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Honoring classic restaurants in Reno, Tahoe
by Harry Spencer
May 26, 2012 | 1754 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Courtesy Photo
Fred Spencer takes a cigarette break following the annual Reno Rodeo parade, where he represented the Lancer Restaurant wearing a full suit of armor and carrying a lance while on horseback depicting the Lancer’s logo.
Courtesy Photo Fred Spencer takes a cigarette break following the annual Reno Rodeo parade, where he represented the Lancer Restaurant wearing a full suit of armor and carrying a lance while on horseback depicting the Lancer’s logo.
For its size the Truckee Meadows has been the home of an inordinately number of fine restaurants.

Two of the longest-lasting in the old days were Eugenes and Varios. The former had two configurations. The first being a stately old white mansion on South Virginia Street and the second being a rather modern building that was gobbled up when the Century Cinemas was built. Since that time the Peppermill has expanded to cover the entire area. For its part, Varios, which was also on South Virginia Street, was first known as Munn’s Bar. It was located just outside the city limits which at that time ended at Mt. Rose Street.

As for Al Vario, he had been the successful operator of The Townhouse which was located on 1st Street just across from the Granada Theatre. The Townhouse itself was both a popular bar and eatery. It was configured much like the tiny restaurants in New York. When you entered, it was divided in half with a bar on one side and the restaurant on the other. It also sported a 21 table just inside the entrance. I was warned not to gamble there because it was probably a “flat store” (geared to favoring the house).

When Al left The Townhouse and started his own restaurant, both he and his wife Jackie were on hand nightly to greet and seat customers. As his business prospered, Al successfully remodeled the tiny restaurant several times and retired a happy man. The restaurant is currently known as Bricks and is safely within the Reno city limits.

Ethnic food was also abundantly served in many locations in those days. If you wanted Chinese food you got “takey-outy” at Bill Fong’s New China Club on Lake Street. If Basque dining was your choice you could choose between the Santa Fe and Louis Basque Corner. If your taste buds required southern fried chicken, you could visit The Big Yellow House. Italian cuisine was offered at Toscana’s, Festina’s, and Casale’s Halfway House. On 4th Street opposite the Eldorado Hotel, the Pizza Oven enjoyed round the clock action. Further out 4th Street you could order a Prime Rib that rivaled the famous Lawry’s restaurant in Los Angeles at The Circle RB.

At the corner of Moana Lane and South Virginia Street there was a late night restaurant known as The Big Hat. It was operated by one Andre Simetys, a genial Frenchman who stayed until the last customer left. The name was carried out in the unusual décor of the establishment which had large styrofoam cowboy hats hanging from the ceiling.

When Vegas started to boom, Andre left the restaurant business and was a successful Maitre’d at both the Stardust and the MGM hotels. Reno’s loss was Vegas’ gain.

If you wanted to get a short ways out of town for a fine dining experience you had but to travel South to the Mt. Rose highway and turn right. The first restaurant which was a short drive up the road located on a knoll was called the Mesa. Later it was expanded and renamed The Lancer. As the Lancer it was operated by Arthur Allen, an hotelier who had managed most of the hotels in downtown Reno. On several occasions I remember baseball great Jackie Jensen stopping by for “one for the road” on his way to his Incline Village home.

Further up Mt. Rose Highway, above the tree line, was The Christmas Tree owned by Guy Michaels. The original Christmas Tree was a knotty pine affair that resembled a Nordic Lodge. When it burned down, a larger and more modern building was erected on the site. The Tree featured mesquite bar-b-qued steak as a staple on the menu. Another attraction was Michaels’ wife’s two large cats; one a lion and one a panther that were caged and not allowed in the dining room.

On one occasion we met Jackie Jensen and his wife Zoe in Carson City, and visited a rather primitive restaurant operated by Mr. & Mrs. Smedsrud. Their business was so spectacular that they sought out a larger and more accessible location which is now known as Glen Eagle on the North side of Carson.

Probably the most iconic restaurant at Lake Tahoe was the North Shore Club at Crystal Bay. It was so famed for its excellent food that when Frank Sinatra and his cohorts who were appearing at the nearby Cal Neva Lodge wanted to dine, they would opt for the North Shore Club. The club itself was laid out like an East Coast roadhouse, with the dining on the right as you entered and the casino and dance floor to the left. Large picture windows offered a filtered view of the lake itself. As a frequent diner there I had a favorite table. One night the Maitre’d informed me that it was occupied by none other than Cecil B. DeMille. When I met him I asked him if he intended to part the waters on Lake Tahoe.

Space did not permit naming the other fine dining establishments, past and present that grace this area. But it is worth mentioning that several of the restaurants had specialty dishes that set them apart from the others. Two of them happened to be hot white grapes served at every meal at The Lancer, and the twice baked potatoes at Varios.

Today, the Eldorado’s La Strada with its famous mushroom raviolis, and Harrah’s award winning Steakhouse rule the roost in downtown Reno.

In Sparks John Ascuga’s Nugget with its fine array of restaurants is still number one.

Harry Spencer is a Reno freelance writer.
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