A patron smoking by the pool table at Double Down Saloon.
All photos by Jett Lara | Photo Editor: Ricardo Nagaoka

I Spent 72 Depraved Hours Searching for the Gnarliest Dive Bar in Las Vegas

17 bars, six games of pool, and an unknowable number of Miller Lites later, I finally tracked it down. But I could never have prepared myself for what I found along the way.
Drew Schwartz
Brooklyn, US
photos by Jett Lara
A slew of glitzy, trashy, action-packed, and generally thrilling ways to spend your days and nights in Sin City. Hit the ATM and follow us.

On a punishingly hot Saturday in Las Vegas, I stood in a dirty parking lot outside of the Double Down Saloon, a windowless, Pepto-pink brick building about two miles from the Strip, and tried to steel myself for the debased task ahead of me. Over the next 72 hours, I would be visiting as many dive bars as my liver could handle, making my way from one to the next based solely on word-of-mouth recommendations from bartenders and regulars. By the end of my journey, I would track down the diviest dive bar in Vegas.


I had lobbied for this assignment, in part, because nothing brings me more joy than crushing Miller Lites in a complete and utter shithole. But beyond that, I wanted to see a side of the city you won’t find in a travel brochure.

Sin City is sold as a hedonistic escape; somewhere you go to be someone you’re not. Every year, millions of tourists—thirty-two million, to be exact—fly in from all over the world to party and gamble with other tourists, all of them seeking a reprieve from the mundanity of everyday life. But propping up that unreality is an ecosystem of full-time residents keeping the hyper-indulgent dream of Las Vegas alive. I figured that when they aren’t waiting tables, dealing cards, impersonating dead celebrities, and otherwise sustaining the maximalist fantasyland we believe Las Vegas to be, these locals could be found in the city’s dive bars: places away from all the hubbub where they can be themselves. It was there, I imagined, that I might discover the city beneath the city. Or at least that’s what I hoped.

So it was that on a bright, cloudless May afternoon, I found myself squinting at the dingy exterior of the Double Down Saloon. I took a deep breath, pulled open its steel front door, and walked inside.

Interior of the Double Down Saloon in Las Vegas

The inside of the Double Down

It was pitch-dark; I couldn’t see a thing. I had to stand stock-still for about ten seconds, trying not to fall over, before I could stumble into a stool and order a beer. A hand-drawn sign above the bar advertised a concoction called “Ass Juice,” sold at a mystifying rate of one for $4 and two for $9. Every wall in the Double Down was covered in graffiti. Two men were shooting pool by an empty stage. The Double Down made me kind of nervous, and I was suddenly overcome by the need to pee, so I went to the bathroom. As I unzipped my fly, the door swung open. A wild-eyed man in a tattered black T-shirt stared at me silently.


“Oh,” I said. “Is this the women’s or something?”

“Nah,” he said. “Just fuckin’ with you.”

When I emerged from the bathroom, the man introduced himself. “Mike-Mike,” he said, pointing to his chest. Then he pointed to a man in the corner. “Lolly.”

Bathroom stalls at the Double Down Saloon

The bathrooms at the Double Down Saloon

Mike-Mike and I started playing a game of pool. Every few minutes, he would kind of black out and walk away, appearing to forget we were playing; to forget, it seemed, where he was entirely. He had to ask me whether he was stripes or solids before every shot he took. There wasn’t any chalk at the Double Down, but Mike-Mike didn’t need it. At one point, he turned his pool cue upside down, stuck the tip of it in an ashtray, and rubbed it around in there vigorously. It looked like something he’d done a thousand times.

When we finished our game, Mike-Mike turned to me with a question.

“You wanna go dive bar?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “What’s it called?”

“Dive bar,” he said.

“What? Where is it?” I asked.

“Close,” he said. Then he wandered over to the bar and ordered another drink.

Patrons at the Double Down Saloon

Left: Patrons at the Double Down | Right: Tom'O, a regular at the Double Down

I went outside. Soon I was joined by Lolly, who, I came to learn, was a bartender at the Double Down. He’d worked a shift from midnight to 10 a.m.; it was now 2:23 p.m., and somehow he was still standing.


