Recipes for success at longtime local restaurants.
This is a story about successful restaurants that have endured through changing tastes, changing economics, and even a pandemic. Our region is rich with restaurants that have persisted for generations. Call them landmark restaurants, iconic restaurants. Call this story the Good News Express.
These icons are spread throughout our region, from Reno to Lake Tahoe to Genoa. Location doesn’t seem to be the key to success, but rather family, comfort, innovative cuisine, and memorable dining experiences create a winning formula. These establishments’ popularity has spanned decades, creating generations of repeat customers.
It’s difficult to unravel claims about which is the oldest, complicated by questions such as “Is the restaurant still in the same location?” (This eliminates Little Waldorf and Miguel’s.) Does the founding family still own it? (This knocks Louis’ Basque Corner and the 1865 Restaurant out of contention). Is the place in California or Nevada?
But rather than become mired in these technicalities, edible Reno-Tahoe simply celebrates these restaurants’ histories and identifies factors that have contributed to their longstanding success.
It’s a Family Affair
Most of the restaurants with staying power have strong family commitments behind them. A top contender is Bacchi’s Italian Dining, which has been open for 89 years — a feat even more remarkable when you consider its location at Lake Tahoe and the challenges of reaching it before modern roads were built.
The restaurant represents four generations. When George and Josephine Bacchi opened the restaurant in 1932 in Tahoe City, customers were served whatever Josephine was cooking that day. Drawing on her Sicilian roots, she produced the famed chicken-and-ravioli Sunday dinners, priced at just a buck. Her style of cooking was passed along to three generations, and the place now is run by the father-and-son team of Bill and Everett Hunter. The restaurant continues to serve spaghetti that one can have topped with a gigantic meatball, veal scaloppine alla marsala, and chicken parmigiana, all on classic red-and-white-checkered tablecloths.
The rich and famous came calling. Wealthy philanthropist Lora J. Knight, who commissioned Vikingsholm castle in Emerald Bay, encouraged Josephine to start the restaurant. The cast and crew of Bonanza would show up while filming at the lake. When The Godfather was being produced at Tahoe, Al Pacino and Diane Keaton went in to eat. Bacchi’s still is located in the original building. Everett says the reason for the restaurant’s longevity is simple: “It’s all about family.”
Before we move on, let’s tip our hat to two other long-lasting, family-run Italian spots, both located on the main east-west highway of earlier times — U.S. Highway 40. On the east end is Casale’s Halfway Club. Casale’s evolved from a produce stand in the 1930s to a restaurant by 1941. John and Elvira Casale founded the operation with daughter “Mama” Inez. Mama’s husband, Casimir “Steamboat” Stempeck, and brother, Jerry, became partners.
From 1969 until last year, Mama Inez ran the beloved local eatery with her children and, more recently, her grandchildren. In 2013, Casale’s was recognized as the oldest continuously family-owned and operated restaurant in Reno (and possibly in Nevada) with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval. Mama passed away in late 2020, and her son, Tony, also passed just weeks later. The family has vowed to keep the tradition alive and has years of experience to help them accomplish this.
Johnny’s Ristorante Italiano (known as Johnny’s Little Italy in earlier days) is a Reno fine-dining experience without a checked tablecloth in sight. In 1966, Johnny and Mary Cassinari brought traditional Italian cooking to the west end of U.S. 40. Their son, Louis, carries on the tradition of hospitality and high-quality dishes, with offerings such as Parmesan-crusted Petrale sole, linguine with shrimp and asparagus in a saffron cream sauce, and osso buco.
Bring Something New
Ethnic restaurants, beyond the ever-popular Italian, were scarce in our area 50-plus years ago. Some wise restaurateurs stepped in — and some of their businesses still are with us today.
Although the Basques have been in Nevada since the Gold Rush, and Basque hotels dot the Western landscape, it wasn’t until after World War II that Basque establishments opened to the general public, allowing a restaurant such as J.T. Basque Bar & Dining Room in Gardnerville to make its mark. The name of the restaurant is derived from the initials of the previous owners, the Jaunsaras and the Troundays, who opened their restaurant in 1955.
The story picks up five years later, when on April Fools’ Day in 1960, two immigrant brothers purchased the restaurant. It’s been a family affair since. Jean Lekumberry was 22 in 1947, when he left the French Basque Pyrenees. He arrived in Gardnerville with $32 in his pocket and found work as a sheepherder. His brother, Pete, soon followed, and together, with Jean’s wife, Shirley, they purchased the restaurant. The family roles were clear: Jean handled the bar, Pete the kitchen, and Shirley the dining room.
Jean and Shirley raised their three children — Robert, Marie Louise, and J.B. — to learn every aspect of the business. Jean died in 1993, and today, Marie Louise runs the bar and the front of the house, and J.B. runs the kitchen.
J.T. Basque’s success can be traced to its strong family involvement, its authentic traditions, and, as Marie Louise says, “the greatest staff ever.”
