Snapping a selfie at the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign is a must-do. (Photo: Alamy)
In the original Ocean’s 11, Frank Sinatra’s Danny Ocean and his band of war buddies staged a daring New Year’s Eve heist at five Las Vegas casinos — the Desert Inn, Sands, Flamingo, Sahara and Riviera. In the more-than half century since the movie’s release, most of those properties – and much else of Las Vegas’ storied past — has been dynamited into oblivion, replaced by shiny, new megaresorts.
Are there any remaining vestiges of vintage Vegas? If you know where to look, you can still find remnants of Sin City the way it used to be, from the original neon of Glitter Gulch to Rat Pack hangouts and, of course, the iconic sign that says it all.
“Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” Sign
Erected in 1959, this world-famous beacon to fun seekers stands on a grassy median at the south end of Las Vegas Boulevard. The playful design is topped by a neon starburst and rimmed by gold chasing lights. Never copyrighted, the design continues to inspire a global cottage industry of kitsch, from beach towels to baby’s onesies and snow globes to shot glasses.
The classic neon that lent Las Vegas its high-voltage personality back in the day has mostly gone the way of the dodo bird, replaced by LED screens as big as houses. You can take a look at more than 200 signs from Vegas’s neon heyday on a docent-led, guided tour at the Neon Museum, just north of downtown. Among the colorful old relics are the 1955 sign from the Moulin Rouge, Las Vegas’s first integrated hotel-casino, and the 1958 Stardust sign, whose space-agey letters pay homage to the days when Las Vegans clinked martini glasses to toast the glow of atomic bombs detonated in the Mojave Desert.
Only a few of the signs at the Neon Museum are restored and lighted. For a look at original Vegas neon in its brightly lighted glory, head downtown to the museum’s urban collection, viewable 24/7 along Las Vegas Boulevard and neighboring streets.
Battista’s Hole in the Wall
A block off the Strip, Battista’s is a throwback of an Italian eatery once popular with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and has been serving up classic fare like four-cheese lasagna and chicken parmigiana since 1970. The off-Strip eatery is a fun antidote to the overpriced, celebrity-chef-driven dining scene on the Strip: Gordy the strolling accordion player is still performing “Lady of Spain” — “Just for you!” — and dinner comes with free house wine.
Little Church of the West
This miniaturized replica of a church in a western mining town, still boasting its original 10 pine pews, stained glass and hitching post out front, has been popular with celebrities ever since actress Betty Grable said “I do” to bandleader Harry James in 1943. Built of cedar, with a vaulted roof and steeple, the Little Church of the West is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign stands just south of here on Las Vegas Boulevard, so once you and your beloved have promised to stick together till death do you part, you can run down to the sign for a quickie (photo shoot, that is).
Golden Gate Hotel
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. partied at the bar at Golden Gate Hotel, Las Vegas’s first lodging establishment, which opened as the Hotel Nevada in 1906 and for a time was known as the Sal Sagev (Las Vegas backwards). The hotel has undergone a dramatic restoration in recent years, but the lobby still holds relics of Sin City’s days as a railroad boom town, among them an authentic model of Las Vegas’s first telephone. The number for the wood, wall-mounted 1907 Kellogg telephone was, of course, “1.”
Golden Steer Steak House
John Wayne, Elvis, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, Muhammed Ali, mobster Tony “the Ant” Spilotro, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. Anybody who was anybody dined at the Golden Steer, a classic steakhouse that is still popular with bold-face names and regular Joes looking for prime-aged, corn-fed beef and a Caesar salad prepared the way it’s supposed to be — tableside, with raw egg, anchovies, parmesan and a hint of tabasco.
Don’t be fooled by the strip mall location and big, yellow cow out front. Inside, the Golden Steer is all old-school elegance. Ask for Table 22. That’s the booth where Sinatra tucked in to his regular — clams casino and a 16-ounce New York strip steak.