Any visit to Las Vegas is incomplete without exploring Downtown Las Vegas. Located just a few miles from the strip, the historic neighborhood is in the midst of a rapid metamorphosis. As a result, there’s plenty of great food in both downtown Las Vegas and the nearby Arts District.
Downtown Las Vegas is a neighborhood where trendy juice shops sell $10 smoothies next to shabby pawn shops that buy gold and other assorted treasures abandoned by down-on-their-luck gamblers.
Well dressed businessmen, smartphones in hand, walk past homeless people finding respite in the shade from the scorching desert heat.
Old neon signs illuminate walls that are freshly decorated with new street art.
Unlike the corporate Strip, which is designed like a Chinese mega-mall with senseless street crossings and useless overpasses, the Las Vegas downtown neighborhood (which is ironically north of the Strip) has a an actual street grid and the semblance of pedestrian walkability.
Fremont Street runs through the middle of downtown like a Vegas version of Barcelona’s La Rambla. However, instead of live human statues and tapas bars, this street has an overhead light show, zipliners, live entertainment stages and more neon than Hong Kong had in its heyday.
Downtown’s food scene is growing too.
Brief History Of Downtown Las Vegas
Downtown Las Vegas has been a hub of activity for over a century.
The city traces its downtown origins to 1905 with Fremont Street at its center. Casinos thrived downtown before Bugsy Siegel built the Flamingo four miles away on what is now called the Strip.
This is the neighborhood where cowboy Vegas Vic has been smiling, shining and swinging his iconic neon boot since 1951. As for Vegas Vickie, she’s downtown too, albeit in a new location inside the Circa Resort & Casino.
The neighborhood hit a bad stretch in the late 20th century when Downtown Las Vegas was a run-down afterthought for decades. Most tourists avoided the area as did locals who had little reason to venture to the cultural and culinary wasteland.
This situation changed in 1995 when the Fremont Street Experience began lighting up the downtown epicenter each night. It didn’t take long before new restaurants started opening both on Fremont Street and in the nearby Arts District.
Things ramped up when Zappos, the popular online shoe company, moved downtown from the suburbs in 2013. Although Tony Hsieh sadly passed away in 2020, the Zappos founder’s challenging vision has become a slow, improving work in process. Urban centers are not a Las Vegas forte but there has been progress on that front.
Downtown Las Vegas Today
Downtown Las Vegas is now a desirable destination for both locals and tourists.
Renovated hotels, new restaurants and cultural sites like The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Mob Museum and the Neon Museum have helped to transform Downtown Las Vegas at lightning speed. Even hotels like The Plaza and Circa have targeted their marketing focus toward Gen Xers and Millennials with on-site indie music, third wave coffee and late night slice shops.
Today, making a trip to Downtown Las Vegas is a must during any visit to Sin City. The vibrant area has a lot to offer in terms of food, gambling, entertainment and culture. The neighborhood’s art is especially noteworthy. It’s also everywhere.
You don’t have to walk to the nearby Arts District to experience art in Downtown Las Vegas. Some of the urban neighborhood’s best art is blatantly painted on buildings while a different type of art lights up the sky at night.
Then there are installations like the infamous Big Rig Jig, which previously exhibited at both Burning Man and Banksy’s apocalyptic Dismaland. The sculpture of dancing semi-trucks hides in plain sight on the eastern end of Fremont Street.
Downtown Las Vegas Food Scene
Though we enjoy exploring Downtown Las Vegas’ gritty history and dynamic art scene, we’re even more attracted to the the urban neighborhood’s vibrant food scene.
Downtown is an edgy neighborhood that embraces old school dining as much as it encourages funky flavors. The combination is intoxicating whether you do or don’t drink alcohol. And, yes, there are plenty of downtown bars for those who do.
We recommend starting your culinary exploration at the following Downtown Las Vegas restaurants, cafes and bars if, like us, you want to get away from the Heart Attack Grill:
Breakfast At Saginaw’s Delicatessen
Saginaw’s Delicatessen feels like it’s been around for a lot longer than its 2020 debut. The Jewish-style deli offers solid food and friendly service in a comfortable tin ceiling space just off the Circa casino floor.