“One of our bartenders swept up an eyeball one time,” he told me.

“That’s crazy,” I said.

About ten minutes later, Mike-Mike walked outside. We all piled into Lolly’s four-door sedan and headed for the next bar. When Mike-Mike reached behind him for his seatbelt, he got his arm stuck between his headrest and my window. “Shit!” he exclaimed, laughing. “Motherfucker got my arm! Give it back!”

Outside the Double Down Saloon in Las Vegas

A man doing God knows what outside of the Double Down

We came to a stop in a strip mall parking lot near a cluster of Harley Davidsons. Above a dark glass facade, in big block letters, hung the words “DIVE BAR.”

The place was massive and desolate. Kitschy bric-a-brac lined the walls and filled the shelves. Not counting myself, Mike-Mike, Lolly, and the bartender, there were five people inside.

“Happy birthday, motherfucker!” Lolly shouted, barreling toward a man in the back of the room. I took a stool at the bar by two men sitting alone, and Mike-Mike sat down next to me.

“Here’s what we’re gonna do,” Mike-Mike said. “What we’re gonna do is we’re gonna start a riot. Everybody grab one chair. Not two. Not six. One. And we’re gonna throw it at the sky.”

I couldn’t quite tell if Mike-Mike was kidding. That nervous urge to pee came over me again, so I got up to go to the bathroom. As I stood before the urinal, I heard two men talking in the stall next to me. Though I can’t say it with certainty, I’m fairly confident they were doing cocaine. It was 2:54 p.m.


When I got back to the bar, Mike-Mike was gone. The two men we’d been sitting with were discussing him with the bartender. I learned that Mike-Mike was 86’d from Dive Bar, and had been for some time. The bar he had elected to take me to was one he was forbidden from entering.

Hoping to salvage something from my visit, I turned to the bartender, a tattooed woman in her mid-30s wearing a cutoff T-shirt, and asked her if she knew of any other dives I should see while I was in town. She rattled off about a dozen spots, with names ranging from fairly normal (“The Mint Tavern”) to absurd (“Moondoggie’s”), and I scribbled them down frantically. The one place I should really check out, she said, was the Rusty Spur. She didn’t do a great job of selling it; all she really said about it was that there was a big, silver statue of a bull outside. But I had seen all I needed to see of this barren, empty bar, so I heeded her advice.

Just as I was about to hail a car to the Rusty Spur, my phone rang. It was Freddy Diamonds, a longtime Vegas resident I had met at a steakhouse the night before. He was a living, breathing character from a Scorcese movie, a man who exclusively wears tailored suits, hands a $5 bill to every waiter who refills his water glass, and talks like a New Jersey wise guy from the 1950s.

“Listen: Whaddya say me and you get dinner tonight?” Freddy barked into the phone. “Italian American Club—maybe five-thirty, six o’clock. I’ll introduce you to the 25 people who run this town.”


I told Freddy that, unfortunately, I had to work on my story. I hadn’t made much headway, and it was already 3:30 p.m.

“Don’t sweat it,” he said. “I’ll see ya next time.”

Standing there in Dive Bar’s parking lot, it dawned on me that there probably wouldn’t be a next time. I wondered if I had made a mistake. A man named Freddy Diamonds had just invited me to dinner at a place called the “Italian American Club,” and I… said… no? What in God’s name was I thinking?

I told Freddy I had changed my mind, and we agreed to meet at 6 p.m. That gave me just enough time to visit one more dive before I had to go back to my hotel, throw on a dinner jacket, and hustle to the restaurant.

When I pulled up to the Rusty Spur, I discovered that the statue I had been told about wasn’t actually a bull; it was a unicorn. I also discovered that the bar stood in the parking lot of a seedy motel, and was built in a shape that defied the laws of geometry.

The Rusty Spur.

The Rusty Spur

An older gentleman sat in a stool near the door with a motorcycle helmet propped on the bar in front of him. He babbled incoherently to himself and, every so often, giggled. A little further down the bar were two younger men, one of whom had a five-inch diamond tattooed on his cheek, and a woman with cherry-red hair. The Rusty Spur was minuscule. After I sat down, there were only two seats left at the bar.


