NEON DREAMS – RENO: Where “Old Vegas” Went To Thrive


Yours truly visits Sin City’s sister and re-discovers treasures you thought had long disappeared….

Reno Old Vegas

Last week, three downtown Boyd properties quietly began charging resort fees. Popular Main Street Station, California and Fremont hotels were three of the last four to avoid the reviled mandatory daily charges. Now only Four Queens remains as the sole truly value-laden destination in what was once considered a refuge for those avoiding Strip-style gouging.

To make today’s Vegas seem even more frustrating, our friend Scott Roeben of VitalVegas.com recently exposed a sneaky, expensive trick being played on patrons at nightclubs like Tao, Omnia, Hakkasan and Wynn’s XS. It’s not unlike the bogus CNF charge he warned us about two years ago. And yet, Sin City continues to find new ways to rip you off.

You’d think that all this bull-shittery would have pushed Vegas fans passed the tipping point long ago…yet they continue to flock in. Those of us who are savvy and sick of being gouged may be seeking out more value-laden destinations for our Vegas fix, and rightly so. It never hurts to discover new places…or in my case, to rediscover an old one.

Nearby Laughlin, an easy two-hour drive from the Strip, boasts an old-time atmosphere you may be craving. Smokey casinos, cornball shows, sticky slot machines, cheap buffets and oceans of blue hair vie for your attention.

Reno Old Vegas

Hotels with familiar names like Golden Nugget, Tropicana and Harrah’s still have that out-of-the-seventies feel (brass, glass and tacky carpeting). Alas, Laughlin’s version of the Strip is quite small, with only nine hotels to choose from. In its favor, they all line up along a scenic riverside location.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno, on the other hand, is a full city of adventure. Nicknamed “The Biggest Little City In The World”, it’s very much like the Las Vegas I discovered over a decade ago….right before everything started to go to shit for the sake of “upscale” improvements.

Once downtrodden and decaying, Reno still carries a sad reputation. Some of it is deserved, as certain sections of the city remain sketchy and unattractive. Yet at its heart, “Little Vegas” is alive and thriving. And lots more fun these days than you’d expect.

My most recent visit to Reno was last weekend after a three year hiatus. The experience was positive from arrival to check-out time. There was an intense feeling of deja-vu during the entire stay. It felt as though I’d been transported to my first Vegas visit…and all of that excitement of discovering Sin City came flooding back.

Reno Old Vegas

Even if you’ve never been to Reno, you’re likely to feel right at home immediately. The local airport is small but efficient and well-equipped and it’s an easy drive to the heart of the city. You’ll recognize familiar names like El CortezCircus Circus and Harrah’s. In fact, the current Caesars Entertainment Corporation began life right here in Reno.

Reno Old Vegas

        Cool, overcast days are part of the seasonal weather variety in Reno…

For this stay, my hubby and I decided to try Whitney Peak Hotel, a newly-renovated building that was once known as Fitzgerald’s Casino Hotel. Yes, the same as THAT Fitzgerald’s on Fremont Street (now known as The D – a stupid rebranding that I still can’t make myself say out loud). Despite being less-than-impressed with the Whitney Peak website, we were curious to finally see the inside of this long-shuttered tower, so we took a chance. And what a breath of fresh air it was.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Before getting into details of Whitney Peak, I want to focus on what made Reno such a great alternative. First off, the ambiance was fantastic…very much like “lost Vegas”. The neon is bright and blinding, the tackiness is more atmospheric than literal (things in every major casino appeared to be polished and well-maintained) and employees were uniformly pleasant if not outright endearing.

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Reno10

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

When I first started visiting in 2011, Reno was in a really sad state. Casinos were shuttered, businesses were boarded up and vagrants lined the sidewalks. These days, those elements are disappearing at a rapid pace…and in their place are fun new restaurants, shops and hotels. Street fairs and events are commonplace and an eclectic vibe has moved into the area.

Reno Old Vegas

After storing our luggage at the Whitney Peak reservation desk (we had driven overnight from northern Oregon and arrived around breakfast time), it was off to the casinos to play while waiting to be notified of early check-in availability.

