There are a million ways to get to know a person. Co-signing their loans, building pillow forts, and being a chauffeur are just like three that jump to mind. The hands-down best way is to hang out with them for 24 hours. Ask anyone. They'll back me up. Works well for places, too, and no place on earth is more open to the 24-hour experience than Las Vegas, where I recently had the privilege of spending a day of hours camped out in one of the city's highest volume drinks spots -- The Lobby Bar at MGM Grand, Las Vegas.
The resort anchors the southernmost edge of The Strip where it meets Tropicana, giving clear line of sight to the airport. Cab stand to bell stand: seven minutes...ten, tops. All that remains is to pass through the emerald-colored glass of the main entryway and avoid gawking like a rube when you spot the towering video displays wallpapering the check-in counter with high-def eye candy.
Flanked by the elevators to the Grand Tower guest rooms on one side and the hotel lobby on the other, The Lobby Bar (proper name, by the way, not just a descriptor) plays hub to a ton of foot traffic. With its open design you get a clear 180-degree view of the gaming floor, not to mention a bevy of comfortable leather seats from which to soak it in. Yet despite all of that openness it manages a cool, relaxed vibe that feels like a stately Art Deco oasis in a sea of flashing lights.
For many guests this place is both the first and last stop of their visit. In my case, the only stop. I touched down at LAS at 9:30 AM and was camped out with a drink in hand less than an hour later.
So began my Grand experiment.
If you plan to drink in a bar for 24 hours, I recommend having a game plan. The noblest of goals can be wrecked by poor pacing. I kept it to a one drink max per hour and always had a glass of water on hand. Feel free to replicate the experience. Your results, however, may vary.
My results were 24 drinks in a sitting (yeah, I changed seats and stretched my legs a few times), a deep sense of what and who it takes to run a place as busy yet inviting as The Lobby Bar, and stories about Vegas that, sorry tourism board, aren’t going to stay there.
Here are my takeaways.
Experience is what matters
MGM Grand opened its doors in '93. It's a bit of a gut check to let it soak in just how many years ago that was, but suffice it to say that babies born that year are veteran imbibers by now. What’s really amazing? Many of the faces behind the bar and serving the tables remain from that first day over 20 years ago.
Eva is a cocktail server who was one of the 8,000 hired out of 100,000 thousand applicants for that class of '93. She moved to Vegas from Florida for the opportunity, a choice she's glad to this day that she made. And she's just one of a team of twenty-plus-year vets.
There are bartenders Keith and Glen, also from that original class. The former was a professional bull rider in another life. There's the hardest working barback in America, Dave, going on his 20th year after 20 years in auto body work. His youngest son is working on a PhD in Berlin.
"It's a town for second acts," says Lobby Bar GM Sky Jack Morgan (I've got a business card proving that's his name). Second act or first, no matter what brought these staffers to MGM, they stay because there's something special here.
If you run a 24-hour bar, you live a 24-hour bar life
Sky doesn’t just manage this place. He lives it. His apartment is two blocks away. He says he doesn’t own a TV or a bed. He regrets nothing.
Having your 21st birthday in Vegas with your parents is a thing
I wouldn't have guessed, but there it was. At midnight a young woman came in with an evening gown, a sash, a blinking tiara, and two generations of her elders for a 21st birthday celebration. ID was checked. Shots were raised. Thirty minutes later she abandoned her fam to explore her newfound drinking-agedness.
I asked Dave if this was common practice, and though "common" might be a bit of an overstatement, it does happen more than you’d think. Fact is, this place is a destination built on all-caps fun and letting loose. There’s nothing in the rulebook to say that’s a thing you can’t share with your folks. To that end I saw table after table of mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. All age ranges in play. Some were taking a few days to reconnect away from the day to day, others made a regular habit of it. No shame to be found in anyone’s game.
A good bar is hard to find
I spent the majority of the graveyard shift chatting up Marty, a top-notch bartender who never let on that his day started at like three in the morning. In his years on The Strip, he's worked every kind of trendy, high-concept bar, but at the end of the day none of them hold a candle to authentic simplicity of The Lobby Bar. Flash, as he puts it, is just flash. Ambiance, service, and well mixed cocktails are all that matter in the end.
There's no place like Vegas (even compared to places like Vegas)
I spent the wee hours between Hakkasan's closing and the arrival of the morning Mojito & telecommute crew making small talk with young man from Gold Coast, Australia, where it turns out he's a bartender for a posh casino. You'd think he'd be nonplussed by anything gambling or casino bar related, and you'd be wrong.
