Hear the words, “Las Vegas,” and a flurry of images and sounds likely flood your mind: flowing drinks, glittering neon lights, whirring slot machines and gambling galore. The City of Sin promises days filled with utter decadence and no reprimand for indulging in all of the above. And though many consider the heart of Las Vegas to be its famous strip — home to favorites such as Caesars Palace, Bellagio and Flamingo — that’s not where it all began.
For tales of Vegas origins, you must first look to Fremont Street in the city’s historic downtown and, more specifically, to Golden Gate Casino, originally called Hotel Nevada.
Erected in January of 1906, a mere eight months after the city itself was founded, Golden Gate and its bar would soon find itself a pioneer in Las Vegas’ drinking and gambling culture. Since those early days, other bars and casinos have come and gone, but Golden Gate persists and remains the oldest in the entire city.
Over the last century, the casino’s bar, appropriately renamed Bar Prohibition! in 2013, has operated under an assortment of guises. It was at one time a Wild West-style watering hole, where it served as a booze refuge and place to let loose for women in the roaring ’20s. It’s more famously remembered, though, as a whiskey-laden destination for noteworthy members of the Rat Pack, including crooners Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis and Dean Martin.
“The stuff you hear about from the decades past — all that Rat Pack stuff — is all real,” says Mark Brandenburg, president of the casino. “The mystique of Las Vegas is real, the characters you hear about were actually here, and the Golden Gate was part of all that.”
Stepping inside of Golden Gate Casino, sitting at its bar and ordering from its speakeasy-inspired menu, makes you not only feel like you’re a part of history, but actually makes you a part of history. Sure, it’s been renovated and updated over the years, a requirement for any establishment that’s reached its 100th birthday, but Golden Gate works diligently to retain that sense of old Las Vegas charm.
For example, the original letters that spelled out “HOTEL,” once lit up on the building’s exterior, have been repurposed in the lobby. Visitors can also check out the lobby display case, which houses old photographs, as well as the hotel’s original guestbook and first telephone (the first telephone in the city, mind you). And walking through the casino — whether you’re in the high limits gambling room, penthouse suites, hotel rooms or at the bar — you’ll notice subtle decorative details that nod to eras gone by, including walls dripping with velvety fringe and, of course, Bar Prohibition’s tantalizing drink menu.
Speaking of the menu, let’s talk drinks. The flare bartenders, considered some of the best in the world, will make you anything you want, so don’t limit yourself. Their gin martini with an olive or two will sit right, for example, and Frank Sinatra’s Golden Gate drink of choice, Jack Daniel’s with a splash of bottled water over four ice cubes, might make you feel like singing a tune of your own.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, opt for the showy Flaming Sidecar, which begins with a spectacle of a show put on by your bartender and, you guessed it, lots of flames. Be warned: it’s as potent as it is smooth.
The Jazz Stinger is another must-try, a pleasantly curious marriage of cognac and crème de menthe that dates back to 1917. You could also go the ultra-traditional route with the bar’s Prohibition cocktail, a classic Old Fashioned with bourbon, bitters, water and sugar. Keeping with the prohibition theme, all cocktails ordered from the speakeasy-inspired menu are served in a covert mug.
Whatever you drink, whatever you play, however long you decide to linger, Golden Gate is one of those Las Vegas destinations you have to hit if you’re at all intrigued by the city’s colorful history.
The Golden Gate Casino’s iconic sign.