Along the Truckee, 'biggest little city' is reborn
Influx of artists, white-water park pay off for Reno
The Riverwalk restaurants, shops, and galleries and the white-water park have helped Reno attract younger workers. (Tsuyoshi Shirakowa)
RENO - "Reno, uggh," said a colleague when I told him I had to speak at a conference here last spring. "Well, at least you have Tahoe," he added, referring to that gem of a lake nestled among lofty peaks less than an hour's drive from downtown.
I found his minimalist description quite astute as I grabbed some air outside the century-old Silver Legacy Resort Casino and strolled down the main thoroughfare, Virginia Street, under an arch that read, "The Biggest Little City in the World."
The wide sidewalks felt deserted, except for a handful of stragglers heading into the Cal Neva Casino for the $2.50 hot-dog-and-beer special. Somehow, it felt as if all the opulence dripping from the billion-dollar resorts that line the Strip in Las Vegas had been siphoned off Reno, leaving it to wither away as another Western relic.
Then I hit First Street and realized I had just reached the oasis in the desert. On both sides of the Truckee River, restaurants and bars were crowded with patrons, who, judging from their amorous flirtations, were not in town for quickie divorces, Reno's claim to fame a generation ago. Hip galleries and boutique clothing stores displayed the wares of local artists and designers, and new condo developments with names like the Belvedere and Palladio towered over the water. As I crossed Arlington Avenue, I spotted kayakers snaking their way through the rapids.
"Reno is in the midst of an incredible renaissance, and the Truckee River has emerged as the place to be," says Knud Svendsen at the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority. Indeed, city officials expect more than 7,500 new residents in the downtown area by next year. Similar to the gentrification happening in Boston's Fort Point and SoWa neighborhoods, younger workers are heading to the city to shorten the daily commute while empty-nesters are being attracted to the cultural opportunities. And it helps that prices of condominiums are still relatively affordable, with one-bedroom units starting at $237,000.
Also, like Fort Point and SoWa, the reemergence of the river area started with artists. In 2000, the old Riverside Hotel was converted into artist lofts for painters, sculptors, singers, dancers, and actors. It brought vitality to a city that needed to move beyond gambling. Four years later, the four-story Nevada Museum of Art opened close by with its dazzling exterior of black zinc, native to the northern Nevada desert. The Truckee River Whitewater Park also made its debut in 2004, and has been such a success with kayakers, rafters, and swimmers that it plans to expand 3 miles downstream into the town of Sparks. The less intrepid can grab an inflated tube and cruise down a 2-mile portion of the waterway on Reno's version of a lazy river.
Once people started to hit the water, they wanted places to relax and eat afterward. Silver Peak Grill and Taproom, a block from the river on the corner of First and Sierra streets, is a popular microbrewery that serves upscale pub food like salmon fish and chips, and a grilled lamb burger with kalamata olives and goat cheese. Open this past spring, Se7en is a cozy tea shop that doubles as a club after hours. Try their Icky beer, which is not so icky.
On the south bank of the river, Wild River Grille is located on the old Riverside's first floor. The Grille's patio is a favorite of artists living in the upstairs lofts. Another preferred hangout for locals is Enoteca, an indoor/outdoor wine bar downstairs in the Siena Hotel. Unlike other casinos in town, where you have to walk for five minutes through the slots, roulette wheels, and blackjack tables to reach the front desk, the Siena has a smaller, boutique-hotel appeal, in synch with Reno's new image.
My favorite meal in town was at La Famiglia, also on First Street. All the tables were booked for the night so I grabbed a seat at the bar. I ordered a glass of their excellent house pinot noir and munched on an appetizer of bruschetta, overflowing with fresh tomatoes. For entrees, bartender Sergio Gaspari recommended ravioli al funghi or the cioppino. I chose the mushroom ravioli, doused in a porcini mushroom sauce, and happily cleaned the plate.
This winter, hordes of skiers will be flying into Reno to carve their perfect turns at Squaw Valley, Heavenly, and the other mountains that surround Lake Tahoe, rushing through town to get to the slopes. But once their legs tire, they'd be wise to check out the après-ski scene along the Truckee River. Reno's rebirth is a pleasant surprise.
Stephen Jermanok, a Newton-based freelance writer, can be reached at email@example.com.