Gaming in Nevada: Time to Think Reno

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What comes to mind when you think about a casino vacation? If it's 3,000-room megaresorts, celebrity chefs, and pirate battles, then you may have been among the almost 34 million people who visited Las Vegas last year. Thirty-four million! Now for some, that's just dandy - the bigger the party, the better. But lately, even dyed-in-the-felt Vegasphiles have been grousing that their beloved casino haunt is being overrun now that the last of the several new 4,000-room hotels has opened. Time to think about an alternative? Time to think Reno. Think Reno and you won't conjure images of fire spewing and waters spouting from man-made volcanoes and lakes. You'll first entertain more modest associations, such as three-digit room counts, employees who smile, and a great oyster bar at John Ascuaga's Nugget in the neighboring city of Sparks. But these are just warm-ups to the Reno area's main event, which is anything but man-made: an outdoor wonderland of golf, skiing, and sightseeing, compliments of two dozen links, a score of downhill resorts, snow-capped mountains, and an alpine lake without peer.

Dubbed the "Biggest Little City in the World" in 1927, Reno is no Las Vegas, but it doesn't try to be. The city has developed its own style based on its most marketable attributes: outdoor beauty, recreational opportunities, a come-as-you-are casualness, and affordability. And is it ever affordable! The area's large number of casinos ensures a high level of competition, which sets Reno's bargain quotient at a level second only to its big-sister city to the south.

Two ways to win

The key to enjoying Reno is knowing what to expect. If you're used to Las Vegas, you have to be prepared for the differences. For example, Las Vegas boasts 18 of the world's largest hotels. Reno has none; its largest hotel is the 2,000-room Hilton (not even in the Las Vegas top 20). Remember that lofty 34-million visitor count? Reno turnstiles admitted a mere 5.1 million last year. In almost every manner, the pace is slower and the glitz factor is lower. As one wise soul put it: If Las Vegas is a sparkling diamond, then Reno is a partially polished peridot.

Still reading? Then you're a candidate to honestly love Reno. There are two ways.

The first and most reliable is to use the city as a home base for day trips. Reno is the perfect gateway, not only to the Sierra Nevadas, Lake Tahoe, and the ski areas, but for a sightseeing excursion to Virginia City, or even an extended trip to San Francisco or Northern California's wine country, both about 200 miles away.

The second way is to simply go to Reno for Reno, taking advantage of the best that the 30 or so casinos in the area have to offer, perhaps coordinating a visit with one of the city's nonstop summer events.

Whatever your base strategy, planning in advance will pay big dividends. The first move is to obtain the "Reno, Sparks, Lake Tahoe Visitor Planner." No casino locale has an informational guide in the same league as this one.

And it's free. A toll-free call to 800/FOR-RENO will secure it in quick order. The planner provides extensive hotel descriptions and vitals, RV parks, special-events listings, suggested sightseeing itineraries, maps (both city and area), a list of travel wholesalers you can query for package-rate savings, and some stunning photos that will fire you up about your trip. You can also log on to the tourism authority's very good Web site at www.renolaketahoe.com.

High-end rooms at bargain rates

Upscale or downtown-and-dirty? Unless you want to go the ultra-bargain route, the best combo of price and quality is captured by going for the gusto. The good news is that upscale prices in Reno still qualify as bargain-rate lodging. In a random (mid-summer) check of hotel rates for this article, the most expensive we could come up with for standard rooms was $119 on the weekend and $65 on a weekday, both at Harrah's (800/ HARRAHS).

Those were the highest! Weekday/weekend rates of $49/$79 at John Ascuaga's Nugget (800/648-1177), $49/$89 at the Reno Hilton (800/648-5080), $49/$99 at the Atlantis (800/723-6500), and $59/$109 at the Peppermill (800/648-6992) qualify as downright steals.

Now is as good a time as any to mention that these latter four hotel-casinos are the cream of the Reno crop. All are perimeter joints, two situated to the east (Nugget and Hilton) and two to the south (Atlantis and Peppermill) of downtown, which contains the primary casino concentration. Downtown Reno has had a tough go of it in the recent past, during which many of the older Reno casinos have closed for good. Gone are the Mapes, Nevada Club, Riverside, Virginian, Riverboat, Holiday, even the famous Harolds Club.

Using its huge Bowling Stadium as an anchor, downtown hopes to mount a comeback with the dozen casinos that remain, but for now, there's not much to recommend it.

Of course, the financial inducement to take the downtown-and-dirty route can be mighty. Our survey found weekday rates of $49 at the Eldorado (800/648-5966), $32 at both the Sundowner (800/648-5490) and Pioneer (800/879-8879), and $24 at Fitzgeralds (800/535-LUCK). If you're using Reno as a home base, there's a great case to be made for spending $24 a night simply to store your gear and crash at the end of the day.

