It’s a good bet that Reno’s luck (and life) is looking up.
It’s not because the city went after the “big score” — a giant, glitzy attraction solely to bring in tourists. It started taking care of itself. Having recognized that the California gamblers diverted by Indian casinos are never coming back, Reno and its people have spent the past decade making minor adjustments and improvements that make life better for locals — and they’re starting to pay off.
The result: a downtown with more outdoorsy diversions and an increasingly sophisticated dining and drinking scene; a fledgling Midtown district with hip cafes, wine bars and brewpubs that would have seemed unthinkable not that long ago; and an attempt by one resort to bring Vegas-style (and Vegas-size) nightlife to a town that never really had it before.
Lucky or not, the city seems to be on a streak and might be worth a trip over the hills — if only to be surprised by, well, Reno.
Why now? Summer heat is retreating and the bleakness of winter in Reno (and the wretched drive through snow) is still months away.
Backstory: Reno was sucker-punched by the sudden boom of Indian casinos in California 20 years ago, and visitors have declined steadily ever since. Previously strong casinos went belly-up, the buildings turned into condos or just unused shells.
In the 1990s, the city created the Riverwalk district scenic corridor and focused on outdoorsy diversions, but it wasn’t until the past 10 years that new businesses really took hold in downtown. Now the focus seems to be on Midtown, a short walk from downtown and Riverwalk, where new starter shops and cafes — most of them independent — are taking root, in some cases inside very old venues.
Checking in: The downtown casinos (Silver Legacy, El Dorado, Harrah’s) are an easy walk to the Riverwalk and to Midtown, although if you plan to partake in nightlife at Lex Nightclub, the city’s first venue comparable to Vegas clubs, consider staying at Sierra Grand Resort. (It isn’t particularly walkable from downtown, but the drive is short and the parking is free at most downtown casinos.)
At Grand Sierra, the style and upkeep are a little more upscale than in downtown, but in most cases the rooms and rates are comparable (especially if you sign up for discount alerts at the website). Along with the new $15 million Lex, Grand Sierra has one of the better lineups of in-casino restaurants, including the Reserve wine bar (80 different bottles for sampling) and Charlie Palmer Steak. Tip: Higher floors offer great views of downtown at night.
Spend your day: In a town full of casino breakfast buffets, Peg’s Glorified Ham n Eggs in Midtown is a popular alternative (if only because it’s not inside a casino). The menu offers standard breakfast dishes, as well as Tex-Mex and Hawaiian plates. It’s part of a small chain, but the vibe is down home. Another alternative is Little House on Center Street (725 S. Center St.).
To work off breakfast, rent a bike for a morning ride on the Truckee River Path, a paved trail along the river that west of downtown winds into the hills. (The trail east crosses town toward Sparks, passing a few small parks and greenbelt on the way, although it can attract a dodgy crowd.)
Another option for getting the heart pumping is BaseCamp, the climbing wall and gym (a 7,000-square foot “bouldering park”) connected to the Whitney Peak hotel, inside the former Fitzgeralds Casino and Hotel. The 164-foot climbing wall on the outside of the tower has been there a few years, but Whitney Peak just opened, offering boutique lodging without a casino. Not into climbing? You can still sit by the Reno Arch and watch others burn off breakfast.
From the Riverwalk area, follow Virginia Street south across the river and past a block of office and government buildings. Once you pass Liberty Street (and a white bunker-like strip club), you’ve entered Midtown, a commercial district trying to revamp what was once one of Reno’s more unremarkable neighborhoods.
Do a little window shopping now, making sure to top at artisan cheese shop Wedge (16 St. Lawrence Ave.), PolyEsther’s Costume Boutique (655 S. Virginia St.), Recycled Records (822 S. Virginia St.) and at secondhand palace Junkee Clothing Exchange (960 S. Virginia St.) for sensory overload.
Along the way, grab lunch and an excellent margarita at Mari & Chuy’s Mexican Kitchen, one of three newish restaurants in the Sticks Project. The food is great, but a meal here is also a window seat to most of the revitalization and shaping of Midtown. The Sticks Project is a modern complex that includes UnCork’d Eatery at Midtown, and across the street are Shea’s Tavern and Midtown Eats taking up older brick storefronts on Virginia Street.
For a better example of reuse, walk a block on East Taylor Street to Brasserie Saint James, a hulking, airy restaurant, pub and brewery in what was once the Crystal Springs water plant and ice house. Saint James specializes mostly in Belgian styles, so ask for a row of sampler glasses and study up on the styles. Tours of the brewery are available with advance notice.
If, after all the community-oriented places, you need a dose of Vegas, head to Lex nightclub at Grand Sierra. The $15 million club is the first of its kind in Reno, patterned after the giant, over-the-top megaclubs in Las Vegas, with a swimming pool, private booths, drink service and go-go dancers. And while tourists are a big part of the business, owners have said it will rely also on locals spending plenty of time (and cash) there.
Dining: If you stay around Midtown, try Midtown Eats, a boutique restaurant where the menu has a surprising amount of variety — from pork belly to elk burgers — despite being really short. If you’re up for the splurge, head back to Sierra Grand and get a table at Charlie Palmer Steak.
Don’t miss: A plate of mortadella, gruyere, asiago and moronga (Spanish blood sausage), washed down with a nice Malbec, at the brand new UnCork’d Eatery at Midtown, a hybrid cafe and wine bar that serves up fine meats and cheeses to go with the healthy, worldly wine list.
Don’t bother: South Virginia Street loses some of its charm past Mary Street. Pick up one of the Midtown district maps available at most businesses, although be aware it’s not entirely up to date (see below).
Word to the wise: The Midtown district map lists the Chocolate Walrus (1278 S. Virginia St.) as “specializing in handmade chocolate products” — which might be true, but the current business is a quirky adult boutique with sex toys and lingerie.
Spud Hilton is the editor of The San Francisco Chronicle’s Travel section. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter and Instagram: @spudhilton