In June 1997, a C-123 prison aircraft crash-landed on the Las Vegas Strip, shearing the Hard Rock Café’s iconic guitar in half and skidding to a halt inside Sands casino. Yes, we’re remembering the ending of the movie Con Air, but that fictional grand finale still paints a picture of what the city was 20 years ago. Nicolas Cage and company were crashing into pre-millennium Las Vegas, the era before megaresorts and megaclubs, when casinos were still embracing the Strip’s 1990s family-friendly turn.
I realized the town was starving for something late, something different.– Victor Drai
The city’s next act opens with Victor Drai, stage Left Coast. The Moroccan-born movie producer was briefly married to Kelly LeBrock—the ladybot of Weird Science—and best known for producing films The Woman in Red and Weekend at Bernie’s. Drai launched a second career as a restaurateur with the acclaimed Drai’s in Beverly Hills.
Drai and many of his top people opened a second location at Barbary Coast casino (later Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and now The Cromwell) in 1997, and two years later the restaurant added an After Hours concept that would transform the city’s nightlife scene and serve as training ground for a generation of industry kingpins.
Twenty years later, Victor Drai has been enshrined in the Nightclub Hall of Fame, and while the brand has grown to include Drai’s Beachclub and Nightclub on The Cromwell’s rooftop, After Hours remains the same desirable, mysterious place it’s always been. As Drai’s celebrates 20 years in Las Vegas, some of the players who shaped its legacy talk about how it came to be, why it’s lasted so long in a town that’s constantly changing and why it remains the “Best Place to Disappear.”
Victor Drai owner: “The [Drai’s] restaurant in Los Angeles was very successful … and Vegas had nothing at the time. The only little thing they had was Spago in [The Forum Shops at Caesars], and then I decided to open in Vegas. Because I wanted to open it on the Strip, it was very hard to find anything, and then Barbary Coast came to my attention. At first I thought, ‘No, that’s too crazy.’ It used to be a McDonald’s, and when you walked into the Barbary Coast at the time, you could smell the fries.
We closed at 11 a.m., or we closed at noon. It was just amazing. People were just dancing and dancing and dancing. –Chris Garcia, Drai’s music director
It was underground, [so] I [designed it] more like a club than a restaurant. And then After Hours [started] because the restaurant was successful and I [couldn’t not turn the space into a club before] midnight. After Hours came naturally that way. It was all improvising. There was nothing in Vegas—no clubs, very[few] cool places to go. We started to do [After Hours] on a Wednesday night, and it was of OK. Then we decided to do it on a Saturday, and it became crazy. I realized the town was starving for something late, something different.”
Andre Bodisco general manager, managing partner (1997–2005): “We opened the door around midnight, but the main rush was 3:30 a.m. until 11 a.m. [Later on] we were getting our clientele from the [other] nightclubs closing—all the people leaving the nightclubs would go to Drai’s After Hours.”
Chris Garcia music director: “When people go out in Vegas, they go out for dinner, they go [to] the nightclub and after that, they come over to Drai’s. So everything starts around 3 a.m. at least. I have memories of nights that were never ending. We closed at 11 a.m., or we closed at noon. It was just amazing. People were just dancing and dancing and dancing.”
If you were around in those early years, you probably knew someone who claimed they knew someone who could get you into Drai’s After Hours. If you were lucky, you made it past Mr. T (not the A-Team actor) at the door, but for many it was a mystery, a place that was talked about at 3 a.m. when you and your friends wondered where all the pretty people were going if they weren’t going home.
Trayan ‘Mr. T’ Tashev door security manager and host (2001–07): “I come from Bulgaria, and I worked in nightclubs there. From everything I’ve seen before, it was nothing like this in Vegas. Victor was the first guy who [did] house [music], with red [decor], nice couches and an intimate atmosphere.”
Drai: “My idea was to do a speakeasy, and most people thought I was crazy. But then I did it and it worked out.”
