Usually, a business launches in New York City and, if it’s successful enough, it opens an outpost in Las Vegas. Dos Caminos and Il Mulino, Coyote Ugly and the Carnegie Deli, Tao nightclub and Rao’s—all were born in Manhattan and flourished there before dropping a sister property in Las Vegas.
But one local business moved boldly in the opposite direction. The Double Down, Las Vegas’ venerable punk-rock dive bar since 1992, opened a location in New York’s East Village in spring 2006. Why? “New York is the capital of the world! Everything happens in New York,” explains Double Down owner P Moss. Gotham City glory was one reason, but there was also the urge to swim against the tide.
“We were the only place that went the other way,” Moss continues. “At the time, everyone was moving out to Vegas—restaurants, bars, clubs. They got all kinds of cash incentives from the casinos, free rent,” he adds, “I wanted to do the opposite.” So the Double Down moved to a place where space is at a pricey premium and the Byzantine licensing regulations make Las Vegas’ laws seem as simple as the bar’s house rule of “You puke, you clean.”
First, there was the New York state ban on smoking—those who need nicotine are driven to the front sidewalk or back patio. And, of course, no video poker. In New York City, patrons may not dance or “move rhythmically” according to a longstanding and long-loathed cabaret license law; however, New York’s Double Down is allowed to show the collection of old VHS pornography that the original Double Down has been denied by Nevada gaming regulations.
Aaron Morris, a drummer who has lived in New York and Las Vegas and is a patron of both bars, says, “the Vegas Double Down is unique. There’s nothing like it. In New York you can find a similar bar within a few blocks.” And the Double Down is an easy fit in the East Village, a neighborhood that once hosted more than a dozen noisy, sticker-covered punk-rock bars. As luxury housing and designer boutiques have replaced the original hangouts, the Double Down is the new kid that keeps it old school.
Years ago, I played Las Vegas tour guide to my former professor/editor and the dean of American rock critics, Bob Christgau, and took him for a beer at the original Double Down. After a few minutes, he looked about in recognition and declared: “This is the Las Vegas CBGBs.”
Being in a city of 80 museums and 60 universities has brought a slightly more East Coast boho vibe to the newer Double Down: The mural features Dizzy Gillespie and scenes from La Dolce Vita and, this being the Village, you may find yourself sitting next to a guy in red-framed glasses who manages to drop James Franco’s name three times in less than 10 minutes. But even while absorbing local color, the New York version sticks close to the original recipe. The daytime happy hour draws a gang of regulars that, in a certain late-afternoon light, might be Cheers as filtered through Ramones Mania and The Road Warrior. There are the murals oozing vividly across every wall; the lovingly hand-scrawled signs advertising bacon martinis and Ass Juice shots; the bathroom door that doesn’t lock right; the windows which—wait, what?! Windows?
Yes, the NYC Double Down has windows, giant ones that take up almost the entire front of the building—a prime spot for that archetypical New York City sport of people-watching, but an oddity in a bar known for its Stygian gloom. “It’s pretty well shaded by the buildings surrounding, so it doesn’t get really bright in there. Then again, it ain’t that dark of a bar to begin with,” explains Rex Dart, who is a regular DJ at the Vegas Double Down, and has DJ’d the NYC spot’s anniversary parties. Given that they won’t let you in until noon, and will throw you out before sunrise, the windows aren’t as traumatic as they would be in Las Vegas, but they’re off-putting to some who are used to the timeless darkness of the original Double Down.
“It’s been a tremendous success,” says Moss of his New York outpost, where plans for the eighth anniversary festivities are already under way. The transplant of the slightly-forbidding-on-the-outside-but-entirely-welcoming-on-the-inside vibe of the Double Down seems to have taken root. “Both places are staffed by what feels like my family,” Dart says.
Or, as Morris simply says, “It’s a great fucking bar.”