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From tiki to 'Star Wars' cosplay, Vegas' most unique bars go full on with themes

December 24, 2015



When the clock strikes midnight, ringing in the new year of 2016, the Strip will be packed with tourists, locals and noisemakers. Out in the neighborhoods, however, a lot of people will be congregating at themed bars.


"Vegas got pretty stale after about 2000, with the clubs and casinos just creating pretty boxes," said Branden Powers, managing partner of the Golden Tiki, 3939 Spring Mountain Road. "They lost the theming that made them interesting. My goal is to create environments, lounges and bars that will be totally different from what's currently out there."


The former punk rock musician who was also a disc jockey, the creative director at the Hard Rock Hotel and one of the founding fathers of rave culture, opened the Golden Tiki in August, recreating in some part the things he'd loved about Disneyland and the original tiki scene of the '50s and '60s. In the early 1990s, he was living in San Diego and disc jockeying, using some of his extensive collection of lounge and exotica records. One day while looking for places to host events, he happened upon the Hanalei Hotel and the Islands Restaurant inside.


"It was one of the last, great, beautiful, untouched and original tiki oases left in the world," Powers said. "There were waterfalls and rivers. It was amazing."


Soon, he was hosting a weekly event there called Taboo, and people started showing up in vintage tiki clothing and wearing fezzes. Powers was disc jockeying under the name Chi Chi Martini at the events, which drew thousands. The event expanded to two nights, things were doing great, and then it fell apart.


"I walked in one day, and someone high up in management had decided to gut it," Powers said. "They painted everything white and destroyed it."


He stepped away from tiki culture after that until his business partners started brainstorming what to do with a bar in Las Vegas they had that needed renovation. Then he dove in headfirst, creating a backstory for the bar, characters, themed areas and bringing in traditional tiki drinks. An LED starscape on the ceiling is an homage to one at another restaurant he remembers from his youth. The bar's animatronic pirate skeleton — Captain William Tobias Faulkner, aka Captain WTF — recalls the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland, while Goldy — a singing, talking tiki head — is reminiscent of the Enchanted Tiki Room at the park.


On New Year's Eve, the bar will bring out The Toledo Show, an L.A. band that calls its music "film noir soul."


The Golden Tiki is the newest tiki bar in the valley, but Frankie's Tiki Room, 1712 W. Charleston Blvd., takes the credit for bringing tiki-themed bars back to Las Vegas seven years ago.


"We created Frankie's out of our passion for tiki bars and because of the simple fact that Las Vegas needed a tiki bar," owner P Moss said. "We searched for the right location for two years before snapping up the old Frankie's Bar & Cocktail Lounge an hour after it was put on the market for sale. We then commissioned the world's top tiki carvers and tiki artists to create original works and enlistedBamboo Ben, the Frank Lloyd Wright of tiki bar designers, for the build-out."


Moss notes that Las Vegas has a long and rich tiki tradition beginning with Aku-Aku restaurant in the now-defunct Stardust. Some of the work there was created by Bamboo Ben's grandfather, Eli Hedley, who created the original beachcomber aesthetic.


Moss kept and modified the original name, in part because he didn't want to give the impression he was tossing out the history of the place, just modifying it. He's fairly certain there was an actual Frankie and that it was a woman, but every old-timer he asks about it gives him a different answer of who she might have been.


"Every tiki bar everywhere has some crazy Polynesian name, so Frankie's stuck out," Moss said. "It worked out well."


Moss doesn't have much in the way of particular plans for New Year's Eve, but he expects the place will be busy.


"Since Frankie's is a unique but small and intimate place not designed for major events, we sandwich our New Year's action around the midnight celebrations," Moss said. "We are very busy before and as an after-party spot well into the morning, although we are still very busy at midnight, as well, and offer free Fink Bomb toasts at midnight and 2 a.m., which is midnight in Tahiti."


Proving that you don't need to go too far to find a theme for a bar, Born and Raised — at 7260 S. Cimarron Road and with a new location at 10050 S. Eastern Ave. in Henderson — is a local themed bar. It focuses on Las Vegas Valley sports and the hospitality and the small-town feel that people try to evoke when they say things were better when the mob ran the town.


On the bar's website, owner Scott Godino Jr. writes of his grandfathers — Andrew Zorne, one-time president the Mint, Hacienda, and Park Place; and Lou Godino, who owned and operated the Town Lounge in Rockford, Ill. — both of whom taught him the importance of customer service and valuing regulars and locals.


"Born and Raised was created to honor these ideals," Godino wrote. "You might say it was my heritage to open a place like this, where everyone is treated as if they matter. It's not about the bottom line. It's about relating to the customer and giving them what they deserve."


On New Year's Eve, the bars plan to have $100 bottles with a table reservation, Chopin vodka, a disc jockey and a champagne toast at midnight.


The newest themed bar in town, the Millennium Fandom Bar, 900 Las Vegas Blvd. South, is still working out what it will be doing for New year's Eve, but owner Alex Pusineri knows it will involve cosplay.


"I want this to be the place where people can come in cosplay and feel comfortable," Pusineri said. "I want this to be the bar for global fandom, not just 'Star Wars.' "


The bar, located on the ground floor of the SoHo Lofts, occupies the location that was formerly The Lady Silvia, a lavishly appointed library-themed bar. Most of the books are gone, but the shelves remain, creating a giant, sparsely populated shadowbox. The items on display cover a wide range of genres of films and books, from a wall display paying homage to "Furious 7" to a large poster for "Metropolis," one of the first science fiction films, to a mural based on the work of Moebius, a graphic story creator more widely known in Pusineri's native France.


"I worked in a pretty famous bar in Paris about 10 years ago, and I said, 'I like this.' It was a hub for people," Pusineri said. "It's not just about the alcohol; the alcohol is an excuse to meet people."


The Millennium Fandom Bar had its soft opening in November, and Pusineri is still trying to get the word out to the fandom community in advance of the grand opening, which he hopes will be in January, after the red tape clears for his sign.


"I think the future is more unique places in Las Vegas as people get bored with pretty boxes," Powers said. "I think the next place I open is going to be an ode to old Vegas. It will be the Golden Steer, mixed with the Peppermill, mixed with Willy Wonka."