Cliff the airbrush artist is out along Casino Center Boulevard setting up his sign for First Friday, the monthly art festival set to begin in the evening, a few hours from now. He’s a pioneer tenant in the old motel here that, after years of blighted uncertainty, has been neatly resurrected into a laboratory of apartments, studio spaces and a bar. I’ve stopped to ask how things are going and if he knew that this area used to be known as “Crack Alley.”
“Yeah, I don’t know about that,” he says with a laugh. “I’m from California. I’ve only been here six months and I don’t know nuthin’ about Vegas. I guess I’m probably better off.”
Cliff is in good company here in what’s officially known as The Arts District, a Las Vegas improvement district centered around Charleston Boulevard just east of Interstate 15. It’s 18 blocks of rehabbing neighborhood in the towering shadow of the Stratosphere hotel that, for about two decades, has been pushing for vibrancy with undulating degrees of success. As it stands, there’s a stable stable of artists and craftsmen, hipster restaurants/bars, vintage clothing and furniture stores, trendy businesses such as vape shops and coffee roasters, and the usual smattering of infill found in many old Southwestern urban neighborhoods—extended-stay motels, hispanic tire shops, discount lawyers.
Crack still might be had in one of the sketchy alleyways, but it’s overridingly clear that regular upstanding citizens aren’t afraid to live, work and dream here. And that change doesn’t appear to be driven by blissful historical ignorance but the good taste and sweat of likeminded people.
Wendy Rather and Stefanie Jackel are the most recent and boldest examples. They’re the ones who opened the aforementioned bar in the street-facing section of the complex earlier this year. On the surface, the combo of alcohol and Sin City wouldn’t exactly be a long-shot business proposition, but as some lost souls have discovered upon wandering into the place behind the big, hand-me-down “BAR” sign, this is no typical Vegas watering hole.
Three Sheets is a Craft Beer Bar whose two floors contain virtually nothing but craft beer. There are no shelves with spirits of any color. There are no icy troughs stuffed with bottles of Budweiser and Corona. There are no food menus because there is no food, due to craft-beer kegs hogging all of the precious backroom space. You won’t find any of those eccentric tap handles at the bar, either—the 30 taps downstairs and 24 upstairs are stainless steel nubs, only identifiable to the official Certified Beer Server on duty. Selections are assigned numbers and their name, type and strength confined to a screen on the wall that continuously scrolls through each day’s 30 offerings.
OK, all right … the ladies confess to having a few bottles of wine stashed behind the bar, but they’re quickly dismissed as outlier offerings “for somebody who brings a friend who doesn’t like beer.”
This friend would find their self in a strange new world of craft-beer geekdom. The only familiar Vegas-bar accoutrements are an abundance of flat-screens (inside and out on the patio) and, relatedly, a modest Vegas Golden Knights banner. Otherwise the decor is relatively spartan, as if cluttered confines might distract one’s craft-beer palate. There’s a smattering of brewery stickers on the newly painted gray walls and on the black post that anchors the wrought-iron spiral stairway that leads to the indoor/outdoor loft. A few empty kegs fill a void in the corner. Video poker is nowhere.
That’s about everything of decorative note inside Three Sheets. Its vibe has been boiled down to the purest form, which feels and operates like a laboratory for the modern beer nerd.
Wendy doesn’t argue. “This is serious business. We are all about the beer.”
Which leads us to their experiment’s hypothesis: Las Vegas—that bastion of middle-American taste wrapped up as fantastic spectacle—is ready for a bar for hard-core craft-beer purists like the ones you find in hip cities.
“It’s becoming more of a craft town,” Stefanie says. “There’s the growth of local breweries, and the growing community of locals who have embraced craft beer.”
“These are people who sit side by side and have a whole conversation about what beer they’re drinking,” Wendy adds.
People likely to sport lumbersexual beards, to have the Untapped app on their smartphones (to brush up on the day’s Three Sheets slate before arrival), and to know the difference between a kolsch and a helles. While this species has indeed emerged in Vegas—as evidenced by the dozen or so local breweries, including one (Hop Nuts) a block away—the big question for the two Bay Area transplants has to do with critical mass.
On this midafternoon, anyone I see parking on Casino Center is after a cup of coffee across the street at Vesta Roasters. But it’s early, and Three Sheets’ business was brisk the night before, thanks to the upstart Golden Knights playing in the Stanley Cup finals, and tonight should be big, too, as it has been for Wendy and Stefanie’s first two First Fridays. It will help that the semi-misleading BAR sign is due to be replaced soon. There’s also the fact that Stefanie and Wendy have successfully run a Three Sheets in Dublin, California, for three years and, against the headwinds of doubters back home, gradually eased into their transformation from Vegas gamblers to Vegas investors.
“I was Mrs. Las Vegas Strip at first,” Wendy says. “We only came here to gamble, eat or see the shows.”
Thanks to Stefanie’s relatives in nearby Henderson, they started to explore the community beyond the neon—Red Rock, Mt. Charleston, the neighborhoods, the locals bars and restaurants. When the local brewing boom hit, they were impressed with the product and the knowledge of its imbibers. Impressed enough to think people would belly up for milk stout that tastes like peanut butter and IPAs with names like Sparklemuffin.
This can get uncomfortable for your basic beer drinker, but the ladies really enjoy the challenge.
“Anybody should be able to come and find a kind of beer they’d like to drink,” Stefanie says. “We had a Heineken drinker come in recently. We gave her an AleSmith pilsner and she loved it. She said, ‘I always thought I didn’t like this fancy beer.’”
The beer here can get pretty fancy. I’m not a fan of over-the-top hops or trendy stunt ingredients (I prefer my Mexican food with beer, not in it, thank you). And this is what I tell David, the day’s Certified Beer Server, when I order a sampler flight.
“I don’t do IPAs. I’m a lager, amber and kolsch guy. Keep it mellow, please.”
The first thing I learn is that ordering a flight is a wee bit gauche here. David prefers to explore a person’s beer psyche and then come up with a full-sized pint match from the day’s list. David is polite, though, and he gives me three five-ounce pours of my choosing. Davis is also persistent, and so, for the fourth, he selects Social Fermentation, a New England-style IPA by Revision Brewery in upstate Nevada. Like a good craft-beer lab rat, I obey.
Wendy and Stefanie join me and my flight on the main patio. They tell me about striving to create an environment where people can drink great beer, make friends and play “one-handed drinking games” out on the shady commons area among the tall oleander bushes. You can’t help but root for them. Their commitment to the good-taste community is not only admirable but necessary. Three Sheets is a niche within a niche, and this is how a city’s character takes shape.
“Yesterday a delivery driver came in and told us, ‘I’ve been waiting for this area to become what it’s become. And this is a place I want to come in and hang out,’” Wendy says.
I drink to that sentiment—although, by then, I’m down to my last flight beer: the Social Fermentation. Its tangerine hue does look lovely in the sun, and I take a sip.
Hmm. My hop detector does not go off.
Another sip. Yeah, this IPA is actually very good.
Either David was right or I just don’t know myself anymore. Either way, I leave the place better off.
Three Sheets Craft Beer Bar
1115 S Casino Center Blvd, Las Vegas, NV 89104
Generally open to 11 or Midnight; Closes early Sundays.