Hugo’s Cellar, Las Vegas, Nevada

If you’re looking for a true Continental restaurant in Las Vegas, there is only one: Hugo’s Cellar. It’s a great pick if you want gracious table-side service, flambé dishes, and an old-fashioned (i.e. old school) dining experience.

 

Hugo's Cellar Las Vegas

dining room

 

Hugo’s Cellar’s is located (you guessed it) beneath street level, under the main casino at the Four Queens in downtown. Enter the noisy casino from hectic Fremont Street, look for the restaurant’s staircase in the back of the casino, and descend into a more peaceful and genteel world. There is a small bar and cocktail lounge in the front, and the maître d’hôtel‘s stand, where you will be greeted and the ladies presented with a long-stemmed rose. The dining room is decorated with brick, thick wooden beams on the ceiling, green lanterns and Tiffany lamps. It has an elegant old-fashioned feel that seems older than its origin in 1973 as Hugo’s Rotisserie (when the hotel was owned by Hyatt Hotels). The Four Queens has changed hands a couple of times since then but Hugo’s has remained (it was renamed Hugo’s Cellar about 30 years ago). The most recent owner of the hotel vowed never to change Hugo’s – bravo!

 

Hugo's Cellar Las Vegas

the martini came with a refill!

 

The tuxedoed waiters are all highly professional, some with decades of service at Hugo’s. Waiter Victor Hutchings has been with the restaurant for 39 years and sommelier Jon Simmons for 32 years (when he started in 1984 he was one of only three sommeliers in Las Vegas restaurants). Service was very attentive and gracious, with multiple staff attending to our table of three.

 

Hugo's Cellar Las Vegas

waiter preparing table-side duckling anise flambé

 

The menu is truly Continental, featuring such classics as duckling anise flambé, veal Oscar, chicken champignon, and beef Wellington. But it’s also a fine steakhouse with char-broiled steaks aged 28 days, as well as prime rib and seafood entrees. All entrees include a salad prepared table-side how you like it from a rolling cart, vegetables, potatoes or rice, delicious homemade bread and cheese-toasted lavosh, dessert of chocolate dipped strawberries and fruit, and bottled water. Service was impeccable, with multiple waiters attending to our every need.

 

Hugo's Cellar Las Vegas

duckling anise flambé

 

After-dinner fruit is included with your meal but you should definitely try one the flaming table-side desserts like bananas Foster or cherries jubilee!

 

The next time you are in Las Vegas, you should check out downtown. There are lots of hotels (I like Main Street Station), the fascinating Mob Museum, a few good cocktail bars, a shopping/food/entertainment center called Container Park, and some great classic restaurants like Hugo’s Cellar and Binion’s Ranch Steakhouse (now called Top of Binion’s but I prefer the older name), which I didn’t visit this trip but I have dined at before. On my last three visits to Las Vegas I mostly avoided the Strip and I didn’t miss it at all.

 

Hugo’s Cellar
202 Fremont St, Las Vegas, NV 89101
702-385-4011
Open 5:00pm – 10:00pm daily

 

J. T. Basque, Gardnerville, Nevada

I’ve passed through the town of Gardnerville many times on US Highway 395, usually during autumn ‘leaf-peeping’ road trips. Usually I would stop at the Overland Hotel‘s bar for a Picon Punch. Recently it closed because the long-term owner retired and sold the business (though it is due to re-open in 2015). When I posted about its closure I vowed to check out the other Basque restaurant and bar in town, J. T. Basque, as soon as I could return to the area. Last month I made it, and I’m so glad I did!

 

1910 photo - image by J.T. Basque via sierranevadageotourism.org

1910 photo – image by J.T. Basque via sierranevadageotourism.org

 

The lovely building that houses J. T. Basque Bar and Dining Room was relocated from Virginia City, Nevada, in 1896. Since that time it has been a Basque sheepherders boarding house with a saloon, dining room, and barber shop.  In 1955 members of the Jaunsaras and Trounday families purchased the place, naming it J. T. Basque, after the first initials of their families’ names. In 1960 brothers Jean and Pete Lekumberry, immigrants from the French Basque area of the Pyrenees Mountains, took over the restaurant, keeping the name J. T. Basque.

 

Jean Lekumberry - photo by J T Basque via sierranevadageotourism.org

Jean Lekumberry – photo by J T Basque via sierranevadageotourism.org

 

For many years Jean was the bartender, his wife Shirley ran the restaurant and hotel, and Pete was cook. By all reports, Jean Lekumberry was a great host who made all visitors feel right at home…and he could really spin the yarns. He passed away in 1993, but a large photo of him hangs behind the bar as a friendly greeting to all patrons, locals and visitors alike, and his likeness is the restaurant’s logo (with his signature beret and cigar).