Owner Paul Saginaw co-founded the iconic Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor back in 1982. He’s brought decades of experience to Las Vegas along with special corned beef that he sources from Michigan.
We skipped that corned beef during our breakfast meal at Saginaw’s Delicatessen. We also skipped tempting items like ginormous cinnamon buns and smoked salmon platters. Instead, we ordered a Loco Moco.
The Hawaiian dish, which has a strange similarity to the Francesinha in Portugal, consists of a hamburger patty over white rice smothered in brown gravy and topped with a sunny side up egg. While we’re not certain if there are better versions of the dish than the one we ate Saginaw’s, we do know that this hangover cure provided a satisfying final breakfast on our last morning in Vegas.
We also ordered a surprisingly good, bottomless cup of coffee.
Brunch At PublicUs
Breakfast may be the best meal of the day but brunch ranks as a close second. Due to popular demand, we seek out brunch everywhere we travel and PublicUs has a good one.
It wasn’t our first time at PublicUS – we’d previously visited the popular downtown spot to drink specialty coffee which we enjoyed. The modern cafe’s reputation for good food and baked goods brought us back.
Our brunch experience included waiting in a rapid moving queue, ordering food, finding two spots at a table and chowing down on a loaded breakfast burrito and a blueberry scone. Excellent cappuccinos completed the experience and fueled us for a day of serious food tripping.
Eat brunch at PublicUs on a week day if you want to avoid weekend brunch crowds.
PublicUs is located at 1126 E Fremont Street, Las Vegas, NV 89101, United States.
Lunch At Carson Kitchen
Carson Kitchen made waves when it opened in 2014 due to its ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Chef’ and edgy location. After riding those waves in 2015 during an excellent lunch, we wondered how the restaurant fared over the years. Not only did Downtown Las Vegas gentrify over the years, but tragedy hit when Chef Kerry Simon prematurely passed away just a few months after our initial visit.
Despite those changes, much has remained the same at Carson Kitchen. When we returned for lunch seven years later, the sleek space was still compact. The kitchen was still open and the bar still had a swear jar. More important, the menu still featured crispy chicken skins.
Sure, we ate other dishes like the restaurant’s “Killer Shrimp” and they were all great. After all, the restaurant also has an expansive menu that offers food beyond creative bar offerings.
But we loved those crispy chicken skins the most during both lunches. It’s the dish that we’ll surely order a third time. Hopefully, it won’t take us another seven years for that to happen.
Grab a seat at the bar if you want to watch the kitchen work.
Carson Kitchen is located at 124 S 6th Street, Las Vegas, NV 89101, United States.
Donuts At Donut Bar
** Update – Donut Bar has permanently closed and is being replaced by Carl’s Donuts. **
We didn’t have to look hard to find great donuts in Downtown Las Vegas. One of the city’s best donut shops, Donut Bar, is located in the same building as Carson Kitchen.
We’re not the only ones who have found Donut Bar since it opened in 2016. The San Diego-based donut shop opens every day at 7am and closes at 2pm or once it sells out of donuts.
These aren’t typical donuts. The shop’s popular Big Poppa Tart donut places an entire Pop Tart inside a donut while the Oh My Birthday Cake Oreo donut has an oreo inside and sprinkles on top. It sounds crazy but it works.
Take an Underground Donut Tour if you want to dive even deeper into the Las Vegas donut scene.
Donut Bar was located at 124 S 6th Street, Las Vegas, NV 89101, United States. Carl’s Donuts is taking over the space.
Third Wave Coffee At Mothership Coffee Roasters
Downtown Las Vegas is a mecca for third wave coffee drinkers.
The neighborhood has numerous specialty coffee shops including cafes operated by the likes of PublicUs (see above), Vesta, Bad Owl, Makers & Finders and Bungalow. We drank coffee at them all as well as at a Dark Moon kiosk located in our hotel.
Yes, our Downtown coffee crawl was excessive but we have no regrets. Kudos to you if you want to do a similar crawl but no worries if you only have the time for one coffee break. If that’s the case, we recommend taking that coffee break at Mothership Coffee Roasters.