“Funkytown” blared from the speakers. I was a few beers deep, and I started singing along. “Won’t you take me to….”

The man with the face tattoo turned to me and grinned. “Funky-toooooooown!”

We proceeded to sing the rest of the song as a duet, and high-fived when it ended. “I’m Sparks,” the man said. “This is Edgar, and that’s Rosie.”

I told them I was visiting town from New York, and that I had come to Vegas to write a story about dive bars.

“I was supposed to go to New York a week ago,” Edgar said. “Then I got locked up.”

Edgar asked me what kind of a spot I was looking for. With the goal of discovering the diviest bar in Vegas in mind, I told him I wanted to find somewhere gritty, maybe even kind of scary; the kind of place where you might get stabbed on a bad night.

“You wanna get stabbed?” Edgar asked, as if it was something he could make happen for me.

“It’s not that I want to…well, no. I don’t want to get stabbed,” I said.

The bar at the Rusty Spur.

A dog on the bar of the Rusty Spur

Edgar, Sparks, Rosie, and the bartender, a muscular woman in her late 30s, started batting around names of dives I should check out. My list quickly doubled in size. Sparks and I got into an impassioned conversation about 80s music, and we took turns throwing songs on the jukebox. The two of us were having a blast—dancing, singing, generally making fools of ourselves—but Rosie was decidedly not.


“Fuck this 80s shit,” she said. “Put on some 60s shit.”

She asked me to play “Roadhouse Blues” by The Doors, which instantly lifted her spirits. She pulled up a chair next to me and started baring her soul, telling me all about her ex-husband and the path they’d taken from high school sweethearts to mortal enemies to best friends. Meanwhile, Sparks and Edgar were talking to the bartender about the relative merits of Keno as compared to Joker Poker. The mumbling man in the corner shimmied back and forth in his stool, doing a little jig.

I would have kept drinking at the Rusty Spur until my body gave out on me and I slipped into the afterlife, but I had a date with Freddy Diamonds. I called a car, hugged Sparks goodbye, and walked out into the blinding daylight.

Interior of the Rusty Spur Saloon

The bar at the Rusty Spur

I had planned to have a quick bite at the Italian American Club and get back to my bar crawl, but instead I spent the next eight hours with a group of men who, according to Freddy, were in the Mafia. He told me that one of them had killed 20 people, and that another had inspired the character of Reuben Tishkoff from Ocean’s Eleven. (When I asked the alleged murderer what he did for a living, he told me he worked in “sanitation.”) Due to constraints of space and personal security, I can’t describe the arc of our evening in its entirety. All I’ll say is that I woke up the next morning to the following text messages from Freddy Diamonds, who had headed home early.


“Are u alive?” he asked me.

“I am,” I said.

“OK,” he said. “I was afraid they 86’d you eight miles out and six feet deep.”

The Rusty Spur Las Vegas unicorn

The unicorn outside of the Rusty Spur.

I rolled out of bed the next day with a sinking feeling in my stomach. I had two nights left in Vegas, and I’d only been to three dive bars. It was time to get to work. I took a look at my list, thinking I could find a way to drink at least one Miller Lite in every bar it contained, but I quickly realized that was impossible. There were 39 dives I still hadn’t set foot in, spread all across the city. I gave up on the idea of applying any sense of order to the anarchic undertaking before me, plucked a bar from my list at random—the Stage Door—and took a cab there.

It looked like a brick-and-mortar version of a truck that sells funnel cakes at a carnival. A 30-foot marquee, advertising “DISCOUNT LIQUOR,” “$5 PATRON SHOTS,” and “ATM,” spanned the length of the building. I handed the doorman my ID.

“Only bar in Vegas where you can get seven beers and a hot dog for ten bucks,” he said. “Have a good time.”

