Assuming you aren’t well versed in the era thanks to a Mad Men addiction or Rat Pack obsession, a visit to the Emerald is a great way to get a sense of what things were like right before the hippies ruined everything. Yes, the Chinatown spot has done that stellar a job of capturing the feel of the pre–flower power ’60s—the classic-Vegas beginning of the decade, when Frank Sinatra was king, the Sin City strip was still more cool than kitsch, and a good prawn cocktail was the height of fine dining.
Subtle has never been Las Vegas’s style, so it makes sense that the Emerald has marked its place on Gore Street with a glittering white-light sign. Once you’ve made your way up the stairs, you’re greeted by a gold-leaf wall that would make Liberace weep, leading into a 5,000-square-foot space designed to appeal to your inner mid-century fetishist. If the black-stone-and-white-mortar walls don’t impress you, the faux-crystal chandeliers and old-fashioned martini cart will.
The Emerald was conceived by Rachel Zottenberg and David Duprey, who also brought us the Rumpus Room and the Narrow Lounge, among other places. Interviewed by phone, Zottenberg says she was out to create an atmosphere in which folks feel like they can hang out for hours.
“I sort of became obsessed with the Rat Pack and people from that era as we started to put together this place,” she says. “They were very much the people who would float in, and then just hang out at restaurants all day and all night. They were characters, live entertainers, who lived their lives in the hotels of Vegas. I love reading stuff about how they would go and sit at a huge booth, and then be there for hours and hours.”
Our visit started in the lounge, the drink menu and the décor revisiting a time when Dean Martin was North America’s favourite alcoholic. Think golden-globe pendant lamps and cocktails that riff on classics. The Horse’s Neck had a satisfying ginger-powered snap, while the Gin Basil Smash more than lived up to its name on both the basil front and the smash front.
Refreshingly, the Emerald lounge really did have the feeling of a vintage lounge. Lounging, ahem, around in tufted brown-leather club chairs were posthipsters and neo-scenesters of all ages and descriptions, wearing the finest tuques and vintage cardigans.
The dining room has been set up to accommodate parties of various sizes, the main area featuring raised booths as well as mahogany-dark tables with vintage-looking chairs. Past an open-shelf wood cabinet, filled with amber and sea-green retro glassware raided from Ben’s place in Blue Velvet, is a banquet-style room perfect for folks whose real friends outnumber their Twitter followers.
It says something that a giant mounted marlin tacked to the wall actually lends a weird air of period-authentic dignity to the proceedings.
Considering the lengths the Emerald has gone to capture a simpler, bygone era, it should shock no one that the menu isn’t aiming for high-concept fusion. Designed by chef Tyrel Jared Shaw, formerly of the Rumpus Room, this is comfort food for those who, back in the day, had their own suites at Caesars Palace. (Mains run $10 to $24.)
Word has it that, for all the millions he made in Vegas, Sinatra loved nothing more than a plate of Mom’s spaghetti with meatballs, so he probably would have considered the Emerald’s deep-fried cauliflower a little too highfalutin. And he would have been right: the heavily battered appetizer was almost—but not quite—salvaged by a house-made chutney. Better was the appetizer of chilled prawns, partly because it’s hard to mess up chilled prawns, but mostly because the mini swimming pool of old-school cocktail sauce had a pleasantly vicious horseradish kick.
On the main front, Old Blue Eyes would have approved of the spaghetti with unfussy tomato sauce and five tender baseball-sized meatballs. The chicken Parmesan was also simple but brilliant, fork-tender and sitting high on a mini mountain of unpretentious tomato-sauced pasta.
“We wanted generous portions not necessarily to stuff people, but more so they can feel like they can sit down and be there for a while,” Zottenberg says. “Also, a lot of food in Vancouver is really precious right now. Going back to the Mad Men era, food wasn’t like that. We didn’t want things to be overly small and delicate.”
Ordering dessert was a mistake, only because the portions at the Emerald were indeed clearly inspired by Vegas excess. It said something about the tangy-sweet, Dream Whip–light lemon-meringue mousse that it was quickly demolished, including the too-cute cookies imprinted with stylized Emerald Es.
It all added up to a night that took the sting out of the fact that we never got to see the Sands back in the Rat Pack era. The bill for two people came to $121, which isn’t exactly high-rollers territory. After all, despite being a school night, numerous cocktails were consumed, which explained the evening eventually going off the rails. But there’s no need to get into that here. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, or, in this case, a Vegas-style gem.