Stumbling into Dino’s, the ultimate dive
A Downtown institution that takes pride in its dive bar-ness
Wed, Sep 30, 2009 (2:35 p.m.)
Photo: Clay Heximer
If you lack depth perception, the red neon sign for Dino’s blends into the much larger red neon sign for the TOD Motor Motel. Perhaps I always drive with one eye closed, and this is why I always passed over Dino’s. So when I gave directions to my friend, I went with a landmark and told her it was across the street from Olympic Garden. Of course, you don’t need directions, because, statistically, you have lived in Vegas longer than I have. Thus, in the 60-some years Dino’s has been open, you must have stumbled into—or more likely out of—the joint at some time or other.
Saturday night, 1:30 a.m. For a moment I was almost scared to get out of my car. Just as I was about to exit, a bunch of dudes wearing beat-up wife-beaters unfurled themselves from a ’70s clunker. I decided they were either homeless or the coolest hipsters ever. I christened the crew “shitsters” (shit + hipster = looking like a homeless person walking past the bar, not drinking in it). But as I was later to discover, they already had a name. This was local band The Lazystars.
Of course, the story doesn’t take place in the parking lot, unless you’re talking about the hot-dog stand, which exists in a symbiotic relationship with the bar.
My first instinct is to say Dino’s defies description. But that’s a writer’s cop-out. Instead, I’ll say that entering Dino’s was like visiting something larger than myself. And I’ll be stepping on somebody’s toes if I try to categorize it. A disclaimer: Nothing I say will match your idea of the place. I won’t even try. I can only give you my one-eyed observations.
As you walk in, the low ceiling bows down to meet you like an old friend. Looking out, everything is large-scale but close up—the same sense of unreality you get walking on an airport tarmac.
Karaoke is led by Danny G, a teddy bear of a performer who looks like he walked off the set of Full House … in a good way. The karaoke song choices were a cut above the regular, a little more musically ambitious (except when they weren’t). A chick dressed like Annie Hall sang a duet of the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” with one of the shitsters. My favorite: A blonde Betty Boop in a plaid grunge dress sang a vulnerable rendition of “All That Jazz.”
During a break, Danny G told me Oprah had called and was interested in potentially including Dino’s in a segment on karaoke. “It actually came up ‘Harpo’ on the caller ID,” he said. Later, when I saw him perform, it seemed obvious that he should be on Oprah. Danny G also told me that Dino’s was used as a location for the 2007 Drew Barrymore film Lucky You. And that it was once voted Best Dive by Playboy.
There is Ryder the bartender, who runs the bike swap and seems to wear his coolness in an easier, more casual way than the hipsters. The notes I took from meeting him are as such:
• Daytime Stories
You’ll have to ask him to translate.
When I returned Monday night, the hot-dog stand was gone, and the karaoke silent. It seemed more like a regular dive bar and less like some transcendent community experience. Until a strawberry blonde approached me and asked me to vote for her for “drunk of the month.” I made her tell me why she deserved to win (the cross-examination seems absurd in retrospect). She responded with a vague yet enthusiastic reference to the weekend’s escapades, then listed her schedule of Dino’s visitation. The winner gets his or her photo on the wall, along with a special parking space. There used to be a sign designating the space, but the story goes that one of the drunks of the month ran over it. I voted for her.
Everybody said I had visited on the slowest weekend night ever. And I just had to return to see the First Friday crowd and then again on Sunday for the bike swap. And I just had to meet Kristin Bartolo, because she was the granddaughter of Dino and a third-generation owner. So that’s why “Last Neighborhood Bar in Las Vegas” is written on the exterior.