Destinations: Bohemian Las Vegas

The best way to experience Las Vegas is to get off the Strip. The unusual makeup of the town's populace -- heavy on entertainment workers and retirees wealthy enough to move there from somewhere else -- spawns local restaurant, nightlife and arts scenes that exceed those in most other burgs its size.

For example, a recent round of gallery hopping during one of Vegas' monthly First Friday street fairs was eye-opening. The Las Vegas arts district is housed in a few blocks of industrial spaces and ratty storefronts set just  the beyond the north end of the Strip, within walking distance -- if you like a good walk -- of the Stratosphere and old downtown. With the streets closed to traffic for the evening, a First Friday stroll amid food carts, street vendors and live bands would be fun even if the art was ordinary.

It's not. Recent visitors -- regulars at Thursday nights in Manhattan's Chelsea gallery district, Chicago's art Fridays and Los Angeles' scattered weekend openings -- were impressed by the vibrancy of Vegas' compact arts community. There may not be as much work on display in Vegas, but what's there is universally competent and intermittently thrilling. Vegas are holds its own against its bigger rivals.

Between the lively street scene and the usually perfect weather, you may not be inclined to go indoors, but there are a several display spaces that are not-to-miss. The Arts Factory (101-109 E Charleston Blvd) houses a dozen or so galleries and studios, including the Contemporary Arts Center, an established non-profits artists' collective, and the soon-to-open Paymon's Mediterranean Cafe & Lounge. Other essential stops includes the artists' lofts in the former Holsum Bread Factory and Commerce Street Studios (corner of Utah and Commerce) and Naomi Arin Contemporary Art (formerly Dust Gallery; 900 S Las Vegas Blvd - Suite 120B; by appointment: 702.324.5868).

Like any city in the southwest, good eating in Vegas is spread all over town. Fortunately for First Friday-goers, one of the local Vegas eateries worth a visit is in the arts district: Tinoco's Bistro (103 E Charleston Blvd; 702-464-5008), in the arts factory building itself, is a friendly Italian place, with low ceilings, tables shaped like artists' palettes, and lots of art on the walls. In a town where millions of dollars are spent creating ambience, Tinoco's stands out for its feeling of authenticity. By the comparison to the Strip, the prices are low, low and low for both lunch and dinner, and the food's terrific.

Most of the other eateries in the area are Latin-flavored. At Casa Don Juan (1204 S Main Street; 702-384-8070) an authentic enchilada platter will cost you less than a movie ticket and huge overstuffed tacos packed with carne asada and guacamole can be had for the price of a bag of theater popcorn (their claim to the title "Best Margarita in Las Vegas" would be hard to challenge). As you travel back toward the Strip  on South Las Vegas Blvd, you'll come upon a Howard Johnson's that holds a surprise: the  Florida Cafe Cuban Bar & Grill (1401 S Las Vegas Blvd; 702-385-3013 ) attracts a mostly Spanish-speaking crowd for downhome Cuban specialties like ropa vieja and classic Cubano sandwiches (one of the steaming, cheesy foot-long creations could feed a small village in the Sierra Maestra).

Other art district hangs: the pricier, more Vegas-ie Ice House Lounge (650 S Main Street; 702-315-2570) is a good place to hear live local music; on the other hand, so is Dino's (1516 S Las Vegas Blvd; 702-382-3894), calling itself "the last neighborhood bar in Las Vegas," the sort of dive where you might expect to find a (pretty good) polish sausage to go with your karaoke.

Like countless Bohemian communities before it, the Vegas art district is a fragile thing. Great galleries and clubs have already come and gone and experience shows developers love art scenes to death. Now is probably the time to visit, before it goes the way of the Soho, Wicker Park, Venice Beach and countless other artists' havens that have been abandoned to the bourgeoisie. It won't be as much fun after the artists are forced to move to the corner of Nellis and Lake Mead (or wherever) to find affordable space.

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