Paul Devitt

The multi-city club owner talks about running a hipster bar in a tourist city, the evolution of downtown and life without video poker

Though neither a hairstylist nor a cosmetologist, Paul Devitt has made his mark on beauty in Las Vegas. He brought his salon-inspired saloon concept, Beauty Bar, to the fledgling Fremont East District five years ago this month. (A May 30 anniversary party will feature the Afghan Raiders, Twin Brother and DJ John Doe). After launching successful Beauty Bars in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Beauty Bar Las Vegas seemed like a natural progression. Featuring an interior salvaged from a salon in New Jersey, it became a refuge for local bands, DJs and hipsters.

The original Beauty Bar opened in New York in 1995 in a transformed salon. Ten more locations have followed since in cities such as Chicago, San Diego and Austin, Texas. The Las Vegas branch has been only “marginally successful,” Devitt says.

In December he launched Beauty Bar Vodka, and in honor of Beauty Bar’s signature Martinis and Manicures happy hour, during which your manicure comes with a martini for $10, he’s creating a line of nail polish. Each city will have its own color—ours will be a glittery gold, of course. A Nevada State Board of Cosmetology rule that prohibits manicures at establishments that sell alcohol may put a crimp in that popular special. So for now, Beauty Bar is offering free nail-care demonstrations, in case you have to have yours done in Las Vegas’ own hue.

Where did the idea for Beauty Bar come from?

It just kind of evolved in my head. Collecting antiques and midcentury-era stuff—1950s and 1960s—has always been my passion. I was in the bar business at the time, so I had this idea. I found this old salon in Long Island and I bought [the interior] and put it in storage. I started looking for space in New York City and I found an actual [40-year-old] salon that was still operating. I went and asked the guy if he was interested in selling his lease, which he was. He thought I was a hairdresser, I believe, so he sold me his lease. I didn’t even need the stuff I had in storage. I moved a few pieces of furniture around, put a bar in the place and the rest is history.

What drew you to Las Vegas?

I love downtown Vegas. Whenever I would come to Vegas—I used to come for trade shows because I had a clothing line—we would always go downtown and hang out. Even though there was not a lot going on, I liked the kitsch and the history. So after I opened in L.A., this seemed like the most logical spot.

Why hasn’t Las Vegas Beauty Bar been as successful as other locations?

We’re kind of event-driven in Vegas. When we have something really good going on, we have a great night, but as far as a steady nightly party, it’s tough down there. It’s a small crowd of kids that support the scene and there are a few different places to go. … The Beauty Bar will be busy and The Griffin will be slow, or The Griffin will be busy and the Beauty Bar will be slow. Typically, in a big city there are plenty of kids to go around to fill all the bars and they move around. In Vegas they seem to go to one place and stay there.

Why is the atmosphere different in Las Vegas compared with other cities with Beauty Bars?

Because of the casino culture, that kind of rules the roost. They have so much money to throw at clubs, advertising and talent—it’s very hard to compete with that. If I could pay $500 for a band, they can pay $5,000 if they want that same band. It’s like Down & Derby started at the Beauty Bar, and then the Palms wanted it, so the Palms just had to wave money in front of the promoter’s face and they went there, of course, because they’re probably making five times the money. I can’t blame them. That’s what they’re in it for; it’s business. … To me, downtown Vegas—the Fremont East is what they call it—is what real living is like in other cities, where people go to bars and there’s not blackjack or poker on the bar tops. That wouldn’t fit in the Beauty Bar. Would I do it if I had the option? I probably would because I would make so much money off those damn things, but it works better without it.

What do you like about Las Vegas?

I’ve made some good friends, and there are definitely some good people there. I have great employees and some great people I work with, in particular John Doe and the guy who runs [the funk dance party] The Get Back, our busiest night of the month. It’s a great party. It’s funny that it’s not by far the busiest Beauty Bar but I have the busiest party at any of the Beauty Bars.

Will you have any new projects in Las Vegas?

Unless some big casino comes and throws lots of money at me, I don’t think I’ll be doing anything else in Vegas.

What’s your favorite Beauty Bar story?

When Martha Stewart came in to get a manicure. The old lady I bought the salon from in New York … was about 80, and we got her to come back and do the manicures after we bought the bar. She did a manicure for Martha Stewart, and someone next to me walked over to her and said, “Florence, do you know who that was? That was Martha Stewart.” She said, “Who cares? She’s a crappy tipper.”

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