DESERT HEAT
THE NYLON GIRL’S GUIDE TO LAS VEGAS. BY LISA MISCHIANTI. PHOTOGRAPHED BY SCOTT LEÓN

For those of us allergic to the idea of Times Square on steroids (and perhaps more literally, the ever-present odor of cigarettes, strong perfume, and dubious buffet fare), Las Vegas might seem an unsuitable destination. But the same anything-goes ethos responsible for the Strip’s over-the-top glitz has also bred a special brand of raw, quirky energy that permeates the city as a whole. Navigate away from the chain restaurants and mega-hotels on the main drag and you’ll find a jackpot of unusual and decidedly cool spots (with nary a sequined body-con clubbing dress in sight). Some of these places tap into vintage Las Vegas, with its rich and titillating history. Others are modern alternative classics: independent businesses that have been doing their own thing amidst the surrounding casino culture. Still others are brand-new by-products of a growing effort to make downtown Las Vegas—once a dusty desert setting full of empty lots and abandoned motel fronts—a creative and entrepreneurial mecca, an endeavor that’s being spearheaded by local residents and backed by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s revitalization venture dubbed the Downtown Project.(Zappos itself has set up headquarters in the heart of DTLV.) So take a gamble—Sin City is for you, after all.

STAY
Oasis at Gold Spike, 217 N. Las Vegas Blvd.: In 2013, the Downtown Project purchased the old-school Gold Spike hotel-casino and its adjacent property (formerly a ’60s-era Travel Inn Motel). After renovations, the Gold Spike was relaunched as a co- working space/restaurant/ bar with an attached Art Deco-style boutique lodging called the Oasis at Gold Spike. This spot notably forgoes a casino, making it one of the very few non-gaming hotels in the area. Even so, it’s still got game: Guests can hit the Backyard at the Gold Spike for a round of anything from Jenga to jumbo chess.

El Cortez Hotel & Casino, 600 E. Fremont St.: El Cortez, the epitome of old Las Vegas, is the longest continuously operating hotel-casino in the city, this year celebrating its 74th anniversary. The exterior’s quasi-Southwestern vibe and classic signage (complete with a prominent plug for a $10.95 prime rib dinner) give way to a lobby fit for the Rat Pack (swanky red-carpeted staircase included). If you so choose, you can stay in one of the original rooms from the 1940s, when Bugsy Siegel owned the place. But really, you can’t go wrong with a designer suite, all 10 of which are uniquely themed and range from “clean contemporary” to “mobster chic.”

SHOP
Fruition, 4139 S. Maryland Pkwy.: Situated in an unlikely strip mall, this streetwear outpost has been around for a full decade (and has been so successful that it’s launched a newer Los Angeles shop). Founders SamanthaJo Alonso and Chris Julian are two Las Vegas natives who wanted to bring a taste of their aesthetic to their hometown. The store carries an expert mix of vintage and new pieces, including brands ranging from A.P.C. and Phillip Lim to Stüssy and VFILES. It also features its own eponymous line (which touts collaborations with the likes of Jeremy Scott and American Apparel).

Glam Factory Vintage, 211 E. Colorado Ave.: Built from two repurposed 1920s flop houses painted bright, sunny hues of orange and yellow, it’s almost impossible to miss this shop—and thankfully so. Owned and operated by Stephanie Geniza and her pug Mr. Beans, Glam Factory’s stock of vintage clothing, accessories, and collectibles is lovingly curated, locally sourced,and filled with backstories. (Take, for instance, the store’s two matching showgirl headpieces from a ’60s Caesars Palace performance that Geniza has christened “Thelma and Louise,” or a stash of velvet-collared blue tuxedo jackets that were ultimately sold to members of the legendary R&B/doo-wop girl group The Shirelles.)

Coterie, 515 Fremont St.: Enter under an unassuming awning labeled “checks cashed” in upside-down red block letters and you’ll find yourself amidst buttons that say stuff like “cut the shit,” mixed-media monster T-shirts sourced from Amsterdam, and other such awesomeness. Beloved brands like Unif and Scotch & Soda also stock this Downtown Project-partnered store, and on the day we visit it’s hosting a pop-up shop of the anime-esque line So So Happy. Coterie encourages people to hang out, so it offers free Wi-Fi, workspaces, games, and a newsstand full of international magazines and rare books (not to mention its chalkboard ceiling and whiteboard walls).

