August 18, 2016

Atomic Liquors in Las Vegas

Atomic Liquors

photo by: Tom Hilton/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Atomic Liquors, Las Vegas' oldest freestanding bar, opened in 1952.

Few things draw a crowd quite like an explosion.

Las Vegas restaurant owners Joe and Stella Sobchik learned that after the Nevada Test Site, located 60-some miles northwest of town, launched its first of many nuclear tests on January 27, 1951; people flocked to their restaurant’s rooftop to watch the blasts.

For the Sobchiks, the timing was perfect. It was right around then that they had grown tired of serving food. (They had been running Virginia’s Café since it opened in 1945.) Joe much preferred serving his special concoctions—dubbed the Atomic Cocktail—to his rooftop revelers. So the husband-and-wife team decided to turn Virginia’s Café into a liquor store, securing the very first liquor store license in Las Vegas. They later obtained a liquor pouring license, which allowed them to serve beer, wine, and mixed drinks over the counter.

Atomic Liquors opened officially in 1952, with a huge wraparound bar inside and a bright neon sign out front. It quickly became the go-to bar for both Las Vegas locals and the celebrities passing through town who preferred to have a drink off the strip. The Rat Pack, Barbara Streisand, Hunter S. Thompson, and Clint Eastwood were regulars.

“For a lot of locals and visitors, it was kind of a home away from home,” says Atomic Liquors’ assistant general manager and Las Vegas native Jeffrey Grindley.

It also got the Hollywood treatment, serving as a backdrop in an episode of The Twilight Zone and movies including Casino and The Hangover.

The Sobchiks ran the bar until Joe died in October 2010. Stella died just three months later. In 2012, a group of investors purchased the bar from the Sobchiks’ son and launched a full remodel of the property.

Today, holding the honor of being Las Vegas’ oldest freestanding watering hole, Atomic Liquors looks much like it did 64 years ago, with that big wraparound bar and the neon sign out front. The original curving red ceiling fixture is still there, too. “But we did add a little glitter to it,” says Grindley. “To make it look more glitzy.”

Atomic Liquors

photo by: Square Shooting

The Atomic Lounge, remodeled in 2012, looks much like it did when it opeend 64 years ago.

The decor pays homage to the history of both the bar and the city. And thanks to Atomic Liquors’ partnership with the nearby National Atomic Testing Museum, old signs and Geiger counters from the test site hang inside.

“This has always been a locals’ bar,” Grindley says. “And we try to preserve the history of this place, and the history of Las Vegas, through the things we do. And a big part of our history is that feeling of being at home. If you’re visiting Vegas for the first time, or the 700th time, you can come here and feel at home, feel outside the craziness.”

Here’s what you need to know before you go:

Location: 917 Fremont St., Las Vegas, NV 89101

Hours: Monday-Wednesday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; Thursday, 2 p.m.-3 a.m.; Friday, 2 p.m.-4 a.m.; Saturday, 12 p.m.-4 a.m.; Sunday, 12 p.m.-2 a.m.

You’re Having: Try the Hunter Smash—a nod to frequent customer Hunter S. Thompson—which combines Old Crow bourbon, Aperol, lemon, ginger, mint, and bitters. Grindley also recommends ordering a classic cocktail, like an Old Fashioned. “We have a love of classic cocktails here,” he says. “We’re tipping our hat toward when Atomic Liquors first opened.”

Not into cocktails? That’s fine. The bar has an impressive rotating craft beer selection, as well as domestic and imported staples. “We’re not snobs here,” Grindley says. “You can be a cocktail nerd, or a beer nerd, or not. We just want you to come and have a great time.”

Best Yelp Review: “Las Vegas is a town that severely lacks cultural identity. We don't have a sports team, most of the residents are transient, and 20 years old is ancient on the strip. Thankfully, for those of us born and raised in Las Vegas we can talk about places like Atomic Liquors. The beer cocktails are second to none, and the bartenders are some of the most knowledgeable around. I have discovered some of my favorite sour beers at Atomic as well. I take any chance I get to take family or friends, and let them hear the story of how Atomic got its name.”

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

We believe all Americans deserve to see their history in the places that surround us. As a nation, we have work to do to fill in the gaps of our cultural heritage.

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