There’s another iconic Basque restaurant in our region: Louis’ Basque Corner, a treasured Downtown Reno restaurant since 1967. This historic spot along Fourth Street was constructed in 1906-07. Louis Erreguible, also an emigrant from the French Pyrenees, and wife Lorraine opened Louis’ as a testament to their Basque heritage. Upon their retirement in 2011, the business was sold to Chris Shanks and Brian Elcano, and Shanks now carries on Louis’ family-style seating and menu, and tradition of outfitting servers in Basque costumes. It seems no visit to Reno is complete without a Picon punch at Louis’.
Known as a community leader, as well as the founder of his namesake Miguel’s, Miguel Ribera bought a restaurant at 1415 S. Virginia St. in Reno in 1959. He became something of an ambassador for Mexican food to an eager local community. He moved to another location for a brief time in the ’70s, and the Virginia Street space became a succession of restaurants. By 1980, Miguel’s was back on Virginia Street. Current owners Elmer and Addie Figueroa bought the business after Ribera died in 1998. Today, the Miguel’s team describes the place as Northern Nevada’s first Mexican restaurant.
Tried and True is a Winning Formula
A restaurant doesn’t need novelty to succeed. The familiar always has a place. Reno’s Gold ’N Silver Inn has been at the comfort food frontline for more than 60 years, boasting that it’s “Reno’s Oldest Casual Dining Restaurant.” The fact that it never closes also sets it apart.
This also was a family place: The restaurant has been in owner Jeff Paine’s family since 1962, when his father, Charles Paine, and his father’s business partner, Floyd Nye, bought the restaurant from founder Harry Bond, who built the building. In 1989, Jeff stepped in to oversee the restaurant, and in 1999, he became the sole owner. The building has been expanded and updated several times, but, happily, the Googie-style sign at the corner of Fourth and Vine streets in Reno remains.
Jeff says the restaurant’s consistency is its defining element. Publicity certainly has helped, too. When Guy Fieri’s popular Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives featured the Gold ’N Silver in 2010, Jeff saw a 25 percent increase in business overnight.
Over the years, Gold ’N Silver’s menu has been tweaked to add items such as Asian salads and salmon filets, but American comfort food still reigns.
Proximity to the University of Nevada, Reno has helped a few restaurants achieve landmark status. Little Waldorf Saloon (affectionately known as The Wal) might be a contender as the oldest Reno eatery — with some clarification. Although founded in 1922 by Charles Meyers, it moved locations twice, and the current building only dates back to 1982. Ownership shifted in 2006 to the corporation SES Nevada, which created an instant urban legend by saying the Little Waldorf was founded by Red Waldorf, related to the famed Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Regardless, The Wal has endured and remained popular for generations of UNR students and alumni.
Just a bit west of the university sits the ever-popular Pub n’ Sub. Maybe it was foolish for Steve Mathers to begin his business on Friday the 13th (of December, 1974), but it has proven to be good luck for this tucked-away success story. Built in about 1950 as a grocery store, the building was purchased by Mathers in the early 1980s, and he added a full kitchen in 1983. It’s been churning out pizzas, burgers, subs, and other crowd-pleasing foods ever since.
The folks at 1862 Restaurant & Saloon at David Walley’s Resort can claim to have the oldest building; it dates back to when Walley’s Hot Springs was built in 1862. Famed for its baths, Walley’s has welcomed such historic figures as Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt as well as Mark Twain. Many ownership changes have occurred over the years, and Walley’s currently is the property of Holiday Inn Club Vacations. The restaurant offers fine-dining dishes along with salads, sandwiches, and burgers.
These are shining examples of local success stories, but the list certainly isn’t exhaustive. Failure rates for restaurants are legendary, with one of the most commonly cited statistics saying that 60 percent of restaurants don’t make it past their first year, and 80 percent go out of business within five years. Not so for these restaurants. Despite shifts in name, ownership, and consumer tastes, these landmarks of the Reno-Tahoe area live on, enticing new generations of dedicated diners.
Sharon Honig-Bear was the longtime restaurant writer for the Reno Gazette-Journal. She is a tour leader with Historic Reno Preservation Society and founder of the annual Reno Harvest of Homes Tour. She can be reached at Sharonbear@sbcglobal.net.
1862 Restaurant & Saloon
2001 Foothill Road, Genoa
775-782-8155 • Holidayinnclub.com/explore-resorts/david-walleys-resort
Bacchi’s Italian Dining
2905 Lake Forest Road, Tahoe City
530-583-3324 • Bacchistahoe.com
Casale’s Halfway Club
2501 E. Fourth St., Reno
775-323-3979 • Find Casale’s Halfway Club on Facebook
Gold ’N Silver Inn
790 W. Fourth St., Reno
775-323-2696 • Goldnsilverreno.com
Johnny’s Ristorante Italiano
4245 W. Fourth St., Reno
775-747-4511 • Johnnysristorante.com
J.T. Basque Bar & Dining Room
1426 Hwy. 395, Gardnerville
775-782-2074 • Jtbasquenv.com
1661 N. Virginia St., Reno
775-337-9255 • Lilwal.com
Louis’ Basque Corner
301 E. Fourth St., Reno
775-323-7203 • Louisbasquecorner.com
1415 S. Virginia St., Reno
775-322-2722 • Miguelsmexicanrestaurantreno.com
Pub n’ Sub
1000 Ralston St., Reno
775-322-8540 • Thepubandsub.com