The heart of many a small town can be found in its diner, where old friends meet and strangers stop by, where pie and gossip are served with a smile. Whenever people tell me that Las Vegas is, at heart, a small town, I imagine that heart beating somewhere between the grill top and the coffee urn at Vickie’s Diner.
For 65 years — most of them 24 hours a day, seven days a week — Vickie’s was where tourists at the end of a bender crossed paths with locals at the start of a workday, where boisterous family brunches took place next to subdued post-one-night-stand breakfasts, all of it held together by the soothing goodwill of grilled cheese, turkey club, and two eggs any style. But the beloved local institution flipped its last burger on August 16 and is now seeking a new home.
I made my first visit to Vickie’s on my second Vegas vacation, and it became a requirement of every trip thereafter. Back then, it was known as Tiffany’s Café, a bland white room, save for the always-entertaining view of Strip foot traffic, the enormous collage of snapshots of regulars, and an artwork known as “That Painting” (pictured right) that would develop its own fan base, its own Facebook page, and its own writeup in The Wall Street Journal. A piece of outsider art created long ago by a now-forgotten patron, it was a conventional, above-the-sofa landscape painting … with the crudely rendered addition of a long-haired, narrow-eyed Western gunman looming up in one corner. Some thought it was Clint Eastwood, others thought it resembled John Travolta, but everyone took their picture with it.
But not even “That Painting” could outshine what was on those sturdy white diner plates. The omelets were plump and fluffy, finished off with a neat orange square of just-melted cheese applied with as much care and flair as any shaved truffle or drizzled coulis. The patty melt became my go-to meal in times of trouble, the comfort and cure for my intense hangover, ravenous hunger, or abysmal despair — the grill-top burger coated lightly in grease, topped by a pillow of grilled onions and smothered in gooey cheese, all of it held fast and firm by two slices of whole wheat. There was no liquor license, but one of my party would slip into the adjacent White Cross market for a pint of whiskey to spike our coffee — the waitresses had finely tuned radar for topping off any cup that dropped to two-thirds full, but they also knew when to look the other way.
Opened in 1955, the White Cross was a drugstore/liquor store/post office/mini mart/souvenir stand. Combined with a ’round-the-clock diner, it was basically a village unto itself. Tom Wolfe dropped into the White Cross during a mid-’60s visit to Vegas and wrote of the pregnant customers with “buttocked decollete aft and illusion-of-cloth lingerie hanging fore” and “old mom’s-pie pensioners” cranking away at slot machines, finding here the serene acceptance of the outrageous that would come to characterize Las Vegas. Did I mention that it was where Elvis used to get his prescriptions filled?
The White Cross closed and reopened as a more upscale market, which itself closed after a year or two, but Tiffany’s Café held strong. In 2014, longtime waitress Vickie Kelesis bought Tiffany’s, renaming it Vickie’s Diner; her uncle, Pete Kelesis, had run the café for years. A TV show redecorated the place in retro pink and the hours shortened to focus on breakfast and lunch, but the food and the clientele remained unchanged.
After 65 years, it’s not coronavirus that has taken down Vickie’s Diner, but gentrification. The building itself will disappear soon, yet another distinctive piece of Downtown bought up and torn down by bros from L.A. — no doubt sushi chefs or baristas will ply their trade where ham steaks once sizzled, and the groovy, mid-mod script and bubble bulbs of the White Cross sign that has ridden high over Las Vegas Boulevard since Little Richard topped the charts will be another pile of plastic and glass in a dumpster. During the final weekend, dozens of people began lining up shortly after sunrise, eager to grab a last ham-and-pepper bite of Denver omelet, a final bounce on the pink vinyl window seats, a farewell selfie with Clint/John, a big tip, and heartfelt goodbye for their favorite waitress.
Sure, Las Vegas has plenty of other all-night kitchens, loads of other establishments dishing out French toast and meatloaf, but Vickie’s was the original to which all Peppermills and Hash Houses aspire. With the bubblegum chairs and the family photos and “That Painting” stored away, the diner is now seeking a new home, hopefully still Downtown. Until then, there’ll be an empty space in my stomach for a patty melt and a place in my heart for Vickie’s.