Santa Fe Hotel, Reno, Nevada – CLOSED

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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!

 

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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

 

CLOSED – Trader Dick’s, Sparks, Nevada

I was recently saddened to hear from a friend that The Nugget Hotel and Casino in Sparks, Nevada (near Reno), was purchased by a large corporation, Global Gaming And Hospitality, and they will be closing the 55-year-old tiki bar and restaurant Trader Dick’s, most likely in early March (but perhaps sooner). Trader Dick’s has been a favorite tiki bar and restaurant of mine since I first went in 2001, despite its mediocre tropical drinks. I wouldn’t even put it in my top ten of tiki bars in the U.S., but I just have a lot of fond memories of the place so it’s going to be hard to visit Reno/Sparks after it’s gone.

 

image by Roadsidepictures on Flickr

image by Roadsidepictures on Flickr

 

In 1955 Dick Graves opened the Nugget coffee shop with a few slot machines on U.S. Highway 50 (the Lincoln Highway) in Sparks (other Nuggets opened in Reno and Carson City) and hired John Ascuaga as general manager. In 1960 John Ascuaga bought the Nugget with a loan and owned it until the recent sale, expanding greatly in the 80s and 90s. Until the sale it was one of the last family owned hotel casinos in Nevada.

 

Trader Dick's original location on the Lincoln Highway (now Victorian Ave)

Trader Dick’s original location on the Lincoln Highway (now Victorian Ave) – image by Roadsidepictures on Flickr

 

Trader Dick’s opened in 1958, as a Trader Vic’s copycat restaurant with decor by Eli Hedley, grandfather of Bamboo Ben, tiki bar designer extraordinaire. Vic Bergeron sued Dick Graves for copyright infringement but lost, so it remains Trader Dick’s to this day. In the 1980s expansion Trader Dick’s was moved underneath the new I-80 and remodeled into its present appearance, with a spectacular 6,000 gallon saltwater fish tank as the bar’s centerpiece (sadly it will probably be removed in the upcoming remodel).

 

The Jab sampling Trader Dick's drinks, 2001 - all the mugs came with the drinks then, even the hat, which comes with the Cha Cha!

The Jab sampling Trader Dick’s drinks, 2001 – all the mugs came with the drinks then, even the hat, which came with the Cha Cha cocktail – image by The Jab

 

I’m not going to go into much detail about the restaurant and bar in this post, because it is closing so soon. But if you can go, take the trip. Make a reservation for dinner, but show up earlier so you can have a cocktail while watching the fish swim around the tank (happy hour is before 6:00 daily). Enjoy a steak (they come from the Nugget steakhouse so they are very good) and for dessert perhaps some baked Alaska, flamed tableside, or maybe the Volcano, a cocktail that comes to your table “erupting”. I was able to pay my last respects last weekend with a group of friends and it was a very nice sendoff. Mahalo and aloha, Trader Dick’s. You will be missed.

 

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The Volcano – image by The Jab

 

 

Trader Dick’s
1100 Nugget Ave, Sparks, NV 89431
(775) 356-3300
Open Fri-Sat 5:00pm-10:00pm Sun-Mon 5:00pm-9:00pm, closed Tue-Th
(but call first as hours may be cut before the closure)