The sun is shining, the sky is blue, Elvis and Gene Simmons have passed by on their way down Fremont Street — but everyone in Atomic Liquors is worried.
Derek Stonebarger leans against the bar. “I feel sick to my stomach,” he says. It’s been a year since he and partners Lance and Kent Johns bought Atomic Liquors, and the grand opening is in 10 days and the final inspection is in five minutes. Stonebarger, along with Lance and Rose, the head bartender, waits with a hopeful face and exhausted eyes: “I was here until 3 a.m. last night.”
Officially, it’ll be Atomic Liquors’ second opening: The first was in 1952, after which it became a beloved local hangout, whether for blackjack dealers stopping in for a post-shift drink, or Frank and Dean and Sammy grabbing a nightcap after the late show. The neighborhood and the clientele became somewhat less fabulous, but owners Joe and Stella Sobchik kept the doors open and the booze flowing for nearly six decades.
The Atomic was once one of my favorite bars in Vegas. After walking several blocks of crackheads and vacant lots and abandoned motor courts (oh my!), you’d be buzzed in and there’d always be a seat. Everything seemed sepia-toned, thanks to the thick, yellowish glaze of cigarette smoke that clung to every surface, from the ceiling to the legs of the bar stools.
The bar has been completely revamped — beer taps gleaming, quartz bar top glistening, rows of unearthed and preserved vintage neon beer signs glowing. “It took 10 coats of paint to cover the ceiling,” says Lance, gesturing upward, lifetimes of tobacco now sparkly pale blue. The walk-in is Arctic, the back bar redesigned and rebuilt, but everyone is still anxious about the guy with the clipboard, now arrived and poking his thermometer into everything. “Our first inspection was three-and-a-half hours,” explains Stonebarger, quietly. “They give you a list of things to fix and you fix them. But the problem is then you have to wait a month for another appointment …”
The west wall still contains the original brick, studded with original outdoor signage — “PACKAGE LIQUOR” in peeling blue and red block print, “Parking for Customers Only” in curvy ’70s serifs, lengthy grey-enamel explanations of how distance and ordinance relate to cracking the cap on your Jim Beam. “We do a lot of old with the new,” continues Stonebarger, showing off all of the neat stuff that turns up when you renovate a 60-year-old building. He’s still trying to figure out how to repurpose a 1948 Coke machine and an art deco-y electric exercise bike, but already on display are a dozen-plus vintage-era bottles of Old Crow on a weirdly Heckle and Jeckle-style rack. “Old Crow was what Hunter S. Thompson drank, so we’ve got a drink with that.”
Along with the found history, Atomic Liquors has partnered with National Atomic Testing Museum to create a display for the bar featuring memorabilia like testing site signs and Geiger counters. The official drink, the F-Bomb, is a mix of Fernet and Fireball whiskey dropped into a glass of Atomic energy drink — pull up the shot glass and the liquor puffs out like a mushroom cloud.
Rose is also developing an updated Atomic Cocktail. “It was vodka, brandy, sherry and Champagne … ours will actually be drinkable,” she says. There’s a seasonal cocktail menu, but the bar’s focus will be on beer, especially local/regional brews. The Atomic will carry on the Sobchik tradition of serving cheap Busch beer — at one point they sold more than any bar in Nevada. “We want the neighborhood crowd,” says Rose. “We want people to come as they are and drink what makes them feel comfortable.”
That was the rule at the old Atomic Liquors, where a wide assortment of humanity found kinship in cheap drinks. I listened to news of bassist John Entwistle’s death and the Vietnam vet on the next stool and I raised a glass to The Who. I watched my paramour of the moment get pool-hustled while a woman with prison-tear tattoos bought me a shot for being “the prettiest white girl I’ve ever seen.” I saw a young kid with a Mohawk and an old coot in a cowboy hat commiserate over their shared love of Willie Nelson.
Set into the floor is an old safe, now a mini-altar to original owner Joe Sobchik: his ID card from when you could still get your photo taken wearing Ray-Bans, a keychain, a half-pint of Smirnoff, a jar of cocktail onions from the Eisenhower administration, all aglow with colored lights. Stella Sobchik lingers in her favorite color, pink, which dominates the glossily deco-tiled ladies’ bathroom. She is also honored in the bar’s first art exhibit, Pink, a series of pre-renovation photos in which the tint recurs in a fuchsia wall or the rosy glow on a concrete block holding up a bar cooler.
Even though Joe and Stella are gone, their memory lives on. Perhaps their blessing, too, as Stonebarger puts the final signature and the final handshake on the paperwork that clears Atomic Liquors for liftoff. On June 20, Mayor Carolyn Goodman will do a “ribbon torching” to officially reopen the bar. But there’s still liquor to be ordered, pictures to be hung, glassware to be stocked, 45s to be put in the jukebox. “It’s done!” exults Stonebarger. Everyone clinks bottles, takes a celebratory swig, and gets back to work.
Atomic Liquors 917 Fremont St., 349-2283, www.atomiclasvegas.com.