Retro Vegas, 1131 S. Main St.: This seven-year-old antique and home decor shop has bubble-gum-hued siding, a matching flamingo sign, and an ample supply of Elvis and Liberace memorabilia. One of the most beloved stores of its kind in the area, its focus is mainly on mid-century modern furniture, art, and accessories, most of which are sourced from local estate sales (e.g., a complete 1950s powder-pink kitchen setup so kitschy they rent it out for photo shoots).

Lost Vegas Antiques, 625 S. Las Vegas Blvd.: Right down the street from the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop of reality TV fame, you’ll find this wonderfully weird store. Run by the seasoned former owners of two gambling-history museums, the shop is a total sensory overload in the best of ways. On the outside, it’s a heavily embellished blue-and-yellow building with a life-size pirate and London phone booth at the entrance (or other such oddities, depending on the day). Inside, the place is packed to the gills with a startling collection of randomness, loosely organized by type (including a particularly impressive stash of pinup magazines and Nevada brothel memorabilia).

The Writer’s Block, 1020 Fremont St. #100: Housed in a former boxing gym, The Writer’s Block is Las Vegas’ only independent, general-interest bookstore—and one of two in the entire state of Nevada. The shop also sells curiosities like puppets from the Czech Republic, Venus flytraps, Mexican folk masks, and artificial birds (which, by the way, are all given individual names and backstories, and are available for “adoption”). The front of the store is home to a 19th-century letterpress and an assortment of other bookmaking tools used for classes. At the rear of the shop is an education lab where free creative writing courses are held for students, as well as a range of reading series, book signings, and book clubs.

Zombie Apocalypse Store, 3420 Spring Mountain Rd.: One part surplus store, one part novelty shop, this is the spot if Daryl Dixon is your dream man/role model. It carries survival supplies such as emergency rations (i.e., freeze-dried meat and five- year-shelf-life water pouches); utilitarian gear like camping tents, throwing stars, and camo garb; and zombie makeup and costumes for the would-be undead. The store also features a zombie target-shooting setup, but the main attraction is the Shoot Real Zombies experience, in which you are shuttled to a “zombie-infested area” on the outskirts of Las Vegas at night and armed with a paintball gun to annihilate “living” zombies attempting to eat your brains.

Gamblers General Store, 800 S. Main St.: Established in 1984, this shop bills itself as the world’s largest gambling supply superstore, carrying over 15,000 products, including cards, dice, gaming and poker tables, chip sets, casino memorabilia, and accessories. (The shop is also the biggest poker chip manufacturer in the state of Nevada and will custom-produce chips with a picture, logo, name, or really anything on them.) If it’s know-how you seek, the store is additionally home to the Gamblers Book Club, the world’s largest gambling bookstore, complete with over 3,000 titles such as The Math of Hold’em, How to Hit Big Trifectas at the Dog Tracks, and Collecting Casino Dice. It may just be the most Vegas-y store in Vegas.

SEE
The Neon Museum, 770 N. Las Vegas Blvd.: This nonprofit organization is dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying, and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs, an art form that’s become synonymous with the city. The site’s outdoor “Boneyard” displays more than 150 pieces, each of which has a unique creation story and role in Las Vegas history (take, for instance, the sign from the Moulin Rouge, the first desegregated hotel-casino that opened in 1955). The collection also showcases the evolution of trends in sign technology and design from the 1930s to today. (Fun fact: Signs made with plastic are post-1950.) One-hour photo tours are available during the day and at night when the signs are lit up. They’re an Instagrammer’s dream. 

Pinball Hall of Fame, 1610 E. Tropicana Ave: This awesome arcade-museum hybrid is packed with some 250 vintage pinball machines, the oldest of which is Jigsaw, from the 1933 World's Fair, plus about 50 classic video games. Every machine on the floor is playable, although the organization does own a few games among its approximately 800 remaining in storage that date back to the late 1800s/early 1900s and are simply too fragile to put out. Admirably, the operation is nonprofit and the proceeds go to charities like the Salvation Army. Get your dose of history by reading the endearingly lo-fi handwritten note cards taped to each machine, detailing its backstory.