 

Jean serving patrons at J. T. Basque bar - photo by J T Basque via sierranevadageotourism.org

Jean serving patrons at J. T. Basque bar – photo by J T Basque via sierranevadageotourism.org

 

Today Jean and Shirley’s children, Robert, Marie Louise, and J.B., run the restaurant, with the same welcoming hospitality that their parents were known for. The Lekumberry family clearly cares for their historic treasure, having fully restored the building not long ago.

 

photo by The Jab, 2014

photo by The Jab, 2014

 

The dining room and bar is decorated with many photographs and displays memorializing the restaurant’s history and the Basques in the area (as well as wonderful seasonal decorations by Marie Louise and a ceiling covered with dollar bills in the bar). The owners’ passion and dedication is also evident in the wonderful service by all the staff and the delicious food, much of it from local sources, such as the natural grass-fed beef from the Lekumberry’s own cattle ranch in Genoa, Nevada.

 

dining room - photo by The Jab, 2014

dining room – photo by The Jab, 2014

 

As at most of the Basque restaurants in California and Nevada, the menu at J. T. Basque includes a choice of several meat entrees and is served Basque family-style with several courses (though at lunch you can order from an ala carte menu, if desired). Main dishes offered during lunch and dinner are top sirloin steak, lamb shoulder steak, chicken, sweetbreads, pigs feet with tripe, and lamb chops. On Friday and Saturday dinner you can also get shrimp scampi or roasted rabbit. Before your main arrives you are served all the homemade soup you want from a tureen, bread, a green salad with homemade vinaigrette, beef stew, and ranch style beans. You also get a bottle of house red wine!

 

beef stew and beans - photo by The Jab, 2014

beef stew and beans – photo by The Jab, 2014

 

I was torn between the rabbit and the lamb chops, but when I heard at the bar (over a pre-dinner Picon Punch) that the lamb was from a nearby ranch that had excellent meats I decided to go with the chops. Roasted garlic cloves are offered as a topping, and I highly recommend getting them. You get French fries with your entrée, in crispy ‘shoestring’ size, the only way fries should be prepared in my opinion! Thick ‘steak’ fries? No, thank you!

 

French fries and lamb chops - photo by The Jab, 2014

French fries and lamb chops – photo by The Jab, 2014

 

The lamb chops were amazing! So juicy and tender, on the bone with a good dark brown sear, and cooked just how I ordered them (medium rare).

 

lamb chops - photo by The Jab, 2014

lamb chops – photo by The Jab, 2014

 

After dinner you get ice cream and coffee. And you may want to return to the bar for another Picon Punch or two. On the night I went the crowd in the bar was jolly and friendly. Co-founder Shirley Lekumberry was there greeting old friends with her daughter Marie Louise, the restaurant’s hostess. I enjoyed chatting with Marie Louise about the history of the building and J. T. Basque. I can’t wait to return to try the rabbit or sweetbreads!

 

 

bighorn sheep in bar - photo by The Jab, 2014

bighorn sheep in bar – photo by The Jab, 2014

 

J. T. Basque
1426 Highway 395, Gardnerville NV 89410
(775) 782-2074
Open for lunch Mon-Sat 11:30am – 2:00pm, dinner Mon-Fri 5:00pm – 9:00pm, Sat 4:30pm – 9:00pm

 

 

CLOSED – Overland Hotel Bar & Restaurant, Gardnerville, Nevada

Recently I heard of the sale and closure of the Overland Hotel on U.S. 395 in Gardnerville, Nevada, one of a number of hotels that were built in the 19th century and early 20th century as boarding houses for migrant Basque sheepherders, who immigrated from the Pyranees during the California gold rush and Nevada silver mining boom. Over time most of the 300+ Basque hotels closed but a few remain as social gathering places for local Basques (and tourists) to drink a Picon Punch (aka Picon) and dine on hearty food, family-style. Le Continental previously visited Reno’s Santa Fe Hotel and Carson City’s Thurman’s Ranch House, which closed in 2013.

 

photo by The Jab, 2012

photo by The Jab, 2012

 

The only history I could find out about the Overland Hotel is that it opened in 1902. Here is a photo, probably from the 1940s.

 

photo courtesy of Picon Drinkers of the American West facebook page

photo courtesy of Picon Drinkers of the American West facebook page

 

I often drive highway 395 in the autumn to see fall colors along the spectacular route through the eastern Sierra. (Yes, I’m a leaf peeper!). The Overland Hotel was a welcome stop for a refreshing Picon, though I never passed through when I was hungry so, sadly, I have not eaten there.

