I spent 10 years in Reno and it's actually almost due east of San Francisco, California. It is by many, believed to be just a small Vegas. It has much more of a country or old west flavor to it. Unlike Las Vegas, it does get very cold and is just east of the Sierra mountain range and sits in the valley below Lake Tahoe.
Reno's clientele comes mostly from California, whereas Vegas' visitors come from all over the world. Gambling is the major industry for both cities with conventions being the second biggest draw. While there I worked as a cabbie, Archaeologist, and a casino cashier. Ten years was enough for me, because the gambling, drinking lifestyle can be quite tiring as well as defeating. Enough was enough.

Reno, Nevada, is a town of about 200,000 people (damned souls and otherwise) that is located in the Northwestern portion of the state. It is divided mainly by Interstate 80 and US Highway 395 and surrounded by McCarran Boulevard, a ring-road that was completed in 1994. The combination of its proximity to the Truckee River and its advantageous location to passes in the Sierra Nevadas made it an ideal spot to run a railroad and a wagon trail through, back in the day.

Nowadays, Reno is synonymous with sin due to the state's infamous loose morals in regards to what is legal for turning a profit. Seeing as how it currently is about one-fifth the size of Las Vegas (the state's other big attraction), it often gets less tourist play and, therefore, not as much funding from the state, and the city is pretty much left to its own devices for public services, although the city's proximity to Carson City, the state capital, helps a little bit in this respect.

To many, Reno is a town of broken promises, lost dreams. I grew up in Reno and pretty much hated the town, but now I can admit to kindling a certain masochistic desire. There's something about the desert, about the isolated proximity (forty-five minutes from scenic Lake Tahoe, two hours from Sacramento, three and a half hours from San Francisco, seven hours from Las Vegas, nine hours from Los Angeles) that seems enthralling, mysterious. The town isn't just booze and gambling. There's much more, hidden surprises. The casinos are just the lure: once you're hooked, you find that the sinker lies somewhere between the ability to acrue debt here and the compelling call of the outdoors.

Reno is surrounded on all sides by mountainous terrain, which makes it ideal for hiking, biking, camping and skiing. There isn't much to be said for personal recreation inside the city: the parks are a joke and usually maintained at the whims of the surrounding neighborhoods. It's hard to spend much time here, though, without learning a little something about wilderness survival. Reno is actually fairly conducive to bike travel, despite it definitely being a car town: it's possible to bike from one end of town to the other in about an hour, provided you know the proper routes.

A few notes, though, to holiday gamblers: I am not a professional gambler, but I know a few things. When a casino advertises a whopping 94% payback, all that means is that, for every dollar you drop in the slots, you get back ninety-four cents. This may not seem like a huge profit to the casino, but it's even less of a profit to you (an interesting side note, as pointed out by sphillips is that casino payouts are actually regulated by the Gaming Board, a government agency).

Also, this is very important: you never win or lose anything in a casino. You are either up or down. This philosophy not only helps you rationalize a loss, but it's nice to remember to help turn away from the dice once you're up.

I've been stuck in Reno for the past three months and I was raised here, so I might as well expound on the virtues and natures of this town. It's easiest to do this by section1, so here goes:


The main "strip" is Virginia Street (immortalized in the Tom Waits song "Virginia Avenue"). Here is where the bulk of downtown lies, where the majority of the casinos have set up shop, where the annual Hot August Nights festival is held. Virginia Street runs north-south and intersects with I-80 downtown. The north end of the street actually also meets up with 395... oddly enough, so does the south end, but only after running for about 6 or 7 miles (actually, all of Virginia Street is "Business 395", but I really wouldn't recommend using it as a freeway). Casinos come and go through the years, but the major fixtures downtown are: Eldorado, Circus Circus, and Silver Legacy (which, together, make up the largest conjoined casino partnership in town); the Flamingo Hilton; Harrah's; Cal-Neva; Fitzgeralds; Jim Kelley's Nugget (often called "The Little Nugget" so as not to be confused by John Ascuaga's Nugget in the neighboring city of Sparks); Sundowner; and The Sands. There are a few others that come and go and fade into a sordid history. I'm sure some of the casinos I've mentioned are already closing their doors.

I find it strange that I spent twenty years of my life here and never really spent much time downtown. There were a few "under 21" clubs that opened up when I was in high school, most notably The Vault and Planet 9, but they were usually closed down due to harassment from people who actually had money and felt that having kids downtown would distract the almighty tourist dollar (well, that's not entirely true. Planet 9 ended up closing its doors because they were serving kids beer. Oops.).

Also situated in downtown is the National Bowling Stadium (built by former mayor Pete Sferazza instead of a working mass transit system, the ratfucker), the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts, Brüka Theatre, the Century Riverside 12 movie theatre (built in almost the exact same place as the failed Grenada 4 theatre... some people never learn), the Citicenter (the central bus depot), a few strip clubs, lots of dive bars, and a seemingly endless array of slot zombies.

The riverwalk was recently renovated after a devastating flood on New Year's of 1997. There are still plenty of bums, but now they're sleeping in prettier surroundings.