I ordered a dollar Bud, lit a cigarette, and sized up the room. Almost every seat inside was taken, occupied mostly by tourists in jerseys and T-shirts embossed with weird slogans like “I Shaved My BALLS For This?” It was clear I should just cut my losses and get out of there. I chugged my Bud and headed for the closest spot on my list: Ellis Island, a bar inside of a budget hotel-casino off the Strip.


All I had heard about the place was that I should go there if I wanted to do “freak karaoke.” The phrase had puzzled me at first, but it only took a few seconds for me to see exactly what it meant.

A man with wild gray hair down to his waist strode onto the stage (a four-foot by four-foot box) and started singing Bon Jovi’s “Bed of Roses.” He had perfect pitch; when he hit high notes, I thought the bottle of Miller Lite in my hand might explode. Everyone at the bar went nuts for him, but no one more so than an older man in front of the stage, who was pretending to play Bon Jovi’s solos on air guitar with his eyes squeezed shut in an expression of intense concentration. When the singer finished, he did a scissor kick off the stage.

“Wow!” the MC said. “What a performance. Only one man can follow that. Let’s bring up TJ the Cowboy Crooner. Come on up, TJ.”

TJ wore a massive belt buckle, cowboy boots, and a ten-gallon hat. His voice was as shockingly good as the last guy’s. Over the next hour or so, I watched everyone who took the stage blow the fucking house down. Some guy who called himself “Bob the King of Falsetto” sang Charlie Puth’s “Light Switch” as if it were an aria. A man with a handlebar mustache rapped every line of “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash without once looking at the lyrics, and, during a musical interlude, started breakdancing with astounding skill. Each new performer proved to be even stranger and more gifted than the last.


I was cackling like a maniac, but Jeremy Fields, a regular sitting next to me at the bar, was completely unfazed. I told him about my story, and he asked me where I’d been so far. I pulled out my list.

“God damn,” he said. “You got Rusty Spur on here… Moondoggie’s, that’s a good one… Front Row… What the hell, man! I hang out in all these places!”

I asked Jeremy if there were any other dives I should know about. He took a few minutes to think on it.

“I don’t tell anybody about this place,” he said. “But I love—I love—Island Bar. Then there’s Play It Again Sam’s.”

“Play It Again Sam’s?” I said. “What’s that?”

“Technically, it’s a strip club,” he said. “If you can survive there, you can survive anywhere. I hate going there.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because… fuck,” he said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. That’s all I can say is fuck.”

I thanked Jeremy for the recommendations, finished my beer, and headed for a spot nearby called Champagne’s. I arrived at the bar, a squat building with blacked-out windows sandwiched between two strip malls, at about 12:15 a.m. I spotted the word “KARAOKE” in large letters on an awning above the entrance and sighed. I told myself I’d drink one beer, sing one song, and leave.


I wound up singing seven, including a duet of Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock’s “Picture” with a woman named Bridgit who only hangs out at Champagne’s, she told me, because she’s from Champaign, Illinois. I would’ve stayed there with her, Lonny, B-Side, Raymond, and some guy with a gold grill whose name escapes me until I went hoarse. But it was verging on 2 a.m., and I had to get to Jeremy’s favorite dive: Island Bar.

Patrons at Champagne's.

Left: A patron singing karaoke at Champagne's | Right: A patron at Champagne's buying cigarettes

For what felt like the thousandth time since I’d touched down in Vegas, I found myself in a strip mall parking lot. I approached Island Bar’s front door, which was covered by a sheet of criss-crossed steel, only to find that it was locked. A sign instructed me to ring a bell for admission. The door popped open with a metallic “BZZZZZZZZ.”

The place was enormous; a massive, curving bar, maybe 60 feet long, snaked across the room. Drooping ceiling fans, whose lightbulbs dyed everything inside sepia, spun lazily above me. The only customers were a woman playing a slot machine in the corner and a couple drinking in silence at the end of the bar.

“You’re lucky,” said the bartender, a woman named Jennifer with frizzy auburn hair. “If I don’t know you, you don’t get in. Why are you here?”

