Escaping the glitter of the Strip has become many a Vegas locals' eternal struggle. How does one enjoy a fulfilling night of entertainment and escape the tourists, and more importantly, the tourist prices? It isn't as hard as it may seem. Just step off the Strip a mere block or two, and there are myriad smaller casinos that give that hometown feel, without all the glitz.
Ellis Island is a charming little oasis amid the glam. It's easily accessible right off Koval Lane with plenty of parking, so there's no fighting Las Vegas Boulevard's traffic and no winding, confusing parking ramps that require a stealth sense of direction to maneuver. Once inside the joint, everything is easily within view. There's the blackjack tables, a big bar in the middle and plenty o' slots all around. Add the Metro Pizza stand, perfect for drunk munching, and you have yourselves a night.
Then, of course, there's the lounge. Nestled in the corner just off from the restaurant, it reeks of Old Vegas style. Small enough to be cozy, large enough to bring in a good mix of people. And there's plenty of seating; there are huge red, cushioned booths against every wall. Upon entering, one guy even commented, "Now this is Old Vegas."
The friendly bartenders and waitstaff give the feeling that you're visiting your friends at their workplace. They have that "we're locals; we know the stuff that goes down in Vegas" kind of attitude that's sympathetic to your woes. Drinks are a huge highlight of the place. Ellis Island brews its own blends; we recommend the amber ale -- like the Three Bears' porridge, it's a nice middle ground between the wussy factor of light beer and the too-strong factor of the black stuff. And, for $1.75 a pint, it's easy to taste-test all the varieties.
The mixed drinks are fantastic, too. It's difficult to find a bar that serves them strong enough -- yet not too strong -- and tasty. The gin and tonics are some of the city's best. The house gin was Tanqueray -- none of that cheap crap -- and the tonic was surprisingly fresh and fizzy, not the usual flat stuff most bars serve. It was the perfect combination of alcohol and fizz -- delicious and refreshing.
But the true star of Ellis Island isn't the decor or the drinks. It's what brings the huddled masses together at midnight on a Tuesday -- the karaoke. Every evening, from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., you can sign your name on a little piece of paper with a song; and the super-friendly karaoke master will give you a spin. There are hundreds of songs to pick from -- one of the most expansive karaoke books around. And so the patrons settled in with their drinks and books to let the talent show begin.
The place got crowded quickly. So much so that a larger group offered to buy us a round in exchange for our huge, corner booth. We were treated to the usual stylings of Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson. And then came the Styx guy. This guy, decked out in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, no less, belted out "Come Sail Away" so dead-on it was frightening. Styx frontman Dennis DeYoung couldn't have done it any better himself. Another patron, an avid Doors fan, delighted us with a rousing version of "Love Me Two Times." And the lovely group that bought us drinks got a reluctant young lady up there to lead them all in a very moving performance of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," complete with the swaying of arms and flicker of lighters. The only downfall of the entire evening was some of the patrons' penchant for bad country music. Sure, we got some Willie and Loretta Lynn; but most chose bad songs by the likes of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks. Very mood-killing.
However, when the last Doors song was sung, our meager wallets were emptied; and as we fumbled for that last cigarette, we had to smile. After all, how many places can spark this much camaraderie among strangers? Not many.