Downtown Las Vegas' El Cortez and Plaza beckon anew

Quick quiz: How many Vegas-goers you know prefer staying downtown?

Grandma and Grandpa may have raved about 99-cent shrimp cocktails back in the day and sworn that Binion's was the only place for real gamblers, but the '80s brought the bigness and bling binge of building along the Strip that helped teeter-totter downtown into urban blight.

Perhaps the best thing that happened to downtown hotels was the worst thing to happen to Las Vegas: The 2008-10 economic nose dive coaxed bargain hunters to consider this area. It might have been short on luster, but it was long on cheap. The only drawback: Affordability mostly equaled dismal lodgings.

That's not strictly true anymore. Bookending Fremont Street, two longtime hotels, El Cortez and the Plaza, have recently undergone renovation that brightened rooms but didn't boost prices. Recent nights spent at each venue suggest that a downtown stay can be a nice deal and a nice experience.

Of the makeovers, El Cortez's has taken the edgier path. Freshening at this landmark Vegas venue began in 2007 and continues. Some of the work has been on the exteriors (and the rehab of the venue's classic neon sign), but for visitors, the big change is the redo of the rooms in the property's two buildings. In the central tower, all 300 rooms were redesigned in a motif called "The Big Sleep," reflecting the town's increasingly popular underworld legacy. (Striped carpeting, for instance, is intended to resemble a mobster's pinstriped suit.)

The adjacent hotel building across Ogden Street was "a dump," a check-in clerk cheerfully acknowledged, speaking of its earlier days. (Scenes in 1995's "Casino," where Sharon Stone's character meets a tawdry demise, were shot by Martin Scorsese at the then-ratty property.) But now it's been recast to reflect the oasis of urban hipness that is the Fremont East District redevelopment project.

This few-block walk along Fremont Street, which links El Cortez to the canopied Fremont Experience, has evolved into an artsy-trendy-youthful stretch of clubs and shops.

To reflect the sensibility shift, 102 rooms were whittled down to 64 "cabana suites," small spaces shoehorned along three brightly illuminated corridors. Although too tiny for a family stay, the smoke-free cabana suites sport marble bathrooms and iPod docking systems, with chrome accents and bright South Beach color schemes providing a couple or a single a stylish, sensory-driven experience. (Downsides included no dresser, noise from the small in-room fridge and more than a bit of noise from first-floor rooms facing the street.)

There's an attractive price point: Sunday-Thursday stays are in the $31-$53-a-night range, and advance bookings keep most weekends well under $100. El Cortez specializes in online meal allowances and gaming incentives that reduce the cost to next to nothing, if you choose to see the math that way.

The far end of Fremont street dead-ends at the Plaza Hotel and Casino, formerly the Union Plaza. This 1,000-room location has taken a more traditional — and opportunistic — approach to its redo.

Again, the economy's swan dive proved to be downtown's gain. On the north end of the Strip, when the planned Fontainebleau Las Vegas resort ran out of financing, corporate raider Carl Icahn swooped in and bought the distressed property. In 2010 he sold off the interior fixtures, furniture, rugs, etc., for pennies on the dollar to owners of the seen-better-days Plaza.

Better days for real arrived at the Plaza on Sept. 1 when the newly spiffed-up hotel reopened. Here non-weekend rates hover in the $27-$53 range and weekend stays can be had for traditionally sized floor plans.

Rooms come in subdued-to-classy red, brown and gray color schemes. This motif continues in hallways and on the casino floor; the once-small lobby is now comfy and inviting, with oversized black-and-white photos of old-time Vegas. This visual theme extends to the rooms, where exterior images of the old Union Plaza at its peak decorate the walls. The flaws are few: Many doors reflect the scars of earlier times, sink stoppers can be elusive and thread counts could be higher, but, overall, it's a comfortable landing.

The Plaza has also updated amenities at the property. The signature addition: December saw, in an airy, domed space, the opening of the on-site steakhouse to which former Mayor Oscar Goodman lent his name. Oscar's trumpets a throwback theme of "beef, booze and broads." The "broads" are said to be table-side companions.


But the Plaza's strongest allure is its location. Walk 20 feet out the front door, wait for the light to turn and step immediately into the Fremont Experience and its eateries, shops and casinos, downtown's essential draw.

After all, what good is a nice place to stay if you can't conveniently spend all that money you just saved?

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