Inside of Island Bar

The inside of Island Bar

I told her about the story I was working on and mentioned Jeremy’s name. “Oh, boy,” she said. “Let me give you the tour.” She pointed out a number of strange sculptures embedded in the walls. One of them was a six-foot tall kebab made from what appeared to be cement, whose origins she was powerless to explain. (“We don’t serve kebabs. We don’t even serve food.”) In the corner, 30-odd pool balls had been glued to the wall in no discernible pattern, an installation Jennifer referred to as the “pool ball climbing wall.” All throughout the bar, tiki totems gazed down at us ominously.


Jennifer made a G&T for Southern, a man with a shaved head and a long, gray beard, emptying a bottle of well gin in the process. She turned the bottle upside-down and shook the last few drops of booze it contained into her mouth. Then she squeezed a lime directly onto her tongue and chucked it at a trash can behind her. It bounced off the rim and hit the floor, where it remained for the rest of the night.

“I found these,” Jennifer said, donning a pair of large oval sunglasses. They made her look like some kind of bug. “Southern?” she said. “Yep,” he said, taking the sunglasses from her. He put them on and raised his arms in a gesture of victory. We sat there for about an hour—swapping stories, telling jokes, taking turns trying on the bug glasses—until I announced that I should probably head to the next bar on my list.

The exterior of Island Bar.

The exterior of Island Bar

I walked into Dino’s, a hovel on the edge of the Fremont, at about 3:30 a.m. It felt disappointingly normal: neon signs, black leather stools, a jukebox. I poured the Miller Lite I’d ordered into a to-go cup and walked half a mile to the Hard Hat Lounge.

As I had at Island Bar, I needed to ring a bell in order to be granted passage to the Hard Hat, which I gathered was some kind of security measure. Eventually, the bartender opened the door, revealing a dim shoebox of a bar behind him. There was only one other person inside. He was playing pool against the bartender, who referred to himself as “Xavier Big as a Bear.” Feeling that if I drank another Miller Lite my stomach might explode, I ordered a Fernet, and put a quarter down on the table.


By the time Xavier and I finished our second game of pool, I had downed three Fernets and somehow gained access to an iPad that allowed me to control the music. I was blasting disco over the speakers and dancing around the pool table like Tom Cruise in The Color of Money. I bent down to rack our third game, and when I looked up, there was a woman standing next to me with a McDonald’s bag in her hand.

“Egg McMuffin?” she said.

“Wow,” I said. “I think I’m good, but thank you.”

“Hash brown?” she said. “I know you want a hash brown.”

I wolfed down the hash brown and won my final game against Xavier—the tiebreaker in a highly competitive, best two-out-of-three championship—which put me in a state of drunken ecstasy. Crucially, it also gave me an excuse to leave the Hard Hat for my next destination. When I told my new friends where I was headed, they laughed at me in disbelief.

“Jesus Christ, dude,” Xavier said. “Play It Again Sam’s? Right now?”

“I gotta go,” I said. “Good games.”

Exterior of Hard Hat Bar Las Vegas

Taking out the trash at the Hard Hat

I walked into a near-empty Play It Again Sam’s at 5:52 a.m. Two dancers, one of whom was double-masked, sat at the bar. A man who seemed like he might be the manager counted money in the corner. I ordered a Fernet and took a seat.


I felt a kind of awe and reverence for the women working there during such a painfully slow shift. Suddenly something came over me; I remembered the fiscal generosity Freddy Diamonds had displayed to almost everyone I’d seen cross his path, and felt his spirit coursing through my veins. “I can’t believe you’re here right now,” I said to the bartender, passing her a $5 bill. I walked over to the two dancers sitting at the bar. “You guys don’t have to do anything—you don’t even have to talk to me—but I just want to give you this for being awake,” I said. I handed each of them $5. “That’s all.”

They invited me to sit with them, and asked me what the hell I was doing at Play It Again Sam’s at 6 a.m. on a Monday. I told them about my story. The woman in the two masks, one of which was bedecked with rhinestones, had a few suggestions for me.

“I got my purse stolen at Mardi Gras,” she said. “That could be a good one. And Dotty’s. Somebody got shot there. Actually, I think they got ran over. I don’t know. Watch out if you go to Dotty’s.”