Truth is, Reno is an easy town to rate-shop, so all you really need is a general idea of what's where to evaluate the prices you encounter. The core of downtown contains Harrah's, the Flamingo Hilton (800/648-4882), Cal-Neva Virginian (877/777-7303), Fitzgeralds, Circus Circus (800/648-5010), Eldorado, and the relatively new Silver Legacy (800/687-7733). The latter three are linked via elaborate skywalks housing restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and shops; together they constitute the focal point of downtown. Located away from the core, on the downtown's outskirts are the Comstock (800/266-7862), Pioneer, Ramada (888/RENO-777), Sands Regency (800/648-3553), and Sundowner. You'll find lower prices here because the locations are less convenient. To the east and south perimeter casinos already mentioned, add the Silver Club (800/905-7774) and Western Village (800/648-1170) in Sparks, and way out some ten miles west of town, the burgeoning Boomtown (800/648-3790), and you've got the whole roster of Reno-Sparks hotels.

Upscale meals, moderately priced

Filling up a dining card in Reno isn't difficult. Excluding the rock-bottom plays detailed later (see our section called "Bargains on Parade," further along in the article), there are two must-dos.

The first is John's Oyster Bar at John Ascuaga's Nugget. Open since 1959 and operating out of the same location since 1979, John's recipe for awesome seafood soups hasn't changed in four decades. The restaurant's inspiration was New York City's Oyster Bar at Grand Central, but try getting an oyster pan roast, overflowing with the little critters, at Grand Central for $9.95! Chowders, cocktails, Louies, and oysters on the half-shell are served with half-loaves of fresh bread and an update of the day's events compliments of the in-house-produced Today's Noon News.

Dine early and there's a good chance you'll see John himself sampling the wares; on rare occasions, you might even spot him doing a bit of cooking.

Must-do number two is a trip to Louis' Basque Corner. Northern Nevada has a rich Basque heritage, and the area is peppered with restaurants serving the region's unique cuisine-lamb, tongue, oxtails, rabbit, paella - at long tables in the traditional all-you-can-eat family style. But Louis' is the top choice: It has the formula down, the price is right (about $16 for dinner), and it's only a two-block stroll from the center of town.

Reno's buffet scene has taken a little longer than Las Vegas's to catch fire, but the creativity gap is beginning to close. The best spreads in town, ordered by price (from $10 to $15 for dinner), are at the Peppermill, Ascuaga's Nugget, Atlantis, and Eldorado. Also recommended is the incredible Baldini's (800/845-7911) value buffet discussed below, and the famous steak buffet at the Silver Club. Though pedestrian in general, the Silver Club's $6.99-er comes with all the sirloin steak you can stomach. And these aren't skinny shoe-leather jobs, mind you, but slabs thick enough to get them cooked, according to the grill chef, "exactly the way you want, if you're lucky."

Moving up to the low high-end, there are the good value-priced steak houses, such as those at the Sundowner, Cal-Neva Virginian, and Western Village. Many of these offer neat little early-bird menus that chop an already puny tab in half. Recommended mid-rangers include La Strada (Italian) at the Eldorado, Art Gecko (Southwestern) at Circus Circus, Orozko (Mediterranean) at Ascuaga's Nugget, and the venerable Steakhouse Grill, also at the Nugget, where a toteboard tells you that 3,186,576 steaks (whoops, make that 3,186,577..., 578..., 579) have been served since 1956. Two gorgeous Italian restaurants, MonteVigna at Atlantis and Romanza at the Peppermill, take it to the next level. And for the biggest dent Reno can levy on your wallet, head to the Peppermill's highly rated White Orchid.

But a scanty club scene

Whereas Reno holds its own in the food department, its entertainment situation is significantly less developed. This is not a place to find the latest in touring musicals, high-tech production shows, top-flight impressionists, or cutting-edge magic. In fact, there's barely even a star presence. Only the Celebrity Showroom at Ascuaga's Nugget maintains a regular schedule of headliners, even if the likes of Robert Goulet, David Brenner, and Tony Orlando seem about ten years removed from their showroom heydays. Reno showrooms are "intimate," and tend to house small-scale production shows that seem to mark time between the appearances of the occasional second-tier headliner. In a pinch, you can always count on the tried-and-true comedy clubs, of which there's usually more than one to choose from on any given night. Taking up some of the slack is a vigorous nightclub and bar scene.

Finally, if you really want the Vegas-style show up north, you can take the ride to Lake Tahoe, where the stars still come out.

Bargains on parade

One universal trait of bona fide casino destinations is the availability of the super bargain. Since the goal is to hook you on the fishline of one of the negative-expectation casino games, it's necessary to throw out some bait. Reno's got the tactic down cold. With only about a third of the Las Vegas casino count, Reno deals aren't as numerous, but in a head-to-head comparison of each city's best, David may actually beat Goliath.

