Atomic Liquors celebrates five years in Las Vegas with a reopening bash tonight from 5 to 9 p.m. The night includes drink specials featuring Absolut Elyx and Jameson Casemates, passed appetizers, a photo booth, Rat Pack and Barbra Streisand impersonators, and more. Guests are certainly encouraged to dress in costumes from the 1950s, when the city’s oldest bar opened. Here, owner Lance Johns looks back at the past five years, what went into reopening the former Virginia Cafe and turning it into a drinking haven, and more.
What made you decide to bring back Atomic Liquors?
I was excited to be on Fremont in downtown. I have seen what is going on with downtown areas in other metropolitan cities and thought it would happen here someday. The price was definitely right. I thought it would be a long-term project, but worth it someday. That someday came a lot sooner than I thought it would.
What have you learned since you opened Atomic Liquors five years ago?
How much of a community there is downtown.
What made you decide to open a restaurant to go with the bar?
I was tired of my customers leaving to go up Fremont to get food.
What have you done to make Atomic Liquors a go-to destination in downtown Las Vegas?
I have tried to make it a place that I would like to frequent. Five years ago, 10th and Fremont was not considered the best neighborhood, so we needed to do things better to get people down here and to keep coming back. The customer service had to be second to none. The beer and cocktail menu had to be the best. We have been squeezing fresh juice and making our own syrup from day one.
What’s changed over the years, aside from adding a restaurant?
It is so much more popular and busy now. When we first opened, my brother Kent and I would be here almost every night and I knew almost everyone who came in. Now, there are nights when it’s so many new people and faces that I don’t know yet.
What’s the most unexpected thing that happened?
When Anthony Bourdain filmed his live show here for the finale of his first season of Parts Unknown. We were only re-opened five months when he shot here.
How about the craziest thing?
Again, when Bourdain came and filmed. We were so new, I asked the producers from CNN if we could stay open while they set up for the live shoot. The shoot was on Sunday night but the crew came in the Thursday before to start setting up. We stayed open. Needless to say, I had a lot of drinks with the crew from CNN who still call me today for a drink when they are in town for a shoot. I think they were last here during the presidential debates.
If it’s your first time at Atomic Liquors, what should you order?
Hunter S. Mash. It is still one of my favorites.
What do you want people to know about the decor of Atomic? Did you stay true to the original design?
We stayed true to the original design right down to the popcorn ceiling. The bar is the same bar as when I bought it we just refinished the wood bar rail, put a new bar top on it and put some cushions on the face of the bar so you don’t hit your knees when you sit down. In fact, we found the red neon light in the ceiling but it was broken and probably hadn’t been turned on for many years. We had the old neon fixed and its the red glow you see today in the bar. The sign has not changed either. We just replaced some bulbs and the neon.
What are some of the great finds inside Atomic Liquors?
The original owners Joe and Stella were hoarders. We have boxes of checks, licenses, and other documents from the ’50s. We also found a bunch of documents in the floor safe when we drilled it open, including Joe’s health card from 1969. It now serves as a time capsule and is lit up red, so check it out next time you’re in the bar.
What’s on tap for the future?
We built out a portion of the roof on top of the restaurant for a bar area, which is very similar to the view people had in the old days when they would go on the roof of Virginia’s Cafe and have a drink and watch the atomic bombs explode at the test site. Joe and Stella liked selling alcohol better than running the cafe, so when it came time to name the bar, they named it Atomic Liquors after people watching the bomb blasts from the roof.
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