Ask Ryan Doherty how he pictured 2020, and he would say he planned to open four new bars and lounges on Fremont East to join his two venues already open there, as well as two bars inside the new Las Vegas attraction Area15 with its sculptures and entertainment. He envisioned a Fremont East wonderland where customers could bounce from one bar to the next with a different experience at each, and a story to tell friends whether they lived in Las Vegas or came from afar.
Instead, three of his projects limped into an opening in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. All debuted shortly before or during the state’s mandated shut down of bar tops in July through September to prevent the spread of COVID-19; each now serves food and enforces strict safety protocols, reserving the splashy openings Las Vegas tends to attract for a later, less uncertain time.
Corner Bar Management founder Doherty is no stranger to the bar scene, with his Fremont East garden retreat Park on Fremont and multi-level Commonwealth, which has the secret Laundry Room tucked inside. But his newest ventures — the techno beats of Discopussy, the mezcal and tequila retreat Lucky Day Tequila & Mezcal House, and LED-lit Oddwood at Area15 that’s filled with interactive art and some amusement rides — each offered their own challenges coinciding with the pandemic. Two of his new projects will now wait until next spring to arrive on the scene.
“I [wanted] you to be able to ping-pong around that first block for five or six hours and feel like you did lots of different things,” Doherty says. “We had dreams of having a block blocked off. Then we can have our own block party where we can have an event in the middle of the street. There would be lots of food options, lots of bar options, multiple DJs, and entertainment options, instead of being in one club.”
Indeed, 2020 was meant to be a year of big plans for Doherty, who would make a mark on Fremont East with six spaces on the block between Las Vegas Boulevard and Sixth Street. His Park on Fremont, with its garden-like patio space at the back, only has three tables inside, which made it difficult to reopen until early October, when the weather brought lower temperatures that could entice customers to sit outside. Commonwealth, Doherty’s first bar, transformed into The Laundry Room, which previously only occupied a tiny speakeasy space within the space. Now the more complex cocktails fill the bar, with mandatory reservations for a more intimate experience. The rooftop reopened at the end of September with a modest makeover.
But Lucky Day and Discopussy were meant to provide different adventures for the mix of tourists and locals in search of something hipper. Both planned to open two days before Gov. Steve Sisolak re-closed bars on July 10.
“Between Discopussy, Oddwood, and Lucky Day, they all have large bar footprints and bar tops with friends. And all three have dance floors. It’s very DJ-driven dance floor environments that we were creating,” Doherty says. “We had to push pause on that for now and get them open with just some limited seating.”
Lucky Day offered flights of guacamole and reservations to adhere to bar restrictions that included offering food and keeping the bar top closed. But the closed bar top meant that the intimacy of talking to a bartender to suss out a drink order couldn’t be achieved. “We have a lot of nights where it’s pretty depressing actually because we turn away more people than we actually actually let in,” Doherty says. “In the beginning, telling people not to dance was the toughest challenge we had. If they were just dancing by their table, that was still not allowed.”
Discopussy was even more difficult to open. The techno lounge offers hummus and pita chips along with hookah while customers sit at socially distanced tables instead of sweating on the dance floor. The 6,500-square-foot space has room for 500 people; it features a dance floor with a massive “disco octopus” light hanging over the bar. The eight tentacles light up with 10,000 laser-cut components with 5,000 light diodes. Studio Annwn and Future TBD created its over-the-top chandelier.
Doherty’s idea brought a block of bars to Fremont East, each catering to a different crowd. Visitors could have complex mezcal and tequila drinks earlier in the night at Lucky Day or a mix of hip-hop and quick drinks at Discopussy. Park on Fremont offers more than 100 beers and renovated its back patio during the pandemic shutdown. But the longterm viability of these spaces remains to be seen when convention and festival organizers have postponed in-person events.
“We’ve been busy and trying to find the silver lining,” Doherty says. “We’re taking our time and getting things even a little bit more detailed and dialed in, and then getting the staff trained while there’s only 25 percent service going on.”
