Bar/fly: Finding the fun in Las Vegas

By Jo Bates

Jo Bates makes her way around Las Vegas on the hunt for fun and cocktails.

Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson

You can't go without a drink in the desert and ever since Las Vegas rose from the Nevada sand, the city has been cultivating the art of imbibing.

It gets hot here - three-digit-Fahrenheit hot in summer - and as drinking is known to flush the cash from your pocket into the slot machines, the former is made easy.

Drinking (and smoking) is permissible pretty much anywhere - you can join the hordes of flip-flop flapping tourists on the street as they slurp tuba-size cocktail slushies and beers. Or you can sip in considered style - which has long been considered the sign of a classy cocktail.

For the full flavour of Vegas, take in the hyper-neon glitz of the famous resort Strip (Las Vegas Boulevard South), then temper it with a trip Downtown where Vegas originated. Downtown is a tame beast now compared to the intensity of the newer Strip and it has been reclaimed by the locals, who are stamping it with their own artistic quirks.

The Strip
As Las Vegas has grown in all its audacious, gaudy glory, the bar for cocktail creativity has also been raised.

These days you can take your cocktail any which way you like it - barrel-aged, pre-prohibition-style, infused with herbs, or garnished with a garden of edible flowers. Blessedly, though the swizzle stakes may be high, competition moderates the prices.

You can get a well-crafted cocktail for about NZ$12 (they start from US$8); cheaper than the ubiquitous New Zealand sauvignon blanc you'll find on most Vegas wine lists.

Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Why get a glass of $27 New Zealand sav (albeit premium) at Bellagio's Hyde bar when you can have a $20 Love Unit, which unites perfumed vodkas with Thai basil and "house-pressed" lime and grapefruit juice with a hint of red pepper - plus a prime view of the Bellagio's famous, fabulous and free fountain show?

RM Seafood, 3920 Las Vegas Boulevard South

It's a good idea to prime yourself for the heady world of Vegas mixology and terminology by watching the highly entertaining, micky-taking YouTube hit "Mixologist" by Fog and Smog Films. R Starkus, RM's award-winning head barman, recently unveiled a barrel-aged cocktails cheekily named Chewbacca's Jacuzzi for a mention in the clip. Starkus' cocktail line-up is an excellent example of how seriously beverages are taken in this city, but not so much as to be mirthless.

Cosmopolitan, 3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Cosmopolitan is the newest and hottest resort on the strip and at Comme Ca, one of its many hip bars, you can take your taste buds on a trip down memory lane with pre-prohibition-style cocktails.

Or, if you would prefer to sup inside a giant chandelier, you can do so at the aptly named bar.

Wynn, 3131 Las Vegas Boulevard South

At Wynn, another mega (but stylish) resort, chief mixologist Patricia Richards has posted her celebrated style on YouTube where you see her make a Heritage Sour and a classic Negroni. Wine lovers are taken seriously at La Cave at Wynn where you can choose from 250 boutique wines by the bottle and 30 by the glass.

Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Boulevard South

The cocktail may reign supreme, but it wouldn't be Vegas if you couldn't sate whatever thirst you demanded. Delmonico's at the Venetian stocks the city's finest whisky collection - around 260 - but does it without the snob factor. You can get a rye from Utah for $18 or a dram of 30-year old Macallan for $175.

Caesar's Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Boulevard South

If you are in the grip of indecision and can't choose between cocktails and wine, combine the two at Caesar's Palace's Payard Bistro, where tea, fresh fruit, herbs and edible flowers combine in a wine-based cocktail. Or, if it's Italian craft beer you crave, you'll find it at Fiamma at the MGM Grand (3799 Las Vegas Boulevard South)

Downtown
To escape the casino carnage of The Strip and hang out where the locals do, take the advice of Xania Woodman, Expedia's resident expert, and head Downtown. A $30 cab ride is a world away - Downtown nightlife means no queues or cover charges and the kind of trademark hip tattoos that won't see the light of day on the Strip.

Enter the Downtown Cocktail Room (111 Las Vegas Boulevard South) or Vanguard (512 Fremont St) and you slip into an unpretentious, laidback local vibe.

For an "only in Vegas" moment, go to Insert Coin(s), a barcade where you can indulge in your favourite old-time games - anyone for Donkey Kong (circa 1981)? - or the latest PS3 game and have a cocktail as well as listen to guest DJs (512 Fremont St). Across the street, Beauty Bar (517 Fremont St) gives you a loud, young dance experience with a punk twist. If you feel like the thrill of finding a speakeasy, track down the lovely Lady Sylvia in the nearby Arts District. Her interiors are inspired by the Prague Strahov Monastery library (naturally), albeit with graffiti on the ceiling rather than frescoes. The Lady Sylvia resides at Soho Lofts (900 Las Vegas Boulevard) but access is on 140 Hoover Ave, between Las Vegas and 4th.

Artifice, a few blocks away, is an "urban-lounge"-cum-art-space that embodies the Downtown revival. Art, whimsy and creative spirit have brought an unassuming, squat, '50s brick building to life. There's even art in the dunnies. (Artifice, 1025 First St, #A)

All prices in New Zealand dollars.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Los Angeles or San Francisco.

- NZ Herald

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