it all changes when the lights go on at dusk.
The vintage signage of the motels, now perfectly renovated, no longer advertises an offering of cheap rooms but celebrates this "Mecca of amusement", while tongues of fire are projected into the sky: this is not the kitsch volcano of the Mirage, it is a 55 foot-high metal sheet mantis brought straight from the legendary Burning Man desert Festival to welcome visitors to the Container Park.
Around the Container Park
The Container Park is the symbolic address of the revamped Fremont East area, one of the fruits of the Downtown Project investment: recycled materials have transformed an abandoned area into a site offering amusements and music to young people and families.
On the new premises, there are cafés, boutiques, a tattoo store housed in a former steam engine and places such as The Perch, a restaurant serving casual cuisine, Oak & Ivy, an American bar specialized in whiskey and cocktails, and the wine bar Bin 702, with the city’s vastest selection of (draught) wines.
Part of the same project, there are more venues and establishments located just a few steps away and directly managed by the Downtown Project. Some of these have become extremely popular and are well worth a visit, such as Itsy Bitsy, which pairs ramen with whisky, the Oddfellows, a bar with a secret room, but above all an historical hotel which has been given a new lease of life: the Gold Spike. An hotel of old Vegas, which had gone bankrupt, and is now a co-working office space by day and a dance hall when the sun goes down. Its courtyard hosts an adult’s playground, a bar, live music performances and a hotel called the Oasis at Gold Spike – in whose bookable suite they have filmed a season of the MTV show, The Real World.
Eating and drinking at Fremont East
Along Fremont, not far from the crowds in search of a drink and the right souvenir on the other side of Las Vegas Boulevard, interesting venues are thick on the ground: the secret garden of the Park on Fremont; Beauty Bar, a beauty salon with a stage for concerts at the back; Le Thai, for excellent Thai cuisine; the Backstage Bar&Billiards for enthusiasts of billiards and live music.
In the district, some names are making the history of Vegas cuisine, among other things, such as the Donut Bar, which tops the charts in the States according to numerous publications, Vegenation, for vegan street food, The Carson Kitchen,or the restaurants run by young chef Natalie Young like Eat and the recently opened Chow which mixes the fried specialities of Southern cuisine with the Chinese tradition. The last outpost of entertainment is at the end of the street – at least for now - the Atomic Bar with its new annexed restaurant.
The best cocktail bars in town
If you are keen on cocktails, here are two addresses of an International standing. The Velveteen Rabbit, in the Arts District just a stone’s throw from here, and the multi-awarded Herbs&Rye (a 10$ taxi ride away): the best drinks in town, venues rated to be among the 100 best bars in the world, extremely crowded and in the middle of nowhere. This is the real Las Vegas.
The local youngsters are well aware which events are worth going to. The First Friday Festival attracts 20,000 locals to the streets of Downtown at every edition. It is held on the first Friday of each month and fills the streets with its stalls and artists displaying their works.
Once a year, for two days towards the end of September more than 130,000 visitors flock to the area for the Life is Beautiful Festival to attend concerts starring top notch groups, to watch art performances and eat street food as they wander around the stalls.