One unifying feature in all of Doherty’s venues is art. This traces back to Life Is Beautiful, the music, food, and culture festival that started seven years ago in Downtown Las Vegas. Doherty launched the festival that closed the streets of 15 blocks of Fremont East, bringing in The Killers and Kings of Leon over the three-day event and turning the streets into an open-air art gallery with artists — such as Banksy, Portugal’s Bordalo II, and D*Face — painting murals on the sides of buildings. Doherty brought in sculptures as well, including some that he found at the annual Burning Man festival in northern Nevada. Doherty wanted to bring “Shogyo Mujo” by Joshua Harker and Bart Kresa Studio to the festival in 2018, but someone had already bought the interactive, 12-foot-tall skull covered in 3D projection mapping and synced to music.
The buyer happened to be Area15, where the piece is licensed to appear until 2023. After securing a partnership, Doherty’s Oddwood opened at the interactive Area15 in September. Anchored by a 23-foot-tall Japanese maple tree lit with twinkling LED lights, Oddwood sits in The Spine, the central area of the venue that visitors can walk in and out of as they view the art. “I got really into LED art, as you can tell by all the new spaces right now,” he says. The Tree of Ténéré from Burning Man three years ago inspired Oddwood’s own artwork and is the centerpiece of the space.
Oddwood opened the day before the state’s COVID-19 task force lifted Gov. Sisolak’s restrictions on bars and taverns, which closed bars that did not serve food and kept bar tops closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Many of the attractions at Area15 have not opened yet, and plan instead to open slowly through early 2021. “The biggest success for them has been that people walk in and get it right away. They don’t shrug and say, ‘I don’t get it,’” Doherty says.
With only 10 tables and the barstools reserved for those standalone high-tops, Doherty ordered more stools for the bar once bar tops were allowed to reopen. Doherty says an unannounced second bar opens in the space later this month.
Over at Lucky Day, the 3,000-square-foot bar features a canopy of 15,000 programmable LED lights that highlight art on the ceiling designed by Building 180 and created by artist Keegan Olton. The space features 12 pieces from Bob Dob out of Southern California, who specializes in paintings that celebrate the surf and skate punk rock culture. Other tidbits to see include a deejay booth created from a salvaged church pulpit and a neon sign with the Virgin Mary.
“It always seems to get hijacked by the crowds, and how they play with it,” Doherty says of the artwork. “Sometimes I spend so much time doing one thing that I think it could get a lot of attention, and something that was like a borderline afterthought is a hit. It’s fun to see what people react.”
In spring 2021, Doherty hopes to open two new venues on Fremont East. Cheap Shot will bring a rowdy vaudeville showroom with seating for 99 and two shows a night. We All Scream, meanwhile, will feature a two-story nightclub with a back patio and rooftop space and a small ice cream parlor at the front.
We All Scream combines a nightclub, music, art, and ice cream in a 10,000-square-foot space at 517 Fremont St., formerly Beauty Bar. Inside, three different spaces that include an indoor bar that replicates a 1950s ice cream parlor with brass fittings, dark woods, and drugstore ephemera; a back alley patio with dancing under strings of lights; and upstairs, a rooftop bar and dance floor with 360-degree views of Downtown Las Vegas. That back alley patio combines large-scale art installations and music.
The venue plans to fund a robust mural arts program across the city. Customers can choose from six flavors of ice cream in the parlor and then pick from one of three buildings to receive a mural. That idea bloomed from Life Is Beautiful, when people would ask for a mural painted on a building outside the festival’s footprint, which didn’t make sense for the project. Instead, customers can now help fund the paintings, which Doherty thinks can bring up to 15 new works to the city in a year. “There’s no winners or losers. We’ll eventually do them all,” he says.
Cheapshot takes over 520 Fremont St. with a 3,000-square-foot venue, dubbed the smallest showroom and discotheque in Las Vegas. Think of Cheapshot as an homage to camp and classic Las Vegas featuring unconventional acts including comedians and dancers. The venue comes wrapped in reds, gold accents, and softly lit booths surrounding the bar’s stage outfitted with red velvet curtains.
“It’s been great to see these venues come to get to the finish line,” Doherty adds. “A lot of work went into these places for years.”