Updated June 18, 2021 - 9:13 pm
From gray to green the room has gone.
Eduardo Cordova scans his surroundings.
Not long ago this now-happening nightspot and restaurant, saturated in verdant shades, was drab and outdated, a dormant seed in need of some serious watering, waiting to blossom.
“This place was just a shell,” says the owner of The Garden Las Vegas, surveying his club on a recent weekday, his newly blond hair bright as the afternoon sun. “I designed all the booths. We painted this ourselves. We did all the design ourselves.
“I knew what I wanted,” he continues. “I had the vision. I knew it was going to work.”
Since opening a year ago in the Arts District, The Garden Las Vegas has become one of the hottest gay bars in the city — Cher has even dropped by.
Its weekend drag queen brunches are especially popular, regularly selling out two shows on both Saturdays and Sundays, attracting large, diverse crowds in a vibrant melting pot.
“We’re seeing local people coming out who are not necessarily a part of the gay community,” says Coco Montrese, a veteran drag queen, former Miss Gay America and “RuPaul’s DragRace” contestant who performs at The Garden. “And that means a lot, because what I’m hearing from those guests is that they now have more of an understanding about the community because they got to spend time with the people in the community at a fun place.”
Matt Hayes, a California native and Garden regular, has experienced as much firsthand.
“Sometimes you’ll see three generations of a family sitting there,” he notes, “which is interesting for any bar or restaurant, but especially for an LGBTQ bar and restaurant, where you can have a member of the community, a parent or two parents and a grandparent, even. They’re watching a drag show.
“It’s very unique,” he continues. “I don’t think it would have been happening in Vegas between five and 10 years ago.”
The success of The Garden has already gotten Cordova thinking beyond the room in which he currently sits.
Recently, he signed the lease on a 7,000-square-foot property on nearby Main Street that he’s going to turn into Queen Bar, a drag bar scheduled to open later in the year.
“For me, it’s creating a gayborhood within the neighborhood,” he explains. “It’s been a journey getting here. It’s definitely a milestone — and not just for me, for the entire community. I’ve dreamt about having a space where we can grow and we can be proud.”
‘Eduardo, you’re crazy’
It’s long been a rough part of town with a nickname rougher still.
For decades, Las Vegas’ gay nightlife scene has largely been synonymous with a gritty stretch of Paradise Avenue and Naples Drive colloquially known as the “Fruit Loop,” a questionably titled mini-district checkered with seminal clubs of the past and present like FreeZone, Piranha Nightclub and Gipsy.
While those spots have played an important, enduring role in the city’s gay community — even if, like Gipsy, they no longer exist — Cordova has aspired for something different, something a bit more mainstream.
Since relocating to Vegas from his native Arizona in 2008 and immersing himself in the local gay scene, he sought to bring gay nightlife to the Strip and then other parts of town where it had little presence previously.
“I felt like we needed a space that’s in the middle and center of everything,” he explains, “because the old gay concepts were in the dark and hidden from the mainstream.”
And so Cordova launched the “Closet Sundays” gay night at Cathouse at Luxor over a decade ago, the first of its kind on the Strip, before being recruited by Light Group to do the same at Revolution at The Mirage.
From there, he’d work with Bare Pool, Share Nightclub and Victor Drai’s Liaison Nightclub at Bally’s, the first gay nightclub in a casino on the Strip.
Eventually, though, Cordova wanted his own place.
“After I left Victor Drai’s Liaison, I said, ‘I’m never going to do anything gay until there’s an actual need and I find the right place with the right spot,’ ” he says. “It took me about six years. I was actively looking for a space. I probably know every single available space on Fremont and here in the Arts District.”
Initially, Cordova planned on opening a spot in Fremont East, consulting with Tony Hsieh for a couple of years on the project.
But with Hsieh perpetually busy with numerous other endeavors, Cordova turned his sights to the downtown Arts District instead.
He had plenty of ideas — and skeptics.
“I believe that creating a venue that’s so unique, that offers different types of experiences, was definitely going to be a hit,” Cordova says. “Obviously, there was a risk and there was resistance. I had friends from L.A., gay bar owners, who came and visited. I showed them the space and they’re like, ‘Eduardo, you’re crazy. This is in the middle of nowhere. How the hell are people going to get here?’ ”
“They just didn’t get it,” he recalls. “But I knew that the neighborhood was going to be great.”
The Garden is doing what gardens do.
“We outgrew ourselves the first six months we opened our doors,” Cordova says.
As such, he’s already planning to expand the place, redo the courtyard and add cabanas and a permanent bar.
The Garden’s success is especially remarkable considering that it was launched in the teeth of the pandemic.
“When we opened our doors, I didn’t know if anybody would show up,” Cordova says. “We were reservation only, just like everybody else, and from day one, we were sold out every day.
To me, that showed that people wanted to see this space and that people liked it, so they were coming back,” he adds. “That was important, to not give up and to just open.”
With the COVID-19 shutdown ongoing last spring, The Garden was one of the few gay bars able to open because it had a kitchen.
Cordova made a point of reaching out to his peers in the industry.
“I felt so bad for all the other gay bars that couldn’t open, so I was offering comp tables and industry tables,” he recalls. “I was the first gay bar involving and working with every other gay bar in town.
“They would all come here,” he continues. “It would be Charlie’s or the Phoenix, Piranha, every single one of them. I didn’t care if you go support everybody else and come back here. There’s a kind of place for everybody.”
A stronger community
He couldn’t take his eyes off the guy in the leather jacket — stopped drinking his beer, even.
The Garden had just opened for business one evening last year, and the room was largely empty in the hours before the nightly crowd showed up en masse.
Hayes was at the bar having a drink when he saw the aforementioned man working some upholstered furniture with the exactitude of a surgeon extracting a pancreas.
“He’s brushing the whole booth where all the fibers are pointing down,” Hayes recalls. “Then looks at it, and he brushes where are all the fibers are pointing up. The waitress comes over. I’m like, ‘Is that guy OK?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, that’s the owner. He’s very particular about things.’
“In the past year now, coming to know Eduardo, I realize that everything is completely to a T,” he continues. “He’s a perfectionist.”
This is the root of what’s made The Garden a hit: attention to detail, plus an emphasis on providing different experiences and themed parties to continually give the place a fresh feel.
“Depending on the night, depending on your mood, sometimes you can be sitting there and think you’re somewhere on a beach in Florida,” Hayes says, “and then other times, you think you’re at this speakeasy-type place in Manhattan. It’s very much a sense of escapism, but it’s also comfortable.
“Anybody could walk in there and they wouldn’t feel out of place,” he elaborates. “You can take your dog and sit on the patio. You can order bottle service if you want. It’s one of the few places that can kind of capture all those different environments and different personality types, really.”
It’s all helped The Garden reach a diverse clientele as the Arts District outside its doors continues to grow as well.
“If you look at it now from three years ago, now it looks like a little Melrose Street with a bunch of boutiques and bars and restaurants,” Cordova says of the neighborhood. “The Arts District has been proven in many other big cities as that’s where the LGBTQ community really prospers with arts and the music and the food.”
Community: It’s a word that Cordova says often.
It’s the whole point of all of this.
“For me, it’s not just The Garden. It’s about creating a stronger community,” he explains, “because we have a beautiful LGBTQ community in Las Vegas.”