The first place that comes to mind when discussing Reno food specials is the Cal-Neva Virginian, where the granddad of local breakfasts, the 99[cent] bacon-and-eggs special, is still available daily from 10 p.m. till 8 a.m. in the Top Deck restaurant. This breakfast is such a standard in Reno that it constituted legitimate big news when 24-hour availability was rescinded earlier this year, replaced during prime time with a $1.74 version ("with more bacon"). You can also treat yourself to a big hot dog and bottle of Heineken at the Gridiron Grill for $1.50; Cal-Neva claims to be the largest seller of one-bottle-at-a-time Heineken in the entire country. The Cal-Neva's trump card, though, is another Top Deck special that even Las Vegas couldn't sustain: A complete steak dinner for $1.99, available from 10 p.m. till 6 a.m. It's an eight-ounce sirloin steak, rolls, vegetable, choice of potato (including baked), and one trip to the salad bar. You'll want to save the check, displaying a tab of $2.13 after tax, as a souvenir.

Stiff competition comes from Baldini's, a quirky locals' casino located halfway between downtown and Sparks, where Pepsi is so prevalent (a la Cal-Neva's Heineken) that it all but doubles as currency. Baldini's has 49[cents] hot dogs, 89[cent] burgers, a dozen chicken wings for $2, and a whole rotisserie chicken for $4.99. But its claim to fame is a buffet with a taco bar, a baked potato bar, and a working Mongolian grill, where cooks stir-fry beef, chicken, and pork with a vegetable mix of your choosing. A few other casino buffets have Mongolian grills, but not with prices like $3.99 for breakfast, $5.99 for lunch, and $6.99 for dinner. It gets better. Kids are half-price, you get a card good for a 25 percent discount on unlimited visits just for signing up for the slot club, and you can get half off the price of your first buffet with a coupon from Baldini's "Super Bonus" funbook (you'll need out-of-state ID and a voucher available at the tourist center in the Bowling Stadium).

The diner at the back of the little Nugget slot joint in downtown Reno hasn't changed in nearly 45 years. Eighteen red stools face the counter and another eighteen face the back wall. Try the "Awful Awful" burger for $3.50, or the chef's special dinner, which changes daily, for $3.95.

The Sundowner's $1.99 plate of spaghetti with garlic toast, available 24 hours a day, is another that's been around forever.

Back to Plan A

It would take another article of this size to thoroughly explore all the possibilities in the Reno-as-gateway scenario. The key trip you should take, if only to look around, is the 40-mile jaunt (plus another 20 to the casinos on the south shore) to Lake Tahoe. The payoff for the steep climb up and over majestic Mt. Rose is a view of the lake suitable for memory framing. This sight is surpassed only by the breathtaking visage of Tahoe's Emerald Bay.

To call the Lake Tahoe recreational area an outdoorsman's paradise doesn't begin to do it justice. Golf in summer and skiing in winter? Duh! Try 10 golf courses and 13 alpine ski resorts, a number of them world-class. Now add bicycling, hiking, swimming, speedboating, sailing, rafting, waterskiing, windsurfing, jet skiing, scuba diving, sport fishing, bungee jumping, skydiving, horseback-riding, tennis, bowling, ballooning, paragliding, rock-climbing, cross-country skiing, sleigh riding, snowboarding, ice skating, and snowmobiling. Do one, do all - possibly in overlapping seasons.

If you expend a little effort, you can find all sorts of ways to package these activities for big cost savings. Last May, for example, Fitzgeralds advertised $49 and $59 ski packages to Mt. Rose, Alpine Meadows, or Squaw Valley that included a room at the casino, all-day lift ticket, and transportation. The tourism authority produces several planning guides to specific activities. You can track them down via the main planner and Web site referenced earlier.

Advantage play

"Advantage play" is a gambling term that describes any method for getting an edge at a casino game. The concept can also be applied to a trip to a casino destination. Advantage play for Reno begins the moment you book your flight.

Try to get a seat on the left side of the airplane. Depending on your approach path, you'll be rewarded with a great aerial view of either Lake Tahoe or the city. And don't run straight for a cab at the airport. Unlike Las Vegas, almost all the Reno casinos provide airport shuttles (plus, Tahoe Express shuttles travelers from the airport to Lake Tahoe's south shore about a dozen times a day).

Right off the bat, pick up one of the freebie magazines (e.g. Best Bets or Fun & Gaming) and page through it immediately. They're great sources for entertainment leads and discount coupons for shows and meals. Also, visit the tourist center at the Bowling Stadium for more of the same.

If you come with kids, the best arcades are at Atlantis, Reno Hilton, and Boomtown.

The best book to read before you come is the Nevada Handbook by Deke Castleman. The best place to get a book once you get there is Ron Teston's Gambler's Book Store at First and Virginia.

The biggest special events are the Reno Rodeo in June, Hot August Nights in August, and the Best-in-the-West Rib Cook-off, Great Reno Balloon Race, and the National Championship Air Races in September.

For a cool diversion, have lunch, dinner, or a drink at the Liberty Belle Saloon and Restaurant, which is named after the first slot machine, developed in 1898 by Charles Fey. The bar's owned by two of Fey's grandsons, and on display are some of the inventor's machines, including his Liberty Belle.

And finally, whatever you do, check out the great bathrooms next to the Romanza restaurant at the Peppermill. Trust us.

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