Reno Old Vegas

Hubby quickly ate through a few twenties at the slots (as is his norm), but I quadrupled my cash while enjoying some very tasty Bloody Marys at Eldorado Casino. And yes, just like in Vegas, your cocktails are free as you play.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Silver Legacy is Downtown Reno’s most popular hotel. Blame the Bloody Marys…

Next we strolled through adjacent Silver Legacy, a spacious and slightly more luxurious offering than its neighbor. Cocktail service was speedy here as well and the Bloody Marys were abundant with celery stalks, green beans, olives and lime. While scoping out dining and entertainment options for the weekend, we realized we were quite hungry. So, it was back the way we came for lunch at the Club Cal-Neva.

Reno Old Vegas

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Reno Old Vegas

The Cal-Neva originally opened in 1962 and is one of the longest-running and most historic casinos in the downtown area. For a while it also operated the adjacent Virginian Hotel. The sixteen-story Virginian had 125 rooms that were shuttered in 2004. In that way and many others, the casino’s history and resemblance to Binion’s Gambling Hall on Fremont Street are remarkable.

Reno Old VegasReno Old Vegas

Along with a large and popular William Hill Sportsbook, the biggest draw at Cal-Neva appears to be the Top Deck diner. If you’re a fan of the former Binion’s Original Coffee Shop in Vegas, (the basement location, not the current casino cafe) you’ll love Top Deck.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

The interior design is all hunter green and brass…very reminiscent of the Paradise Buffet at Fremont Hotel in Vegas. Open 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays and from 6am to whenever the rest of the week, Top Deck has portions and prices that are insane.

If you’re a fan of Hash House a Go Go, you can get your Sage Fried Chicken Benedict fix at Harrah’s Reno. That hotel casino also has their own buffet named Carvings. While similar in size and quality to Flavors of Harrah’s Vegas, the prices are way lower (dinner is $20 vs. up to $33.99). There’s also Bavarian World for you Hofbrauhaus aficianados.

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Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

                    La Strada Italian Restaurant is an outstanding choice…

If fine dining is your thing, there are plenty of steakhouses and higher-end international options. We chose La Strada inside Eldorado Casino for our anniversary/Saturday-night pre-show meal. Ranked as one of the top ten Italian restaurants in the country with an award-winning wine list, La Strada was definitely a top-notch experience. And our tickets to Cirque Paris in the main showroom entitled us to 50% off our entrees.

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Speaking of the show, Cirque Paris is a new variety production at Eldorado that can give nearly any similar Vegas show a run for its money. A brilliant cast, excellent acts and clever production design was a little Zumanity, a slice of BAZ and a whole lot of Absinthe.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Cirque Paris evokes a turn-of-the-century Parisian cabaret. Sexy courtesans and muscular ushers help guests to their seats and mingle with patrons at a full-service circular bar in front of the main stage. If you’re lucky, one of them might slap a gold seal on your shoulder, which upgrades you to front-row seating that magically appears when the bar transforms into part of the stage.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

It turns out that the ushers and bar staff are actually performers. They bring in a row of lounge chairs to surround the stage before taking their places on the set. The effect is dazzling, as is the show itself.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Former members of Cirque du Soleil, along with other world-class acrobats and comedy acts, mix sexy flirtation with astounding athleticism. And at $59.99 for top-tier seats (which include champagne), Cirque Paris is one of the most outstanding entertainment deals you can find.

Reno Old Vegas

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Reno Old Vegas

Today’s Las Vegas seems intent to scrub away or tear down its own history, but Reno casinos embrace it. Walls are festooned with plaques commemorating legendary performances. The Cal-Neva is celebrating 56 years of operation by charging its customers even LESS than normal. And hotels don’t strip away their themes but boast about them.

