About a dozen years ago, I was bored enough to write a loose collection of reviews of various eateries, retail shops and general flunky hangouts in town. These were the scruffy-but-cherished places the established travel guides overlooked; maybe I already had the sense that I needed to capture them for posterity. In any case, I wound up with enough material to submit to a few publishers, and damn if one, Seattle’s JASI books, didn’t bite.
It’s now been 10 years since Las Vegas on the Dime was released, and the book, like so many the places it described, has faded into memory. Things age quickly around here. Recently, though, the book pushed its way back into my thoughts: First, a young filmmaker who was working on a screenplay about Vegas’ “vibrant” underground scene in the 1990s approached me. He’d heard that my book had detailed all the old haunts. (It’s official, I thought, I’m a relic.) Then I overheard a conversation at a coffee shop: Two kids, no more than 18, were lamenting the constantly changing city. They said that they couldn’t find a spot to find their own.
The two moments were revealing because my guide was a tribute to the spirit and resourcefulness of kids who grew up here in the ’70s and ’80s. We didn’t have all the cultural gifts of other big cities (museums, big-league sports, etc.) so we grew our own. If that meant throwing tattered couches in the desert with a beat-up generator for punk shows way out by Blue Diamond (it was dark out there back then); or renting a room at the fondly remembered Glass Pool Inn on the edge of the Strip to make bad horror movies with handheld 8 mm cameras, so be it.
After the two encounters, I read my book for the first time in years. On one hand, I could get angry at the way we’ve paved over some of the old haunts and let others—the beloved Huntridge above all—decay. But what really struck me is the endurance of the memories connected with those places. So I decided to list some of the vanished haunts that still linger in the mind, humming in a minor key.
The Underground (1164 E. Twain Ave., off Maryland Parkway). Originally known as The Record Exchange, this place had great, hard-to-find vinyl, import cassettes, T- shirts and pop-art posters that, while not blindingly original (I could always get Wire’s “Pink Flag” at Tower Records if I wanted to), served the fashionably unfashionable well. Better yet, the Underground always encouraged local bands to meet and exchange ideas on the premises.
The Glass Pool Inn (4613 Las Vegas Blvd. South). That’s right, I have fond memories of a lowbrow motel on the edge of the Strip. Established on the old Los Angeles Highway in 1952, this wasn’t just any lowbrow motel, but one with a stylish pool with glass windows, wonderfully dated Optimum font for the vacancy sign and flocked wallpaper in the rooms. It all radiated a glorious period insincerity. The managers were cool with letting locals crash for the night after a long evening of bouncing around the Strip. Today, all that remains is the sign.
Huntridge Drugstore Restaurant (1122 E. Charleston Blvd., at Maryland Parkway). A refuge for the wasted and trashed who felt that IHOP and Denny’s were beyond their budget. Aside from inspired breakfast specials such as egg foo yong with pancakes for $3 (with coffee!), and the charm of the stools at the counter covered in red pleather, it was the people watching that did it for me. My favorite was a French gentleman who had the faint aroma of Vaseline and cabbage. He was a fountain of good trivia. This line was particularly memorable: “Michael, did you know that Cheez Whiz is just one molecule away from plastic?”
Pogo’s Tavern (2103 N. Decatur Blvd.). Pogo’s just closed, but the memory of jazz with unsalted popcorn and cheap beer suds will last forever. A small cinder-block structure that was built in the late 1960s, Pogo’s appealed to everyone from wizened musicians to pseudo-Bohemians. Note to everyone: I’m trying to preserve the sign for the Neon Museum.
Liquid Culture Café Espresso Roma (4440 Maryland Parkway). This was a popular stop across from the university for many reasons, not least of which was the way it opened its arms to local bands and poets (the quality of which varied from intriguing to “What the …?”). The atmosphere was so relaxing it was downright supine. Magazines were scattered everywhere, and their subject matter was, well, eclectic (everything from analyses of Goethe to articles on the least bloody way to self-pierce). The decor was inspired: marbled tables with mismatched chairs, couches with torn upholstery, a floor with hand-dripped paint, original art scattered on the walls. I also miss my favorite drinks, The Brain and the Roma Turtle. I won’t give away the ingredients, but they are in the book.
Postscript. For the record, not everything from my book has closed shop. Ralph Mathieu’s Alternate Reality Comics is still going strong; the Las Vegas Drive-In is a half-century old and still clocking in the vehicles; great taverns such as Champagne’s Café and Davey’s Locker still can draw an inspired crowd; and the El Sombrero Café has been a mainstay in the city since the days of Bugsy Siegel. If such establishments can’t inspire you with their staying power, then you’re on your own.