Away from the bright lights of the Strip, Las Vegas' once seedy downtown is experiencing a rebirth — as Nicholas Jones discovers.

For decades, tourists wanting respite from the bubble of Las Vegas' main strip were warned off the crime-ridden, increasingly abandoned downtown blocks.

Yet here we are, propped up in a dingy bar on a freezing Monday night, lining up whiskey shots chased down with habanero pickle juice.

There's actually nothing intrepid about it — we're having drinks before joining a foodie tour of downtown's growing list of trendy restaurants (sample menu item: tempura crab leg).

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Downtown Las Vegas' rejuvenation/gentrification on steroids is thanks to the online purchase of shoes — in September 2013 the retailer Zappos moved its offices for 1600 employees into the old Las Vegas City Hall downtown.

The company's chief executive, Tony Hsieh, was cashed up after a sale to Amazon, and pledged a cool US$350 million to launch a downtown renovation project, including about $160m on providing interest-free loans to startup companies, restaurants and artists wanting to join in turning the area around.

The project hasn't been without challenges, but five years later the area is dotted with trendy bars, boutique shops and some of the best restaurants in the city.

It retains a big dash of grittiness and character — think Karangahape Rd, not Ponsonby.

After a 10-minute taxi ride from the Strip, we are dropped off at the Fremont Experience, a five-block pedestrian mall. From here it's a short walk down to the start of the Fremont East district (look on your left for the Heart Attack Grill, where diners eat in hospital gowns and if you weigh at least 158kg you eat for free).

The vintage neon street signs — a cowboy, a glittering, rotating high heeled shoe, a giant martini glass — pop out as the winter sun goes down.

"Better days are coming. They are called Saturday and Sunday," a casino sign promises. Another advertising the A Motel promises free lodging for Llamas, and proffers: "There is no way everyone was kung-fu fighting. No way!"

We duck into Corduroy and take a seat at a 20m long bar, backed by whiskey and tequila bottles illuminated by a tank where hundreds of water bubbles rise, lit purple and blue (a hypnotic effect directly proportional to the amount of booze consumed). After a round of Moscow mules we try the house special — a shot of Jameson, followed by one of the habanero pickle juice, which is made onsite and is a dangerously good chaser.

The bar is a newcomer — open 100 days and replacing an old clothes store. The manager is originally from Philadelphia, and has been here five years, attracted by the low cost of living.

His girlfriend works in the casino business, and he offers a stream of anecdotes that put my $20 splurge of the roulette wheel in context: the "whales" that Sin City runs off apparently put down at least US$2m a visit. One character likes to play craps alone, at US$1m a throw.

Bar recommendations aren't hard to come by, but a good option to experience the area — particularly for those on limited time — is to sign on to a foodie tour.

Run by Donald Contursi, Lip Smacking Foodie Tours runs tours of the strip and downtown. The concept is simple — US$135 (NZ$186) gets you three to four signature dishes at four different restaurants. That equals a lot of food. By tour's end our group of about 10 were so full that plates were being taken away.

Dietary requirements are accounted for, but the menu itself isn't disclosed before the tour — a deliberate step that means diners experience dishes they wouldn't normally opt for.

We start at Therapy, with chicken meatballs with jalapeno cilantro pesto, baked ricotta with truffled fig jam, soft truffled goat cheese and almond stuffed dates put down on the table minutes after we arrive.

The clear favourite is a waffle slider, featuring buttermilk battered fried chicken, red pepper slaw and vanilla maple syrup.

The tour group, strangers just minutes ago, are soon chatting happily, sharing backgrounds and travel stories and tips. That process is helped by the fact most of today's tour are fellow Kiwis, travel agents in the States for work.

At 7th & Carson, the owner comes out to talk over a menu that includes tempura crab leg and caviar, grilled pear and an upmarket BLT with dried parma ham.

Between restaurants Donald points out landmarks, gives the history of Hsieh's project and leads us past street art and through back gardens and alleys.

That path winds through the Container Park, a collection of boutique shops, cafes and bars housed in repurposed shipping containers.

Directions to the development include, "if you go past the giant fire-breathing praying mantis you've gone too far": the artwork originally appeared at the Burning Man festival and was bought by Hsieh.

Many of the food tour participants kick on afterwards at one of downtown's many watering holes, and one of the best is the Atomic Bar. A message by its door advises, "After dark ring bell wait for buzzer open door," and adds, "Bikers, no colours allowed".

Inside it's dark and low-roofed, except for a neon light above the bar, where a bartender with 60s pin-up style bleached hair shakes cocktails.

A panel outlines the bar's special history: opened in 1952, a year after the government started nuclear testing in the Nevada desert. The owners and their friends would watch the blasts from the roof — there were 119 between 1951 and 1958. The Atomic was later frequented by the Rat Pack, and more recent celebrity fans include Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci while filming Casino, and the crew from The Hangover.

Part of Hsieh's inspiration for spearheading the rejuvenation of downtown Vegas was reportedly the Sim City-style computer game, Second Life. That god-like ambition has mixed with the history of the Atomic and other landmarks, and now other businesses like Corduroy are adding their own pickled flavour to the rebirth.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

helloworld

has return flights to Los Angeles on sale from $999, and connections available to Las Vegas.

PLAYING THERE
For information on lip-smacking foodie tours, go to vegasfoodietour.rezdy.com
ONLINE
travelnevada.com
visittheusa.com
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