Reno Old Vegas

Whitney Peak may be a newly-opened hotel but it dares to have a theme of its own. Unlike the office-building blandness of Aria, Whitney Peak offers a unique theme that appeals to sports enthusiasts of the literal kind. Armchair quarterbacks might feel at home in the city’s sportsbooks, but adventurous Spiderman wannabees are encouraged to climb right up the side of Whitney Peak’s exterior wall.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

The second floor of the new hotel is home to Base Camp Climbing Gym, an indoor rock-climbing facility and workout center. Guests of all ages can challenge their abilities with boulders in varying degrees of difficulty, all in a safe and monitored environment. Group workout classes, climbing instruction, fitness center and steam room/sauna combine into one unique experience.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

The rooms at Whitney Peak have been gloriously refitted and decorated with modern yet rugged appeal. We were kindly upgraded to a top-floor suite that included a top-of-the-line Keurig coffee maker, kitchen with microwave oven and fridge, dining counter and expansive seating area. Wi-fi is included in all rooms, it’s pet-friendly, purified water dispensers are located on each floor and the entire resort is smoke-free. And the most innovative thing of all? NO RESORT FEES!

Reno Old Vegas

Whitney Peak doesn’t have a casino…but it does have its own excellent restaurant called Roundabout Grill. Despite the top-notch service, excellent ambiance, live music and delicious cuisine, the prices aren’t a dollar more than you’d expect to pay in your own home town. And I dare say that Whitney Peak is LGBTQ-friendly, as we were treated with the utmost respect.

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Reno Old Vegas

The hotel offers a selection of Club Level rooms on the fifteenth floor. An accompanying lounge provides a small breakfast buffet, private sitting areas, computer access, board games and a happy hour every evening.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

   Atlantis Casino (above) evokes an underwater city theme with large domes…

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

   Peppermill is Reno’s most luxurious resort and features a rich Tuscany flavor…

If bigger resorts are your thing, the town is surrounded by modern, larger casino hotels. The Atlantis rivals most anything you can find on the Vegas Strip. Reno does Sin City one better by turning Peppermill Restaurant into an epic casino resort. The signature bright pinks, purples and ultra-high-def visuals of the popular north-Strip diner are amplified to the Nth degree at Peppermill Reno. It’s blinding, dazzling…and delicious.

Reno Old Vegas

For nostalgic moviegoers, the beloved West Wind 6 Drive-in Theater of Las Vegas has its own twin in Reno. Operated by the same company, West Wind El Rancho 4 offers four screens of first-run double-features (yes, two new films back-to-back) for only $7.50 per person ($5.50 on Tuesdays). Compare that to the typical price of a film at Century Theaters Orleans Casino, where a single evening movie costs $11.00 or higher.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

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If watching films, enjoying great shows or gambling aren’t your thing, Reno has plenty of outdoor activities to relish like skiing, boating, hiking, camping, golfing, mountain biking and more. Gorgeous and glorious Lake Tahoe is a short day trip away and Tahoe has its own collection of hotel casinos like Harvey’s, Hard Rock, Biltmore and of course, another Harrah’s.

With all these positives, it’s no surprise that Reno is starting to get renewed media attention…and population growth. Vegas ABC affiliate KTNV-TV recently reported that the city outranks Las Vegas as a great place to live, citing cultural events, outdoor activities and job opportunities.

As you can see, there’s a whole lot to enjoy in Reno. A vacation there won’t drag your wallet through the mud and you’re sure to have a blast. There’s still nothing to replace the actual Las Vegas. But as the city you love continues to re-invent itself ad nauseam, you can still get your nostalgic “old Vegas” fix in Nevada’s other Sin City.

Reno Old Vegas

You may find yourself returning to Reno again and again.

Photos: Sammasseur, LaughlinNevada.net, WhitneyPeaks.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Binion’s Cafe Gets a Menu Upgrade


Fremont’s struggling casino gives you new reasons to visit….

A few weeks back I wrote about the trend of casinos pushing their dining and retail operations to the very front of their properties. In many cases, they even go out onto the sidewalks themselves. Binion’s historic downtown property is one of those I mentioned in the piece.

Binion’s is the best example of how Downtown casinos shifted their focus from interior to the sidewalks. Exploring the property, you’ll find numerous examples of a time when guests stayed and played indoors. On the second floor, a buffet and the Gee Joon Asian restaurant are collecting dust. In the basement, a once-popular 24-hour Coffee Shop is abandoned as well.

