The Weirdest Little City in the World: Our Trip to Reno

At the risk of sounding like a third-grader’s social studies report: Reno is a land of contrasts.

It’s a city whose entire reason for being is to suck money from out-of-towners. (That’s even true historically — according to a plaque we saw on the river, one of the city’s founders was a gold rush prospector who realized there was more money to be made fleecing other prospectors than there was actually mining for gold, so he built a toll bridge… and later a hotel.) At the same time, they want you to feel happy and pampered and like you’re getting something for nothing, so you’ll relax and dump your money into the slots… and come back next year and and get happily fleeced some more.

So it winds up being a profoundly weird blend of glitzy and depressing; chintzy and luxurious. Everyone’s really friendly, and everyone takes really good care of you and treats you like you’re a movie star… and it’s actually hugely fun, even when you remember that it’s all part of the Great Fleecing of the Rubes.

We had a ball.

But boy, was it a weird ball. It was so eclectic it was almost dizzying. A rough itinerary:

Trannyshack Reno. We decked out in our best glam-slut-trash outfits (for one night we said “Screw this aging gracefully crap”), took a cab to one of the diviest gay bars I’ve ever been to… and spent the evening getting very drunk, groping each other, schmoozing with the drag queens, ogling the dykes, and watching a scary San Francisco drag show in a smoky, crowded bar. It was an epiphany. If I believed in God, I’d call it a religious experience. I even had half a cigarette. (And yes, I appreciate the irony of going to Trannyshack in Reno when we could go any week we wanted to right here in San Francisco. But the Trannyshack bus happened to be in Reno the weekend we were there, and we couldn’t not go.)

Hot rock massages at the hotel spa.

Dinner at a lovely little French bistro.

Breakfast at the punk rock vegetarian diner.

A failed attempt at a nature walk.

Dinner at Harrah’s Steakhouse, followed by the Harrah’s tittie show. (We were hoping for topless girls in feather headdresses, but the theme of the show was custom cars, so instead we got topless girls in G-strings with racing stripes. Not to mention the worst stand-up comedian I’ve seen in years. I mean, I realize that being the comedian at the tittie show has got to be one of the most thankless jobs in show business… but oh, my God. Whenever he was on, I kept leaning over to Ingrid to abjectly apologize for dragging her there, and for the rest of the evening and the whole next day I had the lines from the Muppet Show theme stuck in my head: “It’s like a kind of torture/To have to watch this show.” The tittie girls were fun, though. Although I do wish they’d been in feathers.)

The Awful Awful burgers at the Little Nugget Diner, where the food is huge and delicious, and the service is refreshingly surly.

As to gambling…

I realize it’s profoundly weird to go to Reno and not gamble. But I’m just not that interested in it. I’ll make a bet with a friend about whether the Red Sox will win the Series this year… but casino gambling just doesn’t grab me. Either it’s slot machines, which require no skill and are therefore passive and boring… or it’s something like poker and blackjack, which do require skill, and at which I am therefore going to suck.

Here’s what I did instead. I took a pull on a one-dollar slot machine. I won five bucks on my first pull. And I walked away. I took the money and ran. I quit while I was ahead.

And I spent the rest of the weekend gassing on pompously about how I’d quit while I was ahead.

Which was WAY more fun than actually playing.


Oh, a quick restaurant roundup for those who might be going into the town:

Beaujolais. This was the lovely little French bistro. Easily the best meal we had in Reno. I haven’t been to a lot of French restaurants, so I don’t have many points of comparison there… but I have been to a lot of seriously good restaurants, and this was one of them. The asparagus soup was one of the best things I’ve eaten — not just in Reno, but anywhere.

The Pneumatic Diner. This was the punk rock vegetarian diner, on the second floor of a seedy apartment building that would give David Lynch the willies. (Note: You can, in fact, take a direct stairway to the diner without wandering through the labyrinthine hallways of the scary apartment building — a fact I wish we’d known beforehand.) Pretty darned good. A little on the chewy side of the vegetarian-cuisine spectrum, but not at all bad. And the punk-funk-lefty atmosphere was a refreshing change of pace from all the cheap glamour and excess.

Harrah’s Steakhouse. This was good. This was a very good steak. This place has been talked up an awful lot, and it didn’t quite live up to the talk — it wasn’t among the five best steaks I’ve had in my life, although it might have been in the top thirty. But it was a very good steak. And the vibe is fabulous. Very much the 1950’s vision of a classy joint, complete with hot towels and at-the-table flambeeing. Great if you want to pretend to be Frank Sinatra or Freddie Corleone.

The Little Nugget Diner. Home of the Awful Awful Burger (so called because it’s “awful big and awful good”). A nothing little greasy spoon in the back of a second-string casino… with a wall full of reviews, articles, and “best of” citations for their burger. And yeah, it’s a damn good burger. Again, not one of the five best I’ve had in my life… but a fine burger indeed, with kick-ass fries. And a whole lot cheaper than the Harrah’s Steakhouse. (Huge, though. We could easily have split one and been perfectly happy. I had it at around one this afternoon, it’s now after ten, and I’m still not really hungry.)

Many thanks to Chowhound for all the tips. Eating in Reno can be truly scary, and Chowhound made it very doable.

The Weirdest Little City in the World: Our Trip to Reno
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4 thoughts on “The Weirdest Little City in the World: Our Trip to Reno

  1. 1

    Damn, you found the FUN bits of Reno. I went there with some straight friends, with the promise that it was fine if I didn’t want to gamble. In fact, I was told, that’s the idea – mooch on all the cheap hospitality provided to distract the gamblers.
    So I went – and my friends were shocked that I didn’t feel like gambling AT ALL. I didn’t put 5 cents into a slot machine. (Hey, if I want flashey lights in random patterns, I’ll run a screen saver.)
    But it looks like you found lots better places to visit. (Albeit maybe more expensive; this was a starving student vacation so we were watching the free circus at the casino of the same name and such like.)
    But I wonder if there’s a rationality connection. If the $1 slots are run at 96% expected return (they were advertising some numbers vaguely in that ballpark; it’s been a few years), then one “game” costs me 4 cents, on average. With a high variance, which means I’m risking a lot more if I don’t intend to play it often enough to get the averaging effect. And it just wasn’t worth that much to me; I could see the blinky lights just fine when someone else was playing.
    But it was all rather entertaining if I stepped back from the situation. Friends shocked that I told them the truth!

  2. 2

    “Here’s what I did instead. I took a pull on a one-dollar slot machine. I won five bucks on my first pull. And I walked away. I took the money and ran. I quit while I was ahead.
    “And I spent the rest of the weekend gassing on pompously about how I’d quit while I was ahead.
    “Which was WAY more fun than actually playing.”
    Me: Yep. Exactly. GMTA.
    –tiresome Bill

  3. 3

    Sorry that your topless girls had no feathers. We managed to actually see Topless Feather Girls (as my wife calls them), but only by seeing the show where the theme was…(drumroll) showgirls.
    Mmm……self-referential and naked!
    On the other hand, your food was clearly better.

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