"This place makes our casinos look like pubs."
Lil Jon likes tequila
Don Julio, to be precise. Just put that under your cap. Also, the lady from Dance Moms is apparently very nice. Unrelated, but somehow not, and among the things you learn from bartenders who serve the full spectrum of celebrity humanity.
Nobody parties like a McGregor crowd
With an arena seating capacity approaching 17k, any event is bound to flood The Lobby Bar with thirsty spectators when the show's over, but it is a fact universally acknowledged by the entire staff that no group is more thunderous -- or polite -- than the Irish who come for UFC battles featuring Conor McGregor. First thing to note is they tip well, despite their numbers, making that particular crowd a crowd favorite. Second is the cue any massive group of spectators could take from the Irish in their sheer coordination, singing made up chants on the fly, en masse, as the capacity-filled Grand Garden releases its population onto the casino floor. Think the water glass in Jurassic Park, but a slowly approaching pub song that drowns out all other sounds. It’s as close as we can expect to get stateside to the energy of a major soccer match.
Expect 24-hour drinking that puts my work to shame. Do not expect to find a seat.
This bar does not close
Speaking of the McGregor posse, it's worth noting that there will be no last call to save you from yourself.
Pregaming and postgaming pair nicely
In the interest of prime people-watching, one would do well to observe the decked out clubgoers who stop in for a drink at 9 PM or so before hitting up Hakkasan. They're beautiful and put together in a pristine, factory-assembled, just-opened kind of way.
Then check out those same people around 4 AM when the lights come up on the dancefloor and it's time to regroup. They're still beautiful, but now it’s through the fire of an experience -- more flawed but more open and carrying the interesting weight of having gone through something.
You'd never know if you were sitting beside a millionaire
For all the legends of whales (everybody knows a guy who got a massive tip from one) and bottle-flaunting celebrities, the word on the street is that old money looks just like you and me. It probably doesn't spend all day in the bar, but you get the idea. As bartender Jovan puts it, "Truly wealthy guys -- you can't tell. They don't flash it. But if you're buying bottles of champagne for everybody, you're going to get that attention."
And it happens. Celebrities and high-rollers alike are apt to clear the champagne cellar on a good night. Or, you know, order a snifter of Louis Tres. But there's still more money in the room than you're likely to notice.
Vegas is for lovers (of Vegas)
In a town like this -- where people often come to be something they aren't at home and leave whatever that is at the airport -- you'd think it would be easy to get jaded. Double-quick if you work in the industry. Time and time again in my stay, however, I learned that that's just not the case.
Take Traum, a cocktail server of seven years who I met on the afternoon of day one and who was gracious enough to serve me my last drink on day two when she returned for her next shift. Born and raised in Vegas (a rarity!), she had myriad tales of Sin City at its heights and depths. Naturally, the darker stories got more play (they see it all), but that didn’t stop her from dropping the sugary sweet yarn of a convention attendee who met his future wife while she was debauching with a bachelorette party. The two return every year to celebrate finding finding one another. Through it all, what I heard most in her stories was adoration for where she lives. As much as she admits that she sees people at their best and their worst, she also sees everybody striving toward something and finds beauty in that.
When the casino opened, The Lobby Bar was called Betty Boop's and animatronics were all the rage. There was a roaring lion on the floor, a flying monkey bar, Oz floating high in a balloon. It's hard to imagine. More difficult to imagine is this bar had an animatronic Foster Brooks (an actor/comedian/guy who maybe you know because he hung out with Dean Martin sometimes?) who spent his hours playing piano and cracking jokes for patrons. I have an unverified report that Mike Tyson once punched it out of commission, but likely it was more the changing times.
There's no shame in a liquid breakfast
Around 6:30 AM there's a shift change for the patrons as the last hangers-on of the night cash in and make their ways roomward and the fresh-faced gamblers of morning gather their courage with coffee and Bloody Mary's. If there is a Shangri-La for day drinkers, this is it. Nobody looks at you sideways if you order a double during commute hours.
Solitude is fleeting
For one glorious instant I felt like I'd gotten high score on this game by being the only patron in the bar. This was 9:30 AM. It ended at 9:33 when ten people showed up. Short lived, but satisfying all the same.
Coffee’s for closers
In the 10 o'clock hour I placed my final order: a bottle of Fat Tire with a coffee chaser. I took a bow to the familiar faces from the morning before. I said my goodbyes. The elevators, mercifully, were express and only a handful of steps away.
Would I do it again? Yes. Would I do it again at this particular bar? Also yes. I might make a point of doing it on a McGregor fight night though.