Las Vegas: Leave the Strip to find where hip trumps hot

Road Journals Blog—The Las Vegas Strip may be hot—but hip? Not really. There’s too much sameness. The oversized fabulosity of everything. The amateur-porn-star dress code. And that ubiquitous thumping electronic music? Do they really have just the one record?

But head a mile north to downtown Las Vegas and the scene is entirely different. A three-block stretch known as the Fremont East District offers an enclave of bars, coffeehouses, and art galleries that cater to a crowd more interested in the ironic than the iconic.

The entrance to Fremont East | Las Vegas News Bureau

These hangouts for the hipoisie are within walking distance of each other on streets newly decorated with vintage neon Vegas signage.

Ground zero is The Beat Coffeehouse & Records at 6th and Fremont streets, across the street from the El Cortez Hotel.

It’s what you imagine a beatnik-era, East Village coffeehouse might have looked like. Reading material is scattered about; walls are crowded with concert posters and notices for live music and poetry readings. On the counter, next to pyramids of fresh pastries, a turntable spins real vinyl.

The Beat coffeehouse | Anne Burke

The Beat is located inside Emergency Arts, a two-story creative collective that houses a labyrinthine warren of art studios, vintage clothing shops, a record store, and a few spaces that defy categorization. At Dixie Evans’ Burlesque Hall of Fame, for example, you can learn everything you always wanted to know about tassel twirling.

Thanks to some generous financial incentives from the city, there’s been an explosion of interesting new nightspots in Fremont East. All are gambling-free, which seems heretical in a town where you can lose your shirt playing slots at the laundromat. But the absence of gambling suits the vibe—less girls-gone-wild than crafted cocktails and chill conversation.

Spinning records at The Beat | Anne Burke

The Fremont East bars are big on inventive mixology. If you plan on trying out downtown’s new zip-line—which will hurtle you high above the crowds—you might want to do so before you order that 138-proof French absinthe cocktail.

You can start your pub crawl at The Beauty Bar, known for its circa 1950s hair-dryer chairs and martinis-and-manicures Friday nights. The Beauty Bar hosts The Get Back, a funky-soul dance party on the first Friday of each month. It’s also among several downtown nightspots that participate in Neon Reverb, Las Vegas’s twice-annual indie rock fest.

On the same block is the Vanguard Lounge, which has a modern industrial look and outdoor seating. A couple doors down is The Griffin, which has the feel of a gothic cellar transported to contemporary times, with an arched brick ceiling and red leather sofas, fireplaces, and a killer jukebox with a play list that favors hits like “Cool Jerk.”

The Downtown Cocktail Room

Around the corner is the Downtown Cocktail Room. Keep your eyes open because the speakeasy-style, unmarked steel door is intentionally befuddling. The décor is boho chic and decadent, with red-drenched walls, black lacquer tables and gauzy curtains.

Many of these hipster joints come alive on First Friday, Las Vegas’s monthly street party and art walk, held, as the name suggests, on the first Friday of each month. Much of the action takes place in the Las Vegas Arts District. It’s a bit of a hike from Fremont Street, but you can catch a free trolley at the El Cortez.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to be hip to partake of the downtown scene. After all, they let me in.

Anne Burke writes about Las Vegas in an upcoming issue of VIA.

This blog post was first published in June 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.