Does Vegas make your head spin? Odds are you're ready for a trip to Nevada's hardest-working city.
Outside, the streets of downtown Reno slumbered. But inside the Nugget Diner, a greasy spoon stuck in another era, a lively crowd had gathered at the bright red counter, all of us banking on the city's surest bet. I was squeezed between a trucker and a fellow tourist, inhaling secondhand smoke and hankering for firsthand cholesterol, when a line cook called my lucky number. Out popped the jackpot: the Awful Awful, a mountainous burger on a giant bun, plopped atop a towering mound of fries.
A Nugget specialty for decades, the Awful Awful ("awful good, awful cheap") costs $5.50 and serves as a kind of civic emblem—as unpretentious and reasonably priced as the city itself. As Reno's moniker suggests, the Biggest Little City in the World takes pride in its modest stature. No mock-ups of Manhattan scrape its skyline. No faux Eiffel Towers rise from its resorts. Unlike Las Vegas, where a burger with black truffles fetches $120, Reno has forsaken excessive grandeur. Its waterfalls are real, its prices affordable. Instead of imitating other places, Reno stakes its reputation on being itself: an easygoing city where the lights don't always dazzle and the attitude is always down-to-earth.
"I think Reno has realized that it can't really be another Vegas, and that it doesn't want to be," says Guy Clifton, a reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal and author of You Know You're a Nevadan If . . . , a collection of musings on the nature of his home state.
Surpassed today in spectacle by the glitz of the Las Vegas Strip, Reno began bustling before Sin City was a twinkle in Bugsy Siegel's eye. Its location at the base of the Sierra, sliced by the Truckee River, made it a vital stop for Gold Rush–era fortune seekers from California headed for the Comstock Lode.
Though it has grown in recent years to a population of just over 200,000, Reno remains shaped by its surroundings. Its dramatic setting has inspired another nickname: America's Adventure Place. Hiking, biking, and horseback trails abound in the sagebrush flatlands and the forested foothills rising toward Lake Tahoe. A restored Riverwalk District, filled with cafés and boutiques, flows through downtown Reno and overlooks the Truckee River and its Whitewater Park, a 2,600-foot-long stretch of river that's ideal for safe excitement. In Vegas, gondoliers will glide you along indoor canals; in Reno, you can rent a kayak or an inner tube and ride Class III rapids in the fresh air.
For first-class cowboy culture, head to Fourth Street, with stores including D Bar M (get your silver belt buckles, boots, and spurs) and down-home restaurants such as Big Ed's Alley Inn, housed in an old brick building and staffed by no-nonsense types.
In Reno's early days, Fourth Street was actually Highway 40, a coast-tocoast road that ran from Atlantic City to San Francisco. But by the mid-1970s, Interstate 80 had siphoned off its traffic, and businesses languished on the once thrumming route. The hardiest survivors are now cherished landmarks, like Casale's Halfway Club, an Italian restaurant run by 81-year-old Inez "Mama" Casale Stempeck, whose parents built the place in 1937. A jukebox plays Sinatra standards and nothing on the menu goes for more than 13 bucks.
"You can't stop time," Mama told me, standing in the kitchen doorway, white apron matching her white hair. "Everything changes." Except her recipe for house-made ravioli and meatballs. She's been fixing the dish the same way—slathered in a garlic-rich tomato sauce—for more than 50 years.
Mama Casale was right, of course. Reno has evolved. Condominiums have sprouted along the spruced-up riverfront, and the city has acquired touches of urban chic. An underground arts scene has found expression in hipster galleries such as La Bussola, which sells clocks and jewelry fashioned from recycled metal. Java Jungle Vino and other cafés have open-mike nights, while the cozy, respected Brüka Theatre turns an even brighter spotlight on community thespians and playwrights.
Then there's Artown. For the past 13 years, Reno has played host to this monthlong July festival, which draws leading names in the visual and performing arts, from accomplished local quilters to Grammy-winning singer Dianne Reeves. And most events are free.
Gambling isn't. Casino odds are as bad in Reno as anywhere else. But whereas Vegas table minimums often start at $10, Reno remains a holdover for old-school games like $1 craps and penny slots. What's more, where dealers in Vegas burn through decks with the stone-faced cheer of assembly-line drones, their counterparts in Reno converse entertainingly and engage in everything from serious discussion to vaudevillian shtick.
Dealer: "I moved here from Alaska because my wife had a sleeping disorder and I was hoping she'd get over it."
Player: "Did she?"
Dealer: "No. She kept waking up with other men."
This exchange took place at the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino, a 2,000-room giant that has undergone a $90 million renovation, its suites refurbished with flat-screen TVs and chocolate- colored suede bedding. In Vegas, the same room would have cost me a week's salary. In Reno, I got it for just over $100. Look closely, of course, and you'll see a few shades of the Strip. A poolside club called Nikki Beach pulses like a preamble to spring break. Just off the lobby of the Grand Sierra, Charlie Palmer Steak is Reno's first celebrity restaurant. Across town, the Peppermill unveiled a $400 million expansion replete with Tuscan-themed suites late last year. A three-story spa is slated to open there this summer.
But for the most part, Reno doesn't go for the glitz. Though its shows feature some of the top talent in the country, they aren't exercises in extravagance. (Think Travis Tritt, not Céline Dion.) Act like a high roller and people around you scratch their heads. When I mentioned, for instance, that I'd dined at Charlie Palmer's, several locals raised their eyebrows in suspicion. Why opt for a $45 New York strip steak when you can get a hot dog and a Heineken for $3 at the Club Cal Neva? Or sink your teeth into the Nugget's supersize—and superdelicious—Awful Awful? What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, along with your hard-earned savings. What happens in Reno you may want to keep from your cardiologist.
Photography by Melissa Barnes
This article was first published in July 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.