Each Thursday, on Dress Like A Pirate night, maties honoring the dress code are rewarded with "fresh grub and strong ale" at the one-of-kind eatery. The unique food and salty atmosphere brings diners back and the word is spreading, said Serena Wagner, restaurant co-owner and “head wench.” After years of difficult sailing, a growing crowd of loyal pirates are keeping the Ship afloat, Wagner said this week.
Wagner was hoping a little national exposure would give the Ship some needed momentum until economic winds pick up again. A Food Network television crew recently hit the Truckee Meadows documenting unique, family-owned local restaurants for the channel's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" feature. Wagner was informed her restaurant fit the bill but the Ship didn't make the final cut. Three Reno eateries — the Dish Cafe, the Gold & Silver coffee shop and Louis' Basque Corner — will be featured on the show sometime in the next three to six months, Wagner said.
The Pirate Ship originally opened in May 2007, but was only able to keep up business for two months. The Ship was closed for eight months and placed on the market but failed to sell. Wagner said she nearly dropped out of the tough restaurant business after investing much time and more than $100,000 to upgrade the former China Clipper Chinese restaurant built in 1971. At first,enthusiastic workers were hired but, after a chef walked out on opening day, employees arrived for work chronically late and bartenders were allowed to drink on the job, Wagner learned the hard way about discipline in the workplace.
The Ship re-opened in May 2008 and now is strictly family-run by Wagner, her husband Jerry Watkins and their three sons: Andrew, 16, Jerry, 7, and Jecht, 7 months. Wagner said she enjoyed providing jobs and, with a stricter management style, may hire again as business picks up.
Meanwhile, Wagner said the Ship is struggling to stay afloat in a sunken economy and in a rust-bucket location.
"I'm very impressed that we've been able to make it through a tough economy," Wagner said. "We're just making it."
Word-of-mouth, e-mails, postal mailers and a television commercial seem to be buoying up the Ship through the doldrums.
Much of her tasty but pricey organic food has been eliminated — another disappointment for Wagner. She and Watkins say they still guarantee fresh, home-made grub like The Pirate Ship's Clam Chowder, Black Beard's Fish Tacos or Rings of Fire onion rings.
"The word's getting around that we have the best fish and chips in town," Wagner said.
Seafood lovers have a choice of deep-fried cod, salmon, trout, shrimp or calamari. Watkins touted other off-beat menu items: the Swabby Inside-Out Burger (marinated beef patties with cheese melted inside), Caribbean-style jerk chicken, Salty Sam's Amazing Deep-fried Oreos or Davey Jones Locker Deep-Fried Twinkies. The most popular "grog" includes Arrogant Bastard Ale on tap.
For entertainment in a family atmosphere, Wagner and her 7-year-old son Jerry perform table-side magic. A former professional clown, Wagner creates balloon swords and animals. Coins buried in sand can be traded in for toys and prizes.
Musicians and comedians perform at the Ship's weekly open mic night on Sundays from 5 to 8 p.m. On the last Friday night of each month, local award-winning singer and song writer Canyon White appears. Other musicians performing on the other Friday nights. A new "pirate club" has formed; the next monthly meeting is at the Ship on Feb. 4.
"The place is full of pirates in full dress,” Wagner said. “It’s really fun.”
On Dress Like A Pirate Night each Thursday evening, customers earn discounts for wearing at least three pieces of pirate garb. Pirate costumes are cheap if you use "thrift store ingenuity," Wagner advised.
"Safety pins can turn any hat into tri-corner pirate headgear. Long skirts can be hiked up in the front with another skirt worn underneath," Wagner said. Look for bandanas, lacey long-sleeved shirts, striped trousers and big, cheap jewelry.
Wagner hasn't given up on the national spotlight. The Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" host Guy Fieri promised to keep her business in mind for a future episode. Local support would help, Wagner said. She's asks Pirate Ship fans to "tell Guy Fieri where to go" by e-mailing Fieri and the Food Network at DDDinfo@mac.com.
"E-mail them that they can't miss this unique spot in Sparks,” Wagner said. “With enough public demand, they won't miss us next time."
The Pirate Ship is located at 495 Greenbrae Drive between Pyramid Way and Fourth Street in Sparks. The diner is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday and for lunch on the weekends. Wagner called the restaurant a "hot spot" for pirate-themed birthday and company parties. Call Wagner at 331-7203 or find the menu, hours and events calendar online at www.thepirateshipnv.com