Drinking at Vegas's Oldest Bar Feels Like Therapy
A once-upon-a-time thespian in upstate New York, Arty Cassata scraped off his decades-old mustache 30 years ago and headed to Vegas to start a new life. He's a storied dude who isn't afraid to bounce belligerent junkies by the collar if needed.
All photos taken by Mikayla Whitmore
Welcome back to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
Huntridge Tavern is the oldest continuously operating bar in Las Vegas. Drinks are so cheap that they're nearly free, but that doesn't dissuade the occasional self-conversationalist from swilling nail-polish remover in a bathroom stall (true story).
When the AC's broken, bartenders sling wet rags to fashion as neckwear, and when the popcorn machine is busted, graveyard bartender Arty Cassata swoops in to save the day with "Arty snacks," homemade mixes of exceptionally salty chips.
A once-upon-a-time thespian in upstate New York, Arty scraped off his decades-old mustache 15 years ago and headed to Vegas to start a new life. Still clean-shaven, he's a storied dude who isn't afraid to bounce a belligerent lady-junkie by the collar, but is most often found behind the bar pouring two-ingredient cocktails with one hand while holding his "I'd rather be drinking beer" coffee mug in the other.
MUNCHIES: How long have you been bartending? Arty Cassata: I've been doing this since my college days for 45 years. My first bar was in Buffalo, New York. It was on a famous street called Chippewa Street. It had a lot of go-go bars where girls got up and danced, long before lap dances. It was kind of a clip joint—the drinks were a little bit high, sometimes you short-poured if they would get drunk, especially the Canadian customers. At certain times of the night, there might be six girls dancing on the tables; it was pretty crazy.
We'll have a guy come in in his bathrobe because he lives down the street, and then we've got real young people, 22 or 23, just learning how to drink.
I hear you had an epic 'stache at one time. I turned 50 that year and decided I was going to move out here. I lived in the Northeast all my life, and I decided I wanted to move to the Southwest. It was two extremes—you've got the cold, rainy, and wet to the dry Southwest. Since I was 17, I had a mustache. In the 70s, that's what everybody wore. I figured if I'm gonna move to an area where nobody knows me, I'm gonna cut my mustache off. Symbolically, I did it at the Continental Divide. When I arrived out here I was a new person.
What do you love about your job? It's almost like not working. You're serving people who are having a good time. Most of the bars I've worked in end up having a lot of local people, so they become bar friends or acquaintances and you get to know them pretty well. That just makes it all the more fun.
Do you sometimes feel like a therapist? People drink for two reasons: When they're happy and when they're sad. It is a chance for people to let off steam or just to vent. Just by saying it or talking about their problems, it helps them. Just like writing something down—you have a clearer picture of what you're doing. It is like therapy in that way.
The other day—just by mistake—I had goldfish and chips. I called it fish and chips. I try to buy one thing that's colorful with something plain. Presentation matters.
A spectrum of people really love this bar. Why? People say this all the time, but something about this bar has a warm feeling. We'll have a guy come in in his bathrobe because he lives down the street, and then we've got real young people, 22 or 23, just learning how to drink. We'll have some people from the tattoo parlor and some country Western people who have lived here all their lives. They all seem to get along, for one reason or another.
What's the craziest thing that's happened on your watch? The guy with the bathrobe is a regular. He came in with no money and wanted to buy a half-pint of vodka. He knows me, so he asked me to lend him the money, and I said, "yeah, I suppose; you're a good guy." While he was waiting, he asked for a shot, too. He had no money, he wanted to buy a half a bottle, I gave him a shot, and then I realized, "You don't have anything on under there, do you?" He said no. I said, "You don't even have shoes on. You're breaking so many laws right now—I can't even serve you. And now you're getting alcohol to go."
How did your famous Arty snacks come to be? It developed over time. We always have popcorn, but I thought I'd bring something in to supplement it. I always try to have two or three mixed together. Bugles and Reese's Pieces go well. The other day—just by mistake—I had goldfish and chips. I called it fish and chips. I try to buy one thing that's colorful with something plain. Presentation matters. It delights people. A couple of bartenders from Atomic Liquors were out somewhere and a bartender offered them snacks, and they said, "Oh look, Arty snacks." That was such a compliment.
And the mug? It was a gift from my mother on my birthday many years ago because I was drinking too much. I've always been a beer drinker. She said, "you never not have a beer in your hand." So one day she gave me that mug. I said, "mom, this is great!" This is the greatest little beer mug I've ever had.
I heard you ditched your beloved beer for Jim Beam and water though? That's a love story, let's not go with that one [pauses]. I never was a bourbon drinker, but this girl I was going out with for a couple years drank slow and sometimes wouldn't finish her drink. To help her I'd take a sip every now and then but not really like it. I drank beer and whiskey or gin and tonic. Over the years, taking a couple sips every other day or a couple times per week, I developed a taste for it. Before that I only drank it for the Kentucky Derby in mint juleps.
What can you say about your bouncing technique? You never hit anybody, but you learn to grab them by the collar or by the back of the neck and maybe one of their arms and just kind of "assist them along." That's the thing, too—you've got to learn just how hard to do it because some of them resist at first. Let them know you mean it when you say "you've gotta go now," so you push 'em a little bit, and then you sense how much you can push that person. If you do it too hard they're going to come back and fight you. But if you do it just enough, you keep your talk going with things like, "you've had enough, so-and-so, I'll see you tomorrow."
You'll boot people and welcome them back? Almost always. I've never 86'd anyone for more than a day or two. There have only been a couple times I had to get physical, mostly with bigger guys. Most could probably beat me up, so it's not a matter of that. If they respect you enough, they'll let you push them, even though they're thinking, I could whip your ass.
Life advice? Shoot. There's always tomorrow. Start over. Today is done with, whatever mistakes you've made or whatever you're doing wrong that you just told me about, tomorrow's a new day. Start over tomorrow and learn something from your mistakes.
You've taken that advice? Absolutely.
Thanks for speaking to us.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in August, 2015.