History in a Bottle: The Evolution of Atomic Liquors

The oldest bar in Las Vegas looks to its past to forge its future

Love that sign.

Love that sign.

The neon-lit “Cocktails” sign on the corner of 10th and Fremont Streets stands like a lighthouse, guiding ships full of Las Vegas’ happy, sad, struggling and successful to a place unlike any other where they’ll find family and freedom: Atomic Liquors.

“We always just wanted to have a bar that was appealing to everyone,” general manager Rose Signor says.

But that’s not the way it’s always been. Sixty-five years ago, in a very different Downtown, the building’s rooftop offered the best views of atomic bomb tests in the city. Although the single-story rooftop has never been open to the public, few heeded that warning in the 1950s, when locals would climb to the top to watch the explosions from detonated bombs at the Nevada Test Site 50 miles north.

“It’s kind of hard to believe that story, right?” Signor says. “I wouldn’t have honestly believed it myself if it had not been for the old-timers. … They’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, my parents took me up onto the roof.’”

In 1952, seven years after the building opened as Virginia’s Cafe, the original owners, the Sobchiks, nixed the diner concept for a bar and called it “Atomic” for its vantage-point fame in the atomic culture. The rest could be history, except there is so much in its future.

Still under the Sobchiks’ ownership, the bar started to go downhill in the ’90s.

“At the end of Atomic’s old life, the bar became super rundown. It was a really scary place to be,” Signor says. That stigma remained throughout the neighborhood well into the 2010s.

In 2010 and 2011, the Sobchiks passed away, and after a brief takeover by their son, Atomic closed down in 2011. That same year, Lance Johns came into the picture.

“It’s funny to hear people say that we’re this hip bar now. Back when we reopened, cabs would not even come here to pick people up.” – Rose Signor, general manager of Atomic Liquors

After looking at the bar, Johns and his late brother, Kent, went to the growing part of Fremont Street, closer to Las Vegas Boulevard, for lunch. “We stood there and said, ‘Wow, that’s a long way, but it’s not a long way.’”

The East Fremont pioneers decided it was worth the risk.

“We figured, even if it takes a few years, it’s going to come down here,” Johns says. He was right.

“The biggest thing that’s changed are the things around us,” Signor says, adding that at the time of Atomic’s June 2013 reopening, “We kind of felt like we were on this desert island.”

It was the single business in a two-block radius, Johns says. The only nearby establishments were the Family Food Mart (which he joked is known to Downtowners as “Murder Mart”), a past iteration of The Bunkhouse Saloon and a grocery store. The atmosphere of drugs and violence still loomed.

“You wouldn’t just willy-nilly walk down here back then,” Johns says. The bar had its own reputation: You could come in and get a beer and a Coke or a beer and a sexual favor for $20.

Not long after the reopening, Downtown flourished once again. Businesses started popping up all over, some due to organic redevelopment and some in large part because of the Downtown Project, the $350 million brainchild of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. The changes in Downtown echoed inside Atomic, and in no time, the bar began to attain its sought-after vibe.

“It’s funny to hear people say that we’re this hip bar now,” Signor says. “Back when we reopened, cabs would not even come here to pick people up.”

Now the bar is not only hip with locals and tourists, but it’s also hip with TV and film crews. Only months after Johns’ overhaul, Anthony Bourdain came with CNN to film a portion of the Las Vegas episode of Parts Unknown. Since then, movies such as The Hangover have been filmed at Atomic Liquors, and it was recently featured in The Shins’ music video “Name for You.”

With the opening of the Kitchen at Atomic on date April 6, an on-property bar and restaurant (read our thoughts on the grub here), it’s clear that from Truman to Trump, through Sin City’s mob past, the development of the Strip and the neglect and refocus of Downtown, Las Vegas’ oldest free-standing bar isn’t going anywhere. To keep the good times and people coming back, Signor works with the staff to develop iconic cocktails and a lengthy beer list; chef Josh Horton creates dishes for the kitchen such as steak tartare, scallops and lobster mac ’n’ cheese bites; and Johns focuses on outstanding service in a living room-like atmosphere.

After coming this far, Johns and Signor plan to keep Atomic at the top of its East Fremont bar—and now restaurant—game.

Vegas Seven