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Off the Strip, right by the gutter

The Double Down Saloon has welcomed Las Vegas' down-and-out for two decades. Owner P Moss has transformed the city's seedy side into a major brand.

January 26, 2013|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • P Moss opened the Double Down Saloon in Las Vegas 20 years ago. He's turned the sleazier, outlandish side of Vegas into a successful brand.
P Moss opened the Double Down Saloon in Las Vegas 20 years ago. He's… (Sarah Gerke )

LAS VEGAS — Double Down Saloon owner P Moss sits at the corner of the bar across from a skinny, sad-eyed man with a cascading white ZZ Top beard.

"Let's go over to a table," Moss instructs a visitor, eyeing the old barfly named Wade, who continued to toss out disconnected thoughts. "This one can often be quite a handful."

Wade's a military veteran who, since his son died a few years back, spends his waking hours at this dark, profane, scribbled-upon dive bar in the shadow of the Strip. He shows up most days at 7 a.m., erudite in his positions on politics and books he's read. Twelve hours and many beers later, the seventysomething is often a bleary-eyed, gibbering mess.

But at the Double Down, Wade is a valued regular, another character to be celebrated. Like Moss himself.

Goateed, Moss has the wispy frame of a frontman for a punk band, which he is. He produces a cellphone photo of himself with Wade. The snapshot shows the old imbiber dressed up as an outrageous Santa Claus; his long white beard, lathered with mousse, sprouts three feet toward the ceiling like some hairy stalagmite.

Every corner bar has its own kooky subculture, but Las Vegas seems to draw more than its share of the disenfranchised, human tumbleweeds rolling away from regular society. Many call the Double Down home. Open 24 hours, it has no last call. In years past, serious boozers would stay for days, sleeping off their benders on a now-long-gone old couch.

For 20 years, Moss has been the whimsical ringleader of a disheveled, idiosyncratic clientele that flocks here for a cocktail of eccentric drinks, a rollicking beat from live bands, and a monthly punk rock bingo contest.

The 60-year-old Moss is also a shrewd businessman who has turned the sleazier, outlandish side of Vegas into a successful brand name. The result: The Double Down has been heralded by national press as a true original, and Moss opened a second location in New York in 2006, as well as a tiki room concept bar in downtown Las Vegas.

He's published two books of fiction about the pathos oozing from everyday Las Vegas. For inspiration he need only look around the Double Down.

Each December, Wade's act is the highlight of the bar's "White Trash Christmas" event, when the joint serves bologna sandwiches and SpaghettiOs cooked in a coffee pot, washed down with $1 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. "We give him a throne in a corner," Moss says. "People tell him what gifts they want."

In an after-hours town with a constellation of precious clubs with pricey drinks — establishments often gone within a year of their gala openings — the Double Down has endured with a simple plan: Never charge a cent to hear live music. And treat everybody the same, whether they're bums, strippers, actors, tourists, red-tied businessmen, roller derby queens, kids with mohawks or hard-core streetwalkers.

"A bar is a living thing — it has character; it evolves," says Moss. Nursing a dinner-glass-sized tumbler of vodka, framed by a poster that says "Shut Up and Drink," he adds, "You design it and then allow it to take on a life of its own."

Moss, a onetime professional sports gambler, opened the bar on a blighted side street. The first five years were roughhouse — pool cues got swung, faces got bloodied. Moss and his small staff dreamed up bizarre gimmicks to draw in customers, from $20 "puke insurance" to an ill-advised come-on called Toothless Tuesdays, when having two successive missing teeth got you a free beer. The end came not long after one numskull patron let another pull a tooth with a pair of pliers right there at the bar — just for the booze.

When the place opened, Moss often answered the phone, gazing past two lonely bums, and announced, "World-famous Double Down Saloon."

It was a joke then, but now it's not.

Esquire magazine called the place "primordial," with a kind of Vegas theatricality, "like Liberace turned inside out." TV host Anthony Bourdain calls the Double Down one of the top five bars on the planet.

As Moss sits at the table, a man with a tattooed face thanks him for another fun night.

"When you see a guy with a face full of tattoos, you ask yourself, 'Did he think that through? Where can he go in public and feel comfortable?'" Moss says. "He can come here, to the Double Down, where he's treated with respect."

Moss' parents named him P, with no period, and no good explanation. His father was a Twinkie salesman. The Chicago-born Moss wanted to be a journalist.

But he was an impatient cub reporter. He wanted to be Jimmy Breslin, not Jimmy Olsen, so he left college and haunted sports books around Vegas, making enough to survive, with stints in L.A. and New York.

In 1992, Moss scouted locations for his own bar. The site he liked was so grim the real estate agent didn't even want to show the long-vacant former bar. But the Strip was just a block away. "It was perfect," he recalls. "I can't understand why nobody else saw what I saw."

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