I picked John up at the airport. An airport I hoped never to see again. What a mess! As I drove down Tropicana and turned right on Las Vegas Blvd to give John the tourist trip. We passed the many monstrosities and mausoleums that replaced the quaint and intimate hotels and casinos that once dotted the “Las Vegas Strip”
My friend John asked me…”What happened?” “Where did it go?” He was referring to the Las Vegas he experienced during the late 60’s and 70’s. John had not been here in over forty- years. The last time he was here we shot dice at the Jolly Trolley and gorged ourselves on filet mignon cut to order. John came to visit me and spend some time in the town he remembered when he was a ‘kid” and we were back in college together. He realized we were not getting any younger so he decided to come out while he still could.
Everything he enjoyed, all the old time casinos with their bargain quality Champaign brunches and/or buffets were gone. Only to remain in the past experiences of those who visited and enjoyed those many happy moments they provided. 50 cent Heineken beer at the “…Shoe” was gone and so was the Mint 400 as well as the Mint. Signs of the Bird Cage were not existent.
We talked about the ole Sunday Sand’s Champaign brunch. How we parked across the street at the Castaways and I used my VIP pass to get us inside and seated before the brunch officially opened to the public. Come on Jim there must be something left of the old days John inquired. I thought for a second and decided I would take him later in the evening downtown to the California Hotel & Casino. The California Hotel & Casino was one of the last places that still used coins for their slot machines. It was a place that still maintained ties to the “ole” days. It had Keno (a casino game that was all but dead everywhere in town) and a Keno lounge, an open cage where coin was counted and one of the best old time gourmet rooms ever created – The Redwood Bar & Grill.
I called with my cell phone and made reservations for 5:30, for three, at the Redwood Bar & Grill. It would be John, my wife Rena and I. As we pulled up at my home, John and I were still reminiscing about school, work, former marriages and of course Las Vegas. We started to talk about downtown Las Vegas and the conversation turned to the California hotel & Casino. Since John was never even inside the place he wanted to know everything I knew about it and why my wife and I still went there.
I began my story with when I arrived in Las Vegas close to 40 years ago. John was also a retired IRS Agent so he already knew I was brought to Las Vegas from Chicago to conduct the Howard Hughes audit. While waiting for the scheduled opening conference that was months away I had to write the audit plan for the Hughes Entities and sub lament my remaining work time with auditing a small downtown place that was named the California Hotel & Casino. It was a very long time ago. There was no Boyd Group… there was no Sam’s Town. Sam Boyd was still alive and his son Bill was a young man. The plans for Sam’s town were already created and the shovel was in the ground. Perry Whitt was the chief financial officer and one of the nicest men I ever met.
Back then, one of the first steps in preparing the audit plan was to learn as much as you could about the history and background of the entity you were going to audit. The California Hotel & Casino was no exception. Fortunately or unfortunately, I never got the chance to conduct the audit because I was pulled off for an important assignment. However, previously speaking numerous times with Perry Whitt and Sam I learned a great deal about the California Hotel & Casino as well as many “war” stories about Sam’s earlier years.
It was common knowledge that Sam had personally cultivated the Hawaiian trade. That he had brought the Hawaiian customers to the California Hotel & Casino where they were treated like royalty and with the upmost respect. In return, the Hawaiians remained loyal to Sam and the California Hotel & Casino. This bond that was created many years ago between Sam and the Hawaiians still exists today. It is obvious when one walks through the Hawaiian packed casino that no other entity has ever punctured this gaming base. I doubt any gaming entity ever could.
Sometime during the late 70’s or early 80’s the California Hotel & Casino opened the Redwood Bar & Grill. At that time I had no intention of going to such a place for dinner out. After all, who would want to go to a place with “grill” in its name? I visualized a glorified hamburger joint.
Around the time of the Redwood’s opening, Bob Stupak and Gus Giuffre were touting their “Dine-Out Las Vegas” promotion. It was a 2 for 1 promotion that allowed you to pay for one dinner and receive the second dinner free. The book of 25 or 30 coupons was $25.00 or $30.00 dollars and couldn’t possibly be for any good restaurants, right?. I figured since Stupak was involved I would just pass. However, one of the agents who worked on the Hughes case for me subscribed to the Dine-Out Las Vegas package and brought the coupons to work to show them to me. Boy! Was I wrong. Many of the restaurants were quality places that my wife and I had previously been to.
Among the coupons was one for the Redwood Bar & Grill. Jerry asked me if I would like it. After much insistence on his part I said all right I’ll take it. That evening my wife and I went. What I am about to describe existed 30 years ago. It has changed. However, the one thing that has not changed is the quality and portions of the food.
It was winter and very cold outside. As we went into the Redwood the first thing that caught my eye was the very large fire place in the back of the restaurant with a roaring fire burning. The tables and booths had linen table cloths and napkins with a burning candle highlighting the beautiful ambiance of the interior. We were seated quickly and our waiter Brian inquired if we would like to see the wine list. Meanwhile the back waiter brought steaming hot bread, butter and a bountiful relish tray. After a few minutes Brian returned and described the type of beef served…it was Black Angus. My wife and I ordered respectively the large and small cuts of prime rib, side of mushrooms and the “redskin” potatoes. Our salad was brought to us with the house dressing that was cucumber based.
The service and the meal were magnificent. The portions of prime rib were the largest I have ever seen served in a restaurant. We took most of it home. The bill was shocking because it was so small even before it was reduced by 50%. I couldn’t get over what a bargain and how thankful I was to Jerry for insisting on me in taking the coupon. I asked our waiter Brian how this can be? He smiled and said the Hawaiians love a bargain and Mr. Boyd gives it to them.
John was excited and looked forward to going there for dinner. I had to warn him that certain things had changed. There was no more fire place. No more back waiters, no more table cloths, no more relish trays and no more cucumber dressing. All of these things had been eliminated to keep the price down. The only meat that remained Angus was the prime rib. However, Brian was still there and the service, by him, was still superb. John smiled and asked about the price. I said the three of us will get out for less than $175.00 and that will include a bottle of wine. John smiled and said dinner was on him. Of course I replied, you never miss a bargain…do you John?