Downtown’s gem

Jul 27, 2004 4:52 AM

For the past 10-15 years, the smaller, independent casino has been on the fast track to endangered species status. Consolidation and mergers within the industry have helped fuel the trend, which has seen cozy little gambling halls disappear from Las Vegas’ jumbled cityscape.

Many of the lost casinos were an essential part of Las Vegas’ colorful history. The Pioneer Club on Fremont Street, for instance, was famous for its landmark Vegas Vic neon cowboy and served as the backdrop for dozens of Vegas-themed movies. And Little Caesars on the Strip was legendary for accepting high-stakes bets, especially on sporting events.

Toss in the demise of less conspicuous casinos such as the Trolley Stop downtown and the Alystra in Henderson, and you have the makings of a principle Charles Darwin might describe as "Survival of the Biggest."

Nevertheless, there are dozens of small, nondescript casinos around town waiting to be discovered. Beginning this week, GamingToday will take a close look at some of these undiscovered gems.

For a glimpse of what Las Vegas was like before it became a fantasy-filled Land of Oz, take a trip downtown and visit the Golden Gate Hotel. Built in 1906 at the corner of Fremont and Main streets, the Golden Gate is the city’s oldest hotel. More important, it’s one of the city’s few links to its colorful past, retaining much of the charm and character that defined the city before reality became virtual and hype replaced history.

When the hotel first opened, it was called Hotel Nevada. Rooms cost $1 per night and included electric lighting, ventilation and steam heat radiators. There was no air conditioning, of course, and guests shared common bathrooms at the end of the hall. The hotel’s ground floor had a lobby and a few offices but no casino; yet, there was gambling — a roulette wheel and a few card tables — until it was outlawed in 1909.

A year after the hotel opened, it installed the city’s first telephone. During the 1920s, a third floor was added and in 1931 (the same year gambling was legalized), the hotel was renamed Sal Sagev, or "Las Vegas" spelled backward.

The hotel was sold in 1955 to a group of San Francisco investors who renamed it the Golden Gate. Four years later, the new owners introduced Las Vegas to the shrimp cocktail — a tasty little treat they discovered in an Oakland deli. The dish caught on and has been a Golden Gate tradition ever since. That tradition, of course, has spread throughout the city.

During the ’50s and ’60s, the Golden Gate enjoyed the reputation of serving good food at bargain prices. It also became a gathering place for local business professionals, news reporters, judges and lawyers.

Today, while the Golden Gate has modernized to keep with the times, it retains much of its historic charm. Many of the original 10-foot by 10-foot guest rooms remain, though they’ve been updated with air conditioning, private baths, cable TV, coffee makers, voice mail and even computer ports. The rates have increased to about $60 a night, but the mahogany doors, plaster walls and tiled bathroom floors remind guests of the hotel’s rich history.

Downstairs, the décor in the casino and common areas suggest turn-of-the-century San Francisco: dark wood panels, countertops, ceilings and baseboards; brass railings and fixtures; checkerboard tile floors; and leaded-glass chandeliers. In the San Francisco Bar & Deli, you can still enjoy a shrimp cocktail, served with a wedge of lemon in a tulip glass. For heartier appetites, the Bay City Diner coffee shop is one of the better eateries downtown, specializing in thick steaks, broiled seafood and other American favorites.

The Golden Gate’s casino features all the modern games — blackjack, craps, roulette, as well as slot and video machines. But historic photographs from early Las Vegas and a few vintage slots from the 1940s and ’50s such as a Jennings War Eagle are a reminder of the hotel’s heritage.

The casino also contains a black baby grand piano that sings its happy tunes every afternoon. At times, the joint sounds like an old silent movie house with the piano player pounding out melodies that rise and fall with the film’s plot.

But the best reminders of the Golden Gate’s golden years are some of the patrons who continue to come here after so many years. They’re the ones who, like the hotel itself, have that look of having withstood the tests of time and endured the whims of modernization.