By Justin Grant
In case you crave some hot food during a night out on the town, many bars offer a menu beyond pretzels and peanuts. On the other end of the spectrum are restaurants that serve a few drinks at the bar, or even offer a modest cocktail list for diners.
Treasure Island's VIP Lounge and Mexican Restaurant has a hard time fitting into either group, as its mouthful of a name makes clear. It's a fully stocked bar, with lots of drink specials, specialty cocktails and late-night hours. It's also a full-on Mexican restaurant, with seasonal menus, signature dishes and a food challenge involving an unreasonably sized burrito.
The unusual straddling between bar and restaurant is well-illustrated by the passageway between an outdoor patio lounge and the indoor bar : the kitchen. If you come inside through the rear entrance or go outside from the front entrance, you literally have to pass through the kitchen to get to where you're going.
None of this seems strange to the regulars, of whom there are many. A probable explanation for the VIP Lounge and Restaurant's popularity is that it's been around for nearly 40 years, with the current owners at the helm for the past 18. This practically qualifies it for landmark status, which is probably why it was packed on a Tuesday night.
Then again, it may not take much to pack VIP, as it's pretty small inside. A long bar stretches from the front entrance all the way to the back, and there's only room for a dozen or more people there. Small groups of two or three can share drinks or enjoy a meal at a few high-tops opposite the bar, positioned along a relatively narrow walkway — the rest end up on the outdoor patio.
The vibe inside is very dive bar, which is somewhat novel considering it's just as much a restaurant as it is a bar. Imagine diners ordering entire meals at the local working-class watering hole, rather than a bag of Fritos or mixed nuts. Because food is served, smoking is outdoors-only, although it is allowed late at night, after the kitchen has closed.
Out back is a small patio built over a few former parking lot spaces, populated by small palm trees and large circular tables. The tables are fitted with umbrellas, making it an ideal daytime hangout — and it just happens to be the perfect environment for a cold margarita, a specialty at VIP.
A Mexican restaurant offering margaritas isn't exactly headline material, but the selection is not limited to a single tequila, triple sec and sour-mix offering, either. A variety of margaritas are on special on different days, from Cuervo Gold versions with Gran Gala to El Mayor versions with Cointreau. VIP also features several other premium tequilas , ranging from great margarita bases like blancos from Kah and Don Julio to sipping tequilas such as Republic Reposado. The drinks I tried came with a generous pour and were well-made all around.
Of course, Mexican beers are also on hand, as well as several craft beers. There are house wines, and the liquor bar is fully stocked, in case you aren't in margarita mode. If shots are your thing, you'll have plenty to work with — daily specials feature food-themed shots, ranging from pineapple upside-down cake and key lime pie to a chocolate-covered pretzel .
If you're in the mood for a no-frills locals joint where you can get a freshly prepared Mexican meal between rounds of darts, then VIP's the place.
Times correspondent Justin Grant can be reached at [email protected]