As visitor habits changed, the once-popular Binion’s Gambling Hall shuttered their lodging operations along with my go-to favorite, the downstairs Coffee Shop. The casino-floor cafe, which was basically a lunch counter surrounded by slot machines, was best known for its fresh-ground Binion’s Burger and not much else.

Eventually the space was enclosed and converted into a full-service restaurant with improved seating and an expanded menu. That successful expansion was the springboard for another re-invention when Benny’s Bullpen (a cigar lounge/sports bar) became Benny’s Smokin’ BBQ and Brews.

While Binion’s has seen casino traffic dwindle with the closure of a short-lived bingo room and their historic Poker Room (original home to World Series of Poker), Binion’s Cafe continues to draw in long-time visitors and new guests.

Binion's Cafe

                                       Classic Pot Roast with corn bread…

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                                Linguine and all-beef meatballs…

This week, Binion’s Cafe rolled out an updated version of their menu with lots of new items to dive into. Added dishes include Classic Pot Roast ($14.99), Linguine with all-beef Meatballs ($12.99) and Poached Shrimp Alfredo over Linguine ($14.99). Entrees come with a choice of salad or soup.

Binion's Cafe

                                   Shrimp alfredo…

Binion's Cafe

                                       Mo’s Poutine…

If you’re looking for something smaller, try a plate of Mo’s Poutine ($5.99), crispy fries topped with molten cheese curds and gravy. Health nuts like myself will appreciate house-made Fire-Roasted Red Pepper Hummus ($5.99) served with warm pita bread, cucumber slices and celery sticks.

Binion's Cafe

                                                         No more chili….

I was shocked to see one of my favorite Vegas indulgences, Binion’s famous truckstop-style chili, missing from the new menu. That greasy-spoon bowl of tomatoes and beans had gotten this fellow through many a night of partying in the past. I later learned that it’s still available at nearby Binion’s Deli, but only from 12pm-8pm.

Of course, mainstay Binion’s Burger remains ($5.99) on the menu and comes with their delicious potato salad (fries and cheese are extra). Also, the Club Binion’s Player’s Card will get you special discounts on select items.

Binion's Cafe

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          Ham Steak and Eggs is only $8.99 with your Binion’s Club Card….

It’s worth mentioning that meats and poultry at the Binion’s Cafe are cut daily at their own in-house butcher shop. Symbols identify these dishes, along with those designated as “heart healthy” and selections available only during limited hours.

Click here for a PDF copy of the full menu.

Binion's Cafe

Binion’s Cafe is open daily from 7am to 2am. Be sure to ask for Alicia when visiting…and tell her that Sam sent you.

Photos: Sammasseur, Alicia P., Binion’s, TripAdvisor

If You Build It On The Sidewalk, They Will Come. Maybe…


Vegas is utilizing every available space to sell you something – with mixed results.

Sidewalk

Taking in the north half of the Strip from the 26th floor of Wynn’s original tower, I was reminded of a trend that has swept over Vegas in recent years. An amazing amount of new stores, bars and restaurants have risen where once was nothing but sidewalk.

Sidewalk

Sugar Factory restaurant in front of Fashion Show Mall. The CVS/Avengers annex that replaced a pirate ship’s dock. Gilley’s and Starbucks over the wooden “boardwalk” of Treasure Island. One of the newest is Wynn Plaza, the fourth retail corridor at Wynn/Encore resort. All have sprung from what is now considered “wasted space”.

Sidewalk

Rhumbar at Mirage was one of the first to initiate this approach. Using square footage from decorative faux grass and shrubbery, the lounge/patio opened in March of 2009. Tellingly, it arrived around the same time that the casino’s White Tiger Pool was removed in favor of BLT, a gourmet burger joint.

This entire section of Mirage was once accessed by a “people mover” or electric walkway. As was the philosophy of the new “megaresort” concept, people-movers and free attractions would lure pedestrians inside from the Strip, where they’d hopefully stay to gamble and more.

