The second in an eightpart series showcases the Double Down Saloon in Las Vegas.
In Las Vegas, Double Down Saloon is a home for the hardcore
Second in an eightpart series.
The dive bar’s obituary probably has been written a thousand times, and yet: The ratio of dive-bar listicles to dive-bar obits must be about 10 to 1. Either the dive bar’s demise has been greatly exaggerated or the definition of such watering holes has become so unmanageable that it encompasses just about any place that doesn’t serve a $20 Manhattan. ¶ So how can we characterize the American dive bar so that everyone agrees? In short, we can’t. But we needed some guidelines as we searched for the country’s most authentic dives over the past months. True dives possess a handful of basic attributes: They must have history; they must have regulars; they cannot be expensive; they cannot have craft cocktails. ¶ You might disagree with our operating narrative, and no doubt you’ll dislike some of our choices. But this is our point: A dive bar is personal. It’s where friends gather, drink and argue loudly — and still walk away as kindred spirits.
James Messina is perched on a stool at the Double Down Saloon, the dive bar equivalent of an open wound, a place that has been poked and probed so often it remains raw and angry.
It’s late afternoon, but Messina has not rolled into the Double Down to lose himself in the permanent midnight of the bar. He’s not knocking back a mini-commode filled with Ass Juice, the sweet house drink of unknown ingredients. Messina doesn’t even drink anymore, a casualty of his misspent youth.
A bassist in a local punk band, the Gashers, Messina is not checking out the competition, either, which won’t even assemble on stage for another seven hours, maybe later. He’s come here to be among his kind, the Vegasarea punks who consider the Double Down their second home.
“I’m just a local. I know half the people sitting here,” Messina says. “I got to get out of the house every once in a while, just talk to some friends.”
Owner and renaissance man P Moss (author/musician/bar proprietor/tiki mixologist) didn’t set out to cater to Sin City’s underground punk community. He backed into the scene in 1993 when Man or AstroMan? — a sci-fi surf-punk band from Alabama — needed a venue and the Double Down reluctantly stepped in. Since then, the bar has embraced its uniquely Vegas mission to mix video gambling, punk rock, cheap drinks and a DIY-bumper-sticker aesthetic in an roundthe-clock operation that attracts both hardcore punkers and tourists with soft underbellies. The Double Down even serves as a blackops party zone for celebrities, including Prince Harry and comedian Dave Attell, who either want to hide from curiosity seekers or promote the bar’s noisy, sticky appeal.
But even a punk bar has its limits. The Double Down used to have a mechanical pony, the kind of slow-galloping kiddie ride once found outside department stores. Fe-
male patrons would pop in a quarter and saddle up, stripping off their shirts and bras in the process.
The bar once hosted an all-female mechanical pony rodeo. Sin City officials eventually frowned upon the unlicensed nudity.
“We took the pony to New York,” Moss says about his second Double Down location in Manhattan’s East Village. “Nobody understood it in New York . . . . We had the garbage men trying to ride it.”
Double Down Saloon, 4640 Paradise Rd., Las Vegas. 702-791-5775. doubledown saloon.com.
— Tim Carman
Year founded: Started by P Moss, then a “struggling writer’” who decided to enter the bar business, in December 1992.
Interior: Sticker shock. Practically every square inch of the place — the once-white walls, toilets, sinks, stage, everything — is covered in stickers and/or graffiti, save for a wall by the bandstand where a sign reads in large block letters: “SHUT UP and DRINK.” It’s perpetually dark in the place, no matter the time of day.
Music: CD jukebox and live bands, heavy on punk. The Double Down rarely, if ever, charges a cover. Signature drink: Ass Juice. The fruity cocktail has no set recipe. (Though, it does have a U.S. trademark.) For a price, the drink can be served in a miniature souvenir toilet. “We use white liquors,” Moss says about the base spirit. “The main urban myth is that we would take what’s in the spill mat [at the bar] and pour it in a glass and sell that. But that’s obviously not true.” Draft beers: Nothing on draft, but more than 20 bottles and cans, including six rotating craft beers. Worst day: In 1995, before the Double Down hired professional bouncers, Moss asked a patron not to bring package beer into his bar. The owner ended up in a hospital. He says he nearly died. “I’ve given blood and a lot things to this place,” Moss says. “It would have been very easy to say, ‘F---, I’m never coming back,’ but I did.”
Read the entire series — America’s most authentic dive bars — online now at washingtonpost.com/graphics/lifestyle/dive-bars
FROM TOP: In Las Vegas, Double Down Saloon’s Ass Juice is served in little ceramic toilets; at “The Happiest Place on Earth,” punk is the ruling aesthetic; JoAnn Tufo checks her messages as she steps away the bar; Pyro Pete spins some music as the trademark sign advises patrons.