Bodisco: “Very sexy, dim lights, red walls, lots of candles—I remember we had something like 500 candles burning throughout the evening.”
Garcia: “The music was completely different than any other club. People were coming to this place without knowing anything and just discovering a different and magical experience. Drai’s was playing more ‘underground’ music, so different than what the other clubs did.”
We were making so much money with the club—it was ridiculous. I was doing five times more work for the restaurant and making five times less money, so it was like, ‘What’s the point? ’–V. Drai
Michael Gruber president, Drai’s Enterprises: “The nightclubs have become more of a performance venue than a boy-meets-girl type of a place, so After Hours still offers a place to have that type of experience.”
Tashev :“Victor was so famous. Many people in Hollywood and all his friends, when they came to Vegas, they always came for dinner at Drai’s. Mickey Rourke was there all the time. Sandra Bullock—a good friend of Victor. And so many movie stars throughout the years. [At] pretty much every concert we had, [there were] big names like U2, Metallica—just big celebrities all the time.”
Drai: “We kept the restaurant till about 10 years in, because my lease was 10 years, and I said I’m renewing the deal but I’m stopping the restaurant. It was very hard to move every night from the restaurant to the club. We were making so much money with the club—it was ridiculous. I was doing five times more work for the restaurant and making five times less money, so it was like, ‘What’s the point?’”
Bodisco: “At 4 o’clock in the morning, the line was all the way to the Flamingo. It was pretty amazing to see all those people waiting. It was very, very busy.”
Tashev: “We have this small place in the middle of Barbary Coast and not a megacasino. Everybody wanted to come. It was crazy. Everybody from the whole fucking world, not just America. Everybody was talking about Drai’s. ‘You gotta go see that place man, it’s in the Barbary Coast, you’re not gonna believe it.’ You go in and it’s got that small door and 1,000 people lined up.”
For most of its 20-year history, Drai’s has called the northeast corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road home. That changed in 2013, when Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall shuttered to make way for The Cromwell. The transition paved the way for Drai’s Beachclub and Nightclub, but forced Drai’s After Hours to move north, albeit temporarily, to Bally’s Las Vegas.
Drai: “I didn’t want to close, and [Caesars Entertainment] had a space at Bally’s. I said, ‘OK, let’s move After Hours there and then we will move it back.’ Nobody was thinking it would work, but I needed to take the risk because I didn’t want to close After Hours, and what was amazing was the day we opened, we were packed like we were at the Barbary Coast.
We were very successful during the construction of The Cromwell. Then we moved back to our space—I realized then that After Hours had nothing to do with anything else. It was its own feeling, and whatever happened at [Drai’s Nightclub] would not affect [After Hours].”
It is different now because nightlife has changed and Las Vegas has changed. –Chris Garcia
Tashev: “Victor is an icon, man. He’s a legend, he’s a Hall of Famer. Whatever idea he came up with, it’s never been wrong. Everything he does is just flawless. Restaurants and clubs and bars and lounges and After Hours.”
Gruber: “Drai’s After Hours has stayed true to its core foundation, and that credit goes 100 percent to Victor bucking the industry trends while upgrading accordingly.”
Garcia: “It is different now because nightlife has changed and Las Vegas has changed, so the partying has to have the pool and everything. The people go out but they also think about going to sleep a bit earlier because they want to wake up and go see the pool.”
Drai: “[A rooftop club] was my vision 20 years ago, because when I started the restaurant at Barbary Coast, for New Year’s Eve, we used to go to the roof of the hotel to watch the fireworks. I was always wanting to do something on that roof.”
Today Drai’s fingerprints, and those of his protégés, can be seen up and down the Strip.
Drai: “Easily 80 percent of people nightlife have worked for me at one point or another. They all start with me very young, and to see them going through life with success is a great feeling for me.”
Drai’s will host 20 Years of After Hours on June 25. Reservation requests can be made at draisafterhourslv.com