It had been years since I’d been AJ’s but I had to go back one last time. I wanted to see what it was like to walk back into a 1999 time warp that was itself an evocation of our 1950’s past – both eras long gone, but represented by the art, the architecture and that certain something that AJ’s had, and that we probably won’t see again.
You see AJ’s represented a lot for me. In its purist sense it stood for a Vegas hotel restaurant that paid homage to the first time Vegas was ever considered cool. From its piano bar, to its retro-hip design and basic steak and spuds menu, this little corner of the Hard Rock hotel captured a Rat Pack vibe better than any place in town has before or since.
When it opened in that summer of almost ten years ago, pop culture was knee-deep into swing music, ducktails, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and memories of Frank, Dino and Sammy. It evoked that more innocent time and was itself a naïve manifestation of our budding food culture. Back then, the celebrity chef phenomenon was barely gaining traction, and it was still okay for a hotel to design and build its own, in-house steakhouse, without a big name on the door or franchise fees to be paid – it was just the way things were done.
So AJ’s opened without a lot of fanfare and no highly paid designers, consultants and globe-trotting chefs to take credit for it. When you walked it there was a stunning elevated piano bar on your right, a small, open kitchen to your left, and a modest hostess stand. Even in scale it resembled a more modest time – when restaurants didn’t need 200 seats to support themselves.
The food was never fancy but it was always good. Crab Louis and shrimp cocktails straight from the old days, and then a bisque, a couple of salads, several steaks and lobsters and maybe a single fish du jour. Back then, A steak was a steak. There were no grass fed, grain fed, kobe, wagyu, Indiana v. Argentina meat options. A strip, a filet and maybe a ribeye were good enough for Bobby Darin and they were good enough for me…..
And you know what? They’re still good enough….especially since for one last week, prices have been rolled back to 1999 levels. Until December 15th, and then for the first week in January you can dine like a Rat Packer for a pittance….and the food’s just as good as it always was.
I like to think there was something of my father in AJ’s (those were his first two initials after all – and what everyone called him) and every time I walked past it (especially in the last few years since he died) I’ve always thought of him. He never went there with me, but he would’ve loved it….for no other reason than everything about the place screamed 1963 – a time when my dad and perhaps Las Vegas were at their best.
AJ’s is open until December 15th, when it will close until Dec. 30. It will then remain open until closing for good on January 12, 2009. The 1999 prices will remain in effect until closing, i.e. a three course dinner for two (apps, lamb chops, 20 oz. sirloin, and a couple of glasses of wine) ran us $140.00 — including tip — or approximately 40% less than you’d pay for a comparable meal at a top flight steakhouse in town. It’s quite a deal.
In the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino
4455 Paradise Road
Las Vegas, NV 89169