Celebrity stories hang like stale cigarette smoke in the dusty, dead Atomic Liquors lounge in downtown Las Vegas.
Entertainers Barbra Streisand, Burt Reynolds and Tom and Dick Smothers are said to have graced the squat, brick hut just a few blocks east of Fremont Street’s flashy casino lights.
More recently, the Atomic made cameos in “Casino” in 1995 and “The Hangover” in 2009.
But brushes with Hollywood, be they real or embellished, aren’t why Atomic Liquors is poised to reopen in the same spot where it operated from 1952 to 2011.
That distinction goes to Joe and Stella Sobchik, Atomic’s founders and only owners until they died a few months apart a little more than a year ago.
Their son, Ron Sobchik of Fullerton, Calif., recently agreed to lease the bar to a group of Las Vegas investors who intend to reopen it and re-create a friendly vibe similar to what existed before the neighborhood around it succumbed to crime and blight.
“It was so important to my parents,” Ron Sobchik said. “Being the only child, it was important to me.”
On Friday, Sobchik handed the keys to Lance and Kent Johns, sons of an Orange, Calif., bar owner who now live in Las Vegas, and Derek Stonebarger, a filmmaker and owner of Theatre 7, an indie film and performance venue downtown.
The trio say they will clean up the shuttered property and open for business by the end of the year.
“What I envision is a real hub for arts, music, film, technology,” Stonebarger said, referring to the desire to preserve a glimpse of old Las Vegas while the nascent art and technology renaissance develops around it. “A lot of new stuff is being built, and this is one of Las Vegas’ historic places.”
COUPLE CREATED A LAS VEGAS ICON
The fact the Atomic is even standing, let alone poised for revival, is a credit to the longtime owners who opened it as a replacement for Virginia’s Cafe because Joe Sobchik was tired of cooking.
They ran the Atomic with a blend of tough love and shrewd business sense that allowed them to maintain a stable customer base even as the neighborhood crumbled around them.
“I loved them, man,” former bar manager Jim Savarro said. “A lot of people didn’t like them because they were kind of strict. It didn’t bother me.”
Savarro, who was the Sobchiks’ employee in nine separate stints over 44 years, described Joe Sobchik as a man who was so tightfisted he would have bartenders track every beverage by type on small scraps of paper so he could eyeball the booze bottles later to make sure they matched the receipts.
“The only reason they liked me is because I never stole nothing from them,” said Savarro, whose parents were friends with the couple.
He first set foot in the Atomic in 1967, when he returned from the Vietnam War and joined his family in Las Vegas.
“The first place they took me was right here to the bar,” said Savarro, 66. “I was still in uniform.”
Savarro described the Atomic as a place where cocktail waitresses, dealers and pit bosses from nearby casinos rubbed elbows with FBI agents and even a local judge who liked to duck in for a shot of Cutty Sark before work and a bottle to take home after.
The Sobchiks’ stable ownership attracted a stable clientele and made the Atomic a reliable fixture as the city changed around it.
“They were just happy to have the place,” Savarro said. “As much money as it made them over the years they never bothered to change anything.”
In later years, the neighborhood deteriorated with the Sobchiks’ health, and the bar became known as a rough dive surrounded by drug deals and prostitution.
“That is why they put the buzzer on that door,” Savarro said, nodding to the front entrance. “I knew every crackhead on that street. I wouldn’t let them in.”
Still, the Sobchiks persevered.
Ron Sobchik said that even toward the end of her life his mother would walk the day’s haul from the cash register to the car after closing time.
He said it never occurred to either of his parents to give up the bar, even as offers to buy the property for more than $1 million came and went.
“My dad would say my mom didn’t want to sell; my mom would say my dad didn’t want to sell,” he said. “I think it was just their life.”
SOBCHIKS’ LAS VEGAS ROOTS RUN DEEP
Stella Sobchik’s Las Vegas roots date to 1921.
Her mother, Virginia Zasucha, was fleeing an abusive relationship and arrived in Las Vegas by train from Niagara Falls, N.Y., Ron Sobchik said.
“That is probably how much money she had, and that was how far she could go,” he said of the decision to stop in Las Vegas.
As a young woman, Stella and her sister, Helen, moved back to Niagara Falls where she found a job at a laundry.
She met Joe Sobchik, who was raised in a Catholic orphanage in Brooklyn and arrived upstate as part of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. He was assigned to build jetties in the Niagra River.
The couple married and decided to move to Las Vegas because Stella Sobchik’s aging mother and her husband wanted to start a business on a piece of property they owned on Fremont Street.
They opened Virginia’s Cafe and, several years later, built and opened the Atomic at the same site. The building and its iconic sign have been there ever since.
When Joe and Stella Sobchik died a few months apart, their memorial services were held in the Atomic.
“They had it so long it was like a part of them,” Ron Sobchik said.
A NEW ATOMIC AGE
Now a new group of owners is poised to pick up where the Sobchiks left off.
Lance Johns, is an attorney and owner of LJ’s, a bar at 1243 E. Sahara Ave., who brings tavern and licensing experience.
Kent Johns is a commercial real estate agent who identified the Atomic as an opportunity and struck a five-year lease with an option to buy with Ron Sobchik.
Stonebarger is the creative force who has been filming the early stages of the transition and pushing to save the best, vintage aspects of the bar.
It’s located a few blocks beyond the Fremont East Entertainment District, an area of downtown where the city has waived liquor license fees for bars without gaming and waived distance requirements to allow taverns to open side-by-side.
By being just outside the district, the Atomic will benefit from the foot traffic it generates and be allowed to have gambling machines, which should be a boost to the bottom line.
“We kind of found a jewel here, I think,” Kent Johns said.
There’s lots of work to do, however, to make the Atomic viable.
It will need bigger, handicapped accessible bathrooms and possibly some electrical work in order to meet city code.
The walk-in cooler near the back office is an antique, the bar is dirty and wobbly in places, the pool tables have been exposed to a couple years of gathering dust and are covered with old beer signs.
In addition to construction work, the new operators must decide just how much of the old vibe they want to come back.
They’re eager to talk about the vintage sign, alleged celebrity sightings and hip location.
They’re less than enthusiastic about the return of the cheap-beer-and-a-shot crowd who occupy low-rent apartments and tiny, rundown homes in the immediate area.
“We are going after the professionals downtown; we are going after the hipsters downtown,” Lance Johns said. “We are keeping the old style here, but we don’t want the old clientele.”
Brian Paco Alvarez, a downtown enthusiast, arts advocate and Las Vegas native, said a renewed Atomic will be a welcome addition to the downtown scene.
Alvarez said it was a testament to the Sobchiks that the Atomic is still standing. Many historic downtown buildings have been leveled, leaving locals and visitors a shrinking selection of places to experience old Las Vegas.
“It has always been one of those really divey places downtown, but it had the cachet of being historic,” Alvarez said.
He recalled rolling up to the Atomic about three years ago during a bicycle bar crawl downtown and encountering a gruff bartender who didn’t cotton to a bunch of brash young people crashing the room.
“I asked the guy for a Jack-and-coke, and that was too fancy for them,” Alvarez said. “Anything Derek and those guys are going to do to that bar is going to be a vast improvement.”
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at email@example.com or 702-383-0285.