Mothership’s downtown cafe is located in a super-cool building with a roof deck and mod light fixtures. The vibe is chill and the music is cool. But, at the end of the day, Mothership’s coffee is solid whether you order a single-origin V60 pour over or a bourbon vanilla latte. We ordered both as well as an ice cream taco.
Check out the live music on the lawn just outside the cafe entrance.
Mothership Coffee Roasters‘ downtown cafe is located at 1028 E Fremont Street, Las Vegas, NV 89101, United States.
Thai Food At Le Thai
Asian food has a ubiquitous presence in Vegas with Thai food being no exception. While hardcore Thai food fans will want to take a ride to sample authentic dishes at Lotus of Siam, those simply seeking solid Thai food in Downtown Las Vegas can pop over to Le Thai.
Le Thai’s stylish sunlit main room is decorated with exposed pipes, vivid murals and hanging plants. Its menu includes popular Thai dishes like Pad Thai and Pad See Ew as well as colorful curries, stir fries and fried rice.
Savvy locals head to Le Thai for lunch. Currently priced at $12 (subject to change), the restaurant’s weekday lunch deal includes food and a fountain drink. However, most diners upgrade to either a Thai Iced Tea or a Thai Iced Coffee for just a couple bucks. Either way, it’s a great deal.
Specify your preferred spice level from 0 (no spice) up to 5 (Thai spicy). We recommend somewhere in the middle.
Le Thai is located at 523 E Fremont Street, Las Vegas, NV 89101, United States.
Mexican Food At Letty’s De Leticia’s Cocina
Tacos aren’t difficult to find in Las Vegas. You can find upscale tacos with equally upscale prices at ARIA and the Venetian. You can also find more affordable tacos at chain restaurants both on and off the strip.
But, if you’re like us, sometimes you crave eating authentic Mexican food that’s not curated by a celebrity chef or served in a paper bag. That’s what you’ll find at Letty’s in Downtown Las Vegas.
Once you know its location on South Main Street, Letty’s, run by Chef Leticia Mitchell, is easy to find thanks to its colorful wall covered with vivid street art. The inside is equally striking with a wall mural featuring Frida Kahlo’s words and likeness. Like Mitchell, Kahlo’s roots were in Mexico City.
Based on the her cozy restaurant’s menu, Mitchell hasn’t forgotten those roots. Her fast-casual menu features a cornucopia of Mexican food favorites with a focus on tacos and tortas. Other popular dishes include taquitos, quesadillas and nachos.
Pizza At Pop Up Pizza And Evel Pie
While the Beastie Boys had to fight for their right to party, finding good pizza is no hassle at Downtown Vegas’ Pop Up Pizza. Located inside the Plaza Hotel & Casino since 2018, this New York style pizzeria serves slices and pies from 11am to 2am every day of the week.
The menu at Pop Up Pizza features a half dozen pies including a signature Old School Cheese pizza. We ate the Mike’s Hot Pepperoni which popped thanks to its triple whammy of pickled jalapeños, pepperoni and Mike’s Sweet & Spicy Honey.
It’s easy to like a pizzeria whose mantra involves living hard, riding fast and eating pizza. Like easily turns to love when that pizzeria fills its walls with Evel Knievel memorabilia and serves an award-winning pizza menu.
Similar to Pop Up Pizza, Evel Pie serves both slices and pies. Standouts include its Balls to the Wall pie topped with meatballs and a tomato-free Barry White pie. Unlike Pop Up Pizza, Evel Pie stays open until 4am on Fridays and Saturday for late-late night pizza cravings.
Pop Up Meals At The Vegas Test Kitchen
The Vegas Test Kitchen provides a brick and mortar space for restaurant startups. It’s also a fun downtown spot to grab a quick bite alone or with friends.
The incubator’s ever-changing menu adds intrigue to the dining experience. While we ate pizza during our midday meal, you might encounter burgers or oysters during your meal. It’s a fun concept for adventurous diners who appreciate an element of culinary surprise.
