Atomic Set to Blast Back from the Past

“This door always used to be locked because of the crowd the bar attracted, but we’ll keep it open,” says Derek Stonebarger. “We want people to use our back parking lot and begin their night here.”

Remarkably, Stonebarger and I are standing in the back entrance of Atomic Liquors, Las Vegas’ oldest freestanding bar (circa 1945). This morning, at 10:30 a.m., Stonebarger and his partners—attorney Lance Johns and his brother, commercial real estate broker Kent Johns, both bullish
downtown Las Vegas supporters—purchased Atomic from Ron Sobchik, son of the bar’s original owners Joe and Stella Sobchik. The partners intend to restore and update the bar (“But not too much,” Stonebarger promises), and reopen in December.

Stonebarger, owner of Arts District gallery and arthouse cinema Theater 7, excitedly leads me through the bar’s back rooms—first to Stella Sobchik’s tiny office (“She used to sit right here and have conversations with Barbara Streisand”), into the huge back room (“We’ll extend the bathrooms back here, to meet ADA requirements”), and into the locked storeroom, where some $14,000 worth of package liquor sits alongside a poster of Pope John II.

Every corner of Atomic seems to yield a new treasure: a vintage three-door Victor Coca-Cola cooler, a call sheet for a straight-to-video B-movie (Holes in the Desert) shot here in 2010. And the new owners intend to make use of every bit of it.

“We want to preserve as much as possible,” says Stonebarger, shaking his head in happy disbelief. “Just look at all this.”

From its opening in the mid-1940s to its closing in January 2011, Atomic has hosted so many “look at this” moments that any attempt to list them all ends with throwing your hands in the air in frustration. Bugsy Siegel’s girlfriend Virginia Hill may have inspired the bar’s original name, Virginia’s Café. Members of the Rat Pack drank here, as did Roy Rogers, the Smothers Brothers and many more.

Scenes from Martin Scorcese’s Casino were shot here, as was Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet, an episode of the original Twilight Zone series, and one of the best scenes in The Hangover. (Think of the second meeting with Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow, the one that ends with “Toodle-oo, motherfucker!”) And crowds used to watch atomic bomb tests from the roof, an ill-advised leisure activity that prompted the renaming of the bar in the 1950s.

Stonebarger concludes our tour of Atomic Liquors on the roof, painting a picture of the Atomic’s future—the partners intend to screen footage of atomic tests on the bar’s back wall, facing the parking lot where Stonebarger wants Fremont East vistors to begin their evening. Later, the partners intend to restore the vacated garage next to the Atomic, transforming it into a performance space, movie theater, and landscaped beer garden.

But for now, Stonebarger and the Johns brothers are concentrating on the bar. As they lead reporters and camera crews around the bar, they’re already beginning to do the work: screwing in light bulbs, unplugging bad equipment. And they’re reset the timer on the bar’s icon: From today forward, Atomic Liquors’ classic sign will turn on every night at 8 p.m.

From the roof, Stonebarger assesses this imminent cultural explosion with a grin bright as a second sun.

“I’m coming back here tonight,” he says. “I can’t wait to get started.”