ENTERTAINMENT: A ‘Drink’ to Scott DeGraff’s better days

I hadn’t talked to Scott DeGraff in years, and only followed most of his rise and eventual fall from a detached observer’s distance.

But news of DeGraff’s suicide took me back to meeting him for the first tour of the Drink (and Eat Too!) club that predated his Palms ventures with George Maloof. However it all ultimately went wrong shouldn’t take away from the fact that DeGraff and partner Michael Morton (younger brother of Hard Rock Hotel builder Peter) sensed what a new generation would want from Las Vegas, and helped lead the way with this quirky club they had the audacity to open just down the street from big brother’s operation.

For my own tastes, anyone who was trying to woo Peter’s trendy L.A. crowd away from the Hard Rock but *still* booked the Smithereens and George Clinton’s P-Funk All-stars for the opening weekend festivities had something to say in their favor.

In respect for a once great notion, here’s a reprint of the Review-Journal story about the opening of the Drink club from May 1995:

At most concerts, it’s very difficult to get a drink," Scott DeGraff says.

That shouldn’t be a problem at Drink, 200 E. Harmon Ave.

Though Drink isn’t as much a concert club as what co-owner DeGraff calls "an adult playground," it takes its name very seriously.

Eight bars will be pumping out drinks in fruit jars, buckets and baby bottles. Blue drinks, red drinks and drinks of peppers, olives and lemons fermented in vodka. You can choose your libation from 75 imported or micro-brewery beers, and 25 premium vodkas — even alcoholic snowcones.

"We sell alcohol in a very creative manner," DeGraff says of the $5.1 million, 17,000-square-foot enterprise that opens to the public Sunday, after a grand opening benefit for Child Haven today and a private party Saturday.

Patrons will work their way through the labyrinth chambers of a boozy, psychedelic theme park. If the warped railings in the main room don’t simulate an instant mushroom trip ("If the railings look straight, you’ve had too much," DeGraff says), there’s an even more devout Psychedelic Room full of "Laugh-In"-style color splotches, or an African room where you can pull up a seat on a conga drum.

If you go the more staid route, there’s a separate VIP door to a cigar room modeled after the first Drink location in Chicago. So what if the original was built amid the brickwork of a Civil War-era warehouse? The new one was carefully "distressed" enough with ragged bricks and "weeping" mortar to be a convincing replica.

It’s no coincidence to find a party bar following Las Vegas’ newer megaresorts down the path of fantastic themes, and no less a coincidence that Drink is right down the street from the Hard Rock Hotel and Cafe.

DeGraff’s partner is Michael Morton, younger brother of Peter Morton — whose Hard Rock Hotel is just a long stagger down Harmon Avenue — and son of Morton’s of Chicago steakhouse founder Arnold Morton.

It was Peter Morton who first scoped the northeast corner of Koval Lane and Harmon Avenue as a potential Hard Rock Cafe site, but eventually became a limited partner in his brother’s second Drink venture.

Michael Morton and DeGraff opened their Chicago location 2 1/2 years ago in a 12,000-square-foot renovated warehouse, where they claim to process more than 2,000 elbow-benders each weekend night.

Las Vegas beat 10 cities as a second location, edging out runner-up Los Angeles. Peter Morton had scouted the partners a location near his Hard Rock Cafe there, but "we just weren’t enthused about the aesthetics of the L.A. clientele," DeGraff says. L.A. liquor laws are getting ever more restrictive, and the nightclub scene is "much more of a voyeuristic situation," Morton says. "They nurse one drink and stand around and look at each other."

DeGraff calls Las Vegas "the only Western city that has an Eastern edge to it," with a blue-collar majority workforce that "works hard and parties hard." The club hopes to attract a mixture of tourists and locals, though the average $3.50 beer and well drink price could either encourage moderation or send blue-collar types back to the video poker taverns.

Former roommates Morton, 30, and DeGraff, 31, say they’ve been best friends since they were 10 years old. Morton had been operating a Chicago nightclub called Voodoo and attorney DeGraff had ventured into the restaurant business with a deli called Winklestein’s when they decided to pool their resources.

"We decided that if we’re going to be drinking and partying somewhere, it might as well be our place," DeGraff says. "Drink’s an extension of both our personalities."

They call it "a ’90s version of a dance club." Warm colors and natural materials replace the dark atmosphere and blinding computerized lighting of other local nightclubs. And don’t bother looking for the dance floor: "They dance on the tables, or in the middle of the room. They groove wherever they might be," Morton says.

Both partners are too young to remember the psychedelic ’60s, but DeGraff says they want the interior design and 55-foot, flower-power sign sprouting out front to reflect "that whole period of having a good time, and the philosophy of, `Do what makes you happy, just don’t infringe on others.’ "

Drink also is a restaurant, with food service until closing time (roughly 2 a.m. on weeknights and 5 a.m. or later on weekends). The menu features thin-crust pizza, pasta, salads and sandwiches, with no items more than $10.

And the club will feature big-name concert acts in its central outdoor courtyard, where a 16-foot video screen hangs above the stage. Early bookings include George Clinton at today’s benefit, Peter Frampton on June 6 and Adam Ant on June 8.

But the primitive staging — no roof or overhead grid; lights are mounted on adjacent rooftops — bears out DeGraff’s contention that Drink is not out to be a midline concert club.

"If some (promoter) brings us a good opportunity, we’ll do it," he says. "But we do concerts as our only form of advertising, and because people don’t get to see these type of acts in a setting like this. Would you rather sit in a traditional hall or be able to see something in a unique setting?"




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