Check the Vegas Test Kitchen’s weekly menu if culinary surprises aren’t your thing. It’s available online. The restaurant also takes online reservations.
Vegas Test Kitchen is located at 1020 E Fremont Street, Las Vegas, NV 89101, United States.
Dinner At Esther’s Kitchen
Eating dinner at Esther’s Kitchen is a no-brainer. Helmed by James Trees, this trattoria isn’t just one of the best downtown restaurants or even one of the best restaurants off the strip. It’s also one of the best restaurants in Las Vegas.
Esther’s Kitchen is a restaurant with a vibe that’s simultaneously neighborhoody and edgy. While we opted to eat a range of pastas and seasonal dishes during our summertime dinner, you may want to order a sourdough pizza topped with Brussels sprouts or spicy lamb sausage instead.
Don’t skip the cocktail menu if you’re abstaining from alcohol. Cocktail options include spirit-free drinks in addition to classic sippers and seasonal specials.
Esther’s Kitchen is located at 1130 S Casino Center Boulevard, Las Vegas, NV 89104, United States
Dessert At Freed’s Dessert Shop
Located down the block from Esther’s Kitchen, Freed’s Dessert Shop may look familiar despite its relatively new Arts District location. This familiarity applies to locals and visitors alike.
While locals have been eating the bakery’s sweet treats as far back as 1959, visitors may recognize the bakery from The Food Network’s Vegas Cakes. While that brush with fame was surely fun, this third-generation bakery has been an off the strip institution long before it hit TV airwaves .
You may want to order Strawberry Shortcake, the bakery’s most popular dessert, during your visit. If you’re not into strawberries, you can order from a range of cake flavors that includes a colorful Funfetti Confetti Birthday Cake.
Other tempting treats include cannolis, cookies, macarons and rugelach. Those who can’t choose one dessert can buy a jar of cake scraps filled with random bits and bites.
Order a cake in advance if you’re celebrating a special occasion in Las Vegas.
Freed’s Dessert Shop‘s downtown shop is located at 60 E California Avenue, Las Vegas, NV 89104, United States.
Drinks And History At Atomic Liquors
At first glance, Atomic Liquors looks strictly old-school with its retro jukebox and art featuring mid-century movie stars. But this bar’s story stretches back to the 1950s when onlookers would sit on the roof to watch nuclear tests performed just 100 miles from Las Vegas at the Nevada Test Site.
As the oldest-free standing bar in all of Las Vegas, Atomic Liquors has an historic past. Martin Scorsese filmed a scene for Casino here and the Rat Pack hung out at the bar. Other iconic visitors include Burt Reynolds, Roy Rogers and Barbra Streisand.
Today, Atomic’s bartenders serve up a full selection of craft beer and cocktails to a motley crew that fills its barstools starting in the afternoon. Those stools often stay filled until the bar closes each morning.
We ordered a Hunter S. Mash cocktail when we bellied up to the bar. Named for the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas author and served from a keg, the potent potable reminded us of a Mojito crafted with bourbon and bitters. We later found out that its ingredients included Old Crow bourbon, Aperol, lemon juice and bitters.
Booze And Tunes At The Sand Dollar Downtown
We weren’t initially surprised to discover a live music venue in our downtown hotel’s lobby until we realized that the venue was an outpost of one of Las Vegas’ most iconic live music bars. Even better – this location meant that we could end our nights with tunes and a nightcap (with no cover – the best part) before rolling up to our room.
Open since 2022 in the Plaza Hotel & Casino, The Sand Dollar Downtown is a great spot to listen to talented musicians, both local and national, until the wee hours of the morning. In addition to creative cocktails, the bar has a rotating craft beer menu that featured eight eclectic brews ranging in price from $5 to $11 at the time of our visit.
Additional Places To Eat And Drink In Downtown Las Vegas
Still hungry or thirsty? We recommend checking out the following additional spots as you explore Downtown Las Vegas and the nearby Arts District:
Beyond Food And Drinks In Downtown Las Vegas
There are lots of fun things to do in Downtown Las Vegas beyond eating and drinking.