 

photo by The Jab, 2012

Overland Hotel bar – photo by The Jab, 2012

 

The owner, Elvira Cenoz, retired after running the restaurant and bar for almost 50 years. I’ll proudly keep my souvenir napkin with her name on it.

 

Picon (or Picon Punch) - photo by The Jab, 2012

Picon (or Picon Punch) – photo by The Jab, 2012

 

The Overland Hotel is now closed as the Park family, the new owners, have not yet revealed their plans for the hotel (though they have stated on facebook that it will only be closed for a few months). I’m hoping the historic hotel, bar, and restaurant will be preserved as much as possible. The Park family also recently bought the Horizon Hotel in Lake Tahoe (which opened as Del Webb’s Sahara Tahoe in 1965 but was the Horizon since 1990) and will be converting it into a Hard Rock Hotel.

 

J T Basque Restaurant - photo by Jaspergo on Flickr.com

J T Basque Restaurant – photo by Jaspergo on Flickr.com

 

Meanwhile, in Gardnerville you can get your picons and meals at J T Basque Bar & Dining Room, which was opened in 1955 by the Jaunsaras and Trounday families (hence the name), and has been run by the Lekumberry family since 1960. The Victorian building it’s in was moved to Gardnerville in 1896 and it housed the restaurant and bar for the adjacent Gardnerville Hotel until 1928, when the hotel burned down (while this building survived). This fall I’m going to try to return to Gardnerville to dine at JT’s and afterwards I’ll return here with a full report.

 

 

Santa Fe Hotel, Reno, Nevada

SantaFeHotel5

image by The Jab

 

In the mid-19th century Gold Rush of California many people came from the Basque Country in the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain and France to strike it rich. It wasn’t easy to find gold so many became sheepherders, spreading throughout California and Nevada. Basque-operated boardinghouses were built to provide the hardworking men a hot meal and a room. At one time there were over 300 of these hotels. Quite a few returned home after earning enough money for passage so most of the hotels closed down. But a few survived and remain in operation today, still serving food and drink, but now to the public as well as to Basque families (I don’t think any still operate as hotels). The Basque hotel restaurants still exist in Fresno and Bakersfield in California, as well as in a few towns in Nevada. There are many Basque clubs and organizations that have preserved the cuisine of the Basque people in the western U.S., which is a hearty blend of rural cowboy cooking, traditional Basque foods, and homestyle American fare (lamb, beef, and pork, beans, potatoes, paella, oxtail stew, sweetbreads, Spanish style chorizo, pickled tongue, and other dishes).

 

image by The Jab

image by The Jab

The Santa Fe Hotel (probably named after the Santa Fe Trail or perhaps the Santa Fe Railroad, which did not operate through Reno) reopened in 1948 after a fire and it has not changed much since that time. When you walk in there is a vintage Seeburg jukebox just inside the door on a floor of vintage linoleum that reads “Eskualdun Etchea” (Basque House), leading into a large front room with a long bar with a vintage cash register and a vintage phone behind the bar. Everyone orders the house Picon Punch (locals usually call it a ‘picon’), and you should too. It’s the Basque cocktail in the west, a bittersweet blend of Torani Amer (the western U.S. version of the French Amer Picon, unavailable in the states), grenadine, and soda water, topped with a float of brandy, usually served in a stemmed tulip-shaped glass. It sounds too sweet but actually it’s quite refreshing and appetite inducing. The bar slowly gets crowded with families and friends (it opens at 4pm) until 6:00, when the neon “Dining Room” sign is illuminated, which means that it’s time to sit down for dinner in the dining rooms. There are three of them, each filled with long tables with green checked tablecloths, vintage chairs, and art and bric-à-brac on the walls. It could still be 1948 in this place!

 

Santa Fe Hotel dining room - image by The Jab

Santa Fe Hotel dining room – image by The Jab

 

vintage Seeburg speaker - image by The Jab

vintage Seeburg speaker – image by The Jab

Diners sit at communal tables and the food is served family style (which is common to all classic Basque restaurants in California and Nevada), meaning each dish comes out in large bowls or on large platters except for your main course, which you order from the evening’s menu that varies day to day. I ordered the lamb chops, which were juicy and delectable. Other popular dishes at the Santa Fe are the ribeye steak, pork chops, oxtail stew, and lomo, breaded pork cutlets with mild peppers. Main dishes come with several sides, which on my visit included a delicious homemade soup, a salad with tangy Italian dressing, red Basque beans, terrific chorizo, french fries, and a large carafe of red wine. Dinner also includes coffee and ice cream or a good ‘hard’ cheese, with other desserts available.

 

Oh yeah, everything is served on vintage dinnerware!

