The Boeing 737-800 screeches to a stop. Landing on a Las Vegas runway quickens my heart rate, even though passengers are disembarking at the dawdling pace of a senior living center fire drill. My baggage includes an oversized case of elitism. How so? I’m a habitué of Las Vegas Strip casino-resorts. Aria. Bellagio. Caesars. The erudite ABC’s of Sin City. This visit, however, I’m bound for downtown. Old School Vegas. Home of faded gin joints where the original Rat Pack cavorted.
Just two miles north of the Strip, downtown has been shaded from the national spotlight for decades by the high-rise megaresorts of Las Vegas Boulevard. Recently, a downtown contender arose from the pandemic ashes. Circa Resort & Casino is downtown’s first billion-dollar offering. Its outdoor Stadium Swim is the prototypical attraction for big-draw televised sports viewing of events such as the Super Bowl and March Madness. With six heated pools and a 40-foot high-def TV screen, Stadium Swim’s deck is a beacon drawing renewed interest from Strip snobs like me.
How long has it been since I’ve ventured downtown? Not since an up-and-coming Irish rock band called U2 first proclaimed “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” In the 1987 song’s music video, Bono sings, strums, and mingles with an unwashed cross section of Middle America on Fremont Street, downtown Vegas’ main drag. Fremont Street is still a phantasmagoric experience. Annually, more than 20 million people clog this pedestrian-only, neon-imbued walkway.
I reconnect to the sight of tourists drinking from bulbous, arm-length containers filled with rainbow-colored cocktail slushies. A couple buskers are wearing heart-shaped pasties. Others are doing magic tricks or singing. One bearded gentleman is marketing himself as “The Dancing Grandpa.” Overhead, SlotZilla zip lines rocket willing participants above the fray.
A five-block stretch of the Fremont Street Experience is covered by a canopy illuminated with 12 million LED lamps. Videos blare, turbo-charged by 220 speakers and half a million watts of amplification — upgrades to the tune of
$32 million. Several hotels, including the 115-year-old Golden Gate, The D, and Circa have street-level entrances on Fremont Street. All three are owned by Michigan transplant Derek Stevens.
Hanging with Derek Stevens
An auto parts executive from Detroit, Stevens got a taste of Vegas and swallowed it whole. He and his brother bought the historic Golden Gate in 2008. Three years later they bought Fitzgeralds and renamed it The D. In 2015, Stevens bought out a downtown city block that had been home to the Las Vegas Club, Mermaids Casino, and the Glitter Gulch strip club. Glitter Gulch’s marquee used to bear the iconic, leg-kicking, 25-foot-tall “Vegas Vickie” sign. Repainted and fully rehabbed, the neon cowgal’s new home is inside Circa, next to a namesake bar.
The 512-room Circa opened in October 2020. During the pandemic. Around the same time, Stevens gave away 1,700 free airplane tickets from American cities to Las Vegas to help stimulate the city’s economy.
I encounter Stevens three times during a weekend stay at Circa. He has a regular chair at the three-story, 1,000-seat Sportsbook (the largest in Vegas). Stevens also has a nameplate over a barstool at Mega Bar. Billed as the longest bar in Vegas, the 165-foot titanium-granite bar top is serviced by juggling “flair” bartenders and backed by 40 side-by-side TVs.
On another occasion, Stevens takes a group of journalists on a guided tour of the casino-resort’s parking structure. The property owner — wearing a bright blue bespoke suit — walks us over to “Garage Mahal.” Circa’s parking palace is dedicated to the modern needs of the rideshare culture, Stevens proudly proclaims. And it isn’t “dimly lit or filthy,” or unsettling to newly arriving guests,
Circa Food and Beverage
Food-and beverage outlets at Circa rise to the occasion. Barry’s Downtown Prime is operated by steakhouse chef/local-star Barry Dakake. Don’t miss the lobster mac and cheese (served in the lobster shell). Save room for campfire s’mores that you create at the table over a potted open flame.
Stevens wanted Michigan-based eateries to join him in Vegas. One is Saginaw’s Delicatessen. Paul Saginaw (co-founder of the nationally-recognized Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor) serves Reubens, matzo ball soup, and potato latkes 24 hours a day. Victory Burger has a prime spot above the Circa Sportsbook. The owners are a Greek brother-sister team who hail from Detroit, natch. The restaurant’s hours are flexible — tailored to whatever sports viewing is available on TV. After a Victory Burger lunch, dessert is a viscous milkshake mixed with Cap’n Crunch (with Crunch Berries) cereal. As intended, it induces a delicious flashback to childhood noshing.
Last Night in Vegas
Circa’s top-to-bottom charm is winning me over. The final outing: dinner at Project BBQ. It’s the only permanent food truck in operation on wild-and-wacky Fremont Street. Project BBQ was conceptualized by chef Rex Bernales and partner Rob Baker (Stevens’ head of nearly all construction operations). To help feed workers during the construction of Circa, Baker converted a delivery vehicle into a food truck that serves Carolina-style barbecue. The Circa-adjacent eatery caught on with locals and tourists. At night, bands play on a Fremont Street stage right next to the restaurant. This is the setting for my indoctrination into the cult of downtown.
Project BBQ has a gargantuan meal offering called Hogstravaganza. It’s a full roasted pig that serves two dozen. The hog’s crispy, glazed skin is buffered by a garnishpaloooza: quarter-cut slices of pineapple, shards of corn on the cob, homemade pork rinds, potato chips. It’s a head-turner. Waiters parade the humongous dish out on a wooden platter. The pig is illuminated by industrial-strength sparklers. Its arrival is announced by bullhorn.
Hogstravaganza lands at our table right after a second round of Patron shots. It’s getting hot in here. An ’80s cover band is performing on the nearby stage. The band’s spiky-haired Billy Idol impersonator is belting a dynamic rendition of “Mony, Mony.”
“…Come on! Feel alright! I said, yeah! Yeah!! YEAH!!!”
I don’t recall exactly what time I went to bed that night.
Days later, I’m back home, clear-headed. Reflecting on the experience, it appears Pulitzer Prize-winning author J. R. Moehringer summed things up aptly:
“…If you can live in Vegas, or visit Vegas, and leave in one piece, still loving it and somehow laughing about it, you should spend at least part of your last night in town doing something that will serve you well no matter where you go next…”
Guided by that wisdom, and with an overdue nod to U2, it appears you still can find what you’re looking for in Downtown Las Vegas. circalasvegas.com