Monday, January 13, 2014

Why We Love the El Cortez

Many moons ago, when I decided to attend an event in downtown Las Vegas at the last minute, the only place I could find a cheap room downtown was at the venerable El Cortez. They booked me in a tiny room on top of the parking garage, all the doors opening outside to a wraparound balcony. All I remember of the room, where I spent scant moments, was a small space with an even tinier TV set.

But downstairs in the casino, the El Cortez definitely had its moments. I was playing poker when the owner of the casino, Jackie Gaughan, came to the table and joined us. It was hard to miss him since his face was on the casino's player's card. One of the pit crew brought him a case of chips and he proceeded to lose them just like the rest of us. I'd never played poker against the owner of a casino before, so for a relative Vegas neophyte it was pretty trippy.

I had a session at one of their craps tables where I won, if I'm recalling correctly, something like $600. I spent another night there playing blackjack with a dealer from Arizona Charlie's and her father, who was suffering from Alzheimer's. You could tell him all you wanted it was a bad idea to hit that 16 against the dealer's 6; he'd forget it as soon as the next hand was dealt.

I became rather fond of the old El Cortez and its funky old-school downtown charms, even though the general consensus was that it had been on its last legs for years; a block away from the end of the Fremont Street Experience, and not a pretty block at that...a no-man's land where, as my friend Andy Hooper once wrote, "Crack dealers are circling like sharks!" was written off as a dusty relic that had been left behind by the behemoths of the Strip and even the little boost that the Experience had given to the downtown casinos.

Imagine my shock, returning years later, to discover that someone had invested in the El Cortez to the extent of expanding it to twice again its original size. What happened? Well, apparently, much of the credit goes to our old friends at, who moved their headquarters into the old Las Vegas City Hall, bringing to downtown thousands of employees who would need dining (and, one presumes wining) options. Dollars poured into downtown as a result, the whole district around and beyond the El Cortez is being cleaned up, and it's now a viable downtown destination.

When we decided to extend our stay by a couple of extra nights in December, I called around and again the El Cortez seemed the best option to get a cheap weekend night at the last minute. The reservation agent I spoke to said she was booking me into the Pavilion Tower. "That's nice," I said, "last time I stayed there they put me in a room on top of the parking garage."

"Oh," she replied, "that is the Pavilion Tower."

Oh la dee da. In any event, although the room and especially the comewhat cramped bathroom are on the small side, you can't beat the value: we got two nights Saturday and Sunday for a total of about $60, tax included. Good luck getting just the Saturday night for that price anywhere else in town.

And guess what? Atop a parking garage, you get some fantastic views of Vegas. The balcony runs around the perimeter of the structure, so from one side you look past the historic El Cortez sign (the south entrance is pretty much unchanged since the 1940s) down Fremont Street, on another side you have a nice view of the Strip, from yet another you look down on Container Park and the abandoned Western Casino and the Arts District, and from yet another you look out over the Valley. The view from our window was...well, the neighbors; turns out there are also rooms along a corridor that bisects the top floor. It may not be the private terrace we had at the Cosmopolitan, but it's damned handy when one of you doesn't smoke and the other does; just open the door and step outside.

Other things we liked about the El Cortez:
  • One of the marks of a great hotel staff is how they deal with problems. When we came to check in, it turned out the agent had made my reservation for the wrong date; the night before we arrived, in fact. Our registration clerk not only managed to get us in on a Saturday night, and for Sunday as well, but for a lower rate than we'd been quoted over the phone.
  • Yes, our room was small, but ah, the little amenities. After all the fancy hotels we'd stayed in on and off the Strip, they were the first to provide a newspaper in the room; not one paper, in fact, but two. Well, if you consider Gambling Today a newspaper. Or, for that matter, if you consider USA TODAY a newspaper. Free coffee in the room, which may not seem such a big deal until you consider the big-name hotel on the Strip that required you to buy it from the mini-bar. And whereas the big Strip hotels have a minimal line-up of television channels, the better to keep you out of your room and out on the casino floor, the El Cortez has The Movie Channel. Hell, my cable line-up back home doesn't have The Movie Channel.
  • Don't want a tiny room on the rooftop of a garage? There are always the Vintage rooms in the main casino hotel. Want something fancy-schmancy? The El Cortez now has Cabana Suites, having taken over the Ogden House across the street and dollied it up something special. And while once upon a time I had to cross the street and use the wi-fi in the lobby of the Cabana Suites, as of February 1, free wi-fi is available in all of their rooms. 
  • Check-out time: Noon!
  • The Flame Steakhouse comes highly recommended, and the check-in packet had a coupon for a free bottle of wine with your dinner there. The American Casino Guide has a 50% off coupon, as well.
  • Gaming? El Cortez is a favorite with the locals, having won awards for Best Blackjack...they brag about their 3:2 payouts on all blackjacks, even at single-deck. Yes, they really do have 25-cent roulette like Frommers says. And if you look for it, you can find the Holy Grail of video poker machines: a 10/7 pay table. Honest.
  • Karaoke!
  • I understand some of the other downtown hotels also have inexpensive rates that will get you some really nice rooms (such as the Plaza and the billions' worth of furnishings it picked up for a song, presumably), but the El Cortez has a coupon in the American Casino guide that gets you a special rate of $30 and a buy-one-night-get-one-free offer. $15 a night? See you there!


  1. Is Jackie Gaughan related to the science fictional artist Jack Gaughan?