We already mentioned The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Mob Museum and the Neon Museum, all of which motivate families and culture vultures to leave the strip. But Downtown Las Vegas offers more for those who who dedicate some time, or better yet stay overnight, in the unique neighborhood.
After spending multiple days and nights exploring Downtown Las Vegas, these are our favorite DTLV activities:
Fremont Street Experience
Covered by a canvas and and lit by millions of LED light bulbs, the five-block long Fremont Street Experience provides a non-stop show at all hours of the day and into the night.
The light display is free for all who stroll past trashy stores interspersed among historic casinos like the Horseshoe and Four Queens. Buskers dress like showgirls and zipliners fly through the air underneath a canopy that bombards the eyes with its blaze of colors and images.
Secure your wallet and other valuables when you stroll through the Fremont Street Experience. Pickpockets frequent the attraction almost as much as tourists do.
The Fremont Street Experience spans five blocks in Downtown Las Vegas.
Access to rooftop pools is a bonus to travelers who stay at downtown hotels for a night or longer. High in the sky, these pools offer respite from the desert sun as well as festive places to chill.
We didn’t expect to find a happening pool on the same floor as our room, but that’s what we found when we wandered into a scene that the Plaza Hotel & Casino describes as Vintage Palm Springs meets Downtown Las Vegas. Beyond swimming, this particular rooftop pool features cabanas, cocktails, food, pickle ball and a front row view of D*Face’s massive pop art mural ironically named Behind Closed Doors.
Circa Resort & Casino, Downtown Grand Hotel & Casino, Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino and Plaza Hotel & Casino are notable Downtown Las Vegas hotels with rooftop pools. Book your stay accordingly.
While murals by D*Face, Faile and Shepard Fairey adorn the walls of the Plaza Hotel & Casino, street art is easy to find on walls all over Downtown Las Vegas. Round any corner and you’ll likely bump into vivid displays on both abandoned and occupied buildings.
You may be wondering why Downtown Las Vegas has become a mecca for vibrant street art. Much of it is related to the neighborhood’s annual Life Is Beautiful festival which dates back to 2013.
A decade of festivals has left brilliant murals in nooks and crannies throughout the city’s downtown blocks. These pieces of urban art evoke emotions and practically demand to be photographed.
Photograph downtown street art in the morning shade before Vegas’ stifling heat forces you indoors.
Downtown Container Park
Originally championed by Tony Hsieh (see above), the Downtown Container Park made a big splash when it opened in 2013. The urban park was made entirely of new and repurposed shipping containers of varying sizes that were attached and stacked together with shops, restaurants and even a water slide.
We were wowed when we explored the unique park in 2015, nibbling on artisan chocolates and blackberry lemonade popsicles as we popped into various shops. At that time, exploring the park was one of the best free things to do in Las Vegas especially when the temperature exceeded 100 degrees in the shade.
While we weren’t as impressed by the park or its offerings when we returned seven years later, visiting the Container Park is still one of the top things to do in Vegas with families. Kids can play in the park’s interactive playground while adults can imbibe cocktails at Oak & Ivy.
The Downtown Container Park is located at 707 Fremont Street, Las Vegas, NV 89101, United States.
Downtown Las Vegas Tours
Regardless of whether Las Vegas is a stop on your US road trip or your ultimate destination, consider immersing yourself in the city’s downtown neighborhood by taking one or more of the following tours:
Frequently Asked Questions
Downtown Las Vegas is known for its historic casinos and the Fremont Street Experience. The neighborhood is also emerging as a destination for both cuisine and culture.
A visit to Las Vegas is incomplete without a trip to Downtown Las Vegas. Located just a few miles from the strip, this historic neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying and is well worth a visit.
Downtown Las Vegas is approximately five miles from the Strip.
Transportation options including driving, taking a bus, walking or taking a taxi or car service like Uber. While walking is the cheapest option, the distance and heat make walking a serious challenge.
About The Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website. Since launching the site in 2012, they’ve traveled to over 40 countries in their quest to bring readers their unique taste of the world.
Original Publication Date: September 4, 2015
Republication Date: January 24, 2023