By the time I finished my Fernet, my eyelids were getting heavy, and my stomach felt like it was filled with some kind of toxic chemical, which, I suppose, it was. I thanked everyone at Play It Again Sam’s for existing again and walked outside, where I was confronted by the bright, blinding light of the Las Vegas sun. At 6:24 a.m., it had just crested above the horizon. It was time for me to go to bed.

Photos of Las Vegas in the daylight.

Left: A woman standing outside on the outskirts of Las Vegas | Right: The Strat Hotel

When I woke up the next day, my head felt like it was full of angry bees, but my heart felt pretty good. The folks I’d encountered over the past 48 hours were exactly the kind of people I’d wanted to meet. Sparks is an electrician; he literally keeps the lights on at the gargantuan hotel-casinos that line the Strip. Jeremy is an A/V technician working behind the scenes to dazzle tourists at the shows they pay hundreds of dollars to see. (I never found out what Mike-Mike does for a living.) These were the people keeping the machine of Las Vegas humming. They were delightful, and so, too, was the world they inhabited in their off-hours.

But I still wasn’t convinced I had found the diviest bar in Las Vegas. According to my list, there were at least 32 other claimants to that title I had yet to see. The thought of what I had to do next made me want to crawl into a hole and die, but I knew I had to do it nonetheless. I had to go get drunk again.

I had learned from the night before not to waste my time drinking in bars that weren’t really dives. Tonight, there could be no quarter given to the Stage Doors and Dino’s of this world. I audited every remaining bar on my list, excising any place that looked like it had standards and bookmarking those in which I could reasonably envision myself having a bottle broken over my head. Several hours and approximately nine cigarettes later, I had architected what seemed to me a promising itinerary for the night ahead.


What happened next was a disaster.

At the first bar on my route, Atomic Liquors, patrons in button-down shirts and khakis sipped from branded pint glasses and perused a chalkboard describing the flavor profiles of 20 different draft beers. My second destination, Huntridge Tavern, bore all the marks of a dive—cheap beer, free popcorn, a well-loved dart board—but it lacked the scuzzy, vaguely frightening quality that would place it a rung above (or, rather, below) almost any of the bars I had visited the night before. When I arrived at my third stop, the Silver Stamp, I asked the bartender for an ashtray, only to be told that there was no smoking allowed inside. I stood up, pushed in my chair, and left without ordering a drink. A bar in Vegas you can’t smoke in is, unequivocally, not a dive.

It was getting close to midnight, and I had made no progress in my search. I began to panic. I felt that all the planning I’d put into this night had been worthless. That all the time I’d spent eating expensive shrimp with Freddy Diamonds had been time wasted. That I would return to New York faced with the depressing knowledge that I didn’t have the cunning or the endurance to find a real, down-and-out shithole in a town that was supposedly chock-full of them.

Despite how deeply my revised list had disappointed me over the past few hours, I decided that the only thing I could really do at this point was stick to it. I dragged my feet toward the next bar on my route: the Aztec Inn.


The Aztec was less a bar than a micro-casino. There were about 30 video slot machines scattered across its carpeted floor. At 12:15 a.m. on a Tuesday, people were playing nearly every one of them. On one side of the fluorescent-lit room stood a stage, where a rat’s nest of electrical wires and two large speakers sat. There was no music playing. The only sound inside was the frenetic click-click-click-click-click of plastic buttons being mashed by a hundred different fingers, and the incessant beeping of digital slots. A massive rectangular bar, inlaid with small video poker machines, took up about a quarter of the room. In the corner was something called the “$5 Cafe,” which looked like a restaurant in a shopping mall food court. Photos above the service window advertised a perplexing combination of Chinese food, breakfast, and Philly cheesesteaks.

