Budget Casino, Restaurant Survives In Vegas Business is down noticeably at the Ellis Island Casino and Brewery, but it is doing much better than other places in Las Vegas. Some tourists seeking cheap eats and entertainment find their way here, but it is the locals who really keep the budget-minded casino going.
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Budget Casino, Restaurant Survives In Vegas

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Budget Casino, Restaurant Survives In Vegas

Budget Casino, Restaurant Survives In Vegas

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Let's hear now from NPR's David Greene, who's in the final days of his long road trip. He's been reporting on the economy during President Obama's first 100 days. Along the way, he's consumed quite a bit of roadside food. And he's noticed that restaurants offering cheap meals and a cozy atmosphere are surviving the recession pretty well.

We've talked to David at a neighborhood diner in Atlanta and a sandwich shop in Pittsburgh - this morning, a postcard from Las Vegas, where he stopped at the Ellis Island Casino and Brewery.

(Soundbite of song, "Mamma Mia")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Mamma mia, does it show again? My, my, just how much I've missed you?

DAVID GREENE: Ok, so maybe it doesn't compare to the Elton John concert up at Caesar's Palace.

(Soundbite of song, "Mamma Mia")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Yes, I've been broken-hearted, blue since the day we parted.

GREENE: But the karaoke lounge at Ellis Island is packed. It's been like this all night. In the restaurant, there was a line for the $6.99 steak dinner. Then people moved into the lounge for the free music show.

Mr. MARCUS ZAVALA (General Manager, Ellis Island Casino and Brewery): You know, we're proud of our little joint. You know, it's not the Bellagio, but it's comfortable. It's home.

GREENE: That's Marcus Zavala, the general manager here. He says revenues in his casino and restaurant are down 5 to 10 percent from this time a year ago, but he's okay with that. Other casinos are faring much worse in this recession.

Mr. ZAVALA: People are going from quarters to nickels and from nickels to pennies and you know, they still wanting to play. They still want entertainment. They want entertainment value, which we offer.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: This is a quirky little place. We're actually behind the Strip, right next to a Super 8 motel. The casino floor is just one level. There are slots and black jack and a sort of miniature craps table.

Unidentified Man #2: Three, craps, three. Come again.

GREENE: It's so small, it takes only one employee to run it.

But the customers are here, like 29-year-old B.J. Feast from Wichita.

Can I talk to you for one second?

Mr. B.J. FEAST: It depends on what you want to talk about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: How did you find this place?

Mr. FEAST: There's a Web site called cheapovegas.com, and we found it on there and read about the dinner and stuff and that it was a good dinner.

GREENE: I'm doing a lot of stories about the economy right now. Have you guys been affected by the recession, or…

Mr. FEAST: I'm unemployed. I worked for Circuit City and they went out of business, so, yeah. Currently, I'm unemployed.

GREENE: When Feast became unemployed recently, he thought about canceling this Vegas trip with his parents.

Mr. FEAST: I was like, well, I don't know what we're actually going to be able to do while we're there.

GREENE: But he and his parents have done a lot, including grabbing the steak special here, playing some video poker, taking in the karaoke.

But people at Ellis Island believe it's their locals who really keep them going. Bartender Kimba Ocampo says she has regulars who work at other casinos and hotels. They've had hours cut back. Some have been laid off. But they're still at her bar, eating and drinking cheap.

Ms. KIMBA OCAMPO (Bartender, Ellis Island Casino and Brewery): Actually now, when you collect unemployment, they put it on a credit card, and it's a Nevada card and it's got horses on it. They apply the money towards the card, and that's what people live off of. I have noticed a lot more people using those.

GREENE: (unintelligible) tell them they shouldn't be gambling?

Ms. OCAMPO: No. I'm here to cater to whatever they need. But it crosses my mind.

GREENE: Nobody is going to argue that gambling is a wise choice when money is tight. But the feeling around here is that this is Vegas. People are going to hit the casinos no matter what. So why not come to a place where they feel at home?

Ms. RONA CAPRISTA: And it's a lot of fun. It's like one big happy family that comes here. Everybody knows one another.

GREENE: This is one of the regulars, Rona Caprista. She's with her husband, Vinny. Rona's a server up on the Strip, and when the recession hit, her hours were cut.

Ms. CAPRISTA: Three days a week, I'm working like five or six hours a day. That's it.

GREENE: And how hard is that on the two of you?

Ms. CAPRISTA: It's hard, very hard.

GREENE: Vinny, you see, is an Elvis impersonator. And these days, fewer couples are paying for him to do their weddings. So, the Capristas are being careful with their money, but they haven't cut back on their evenings out at Ellis Island.

Vinny usually wears his Elvis wig.

Mr. VINNY CAPRISTA (Elvis Impersonator): (Singing) Well, I'll do anything you want, but lay off of my blue suede shoes.

GREENE: So how often is he in character?

Ms. CAPRISTA: How often? I don't know. How often are you in character? This is his normal, you know, every day.

Mr. CAPRISTA: Oh, I - this is me every day.

GREENE: Every day you go out as Elvis?

Mr. CAPRISTA: Right. I have so much Elvis clothes, it's unbelievable.

GREEN: Ah, Vegas.

I'm David Greene, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: David is reaching the end of his 100 Day road trip. You can check out a map of where he's been at npr.org-100 days. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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