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Reno Renewed: Nevada’s ‘Biggest Little City’ Is Changing Face

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Reno’s iconic sign. (Ari Burack/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Once known more as Nevada’s grittier gambling getaway, Reno’s emerging food and drink scene shows a bit of a renaissance has been afoot in the high desert.

If renaissance is too dramatic, that Reno is changing is inarguable. The edges are still rough — happily so, in ways — but in recent years the northern Nevada city just outside Tahoe has attracted high-profile tech companies like Tesla, Apple, Amazon and Switch to its dusty shores, and sprouted boutique hotels, trendy restaurants and hipster bars. Younger families are beginning to come here for not only a cheaper cost of living (for now, anyway) but for the lifestyle.

“It’s sort of like a roughneck Brooklyn,” says Art Farley, owner of the highly regarded Brasserie St. James in Reno’s midtown area, where some of those coarse edges are turning into fertile ground for foodie experimentation.

A former ice house, the brasserie opened in 2012 and specializes in craft beers, from English-style bitter, saison, lambic and Belgian-style tripel to a barrel-aged sour beer made with roasted butternut squash and white sage. Freshly baked soft pretzels, salad with fennel and apricot, mussels in Thai curry, braised short ribs and oxtail with polenta also adorn the menu. Having already taken “best midsized brewpub” in the country at last year’s Great American Beer Festival, Farley is planning to open a sister site in San Francisco’s Mission District later this year.

Reno’s biggest hotel casino rises up like a monolith from a mostly vacant section of Reno just east of downtown. The 2,000-room Grand Sierra Resort, originally an MGM casino, was bought in 2011 by an Orange County-based group as a distressed property for $42 million. Former president and COO Steve Wolstenholme, who believes it is now (with an additional $100 million already invested) worth $1.1 billion, sees the development as part of a larger effort to promote Reno as business-friendly as well as tourist-friendly.

“Casinos are an important part of our legacy, but they’re an amenity now,” Wolstenholme says over coffee at one of the resort’s several restaurants. “Reno’s about a lot more.”

Indeed the hotel casino itself — as many have — is distancing itself from its seamier roots, with an eye toward families and other friendly visitors with incomes to dispose of. Despite the blackjack tables, poker rooms and fleets of slots still glittering center stage in the main lobby, Wolstenholme — who has since moved on to work for another casino project in Asia — was eager to tout an emphasis on hospitality, shopping and live entertainment.

“If we believe as an industry that a slot machine is our future, we’re killing ourselves,” he says.

Back downtown, business owners are trying to revive a forlorn section of Fourth Street near the bus station (also a homeless outpost) and an assortment of old bars, shops and strip clubs. A couple of brighter spots include Louis’, a restaurant and bar offering Basque specialties and the famous Picon Punch, and The Depot, a three-story brick building built in 1910 as a train depot and now a restaurant, craft brewery and distillery serving up plates of charcuterie, kale, quinoa, burgers and pork belly.

In the shadow of Reno’s iconic “Biggest Little City In The World” archway on Virginia Street, alongside a smattering of panhandlers and street musicians, Heritage restaurant at the new Whitney Peak Hotel is promoting locally sourced fine dining. The dishes feature creative combinations — Chinese broccoli with black garlic and sesame, turnips and harissa, and beef heart with a Peruvian aji amarillo sauce — while preserving the essential character and taste of the ingredients. Heritage got a boost from local celebrity chef Mark Estee, a consultant on its menu. Estee’s Italian-centric Campo — one of a handful of his restaurants in Reno — overlooks the city’s reinvigorated riverwalk along the Truckee River a few blocks away. The river’s water, which flows down from the Sierras, may be much lower than locals like these days, but their food scene has arguably never been loftier.

Likewise there are now a bunch of higher-end drinking options to complement the older neighborhood bars. Midtown’s Chapel Tavern, 1864 Tavern and Death and Taxes are among them.

