In Las Vegas, the outline of the Hawaiian islands appears on bumper stickers in traffic and on tattooed shoulders in crowds, but it is nowhere to be found on the marquee of the California Hotel & Casino. And yet, the Downtown hotel is frequently credited for the city’s large number of Hawaiian visitors and residents, who often lovingly refer to Las Vegas as the Ninth Island.
While the name of the property might imply a different sort of golden paradise, one is more likely to find loco moco and Spam musubi at the California than kale and avocado. The reason for this goes back to the 1940s, when Sam Boyd, who would later go on to become one of the most legendary casino developers in Las Vegas history, was living in Honolulu. During this time, Boyd ran an illegal gambling house. Eventually, he moved his family to Las Vegas to build a more legitimate casino career in the desert. In 1975, he opened the California Hotel with his son, Bill. The original resort had nothing to do with Hawai‘i. The Boyds assumed that the hotel would find success based on its Fremont Street-adjacent location alone.
“So they open the doors, and it’s crickets,” says Andre Filosi, vice president and general manager of the California and Main Street Station. “There are no customers in the place. They’re struggling and they’re on the verge of bankruptcy and they have to actually get a loan to help make payroll. That’s when old man Sam says, ‘Bill we need a niche market or we’re not going to make it, and I know what it’s going to be. It’s going to be Hawai‘i. We’re going to make the California Hotel Hawai‘i’s home away from home.”
The first order of business was to address the thing that so many people long for when they’re homesick in a strange place: food that reminds them of where they’re from. The Boyds flew their chef to Hawai‘i so that he could learn to cook like a Hawaiian. He returned and began to make oxtail, sticky rice, and loco moco. Next, they had to figure out how to actually get people from Hawai‘i to come to Las Vegas and stay at the California. They did that by creating the Hawaiian package.
“The Hawaiian package was a deal where for one low price you got your airfare, you got your hotel room, and you got a coupon book that gave you three meals a day,” Filosi says. “And to this day, we still have the Hawaiian package.”
In a city that is constantly imploding and rebuilding, 45 years later, the business model has remained the same at the California. In addition to attracting visitors from Hawai‘i, the hotel also serves as a meeting place for Hawaiian transplants who have found themselves scattered across the lower 48. Banquet rooms frequently host family and high school reunions, and the restaurants are always crowded with former neighbors getting reacquainted over saimin, kalua pig, Portuguese sausage, butterfish, and chili straight from Zippy’s, a popular Hawaiian diner. At Market Street Cafe, diners start lining up at 10 p.m. for the restaurant’s famous oxtail soup, a nightly special served from 11 p.m. until 8 a.m. or until the kitchen runs out. After enjoying a meal, visitors will shop for snacks at Vegas 808, a retail shop that sells macadamia nuts, dried plums, and jerky. Often, they buy these gifts for the hotel staff.
“It’s a giving culture,” Filosi says. “They have a tradition called Aloha spirit, which is to give without expectation of anything in return.”
According to a June 2018 paper authored by Cynthia Van Gilder and Dana R. Herrera for the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Las Vegas, this routine of coming to the California to linger over meals and talk story (a Hawaiian term that means passing time by chatting) is rooted in “a Hawaiian’s Hawaiian fantasy.” Like Las Vegas, Hawai‘i is often perceived in mainstream culture as more of an idea of a place than an actual place. Both are vacation destinations where the branding isn’t always in line with the truth. Non-Hawaiians go to Hawai‘i to drink rum out of pineapples, ogle hula dancers, and make jokes about “getting lei’d.” In this same sense, people who are not from Las Vegas come to the city to lose money in casinos, take limos to strip clubs, and to live up to the ominous what happens here, stays here concept. In both cases, there is a gap between the stereotype and the truth.
Van Gilder and Herrera assert that “the Hawaiian imaginary of Las Vegas is the local, or kama’aina, fantasy of Hawai‘i. Here nobody asks you to put on a coconut bra and perform “native.” Here you do not fight mainland tourists to get into your favorite lunch place. Here you can see friends and family and celebrate island culture in peace.”
In other words, the California is like Hawai‘i without tourists.
Filosi sums this up whenever he recounts a favorite story about meeting one of the hotel’s guests. As he tells it, Filosi was grabbing a bite to eat at the Market Street Cafe when a man from Hawai‘i told him about how he’d grown up in Oahu but had since relocated to Atlanta. Homesick, but unable to find the time or the money to get all the way back to Hawai‘i, the man visited Las Vegas instead.
“I was like, wow, we got magic here,” Filosi says. “We really have magic here, because here’s a guy who misses Hawai‘i, and he comes to the California to feel like he’s home.”
— Krista Diamond