A fresh food scene, cool museums, and a giant, flaming praying mantis? That’s right: Downtown Las Vegas is smokin’.
In Las Vegas, the city that brought us pirate battles and on-the-hour volcanic eruptions, it might seem hard to get excited about a praying mantis. But a three-story steel insect with antennae that shoot 12-foot flames? One of the city’s buzzy attractions, the giant artwork—created for Burning Man—symbolizes the equally improbable renaissance of its downtown location.
Long known for nickel slots and storefront gambling, downtown was Vegas’s premier nightlife zone until the rise of the Strip about three miles to the south. These days it’s blossoming into a real neighborhood with chic cocktail lounges, galleries, museums, and foodie happenings. Its revitalization has been funded in part by Tony Hsieh, CEO of online retailer Zappos, who has relocating 1,500 employees here and launched the Downtown Project, aimed at sparking new development and community, with $350 million of his own dough.
“For years there has been talk of a rebirth,” says Tim Bavington, a British-born artist of international stature who has lived and worked in downtown Vegas for more than a decade. “But this time we’ve got critical mass.” Bavington himself has become part of that mass with a monumental sculpture at downtown’s Smith Center for the Performing Arts: a rainbow of colors corresponding to the musical arrangement of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
The proof of that energy is all around. During the monthly First Friday nighttime arts party, thousands of people head to galleries, open studios, and outdoor music stages. At Container Park—a shop-eat-play complex made of tricked-out shipping containers—the mantis looms above the corner of Fremont and South Seventh Streets, inviting folks to chow down on ribs at Big Ern’s BBQ. Even the Fremont Street Experience, the five-block sound-and-light show that has been the area’s biggest draw, added SlotZilla, a 12-story zip line.
Who needs casinos when the culture is high wattage? In the new downtown you can catch a ballet at the Smith Center; sip a latte and buy classic vinyl at the Beat Coffeehouse & Records; or check out Emergency Arts, a medical clinic turned exhibition space. The Mob Museum, in a renovated 1933 federal building, houses the bullet-pocked brick wall from Chicago’s notorious St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. A guided tour of the Neon Museum—with a visitor center that began life as the motel La Concha’s lobby in 1961—tells a bit of Sin City history through nearly 150 vintage Vegas signs. And the weekly Downtown 3rd Farmers Market, held indoors year-round, presents stalls of local honey, pistachios, fresh greens, flowers, and prepared foods.
Downtown’s Fremont East district comes alive at night. Sip a bourbon-based creation at the dark and moody Downtown Cocktail Room; or grab late-night noodles on the back patio of Le Thai, open until 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
To recover, enjoy a breakfast of creamy grits, shrimp, and eggs at Eat, one of downtown’s flock of restaurants. About two years ago, chef-owner Natalie Young was on the verge of leaving Las Vegas. “I love to cook,” Young says, “but I was burned out from working in casino kitchens.” And then her own transformation began: “The Downtown Project contacted me, asked what it would take for me to stay and open my own place, and then helped make it all happen. And here I am.”
Photography by David H. Collier; Bryan Adams/Flash Adams Photography (mantis sculpture)
This article was first published in November 2013 and updated in September 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.