So I'm lurking at the back of the Golden Gate Casino where a guy in a bowler hat is playing a smooth baby grand ("Missed the Saturday dance . . .") and I'm blissing out on this shrimp cocktail.
I know what you're thinking. What weenie would go to a casino for a shrimp cocktail?
Excuse me, but this is the famous Golden Gate shrimp cocktail that has approximately 9,740 miniature shrimp in each tulip glass, and there's not a shred of lettuce or other crapola that would make it look like a huge shrimp cocktail even though it's not. This thing is the Yukon Territory of shrimp cocktails, and it sells for 99 cents. So far I've had seven.
After a while I go upstairs and find Mike Brandenburg, the owner of the casino and a helluva nice guy, and I tell him how great the shrimp cocktail is. "Yeah, that's our thing," he says. "That's what we're known for. You tell people the Golden Gate Casino and it doesn't register right away. You say, 'Number one Fremont Street?' Then you say 'you know, the shrimp cocktail place' and they say, 'Ohhh, that place!'"
For some reason my favorite place to stay in Vegas is this casino, the tiniest one in the oldest building, but evidently I'm not alone. If you happen to pick up the brochure of the largest travel agency in Germany, there are pictures of four hotels— the Mirage, New York-New York, the MGM Grand, and . . . the Golden Gate! "A few years back the Golden Nugget was overbooked, "explains Mike as we roam around the building, poking into nooks and crannies that are still sort of mysterious even to him, "and so they sent a group of German tourists down here. They loved it and started staying here every year. We have a fair amount of Europeans because megaresorts are not really their cup of tea." I try to book the ancient creaky part of the hotel, in one of the original 35 rooms, preferably on the second floor overlooking the chaos of Fremont Street. (The nighttime party atmosphere is like white noise to me when I sleep.) The joint dates to 1905, when the railroad auctioned town sites (the land cost $1,750, making it the most expensive piece of property sold that day). In 1906 the Hotel Nevada, as it was called then, opened at Main and Fremont. And in 1907 the city's first telephone was installed there. "Our phone number was 1," says Mike. "Just 1." And that was apparently the last time the Golden Gate was first in anything.
Oddly enough, gambling wasn't such a big part of the hotel's history. "We had gambling in 1906," he says. "Then it became illegal. Then it became legal again in 1931 but the owners had a good enough business without opening a casino. And then some Italian investors from San Francisco, including my stepdad, bought the place in 1955 and opened the casino."
But by the time Mike took it over, in 1990, it was in shambles. "The rooms had orange shag carpet and formica furniture. The restaurant looked like a rundown Denny's. The customer base was aging significantly, and we weren't replenishing it. It didn't exactly offer a lot of mystique and adventure."
Mike and his older brother decided to go the "quaint" route, restoring the rooms to their original look, taking the ugly metal screen off the front of the building, and trying to make the place look like it did in the 1930's. More important, they kept the goldurn two-dollar blackjack table. I don't know about you, but I could never live in a world devoid of two-dollar blackjack. "The most traumatic decision I had to make was to raise the price of the shrimp cocktail. The economics down here aren't exactly like the Mirage, with their 15-dollar blackjack tables. If the Las Vegas Club across the street cuts the price on their hamburgers ten cents, every customer says, 'Hey Mike, the burgers are cheaper over there.' And here I had this institution, the 50-cent shrimp cocktail, and the price had not changed since 1959! And I looked at the books and we're losing $300,000 a year just on the shrimp. Everyone told me I could not raise the price. The shrimp cocktail was the only thing we had going for us. I had so many meetings about it. But I did manage, after many months, to raise the price to 99 cents. That was as high as I could push it."
I'm actually glad he raised it, because losing this shrimp cocktail would be a national tragedy. Mike still sells two tons of shrimp per week in his little corner of downtown. And the week I was there, dozing in my beautiful 29-dollar room and occasionally wandering down for a very friendly game of 21, I personally consumed about a half-ton myself. While I was scarfing one down, I saw Mike sauntering through the casino.
"Hey, Mike," I said, "do you make money on these things now that they're 99 cents?"
Mike shakes his head slowly. "Nope. I'm still losing a bundle on those things."
You gotta love a man who takes it on the chin for the greater good of mankind.
Golden Gate Hotel and Casino, One Fremont Street, Vegas. Joe Bob says check it out.
GOLDEN GATE HOTEL AND CASINO, Las Vegas
Theme: San Francisco 1932 Art Deco Bistro
Gambler's Intensity: Moderate
Cocktail speed: Lightning (under 60 seconds)
Dealers: Friendly, new and slow, so an easygoing game
Rooms: 106, Holiday Inn level, average price 35
Surrounding area: Fabulous Fremont Street, the original
Overall rating: 95
Joe Bob's bankroll to date: Down $6 after one hour at the Golden Gate $2 blackjack table