But with this decade’s falling interest in slot machines and table games, the wise men of Mirage opted to replace that expensive tiger pool with something that could potentially generate alternate income. At the same time, the people-mover was replaced with a conventional concrete sidewalk, a cost-cutting measure that reflected the new business model.

Sidewalk

Sidewalk

Soon after, Paris Hotel Casino ripped out the gorgeous La Fontaine des Mers fountain and constructed Sugar Factory restaurant and store in its place (it later became HEXX Kitchen + Bar). Then HEXX was topped with a second level for Budweiser Beer Park. That made two bar/restaurant concepts on a spot that was once just eye candy.

Sidewalk

Interestingly, now that Sugar Factory has relocated to Fashion Show Mall, it holds the dubious distinction of rising up not once but twice from Vegas Strip sidewalks.

Once the practice of using every available inch of sidewalk space for retail took hold, entire sections of Las Vegas Boulevard literally became Strip malls. So long Bally’s fountains and gardens, hello hideous Grand Bazaar Shops.

Sidewalk

Sidewalk

As shifting trends have turned Las Vegas into an oversized Mall of The Americas, visiting the casinos is no longer a must-do activity. Why bother to go inside when you can eat, drink and shop right on the sidewalk?

Sidewalk

Monte Carlo, the rather generic-looking MGM Resorts property that was once fading into indifference, was rebranded into the even more generic-sounding PARK MGM. The first step in that process was…you guessed it…the retail-ization of the hotel’s frontage. Out went sculptures and a large fountain, in came Double Barrel Roadhouse, 800 Degrees Pizza, Boulevard Creamery and more. Decorative flourishes were gutted and replaced by pale colors and some cheap-looking olive green paint. Boring!

Sidewalk

This time, the build-out was so extreme that the hotel is essentially hidden from view. Would you even recognize it now from the photo above? It would seem that, as with casinos, the hotels themselves are now becoming a side offering.

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The retail-ization of Las Vegas Boulevard eventually spread to Downtown’s Fremont Street. Underneath the four-block canopy, a wide-open pedestrian mall is now packed to the max with kiosks, vendors, bars and patio lounges (that require a drink minimum to take a seat).

Binion’s is the best example of how Downtown casinos shifted their focus from interior to the sidewalks. Exploring the property, you’ll find numerous examples of a time when guests stayed and played indoors.

Sidewalk

Sidewalk

On the second floor, a buffet and the Gee Joon Asian restaurant are collecting dust. In the basement, a once-popular 24-hour Coffee Shop is abandoned as well.

Sidewalk

The back half of the casino floor, where guests once checked into the hotel (shuttered since 2009), is nearly forgotten. The poker room, original home of the World Series of Poker, has also been put to rest.

Sidewalk

But out front, thriving Whiskey Licker Bar and Cowgirl Up  Cantina would have you believing that all is well inside the historic property. Outdoor revelers raise their glasses and park their bums on saddle-shaped stools, most never venturing into the aging property. New visitors might never realize that a 366-room hotel once operated there.

Of course, outdoor offerings are no guarantee of success. When Lady Lucky reopened as Downtown Grand in 2013, a great deal of fanfare centered around activities planned for adjacent Third Street. Sidewalk gambling, movie screenings and indoor/outdoor dining and an open-air nightclub (courtesy of Richard Sandoval’s “Commissary”) were rolled out. Not one of those things took hold.

Then the folks at Downtown Grand took yet another cue from the Strip and announced an outdoor urban park called The Quad. Utilizing empty lots and part of a parking garage, The Quad was to feature a stage, tavern, fitness center, nightclub and climbing wall. If all of this sounds familiar, perhaps you’re thinking of LINQ Promenade or The Park at New York NY. Surprisingly, it all fell through in favor of an additional hotel tower, currently under construction.

Sidewalk

And so it goes…the constant reinvention of Las Vegas. Eventually, visitors while tire of the heat and venture back into the casinos that put Sin City on the map. Until then, the white tigers will be waiting.

Photos: {Sammasseur, Flickr]