“We’re the thirstiest market in the United States,” brags the friendly and knowledgeable Michael Moberly from behind the bar at Death and Taxes, which opened in 2013. Its stylishly black-walled interior is stocked with hundreds of rare bottles of whiskey, bourbon, tequila and mezcal. Moberly, who was the bar’s “spirits educator” — leading classes and tastings as the only, apparently, full-time professional dispenser of imbibing wisdom in northern Nevada — before recently taking a similar role with a local wine purveyor, adds that Renoites have also become more discriminating in their drink tastes.

“That’s what I look for in spirits…Is it interesting? Is it compelling? Does it make me want to continue to drink it?” Moberly says as he pours a splash of El Jolgorio — smoky, medicinal and sweet, and one of about 50 types of mezcal the bar carries — into a traditional dried gourd vessel. The “tribal, rustic” qualities of mezcal make it a local favorite.

The craft distillery trend has expanded in the Reno area as well. In fact, more have set up shop there than in any other part of Nevada. In addition to the Depot, Seven Troughs Distilling Company in neighboring Sparks offers up several well-made spirits: a surprisingly sippable “recession-proof moonshine” made from corn and barley, as well as rum and vodka. The distillery, which began in 2010 and was northern Nevada’s first (since the 1880s anyhow), runs out of a small warehouse with a pot still sitting atop a brick oven and vats of sweetly fermenting corn. With a nod to history, the distillery is trying to recreate the feel of 19th-century spirits and is using local grains to create them, according to distiller Tom Adams.

Verdi Local Distillery, located on a country road close to the California border, opened this year and is an even more modest operation. Its owners are actually seeking certification with the Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest craft distillery in the world.

“We started in the kitchen, and then just expanded into the garage,” says Jeremy Baumann with a smile. Baumann, who runs the distillery with his wife Katey, has whiskeys flavored with lemon, apple and cinnamon, and mahogany, while vats and barrels in the back take the science experiment even further with sage, pine, banana, habañero, dandelion wine, beer, garlic and black licorice all being distilled into not-yet-for-sale-and-possibly-never whiskeys.

With its big-city aspirations, Reno still retains a pleasantly small-town feel. That brightly lit downtown arch saying may be truer than ever.

Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at http://openskylight.blogspot.com.

Reno may be experiencing a food and drink renaissance, with big-name tech companies, trendy restaurants and hipster bars arriving. (Ari Burack/Special To S.F. Examiner)

Reno may be experiencing a food and drink renaissance, with big-name tech companies, trendy restaurants and hipster bars arriving. (Ari Burack/Special To S.F. Examiner)

RENO RENEWED:

Grand Sierra Resort and Casino: The 2,000-room hotel has several restaurants and bars, as well as a spa, conference center, bowling alley, nightclub, shopping and live concerts. An inexpensive option with clean, modern rooms from which to explore the rest of Reno and surrounding area. Rooms from $58. 2500 E. Second St., Reno. www.grandsierraresort.com

Death and Taxes: This bar is as serious about spirits as the name indicates, with an expansive collection of rare and unusual bottles to enjoy as is or in cocktails created by your bartender/spirits educator. 26 Cheney St., Reno. www.deathandtaxesreno.com

Brasserie St. James: The award-winning Midtown brewery has a wide selection of superb house-made beers to sip alongside upscale bar fare. 901 S. Center St., Reno. www.brasseriesaintjames.com

Heritage at Whitney Peak Hotel: One of downtown Reno’s newest restaurants opened in 2014 with a focus on simple gustatory creations using fresh ingredients sourced from local farmers. 255 N. Virginia St., Reno. www.heritagewph.com

The Depot: This popular, multi-level brewery/distillery/eatery runs out of downtown Reno’s historic former train depot. 325 E. Fourth St., Reno. www.thedepotreno.com

Virginia City: A nearby detour into the hills about 20 miles south of Reno will land you in the historic center of the Nevada silver boom, unsure if the costumed locals are an elaborate cosplay of sheriffs and outlaws, or simply haven’t changed their garb in the last 150 years. Stop in at the Bucket of Blood bar for an appropriately spicy Bloody Mary and live music, while a local hobo parades his donkey down the street outside. Other colorful characters lead underground tours of a local mine — the entrance is at the back of another local bar. Ghost stories and other oddities abound in this small hill town.

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