My cabbie had warned me that First Friday on West Fremont Street would be a complete zoo, with wall-to-wall people crowding the bars and enjoying live music on the streets.
“It’s a madhouse,” he said.
So, I went. Nah, not a madhouse. But the streets were, indeed, filled with happy people.
What I liked about this collection of humanity was that it was largely local. Oh, sure, a few of us tourists infiltrated, but I didn’t see one Las Vegas T-shirt. A lot of these people work on the Strip in the daytime, and at night they want to be far, far away.
Locals tend not to gamble, go to clubs and shows on the Strip and eat at celebrity-chef restaurants (in part because they can’t afford to). You, however, are likely to want to do some of those things. It’s Vegas.
But when you can tear yourself away, it’s fun to spend some time following in the footsteps of the folks who deal your cards, make your meals and dance around on that stage. Here’s the plan:
1. Plant yourself downtown. Well, it’s either that or the suburbs. Most locals live in suburban-type neighborhoods such as Summerlin and Henderson. But Vegas’ downtown — like virtually everybody else’s — is becoming a place to live.
The downtown restaurant and bar scene is super-hot right now, spurred primarily by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (“Shay” if you run into him), who has invested his cash in the downtown scene, especially West Fremont Street, which is poised for a major reinvigoration.
You probably won’t be buying a condo, so choose a downtown hotel for this foray. If you’re really edgy, you could do El Cortez (600 Fremont St., elcortezhotelcasino.com), where rooms go for as little as $21. The place was built in 1941 and still carries a ’40s vibe, but the rooms have recently been renovated. It’s the longest continually operating hotel-casino in Las Vegas.
I, however, kicked it up a notch and spent $79 for a weeknight and $129 for a Friday at the Golden Nugget’s upscale Rush Tower (129 Fremont St.; goldennugget.com). Rooms downtown typically cost less than those on the Strip, and at the Nugget’s Chart House happy hour you can get a good glass of wine for $5 (impossible on the Strip) and delicious munchies for less than $10.
The Nugget sits right next to the noisy, touristy Fremont Experience, with its on-the-hour rock light show. It was easy to walk to the locals’ part of Fremont, which starts about three blocks west of the Experience.
2. Eat like a local at downtown spots such as Le Thai (523 Fremont St.: unfancy, unpricey Thai food), Park on Fremont (506 E. Fremont St., sandwiches and mac ‘n’ cheese) and a tiny eatery called Eat (707 Carson Av., a block off Fremont), which serves up chicken potpies and monstrous grilled cheese sandwiches to a mix of hipsters and lunch-breaking business folks.
3. Drink like a local at bars and restaurants downtown. In the Arts District (around S. Main Street and Casino Center Boulevard) Velveteen Rabbit, 1218 S. Main St., is a good divey sort of place. West Fremont has a bunch of good bars — Commonwealth, Insert Coins, Beauty Bar, the Griffin (a bit gothy) and Don’t Tell Mama (piano bar) — on Fremont between 5th and 6th streets.
If you’re there on a First Friday (www.firstfridaylasvegas.com), by all means dive right in. Walk back behind Beauty Bar and the Griffin and you’ll sometimes find a live band.
4. Go to shows like a local. My daughter and I went to the Smith Center to hear Clint Holmes. The what? To see who?
Smith Center (361 Symphony Park Av.) was built a couple of years ago specifically as an entertainment venue to attract locals. Holmes has been singing in Vegas since the ’70s and is a favorite cabaret act with the locals. He does a lot of Sinatra and American songbook. Each show is different.
Holmes and others like Billy Stritch sing in Smith Center’s 250-seat cabaret venue, while acts such as Willie Nelson (Aug. 13), Chris Isaak (Aug. 14) and Lyle Lovett (Aug. 16) fill the main hall. See the complete lineup at the www.thesmith center.com.
5. Hike like a local when it’s cool enough to hike. And that would not be now. Many locals like to hike Red Rock Canyon (redrockcanyonlv.org), about 5 miles west of the city, when the weather’s cooler. Do keep in mind that Red Rock offers a 13-mile drive through its gorgeous redness, and you can do that in air-conditioned comfort.
6. Do what locals do when it’s hot, like it is now: Jump in a pool.
“When it gets hot like this, we find a friend with a pool and hang out and barbecue,” says Amy Chasey, who handles marketing for the Golden Nugget and lives in Summerlin. You’ll have to skip the barbecue, but your Vegas hotel probably has a pool. The Nugget has one with a fish tank you can zip through in a tube as well as an adult pool.
Enjoy your foray into the Vegas locals’ world, but know that even locals do occasionally venture into the bright lights of tourist territory. John Unwin, CEO of the Cosmopolitan Hotel on the Strip, tells me he spotted a familiar face recently at his hotel’s Chandelier Bar.
“It was Tony Hsieh,” said Unwin, who stopped to ask the downtown entrepreneur what he was doing in enemy territory.
Hsieh’s reply: “I come here all the time.”