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Shrimp cocktail had crowds flocking to downtown Las Vegas for decades

As far as Mark Brandenburg is concerned, shrimp cocktail ran the mob out of downtown Las Vegas.

It happened like this, says Brandenburg, chairman of the Fremont Street Experience and former owner of the Golden Gate: In the early ’50s, Emilio “Gumba” Giorgetti owned the old Westerner at Fremont and First streets downtown. During the televised Kefauver hearings on organized crime, he was subpoenaed.

“The local authorities went to him and said, ‘We’re not feeling comfortable with you having a casino in Las Vegas,’ ” Brandenburg said. So Giorgetti went to his San Francisco attorney, Joseph Alioto, and asked if he knew of a potential buyer. Alioto put him in touch with a man who formed a group of Bay Area investors.

Cut to a few years later. The group sold the Westerner at a profit and were looking for another venture. They approached the owner of the Sal Sagev Hotel — that’s Las Vegas spelled backward — and leased the ground floor for a casino. They eventually took over the property and renamed it the Golden Gate. And in 1959, Italo Ghelfi — managing partner, and Brandenburg’s step-father — introduced the 50-cent shrimp cocktail as a promotion. It was an immediate hit, drawing crowds to the casino.

And the mob was gone from downtown for good, Brandenburg says, maybe with his tongue in cheek. He even tried to convince the folks at the Mob Museum of his theory. And failed. Oh well; it’s still a pretty good story.

The whole thing came up again this summer, when downtown restaurant 7th & Carson offered the “Golden Gate Original Shrimp Cocktail” for an hour each evening in June, with the purchase of an entree.

And no wonder; Ghelfi’s shrimp cocktail became a legend, with 25 million sold by 1991, when the price was raised to 99 cents. Along the way, it spawned imitators across the valley. Until the late ’90s, when the dining revolution started in Las Vegas, 99-cent shrimp cocktails were as plentiful as bargain buffets.

“I think it became popular because it was something that was easy to get, something people maybe didn’t eat every day at home,” said David Schwartz, associate vice provost for the UNLV Office of Faculty Affairs and professsor/curator for gaming at University Libraries. “For the casinos, they offered it at a price point that was pretty attractive to people.”

Brandenburg said they didn’t mind the imitators.

“It was not a problem for us,” he said. “We maintained the quality and the presentation. The other products didn’t compare; they used plastic cups, smaller shrimp, fillers. I think what really made it work for us was the presentation in the nice tulip glass. There was an emphasis on quality. And the cocktail sauce was really important. There was a little bit of a dispute over that, as to whether my dad or Tiny Naylor (then the owner of Du-par’s in California, and one of the partners in Ghelfi’s group) originated it.”

He said the appeal was simple: “It was consistent with the old Vegas. Value was important.”

Brandenburg said he began to grasp the shrimp cocktail’s appeal shortly after he bought the property in 1990. He had been an attorney, practicing in the old Valley Bank building downtown. One day he ran into another attorney from the building, who asked where he’d been. Brandenburg told him, and the guy said he’d never heard of the Golden Gate and asked where it was.

“Fremont and Main,” Brandenburg said.

Blank.

“Across from the Plaza.”

Blank.

“The place with the shrimp cocktail.”

“ ‘Oh, I go there all the time!’ And he starts telling me stories about it. People didn’t know our name, but they knew our shrimp cocktail.”

Brandenburg also remembers talking to people in line at the resort’s old deli, where the shrimp cocktail was sold, and asking where they were from and why they were there.

“People were saying, ‘We’re from New Hampshire and we heard about the shrimp cocktail,’ ” he said. “ ‘We’re from Switzerland and we heard about the shrimp cocktail.’ ”

The deli sold the crowd-pleaser until Du-par’s replaced it in 2010. The coffee shop carried on the tradition — although not for 99 cents — until it closed in 2017. The Golden Gate currently is owned by Derek Stevens, who didn’t return a request for comment, and his brother, Greg, who also own the D Las Vegas.

And it appears the only bargain shrimp cocktail currently available downtown is at the Fremont, where it’s still 99 cents, and where they sell 300 to 350 a day, up to about 500 a day on weekends.

“We started it in the mid-’80s,” said Kirby Salomone, the property’s director of operations. “It’s a downtown favorite, especially for the locals. It’s a loss leader, but I’ve got to tell you, it’s just keeping the nostalgia, and it’s part of the Fremont. A lot of people come in and look for it.”

He said he thinks the popularity valley-wide dropped because costs went up over the years.

“We’ve decided to say it doesn’t matter,” Salomone said. “We want to keep it; it’s a tradition. We’ve been making it the same way forever. Our executive chef has been here going on 30 years.”

Brandenburg has one more story. He remembers the time a friend, newly arrived as an assistant general manager at another casino downtown, was standing outside her property with her boss when a customer asked where to find a shrimp cocktail.

“ ‘Oh, you go right up the street, just to the right, a block or so,’ ” he remembers. “Her boss turns and says, ‘Hey, you know we serve shrimp cocktail here, right?’ ”

It was a powerful brand, and a good fit.”

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 02-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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