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Derek Stevens’ modern Circa reflects his classic Vegas style

Derek Stevens is a comparatively new resort legend. He’s a lot like his Circa hotel, exhibiting a contemporary vibe, but still classically Las Vegas.

Stevens’ Circa hotel, which he co-owns with his far less media-prominent brother, Greg, opens at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. This is the first ground-up hotel to open in downtown since Holiday International opened in 1978. Today, Boyd Gaming’s Main Street Station takes up that spot.

Stevens’ brazen project broke ground before COVID and was finished during the pandemic. Looming over a city block, Circa has already achieved more than elevating the standards of Fremont Street hotel-casinos. The resort reinforces Stevens’ status as a modern-day incarnation of such Vegas pioneers as Jay Sarno, Benny Binion, Sam Boyd and Jackie Gaughan.

As Stevens greeted a group of Las Vegas media reps last week, I asked him how it felt to be carrying the tradition of those casino giants. Where is his place in history?

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Stevens said with a chuckle as he held court in Circa Sports. “My place in history? I’m just thinking about opening up. But it depends, it depends how you do. We’ve brought a lot of attractions to Circa. All the different elements, from the Overhang Bar to the design of the sports book to all we’ve done with Stadium Swim are all unique attractions, not just for our property but for all of Las Vegas.”

Stevens effortlessly reels off the hotel’s qualities, known today as talking points but used to be called a sales pitch. His personal touch is likely to be a bit diluted as his empire expands. Stevens is usually the captain of Longbar at the D Las Vegas. His new Mega Bar at Circa is 65 feet longer, 165 specifically, putting the operator’s big personality to the test.

Stevens has been asked periodically how he’ll continue walk the floor and serve as the face of the hotel, and more important, to fine-tune Circa’s customer service. But he’s not the lone brand at Circa.

“This is one of the reasons I wanted to have all these owners-entrepreneurs as our restaurateurs,” Stevens said. “I want guys who have their own skin in the game. I want guys who are here as much as me, or as much as our people are.”

Stevens is talking about folks we’ve already known for a time, Barry Dakake of Barry’s Downtown Prime (late of N9Ne Steakhouse at the Palms); Paul Saginaw of Zingerman’s Deli; Dan Caughlin of 8 East; Chris Sotiropoulos and Grace Keros of Victory Burger; Steve Mangigian of Jack Pots; and Chef Rex Bernales and partner Rob Baker of Project BBQ. That entrepreneurial lineup will serve as hotel ambassadors, too.

“That’s why we wanted our restaurants to be owned independently,” Stevens said. “We wanted people who wanted to passionately be here.”

The day after Stevens’ session, I revisited the hotel on a bike through downtown Las Vegas. I stopped at Circa and Garage Mahal, which were guarded by orange pylons. I took some photos of the hotel, the garage, and also Main Street Station and Plaza, which share this evolving neighborhood.

From that under-construction corner of Fremont and Main, I texted a few of those photos to Stevens, showing how the hotel looked just a few days before opening. He got a kick out of the unexpected photo shoot. I texted something on which we can agree, “Vegas is the best.”

The technology has advanced since the days of Sarno. But the classic Vegas personal touch will never go out of style.

Take a Holiday

The Holiday International, completed and opened in ’78, was owned by Major Riddle, who also owned the Dunes on the Strip and Silver Nugget in North Las Vegas. I sought Vegas historian Michael Green and Boyd Gaming Corp. communications exec David Strow to confirm the Holiday International was the most recent ground-up hotel-casino to open downtown before Circa. The original hotel was a Holiday Inn franchise and closed in 1984. It reopened as Park Hotel and Casino in 1987, then closed again in 1990.

Boyd Gaming took over what was a defunct property in 1993, investing $45 million in renovations and reopening in 1996. A hotel men’s room famously displays a segment of the Berlin Wall, spray-painted with vintage graffiti.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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