Downtown Container Park, 707 Fremont St.: Created in collaboration with the Downtown Project, Container Park is an open-air venue, constructed largely from stacked shipping containers, that features cool boutiques, eateries, and entertainment (plus an enormous tree house that’s technically for kids, but...). Oh yeah, and out front is a giant metal praying mantis statue once used at Burning Man that shoots fire from its antennae.

The Mob Museum, 300 Stewart Ave.: Fittingly, this building is the former federal courthouse, which contains the courtroom where in 1950 the seventh in a series of 27 national Kefauver hearings was held to expose organized crime in America. Today, as The Mob Museum, it boasts interactive exhibits and over 880 artifacts—the largest collection of Mob and law enforcement memorabilia under one roof—including iconic items like the barber’s chair Albert Anastasia was sitting in when he was murdered in New York City in 1957, and the brick wall from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929.

EAT + DRINK
Bunkhouse Saloon, 124 S. 11th St.: A Western-themed bar/restaurant and music venue backed by the Downtown Project, the Bunkhouse Saloon features a big outdoor seating area (complete with a pickup truck table). From its backyard “listening tree” dangles a dozen headphones, each playing a different genre of music, ranging from hip-hop to country to rock to Broadway show tunes. The month we visit, the live performance lineup is awesome, including acts like Surfer Blood and Zola Jesus.

Atomic Liquors, 917 Fremont St.: Atomic is the oldest free-standing bar in Las Vegas, debuting as a café in 1945 and transitioning to a drink spot by the early 1950s, when the government started nuclear testing in the Nevada desert. The owners watched the first blast from the roof, and thus Atomic Liquors was born, a place where customers would come to drink and see the booms. Today, the bar serves up cocktails like the Hunter S.Mash starring Old Crow Bourbon (of which Atomic has a few prized bottles from the ’70s).

Eat., 707 Carson St.: Open only for breakfast and lunch, try this spot’s Huevos Motulenos—two eggs over-easy served with New Mexico chile sauce, black beans, peas, feta, and sauteed bananas atop corn tortillas (sounds bizarre, tastes awesome)—and its heavenly cinnamon biscuits with strawberry compote. The bright atmosphere and stylish young staff (all black denim and Doc Martens) only confirm that you’re in the right place.

Park on Fremont, 506 Fremont St.: This restaurant/bar has a cool rustic-eclectic energy (mounted deer heads on the wall, taxidermy fowl behind the bar, and an eroding Cinderella carriage in the garden patio). The kitchen serves up tasty, innovative bar-style food like Garbage Fries, a Philly Mac and Cheese Steak, and a fried-chicken-and-waffle sandwich (which comes with sweet potato tots). The cocktails are equally pleasing, particularly the Pillow Talk, a refreshingly fruity, cucumbery dram.

Carson Kitchen, 124 S. 6th St.: This Downtown Project-affiliated restaurant occupies the former John E. Carson extended-stay men’s hotel. It’s helmed by Kerry Simon, who is considered one of Vegas’ own celebrity chefs. To start, try the crispy chicken skins dipped in smoked honey and the gyro tacos, with a cucumber soda to wash it down. The turkey burger with mango chutney slaw and a side of rainbow cauliflower is the way to go for dinner.

Le Thai, 523 Fremont St.: Nevada may not necessarily be known for its Southeast Asian cuisine, but Le Thai is undeniable. The restaurant’s trademark eats include chef Dan Coughlin’s famous three-color curry (a blend of red, yellow, and green curries) and its signature waterfall sauce served with beef or Thai pork jerky. Diners customize the spice level of their dishes, ranging from zero (no spice) to five (“Thai spicy,” which is allegedly one notch above “fire”).

Luv-It Frozen Custard, 505 E. Oakey Blvd.: A local favorite since 1973, this family business serves up its mind-blowingly better-than-ice-cream product from a tiny blue-and-white walk-up window. The signature Western sundae is a retro classic: vanilla custard, pecans, hot fudge, and caramel, with maraschino cherries on top. The shop also has a list of unique flavors, two of which are made fresh daily on a rotating basis, alongside vanilla and chocolate. The owner, Sharon Tiedemann, claims Luv-It devotees include Craig Ferguson and Holly Madison (yes, the former Playmate).