Exterior of the Aztec Inn

The front entrance of the Aztec Inn

I took a seat at the bar. To my left, a mousy woman in a pair of oversized circular glasses muttered spasmodically to herself. To my right, a man swirled his hands across a poker machine, which was not a touch-screen, as if to cast some kind of sorcerer’s spell. Across the bar from me, a woman chain-smoked cigarettes and violently tapped a button on her machine at a rate of about six hits per second. A man walked in from the rear entrance and shouted something unintelligible, then darted across the room and stormed out the front door. About five minutes later, he did the exact same thing, only this time he entered from the front and left through the back. Everywhere I looked, someone was doing something bizarre and incomprehensible. I felt like I was coming up on psychedelics inside an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.


The bartender, a stocky, heavily tattooed man in his 40s, came over to take my order. I started peppering him with questions. After sitting there for five minutes, I had about a million of them.

“What happens on the stage?” I asked.

“Nothing, man,” he said. “Sometimes somebody will go up there and get weird. Then they kick him out.”

“Why is the pool table covered up?” I asked.

“Just to piss people off,” he said. “When they did have one, people would gamble and then get into fights. We don’t want an excuse for people to fight. Two dudes got in a UFC fight the other day because they shook hands the wrong way.”

“Why isn’t there any music on?” I asked.

“Somebody unplugged the speakers so they could charge their phone,” he said. “One second.”

A woman walked up to him and held out a plastic cup, which contained about an inch of briny yellow liquid. “Gimme five olives,” she said. He dumped them into her cup, and she walked away without another word.

“What’s the deal with that restaurant?” I asked.

“The $5 cafe?” he said. “It’s good. They got Thai food. Breakfast.”

“Is everything $5?” I asked.


“No,” he said. “Just the eggs and toast and bacon.”

I kept asking the bartender questions, and he kept telling me things that were completely insane. A few weeks ago, he said, a woman wearing only a blanket chucked a boulder through the window. He told me that the Aztec was connected to an abandoned motel, which, combined with the bar, was worth $66 million, but the owners refused to sell it. The more we talked, the less I understood.

Boarded up empty motel by Aztec Inn in Las Vegas Nevada

The empty motel by the Aztec Inn

Partway through our conversation, a man two seats down from me started hollering across the bar at a woman in a pink tank-top. Her face was covered in tattoos. “Vegas!” the man shouted. “Vegas!”

“It’s Venus,” she yelled back at him. “I’m Switzerland neutral and I always will be. Don’t try to change my narrative.”

“So it was never Vegas?” the man asked.

“When I was a hooker,” she said. “I’m going to college now.”

Venus stood up and walked around the bar. I assumed she was coming to talk to the man who’d been screaming at her. Instead, she sidled up next to me.

“Hey baby,” she said.

“Hi,” I said. “How’s your night going?”

“Getting better every second,” she said. She lowered her voice. “You got any weed?”


“I don’t, unfortunately,” I said. “Just tobacco.”

She pushed herself back from the bar and strutted toward the exit. Halfway to the door, she spun around and cupped her hands to her mouth. “I’m gonna stand outside until somebody brings me a blunt,” she shouted. Then she left.

A woman in a wheelchair rolled up to the bar and sat next to me. She fed $10 into the machine in front of her. A few seconds later, she started cursing at it and smacking it with her palms. She popped out a voucher for the money she’d deposited and asked me if we could trade seats, which I was happy to do. She fed her voucher into the new machine, called it a motherfucker a few times, and took her money out again. She shifted down one more seat and slid her voucher into the next machine; finally, it seemed, she had found one that agreed with her. Every few minutes, she tapped me on the arm and gestured toward her screen, trying to get me to appreciate whatever she had just accomplished. But I couldn’t understand the game she was playing. Nor could I understand almost anything she said. The only words I could make out were “Jacks,” “motherfucker,” and “double down.”

I excused myself and walked to the bathroom, but when I got to the door, I found that it was locked. I went back to the bar and asked for the key.


“Gimme your ID,” the bartender said.

“Why?” I asked.

“So you can’t steal the key,” he said.

“Do people steal the bathroom key?” I asked.

“All the time,” he said. “This key’s worth $1,500.”

“What?” I said.

“When you go in there, don’t let anybody come in with you, and don’t let anybody in when you come out,” he said. “If someone asks you to borrow the key, tell them no. Go in, go pee, and come back.”

