Sadly the drinks no longer come with a mushroom cloud view.
Relatively speaking, Las Vegas is a new town, the presence of pre-1900s dive bars that endured Prohibition simply not possible. In many respects, dive bar history in Las Vegas starts with Atomic Liquors, the longest-running freestanding bar in the city and owner of Las Vegas tavern license No. 0001. It must be said though that the Atomic Liquors that exists today is a reclaimed, renovated sequel that preserves its past but looks much more like a polished lounge than it does a divey outpost.
Virginia’s Café was opened in 1945 by Stella and Joe Sobchick, the prologue to the story of Atomic Liquors that began when the name was changed and the business model shifted from restaurant to package liquor store in 1952. Las Vegas’ proximity to the Nevada Test Site, home to the testing of atomic bombs, drew significant groups of tourists hoping for a side of mushroom cloud to go with their cocktail. Atomic Liquors capitalized on the trend, using its rooftop as a viewing deck to the explosions and purchasing the city’s first “tavern” license to pour alcohol outside of a hotel or casino from a defunct hotel.
Adjacent to the epic neon that still sits outside of the bar today, Atomic Liquors drew considerable attention despite its off-Strip location. Celebrities flowed through the Las Vegas dive bar including the Rat Pack, Clint Eastwood, the Smothers Brothers and maybe most notably Barbara Streisand, who made it a point to stop in as part of nearly every trip to the city, her patronage so celebrated that a stool with a star on it still sits at the end of the bar to commemorate her favorite seat. The photogenic exterior of Atomic Liquors has landed the Las Vegas dive bar in a Hollywood production or two over the years, including appearances in Casino, The Hangover and an episode of the Twilight Zone’s original run, The Gauntlet.
Joe and Stella Sobchick operated the bar from its opening in 1952 all the way to 2010 when Joe passed away, wife Stella following him in 2011 just three months later. Son Ron Sobchick took up the reigns of the bar at that time, overseeing a renovation that uncovered a sealed 1950s-ear safe under the floorboards. The safe and its contents can still be seen today under a transparent cover within the bar’s floor. Despite the renovation, the bar closed later in 2011 and was sold to brothers Kent & Lance Johns who spent the balance of 2012 renovating the space with partner Derek Stoneberger.
Today, Atomic Liquors feels like a modern, Vegas-style space that pays tribute to its historic past but does it in a contemporary way. To label Atomic Liquors as a dive bar in its current form is probably not accurate, a rough edge or two not enough to overpower the crafted atmosphere inside. Bar decorations have been carried over to this new spin on Atomic Liquors, including a Geiger counter because of course. And maybe most importantly, the neon sign out front so associated with Atomic Liquors remains intact.
Atomic Liquors sits on Fremont Street just past the hive of activity that is the Fremont Street Experience and its historic casinos. This extension of downtown Las Vegas has been a focal point of development, resulting in a stretch of attractive bars and restaurants extended off of the canopy-covered heart of the district. But Atomic Liquors still manages to sit just a block or two away from the core of this development, preserving its fringe location even if just slightly.
Outside, the structure is colorful, covered in murals that pay tribute to the Las Vegas dive bar’s historic past. A large patio extends along the front of the building, capturing that small window of Vegas weather pleasant enough to sit outside without enduring relentless heat. The features inside feel clean, classy and lounge-like thanks to an array of padded chairs and a renovated marble bar outfitted with a padded, modern lining. The bar counter wraps around liquor shelving, signature cocktails found at the corner of the bar including an ode to Hunter S. Thompson, the Hunter S. Mash.
At night, black paint on the brick interior absorbs all hint of ambient light, leaving the glowing mushroom cloud sculpture in the corner of the bar as one of the space’s primary sources of illumination. The lounge-like vibe is accentuated by a seating area made up of a long, padded bench flanked by a number of short tables. Not to be missed is the vintage jukebox in the rear of the space still loaded with 45s.