 

SantaFeHotel4

lamb chops with roasted garlic served on vintage China – image by The Jab

 

There is another Basque restaurant in Reno that is also popular – Louie’s Basque Corner, which opened in 1967. But the place has been totally remodeled into an industrial space with exposed brick and pipes in the bar, and not much better in the dining room. Furthermore, super annoying Food Network host Guy Fieri* has been there, so I’ll pass it by and head right for Santa Fe Basque, the only time travel Basque restaurant in Reno, with the best Basque food in town and friendly service too.

*[I don’t get it! Fieri’s show is called “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” but Louie’s Basque Corner isn’t a diner, a drive-in, or a dive. In fact, there are very few actual diners (most on the east coast) or drive-ins left in the country. I have been to one real drive-in with car hops in Oshkosh, WI, and a few old drive-in A&W’s (some are now Sonics) – and we are not talking drive-through restaurants, but actual drive-ins that were popular in the 50s (and featured in American Graffiti). So are all the rest of the places he visits ‘dives’? Seems like a stretch to me. I don’t watch his show but he really needs a better name.]

 

Santa Fe Hotel
235 Lake St, Reno, NV 89501
(775) 323-1891
Open for lunch Wed-Fri 11:00am-2:00pm, dinner Tue-Sun 6:00pm-10:00pm, bar opens at 4:00pm, closed on Monday

 

John’s Oyster Bar, Sparks, Nevada

Recently Le Continental reported the imminent closure of Trader Dick’s at John Ascuaga’s Nugget Hotel in Sparks. Personally, it will be hard for me to return to Reno once Trader Dick’s is gone since I have so many good memories there. But I’m sure someday I will go back because I’m quite fond of the area. And when I do you can bet I will eat at John’s Oyster Bar in the Nugget, which has been one of my favorite seafood restaurants in the country for several years. I know what you’re thinking: “seafood in Nevada?!”. I usually stick to my rule of ordering seafood in coastal areas, but this classic nautical seafood restaurant is an exception because of their fresh seafood served in classic preparations that you can only otherwise get on the east coast.

 

main dining room - image by The Jab

 

John’s Oyster Bar was opened in 1959 by Dick Graves, original owner of the Nugget, after visiting the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. In 1960 the Nugget’s manager John Ascuaga took over ownership of the casino and hotel. I don’t know when the restaurant was named John’s, perhaps early on but possibly in 1979, when it was relocated to its present location near the casino entrance on Victorian Ave (there is a small parking lot there which is very close so you won’t have to walk by what was once Trader Dick’s). In any case, the restaurant’s wonderful rustic nautical decor in dark woods appears to date back almost to the beginning (as do some of the staff!). As noted in my post on Trader Dick’s the hotel was recently purchased from John Ascuaga by a large corporation and will undergo some remodeling. Although they have been open about their plans for the Trader Dick’s space (it’s going to become a Gilly’s chain restaurant) they have not announced any plans to remove or remodel John’s Oyster Bar (or the steakhouse). When I was there earlier this month I asked some of the staff at the oyster bar (who still wear sailor outfits!) if the company was going to change or remove the restaurant and they replied emphatically “no”. Let’s hope they are right!

 

the oyster bar - image by The Jab

the oyster bar – image by The Jab

 

What makes John’s Oyster Bar so unique (and one of my favorite seafood places) is that you can get old-fashioned east coast favorites such as pan roasts and stews, made from scratch to order from the freshest seafood. My favorite dish at John’s is the pan roast, which is a delicious stew made from your choice of oysters, shrimp, crab, or lobster (or in combinations), with white wine, clam broth, cream, butter, cocktail sauce, and lemon juice, all made from scratch in a special steam-heated pan, which swivels so the cook can pour it in a bowl when it’s done without spilling a drop. I love to sit at the bar near the pans and watch them cook my roast. As far as I have found, this is the only place in the west where they cook in these pans and I have never seen a pan roast on any west coast seafood restaurant menu. On my recent visit a couple sat near me that drove all the way up from Sacramento just to get a pan roast!

 

pan roast preparation - image by The Jab

pan roast preparation – image by The Jab

 

The restaurant’s menu also offers seafood stews with butter and cream (made in the special pans), seafood cocktails and Louie salads, fresh oysters on the half shell, steamed clams, cioppino and bouillabaisse, as well as seafood sandwiches and some fried platters, and the Seafood Extravaganza of Maine lobster, jumbo prawns, scallops, calamari, crab, clams, and mussels sautéed with tomatoes, garlic, shallots, & herbs, finished with white wine and lemon juice ($23.50). But I’ll have a pan roast, if you please.

 

pan roast - image by The Jab

pan roast – image by The Jab

 

John’s Oyster Bar
1100 Nugget Ave, Sparks, NV
(775) 356-3300
Open daily 11:00am – 9:00pm