He handed me a large slotted spoon. The bathroom key was attached to it with a Masterlock. I took the spoon from him, handed him my ID, and headed to the restroom.

As I washed my hands, the door swung open. Two men walked in, one of whom was playing music on a Bluetooth speaker and dancing. He pulled out a sheet of tinfoil and flattened it on the countertop by the sink. The other man removed a dime bag from his pocket, peeled it open, and dumped a cluster of small white rocks onto the tinfoil. Then he whipped out a lighter.

I grabbed the slotted spoon and hurried out to find the bartender.

“I don’t know how this happened,” I told him. “But there are two guys smoking crack in the bathroom right now.”

“OK,” he said. “Thanks.”


That sealed it for me: The Aztec Inn was, without question, the diviest bar in Las Vegas. In fact, it was the diviest place I’d been in my entire life.

Exterior of the Aztec Inn

The exterior of the Aztec Inn

The Aztec stood apart from everywhere else I had visited over the past three days. It wasn’t just the crack in the bathroom, or the weird cafe in the corner, or the fact that all around me, at all times, someone was committing an act of chaos. Amid all that bedlam was a kind of life-affirming purity. Everyone at the Aztec seemed like they’d known each other for years. They hugged each other hello. They asked after each other’s families. They teased each other the way old friends do.

The more derelict a bar is, the more delightful it is to discover that underneath its warped floorboards and yellowing wallpaper lies something irrefutably good; something almost sacred. A truly great dive is a hotbed of degeneracy. But for its regulars, it is also a sanctuary. It’s where they mourn their losses and celebrate their successes; where they are adored for their idiosyncrasies and forgiven for their indiscretions. It’s where they can be fully and unflinchingly themselves.

I had caught glimpses of that dynamic in my time with Mike-Mike and Lolly at the Double Down; with Sparks and Rosie at the Rusty Spur; with Jennifer and Southern at Island Bar. But I found it in spades at the Aztec Inn.

At about 1:30 a.m., a woman in the stool next to me, who had a line of red lipstick streaked across her cheek, pulled out a stack of gift cards and waved them at the security guard standing behind the bar.

“Hendrick!” she called. “I need your help, please.”

The security guard walked over to her and raised an eyebrow.

“$500, each one of these,” she said. “C’mon, Hendrick. Let’s go shopping.”

He laughed and turned away from her.

“Wait!” she called after him. “I need a beer.”

“Alright, Tina,” Hendrick said. “Last time I gave you one, you gave me some cash.”

He popped the top off of a Budweiser and slid it toward her, and she dropped him a dollar bill. He leaned over the bar and chatted with her while she nursed her Bud and dragged on a cigarette, her hand resting gently on his arm. Every so often, she’d throw her head back and laugh.

At 1:45 AM, the woman in the wheelchair rolled up to the counter and handed the bartender a $100 voucher she’d won playing video poker. She was trying to tell him something, but he couldn’t understand her. Another woman walked over and started translating.

“She says take fifty and hold it for her, and give her forty in cash,” the translator said. “And keep ten for yourself.”

“She wants me to keep ten?” the bartender asked. He looked down at the woman in the wheelchair, who nodded at him. “I got you,” he said. “Thank you.” She waved goodbye and rolled toward a machine in the center of the room.

I asked the bartender to help me understand what had just happened. He explained that the woman needed him to hold that $50 so she couldn’t gamble it away. No matter what happened at the next machine, she’d leave the night up.

“That ten she gave me, that’s a lot,” he said. “That’s, like, one in a million.”

I spent my last half hour at the Aztec in silence, bearing witness to beauty and depravity, vice and virtue, marveling at all the contradiction this world contains and its boundless capacity to surprise and delight us. At 2:26 a.m., there wasn’t a free seat in the house. I downed the last of my beer and headed for the door. It was time to give someone else a spot at the bar.

Drew Schwartz is a senior staff writer at VICE. Follow him on Twitter.

This story is part of The VICE Guide to Las Vegas, a no-holds-barred journey through the skanky desert jewel of the U.S.A.

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