If I ever get elected to anything important, and there’s no chance of me ever getting elected to anything important, my downfall won’t be because of sex or money — it will be due to my addiction to Reuben sandwiches.
And steak. And pizza. And lasagna. And just about anything else containing the culinary holy trinity of sugar, salt, and fat.
I don’t give a damn who the millionaire bet on. What I want to know is — what bets did my friend with the $9 knapsack make?
A few years ago, a highly-respected sports-gambler and associate of mine (who shall remain nameless unless he wishes to identify himself) used to fly into Las Vegas for just one reason — to bet on the Super Bowl game. He’d show up at the Westgate Sportsbook on the big night when all the Super Bowl props were first released.
Walking into the Golden Steer is like visiting the ghosts of Las Vegas pasts.
If these walls could talk, just imagine the stories they could tell.
Last night’s motley crew guest list included Andy Rich (Golden Nugget Poker Manager), Todd Anderson (Creator of television show Poker Night in America), Vin Narayanan (who’s doing some lucrative deal in Hong Kong that’s succeeding despite making no logical sense whatsoever) and yours truly. Our frightening foursome plopped down in a red-leather booth. Almost instantly, we had appetizer cocktails in one hand and dinner menus in the other.
Now, that’s service.
The Golden Steer has been in business for like — forever. It’s a really weird location, helplessly bookended into a seedy strip mall right off Las Vegas Blvd., on Sahara. A few doors down there’s a busy cigar bar that you can smell from a block away. The restaurant, in the shadow of the new Lucky Dragon casino, is bordered by ghetto apartments. Fortunately, there’s a spindle of rusted barbed wire atop a cinder block wall separating the slums from the Golden Steer. That way, we can all feel safe while feasting on dead animals.
If these directions don’t make any sense, then try this: Look for the giant sign with the fat cow out in front. Everyone in town knows the fat cow. Err, steer — whatever.
Years ago, the Golden Steer was the favorite hangout of the Rat Pack. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. and company used to dine here regularly. The trio of crooners even had their own private booths (each still in place and memorialized with plaques).
The Golden Steer has undergone a sparkling facelift since my last visit a few years ago when it seemed the old cow’s best days were way behind her. While the inner decor has been updated, it still screams “Old Las Vegas.” You don’t see places like this around anymore because they’ve all been bulldozed and paved over by an all-too-crowded kitchen of celebrity chefs.
Now that you know a little something about the Golden Steer, here’s where the story really gets good.
While Andy, Todd, Vin, and I were solving the world’s problems last night while trying to get away from our own, the scene across from us in the opposite red leather booth caught our attention and kept us captivated nearly to the point of becoming a distraction. About 15 feet away, a scruffy bearded man wearing a brown western hat dined with a young lady. The man’s coat looked disgustingly filthy. His hat was bent out of shape and wouldn’t fetch $2 at a garage sale. If you examined this scene for no more than five seconds, you’d have made a reasonable guess the man was homeless.
No big deal, really. This is Las Vegas. You see a lot of weirdness in Las Vegas.
At some point, the scruffy man asked the waiter to remove a portrait from the restaurant wall (yes, I’m serious). Then, he requested the portrait be positioned next to him and his lady friend, in the booth. If the scruffy man wasn’t a curious sideshow to watch before based on appearances, well now he had our full attention — at least as much attention you could muster without turning into a gawker.
So, the large framed portrait of a movie star was nestled into the booth while the scruffy man feasted on supper. It was hard to tell who this was exactly in the picture, but after some artful eye-dodging, someone in our party finally recognized the portrait was of the late actor Charles Bronson.
The scruffy man, the lady friend, and Charles Bronson’s portrait all seemed to be quietly enjoying themselves, although Bronson didn’t say much. Bronson also didn’t eat or drink anything. Those delicious delights were left to the other two, who emptied at least one bottle of expensive wine followed by a bottle of champagne. I tried to catch a glimpse of the labels to see what they were drinking, but I didn’t want to seem too nosy. One can only gawk so much without causing a scene.
Of course, we had to play the whispering game of speculation. Who in the hell is this guy? He sure looks like a pauper, but he’s dining in a fancy restaurant, guzzling down wine and champagne. Who could make such a wild request to have a portrait removed from the wall — and then have that request honored by the staff? And the woman really seems to dig him!
An eccentric billionaire?
The owner of the restaurant?
A perverted Charles Bronson fanatic?
Who was he?
Just as we were preparing to leave, the scruffy man and his friend got up also. They made a swift bee-line for the front door, hopefully not leaving stoic and speechless Charles Bronson to pay the bill.
Consumed by curiosity, we stopped the waiter in mid-stride cold in his tracks.
“Who in the hell was that scruffy guy in the hat? Do you know him?” we asked.
“Oh, that was Nicolas Cage. He’s a regular here. He comes in all the time.”
The Las Vegas Club in downtown Las Vegas was a smelly armpit of a casino, coated in a mix of disgusting bodily fluids and cheap booze, the dingy carpets dusted in cigarette ash. And I adored every sick square sentimental inch of all that rotten residue and loved blowing every dumb dollar I wasted there.
The outer skeleton of the Las Vegas Club is crumbling, barely standing now because the building’s torso keeps getting pummeled by the constant blows from a wrecking ball swinging from a big crane. Like a bruised boxer in the 12th round hanging on the ropes, what remains might soon be a giant pile of dust by the time you’re reading this. And so, the Las Vegas Club is destined to decay into an antiquity that eventually disappears, except for what retreats into the deepest recesses of our memory alongside the bygone Dunes, Stardust, Riviera, Castaways, and so many other once-thriving monuments to a city’s past.
