FRIDAY, JULY 28, 2023 --
For most of its 100 years as America's unofficial Fantasyland, Las Vegas has shunned its shadowy history. No longer.
Today, the neon city in the desert is getting real--with a booming convention business, NFL and NHL teams, the imminent arrival of baseball's Oakland Athletics, and the Mob Museum, a candid, colorful homage to its own DNA.
Occupying a nondescript downtown Depression Era building that was once a post office, a federal courthouse and home to the famed Kefauver Commission hearings on organized crime, The Mob Museum
is actually called the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement. Seriously.
It's all the brainchild of former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, a lawyer who defended local folks accused of mob connections over the years. Carolyn Goodman, his wife, is the city's current mayor.
The museum itself, a four-floor history of thugs, gangsters and, yes, mobsters in Las Vegas and around the country, is a remarkable collection of words, photographs and memorabilia. It's a testament to the meticulous research that went into it. You need around three hours to digest it all. And it comes with a not insubstantial admission fee of $29.95 a person. But that's a separate story.
What caught my fancy was in the basement: a full-blown speakeasy called The Underground
. There's also a working distillery open to the public.
There is no shortage of places to imbibe in Las Vegas. Back in the day, drinks were tossed freely to anyone who would put a quarter in a slot machine. Although freebies are more stringently controlled in the casinos today, the Mob Museum's speakeasy can be accessed without paying the admission. Libations, however, are not free. Still, I found the experience worth the reasonable tariff.
In true speakeasy tradition, I was greeted by a "host." He was silver haired, dressed in a pinstriped, double-breasted suit and had a welcoming gift of gab. I went from total stranger to a regular in five minutes flat, the sign of a great saloon. That's especially true in Las Vegas where the emphasis is the action at the gaming tables, not the splendor in the glass.
The Underground is largely the creation and purview of Clint Thoman, senior director of food and beverage for the Mob Museum. He's a local guy who worked for the celebrated restaurateur and chef Wolfgang Puck, also renowned for schmoozing and serving customers. Over the years, I've seen Puck grab a tray of drinks and hand them out to thirsty patrons when his place got busy. Thoman has the same sense of hospitality, something you don't always see in this town, where cocktailing is a lubricating supporting act to the gaming and too often mechanically served.
Thoman's team presides over a 12-stool, L-shaped bar and a roomful of inviting tables. The space is dramatically different than the real onetime "speak" joints. I once visited one in San Francisco; it was a small, cramped, low-ceilinged affair. Remember, these were hidden thirst parlors during the dry Prohibition years. Proprietors lived in fear of being busted unless they paid protection for federal agents and cops to look the other way.
There are no happy hours at the Underground, but there is a signature drink: Moonshine. True to its legacy, it is unaged, 100% corn mash. Frankly, I wasn't up for a glass of the stuff, which is served, no surprise, in a Mason jar. I am told it has a buttery popcorn taste. For $31.95, you can take a bottled fifth with you. It's made right there in the distillery. (If you're a souvenir collector, you can pay a ridiculous $30 and take a Mason jar home.)
Thoman is obviously having fun with his venture. For instance, he's concocted the Goodfella Moonshine, adding Madagascar vanilla beans and brown sugar to its signature 'shine. "As smooth as a wise guy," he opines, "but it packs a rich punch." Two other versions, one with ginger and one with huckleberries, fetch the same $7.95 price.
Vintage recipes from the 1920s, albeit with modern-day pricing, are also recreated. One drink on offer is a $15 concoction of fruit-infused vodkas with Lillet and sparkling wine. It's similar to a popular drink of the day known as a French 75. I took a flyer with a $14 libation called The Bee's Knees, which is strawberry infused gin, lemon and Jalapeno honey. It's a tribute to dancer Bee Jackson who's credited with popularizing the Charleston back in the day.
Spirits scholars will find the Underground to be a rather cool classroom. James Pepper's innovative Old Fashioned cocktail, devised in 1880 in Louisville and perfected and popularized at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, is served here with a flourish at $15. The $15 Marlow mixes bourbon and sherry wine. The $14 Wild Hare cocktail is rye whiskey, allspice, sage, brown butter syrup, bitters and a sweetener derived from carrots, which was used during the sugar rationing of World War One.
Thoman says Mexico's version of rum runners were called “tequileros” and they mixed tequila and mezcal, both legal spirits south of the border. The Underground revives it here as a $15 cooler with triple sec, hibiscus, cucumber, lime and mint.
The Underground's repertoire also includes a selection of beers ($7 and $8) and a few wines ($10 to $12) plus munchies such as meatballs, sliders, pizza and spinach and artichoke dip.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, from 8pm to midnight, the red-velvet-upholstered speakeasy goes live with music, usually a jazz band. No cover charge.
The band's name? The Code of Silence.