The Atomic Cocktail
“Booom” I say to the bartender.
I may have had one too many. That’s my only explanation. You see I’m standing at (well leaning on) the bar of Atomic Liquors, Las Vegas’ oldest cocktail bar. Owned and operated for more than 50 years by husband and wife Joe and Stella Sobchik, the bar had gotten a little rough around the edges the last time I was here. When I heard that the place had re-opened after a two year hiatus (the Sobchiks passed away within weeks of each other in 2010), I made the five hour road trip from Los Angeles.
The bar became an institution under the Sobchiks. Partly because post-war America had a fascination with all things atomic. Atomic energy. Atomic weapons. Atomic tourism. They all represented the future and Joe Sobchik made the timely decision to rename the place Atomic Liquors in 1952. This small gesture of genius may have permanently attached his little bar on Fremont street to the future. I made this road trip to see what was left of America’s fascination with the atomic era. You see, this tiny brick-fronted bar with its booming neon sign has a nuclear-sized story to tell. A uniquely American story.
Which is why I find myself falling over my words as I try to explain to the bartender that I think this bar is the best place for those of us who love to hate Las Vegas. People like me with romanticized, outdated notions about this colossal pleasure palace in the sand. The allure of Las Vegas goes beyond gambling and always has. “Vegas is for rascals” I try to explain.
The Atomic is located away from the casino lights on a comparatively deserted downtown street. Flanked by a pair of motels from a bygone era, it’s hard to imagine Las Vegas when this rough strip of pavement was ground zero.
But ground zero it was– in more ways than one. Atomic Liquors was once a notorious hangout for Vegas’ most enigmatic characters. Gangsters, show girls and tourists sidled up to this bar next to regulars that included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and even the Smothers Brothers. More recently, scenes from the movie “The Hangover” were filmed here– and Joe Pesci’s “Casino” character killed a guy with a pen right where I’m standing.
It’s rascals like these that have given Vegas its lasting allure.
The bartender may be a bit of a rascal himself. He’s looking over my shoulder towards the next customer because my story is taking far too long. So I try one more tactic.
“I’m not suicidal.” I tell the guy as try to talk my way onto the roof of the bar. I can see the doubt in his eyes. Well, doubt or bemusement. After all, this is Las Vegas and I’m sure he’s heard every story in the book.
“I’m interested in the roof of this bar as a modern day atomic tourist”, I say, feeling like a rascal myself.
There was a time when the big bombs of the atomic age were tested just outside the city limits. As the bombs went “booom” awe-struck patrons would regularly make their way up to the roof, drinks in hand, to marvel at the giant mushroom clouds forming on the horizon. Which sounds insane. But at the start of the Cold War, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce issued a calendar for tourists that listed the scheduled times of the bomb detonations and the best places in town to view them. Innovative business owners like the Sobchiks invented drinks and had special events timed to make the most of the tourist “booom”.
But times have changed and there’s just no way this bartender is letting me on the roof. It’s exciting though, being here imagining what it must have been like back in the day. Back in a simpler time when anything atomic spelled excitement and Las Vegas was the atomic capital of the world. “Booom” GREG