Even with all its plentiful scars and blemishes, I have fond memories of the Las Vegas Club. I recall the unusually large $22/night hotel rooms, many with a window alcove overlooking noisy Fremont Street. I recall the spooky-dark steakhouse ringed with red-leather booths with a smell of the old criminal underworld that sat empty most of the time, but the Maitre’d still always insisted on having a reservation (they once turned away a party of three — which included Mike Sexton, Stu Ungar, and myself).
Sure, the Las Vegas Club was a dump. Everyone agreed. I went back and read some of the old reviews posted on Yelp. Many are as comical as they are cringeworthy. Reviewers complained about everything — from the dank smell of cigarette smoke to the loud noise. They bitched about the parade of hookers in high heels ramping up and down hallways that echoed like a wind tunnel piercing through the hopelessly outdated decor that hadn’t seen renovation since the mid-1970’s. Sorry for my lacking any sympathy. What the hell did anyone expect for $22-a-night? A hooker holding a sixpack, I guess.
Opened in 1949, the Las Vegas Club went through as many different owners as blackjack shoes. They tried various gimmicks and new branding campaigns most of which failed, but all the crusty old joint really ever ended up being was a great place to gamble, get a stiff drink, and perhaps end up crashing in a bed bug infested hotel room, provided you still had $22 left in your pocket. The hotel was so notorious towards its ending days, they wouldn’t rent to locals.
Sometime around 1990, the Las Vegas Club decided to adopt a sports theme. Walls were knocked out and replaced. The sportsbook tripled in size. A huge aluminum grandstand like you’d see at a high school football game was installed for gambling fans. For a buck you could get a beer and a hot dog. The walls were tackily decorated with sports memorabilia, probably 95 percent of it fakes and forgeries, but nobody gave a fuck. So, that’s the baseball bat Mickey Mantle used when he hit his 500th career home run? Yeah, right. Step right up, folks. We also got the loosest slots in town. All that was missing was the cheap carnival barker in a striped coat chomping on a cheap cigar while swinging a cane.
During the poker boom which happened about a decade ago, the Las Vegas Club opened a new poker room. The first day I showed up, all eight tables were filled to capacity and there was even a waiting list. A few months later, the empty room closed down for good. I think half the dealers who worked in that room are dead now.
When I was working as Public Relations Director of the old Binion’s Horseshoe across the street, the Las Vegas Club might as well have been my break room. Both on the clock and off it and plenty of days and nights before work and after — I bet plenty of sports there, had a few drinks there, made a few friends there, made a few enemies there, got into some fights there, and most of the time had the blast of my life. It was the kind of place where you walked up to the bar and the barkeep asked the simple two-word question, “the usual?”
The Las Vegas Club even had its own karaoke spot. Upstairs on weekends right atop the sportsbook, a melting pot of human gumbo cracked plenty of eardrums, all in good fun. One night when I showed up late, the karaoke bar was closed. So, tagging along with Dan and Sharon Goldman (and her mom), we were later joined in the casino by two of Britain’s finest — Simon “Aces” Trumper and “Mad Marty” Wilson (yes, those are their real names). This motley crew decided to perform our own version of karaoke at the casino bar, sans the musical accompaniment. Half the casino looked at us like terrorists. The much drunker half laughed and some even joined in the singing. The bartender let us get away with it all because we tipped like crazy. “Mad Marty” talked me into playing a trivia contest for $100 a question. I finally left broke after maxing out my hits on the ATM machine. Some advice: Never engage in trivia on classic English literature with “Mad Marty.” He’s a hustler. [PROOF: WATCH THIS VIDEO]
I have no idea if the Las Vegas Club a pool. I never checked. But I doubt it would have been safe to dive into the water, anyway. It would be like swimming next to the drain pipe from a lead smelter.
There wasn’t any fancy showroom either. No headliners. No celebrities. No paid entertainment. Hell, the gamblers and the hustlers and the hookers and the hustlers were the show. And it was free at the Las Vegas Club, all the time.
The last few years of the Las Vegas Club were not kind to its memory. The deterioration was gradual. Burned-out light bulbs weren’t changed. Sticky floors got mopped less and less often. Stained carpets rarely felt the tickle of a vacuum. Felts on the worn out gambling tables faded. The steakhouse closed. Valet service was discontinued. The hotel shut down. But amidst the decline and fall, as so so often we see when times aren’t so good, the people turn out to be so very good indeed and they even surprise you. Those loyal employees who worked there towards the end stayed cheerful. They almost always smiled. They were good people. They were hard-working people. And sadly, they were the last voyagers on the teetering deck of a sinking ship. Like the band that played on during the frigid night when the mighty Titanic plunged to the depths of the Atlantic, the people who gave the Las Vegas Club its memories despite all its defects kept their pride and worked until the fateful final hour. The casino closed in 2015.
The Las Vegas Club didn’t try to be nice. Carnivals aren’t nice either. Neither are amusement parks nor state fairs nor sports stadiums. Hell, a sleazy strip club called “Girls of Glitter Gulch” was just 25 feet from the main entrance, front door to the right.
The Las Vegas Club never pretended to be Paris or New York or Venice or a Mirage. It was exactly what it advertised. It was Las Vegas.