Reflecting on my young life as a regular at Koi, lonesome ultra lounge for the have-nots
AT 22, I found myself in an ultra lounge called Koi night after night. I lived within driving distance of Las Vegas. I had a wardrobe full of polyester mini dresses from a store called Hottie World. It was enough.
It was 2011, and Las Vegas was filled with ultra lounges. I didn’t ask what they were; I thought I’d be ridiculed for not knowing, like the time I’d confused the Strip with Downtown while giving a cab driver directions. Still, the concept seemed like a particular kind of Las Vegas fantasy to an outsider: decadent, upscale. Not the kind of night out I was accustomed to having — which usually involved a $30 hotel room and neon-green margarita mix from a plastic gallon jug — but something aspirational. Dress codes, champagne, tufted banquettes.
Billboards for ultra lounges showed women in silk shifts and men in tailored suits. I didn’t know these people, but I wanted to be them, be around them.
This is my problem. I’ve spent a lot of my life around wealth and have never absorbed the lesson it teaches you: Proximity is not assimilation. I grew up middle class — Mom worked at a grocery store, Dad was in the military — but my parents sent me to a private school where people had money. Dumbwaiter-in-the-dining-room money. Lake house money. After college, I waited tables in nice restaurants. The kind of places where patrons are guests, not customers. Guests who order $400 bottles of wine and don’t finish them. Guests who are excited by chanterelle mushrooms, disappointed when the steak knife appears with the steak rather than before the steak. This time spent lurking in the background of other people’s wealth taught me the language, the choreography. But I did not belong.
And now, here was Las Vegas with its ultra lounges — havens, I imagined, containing the finer things in life. An ultra lounge, I surmised from the advertisements, was a liminal space somewhere between a nightclub and a bar. It would be smaller, more intimate than a nightclub, but more sophisticated than the average bar. There would be dim lighting and velvet furniture, but it wouldn’t be stuffy. It would be cool. Pulsing music, but not so loud you couldn’t have a conversation. No tequila shots; Don Julio on ice. Mingling, dancing, but no one throwing up or taking off their heels. And best of all, I didn’t even have to ingratiate myself; I was already invited. This is what the advertisements made me believe.
The reality, it turned out, was Koi.
Koi is an ultra lounge at Planet Hollywood on the Las Vegas Strip that has been around since at least 2008. In a city where nightclubs with abstract one-word names — Pure, Intrigue, Surrender — are constantly giving way to nightclubs with different abstract one-word names, staying power is rare. And yet, Koi is not a nightlife institution that appears on best-of lists, it is not a place to see and be seen. But there it is, on the second floor of Planet Hollywood overlooking the casino floor, a seemingly permanent fixture in an evolving space.
In my early Vegas days, when I longed for nothing more than the perceived exclusivity of an ultra lounge, I was wandering the Strip with a friend, lightning flashes of marquee advertisements on our skin, passing back and forth a $4 bottle of champagne. We didn’t know where we were going until the Koi promoter appeared.
“All-you-can-drink for ladies,” he said, stepping in front of us on the sidewalk. “Ladies, all you can drink.”
He repeated the words again and again, sheep-dogging us toward the glass doors of Planet Hollywood, pushing Koi wristbands into our hands, pointing us to the escalator that would carry us to our first ultra lounge. The line to get in was short. Inside, the space was nearly empty. A bar plastered with signs reminding guests to tip, a circular dance floor where no one was dancing, a single disco ball winking sadly from the ceiling, and roped-off empty booths. In the corner, a DJ played Pitbull song after Pitbull song.
In the violet light, I saw people just like me. People who had also spent their lives wondering what the fancy, exclusive party looked like. This wasn’t it. Access to the ultra lounge had been too easy.
My friend and I immediately began discussing going somewhere better. After one drink. Maybe two.
Two drinks turned into three, and then the dance floor didn’t feel so glaringly empty. The people inside the club — a crowd barely big enough to fill a classroom — began to dance. We stayed until closing. It wasn’t until the next morning, when we woke up with throbbing in our heads and Koi stamps on our hands, that we realized we’d meant to go somewhere cooler. And somehow, despite my desire to seek out somewhere cooler — the ultra lounge with the girls in gold dresses and the guys with good haircuts, the host at the door who would look me up and down for 30 humiliating seconds while deciding whether or not to raise the velvet rope, the views of the city, sparkling and unreachable — somehow despite that, I kept ending up at Koi. One night it was because I couldn’t afford the cover charge at a better venue. Another night, a few men in our group were turned away from somewhere else because their shoes didn’t meet the dress code.
“Not again,” I’d say each time the promoter appeared outside of Planet Hollywood, wristband in hand.
“Not Koi,” I’d say, as I waited in the alarmingly short line, watched the bartender pour well vodka into a plastic cup, and stayed until dawn once again.
You know that expression, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members”? That’s how I felt about Koi. It wasn’t a place you bragged about. It wasn’t elegant like the vacation homes of wealthy friends I’d known as a teenager or the restaurants I’d worked in as an adult. It was eager, embarrassing. It was for me.
Last week I got to thinking about Koi and wondering if it was still there. I found the website, which has Copyright 2011 at the bottom and feels even older. KOI Ultra Lounge combines the exclusivity of Hollywood with the energy that is Las Vegas, the copy reads, above a photo of a girl with black eye makeup, a large bottle of sake dangling from her French-manicured fingers. There’s a link to a Twitter account with zero followers and a Facebook page with a profile photo of Tao Beach Club, which is a few miles north of Koi at the Venetian. Looking at the website felt like visiting the dying mall in my hometown. There was no phone number listed — just blurry, outdated photos of the Strip and a message about Koi’s desire to become a new stop on the Las Vegas destination scene. I found the phone number elsewhere and called, was surprised when someone actually picked up.
“We’re open Wednesday through Saturday,” the voice on the other end of the line said. And then, “All-you-can-drink for ladies.”
Ladies, all you can drink, the memory of the promoter whispered in my head. So I went. I put on the kind of sequined pink dress 2011-era me would have approved of and went. The escalator ride brought me back to that second floor landing where I walked past the Criss Angel Theater and toward the entrance. The line was short — maybe 10 people deep — just as I’d remembered. A woman in a long black dress and ballet flats — an employee, apparently — appeared and said, “It’s usually a lot longer than this.” We both know that’s not true, I wanted to tell her, but she was so friendly, so hopeful, so openly happy to have us all there. So I smiled back.
There was no cover charge. When I pulled out a twenty at the bar, they said drinks were free, too. The dance floor was empty, except for one guy in khakis, shuffling back and forth on his feet, alone. The booths were roped off, reserved for those willing to pay for bottle service (still no one). The same disco ball hung from the ceiling. The music hadn’t changed either. I sipped the free vodka soda and realized how long it had been since I’d tasted well liquor, since I’d worn a dress from Hottie World, since I’d looked down at my hands and seen that wristband.
Across the street, a supper club had replaced a nightclub. A stadium and an arena had been built from the ground up. A casino had been rebranded. A Cirque du Soleil show had closed. But Koi was a time capsule. Only one thing was different. At 22, I’d looked out at the casino floor below as I’d danced in the only club that wanted me. Now, there were curtains around the ultra lounge. Curtains that hid the view, so that I could only see what was inside, so that I could stay, as though in a womb, in this place I’d believed I was better than, so that I could realize how wrong I’d been.