Your best bets, and I'm talking from a "things to look for" standpoint and not a "where to go and not lose your shirt" standpoint, are:

  • The Little Nugget, which serves a collosal burger revered by the locals and known as "The Awful Awful". The diner is open 24 hours on the weekends and serves a multitude of standard greasy spoon fare, not to mention some of the best fries in town.
  • Bertha Miranda's, which, aside from Miguel's, is probably the best Mexican fare in town, and definitely home to the best margaritas in Reno. The menu is bilingual, split down the middle, so you can figure out that eating carne de burro probably isn't the best of ideas. The food is excellent and moderately priced.
  • Catch a Rising Star, inside the Silver Legacy, features a few comedians worth checking out from time to time, but I usually walk along the casino bridges and check out the arcade in Circus Circus.
  • Brew Brothers, also in the Silver Legasucks-Quirkus Circus-Helldorado mega-conglomeration of nastiness, is an excellent brewpub featuring a wide variety of beers and some excellent meals. A few local acts play here from time to time, but mostly it's just Cheap Trick cover bands and the like. The atmosphere's great when there's not a lousy band playing.
  • The Zephyr is pretty much Reno's last stand as far as local acts are concerned since Delmar Station transmogrified into a country music dance club (I would've had some respect if it had become a honky-tonk of sorts, but the large neon sign outside now reads Haywire Wikiki, which is just unforgiveable). The Zeph is dark, smoky, and crowded: a punk rock dive. Service is non-existent and even the water is watered down, but no one seems to give a shit if you break a bottle over the bar and scream at the top of your lungs "Them's fightin' words, boy!"

Steer clear of everything east of Center Street and west of 395, because that's where all the undeveloped urban blight nastiness resides (well, there's a lovely tire yard and an army surplus store, but those are the two nicest features of the area). If you're looking to get mugged or find a twenty-dollar-date, Fourth Street in this stretch of town is probably your best bet, although there are occasionally some nice little restaurants -- the current example being Big Ed's -- that pop up from time to time here.

Northwest Reno
Mainly a residential area with some strip mall nastiness, technically it's the northwest quadrant made by I-80 and 395. The most notable feature in this section of town is the University of Nevada, Reno, otherwise known as the "high school on the hill" (despite having one of the best journalism departments in the nation). The college area has some nice bars and pizza joints, such as Pub 'n' Sub and The Breakaway and is actually pretty quiet, even along frat row.

Caughlin Ranch
An upscale suburban housing development that's technically situated in Southwest Reno, but the people living there would pry their eyeballs out if you suggested they were actually affiliated with the rest of the plebian scum in that area of town. Very quiet area with large houses and ostentatious yards. There's a nice bar at the top of Cashill and McCarran named Moxie's that mainly caters to the people in the area, but the bartender isn't at all stingy when it comes to mixing and the clientelle isn't that bad to look at either. There was a hill in this area where my friends and I used to go in high school that we called "The Altars" (at the time it was owned by Carmel of Reno, the nunnery), but it's now been, like everything else in the area, developed beyond enjoyment.

Regardless, if you want to catch some of the best (and most disarming) views of the city, this is the area to cruise around. Houses trade hands fairly quickly here because its forced segregation of the rest of the city is slowly failing, but this is definitely the rich area of town.

Southwestern Reno
This is a fairly large hunk of town that includes everything from situated suburbia in the west to low income housing near 395 and South Virginia Street, not to mention most of Reno's strip mall nastiness and the town's increasingly hard to find local flavor. I'm counting Southwestern Reno as everything south of I-80 and west of 395, but it extends past the McCarran Blvd. line as the town has been growing south for quite a while.

This really is the largest area of town and includes the airport, Park Lane Mall (site of the much debated future Jethro's Oil Well, a Beverly Hillbillies-themed casino described by the owner, a former cast member of the show, as "Hooters for the whole family." -- luckily the plans for this establishment have been all but shelved) and the neighboring Century 16 Park Lane movie theatres (Reno really is Century Theatres' bitch), not to mention two of the large casinos: Peppermill and Atlantis.

These two casinos should have to put up with a lot of shit from the downtown clump and have to go through major city hall fights every time they want to build something, but the owner of the Atlantis, John Farahi, was sitting on city council a few years ago. Also, the convention center, also located in this area, nicely prevents too much flak from occuring. Atlantis now has an overpass which serves as an oyster bar and would be a nice place to drink were it not for the smell of fish and the incessant mechanical chirping of some cockatoo of the damned.

One of my favorite record stores in the world, Soundwave CDs, is located around here too. The in-store selection ain't that hot, but the staff is friendly and they can usually get anything you want in a couple of days (except, of course, out of print or deleted stock).

Southeastern / Southernmost Reno

Another large area, this includes Meadowood Mall and all the strip malls and discount car dealerships that stretch onward along the road into Washoe Valley. This part of town is either low-income housing (including the worst part of town, Neil Road: when driving through here, it's often best to duck and swerve at random) or industrial sectors. Mira Loma Park is kind of a nice place to watch Hispanic soccer games, provided the weather's not too bad.

Southernmost Reno has some strange commercial ventures, such as the bright pink strip mall (known best by the Scolari's, and refered to as "the pink Scolari's"). It's also, for the curious, where Tower Records, one of the many corporate record stores I've whored my labor for, is located.

Sparks / Northeastern Reno

One of the big jokes hip with the punk crowd describes Reno as the town so close to hell, you can see Sparks. Sparks is a standalone city with its own government and is, on the whole, a little better organized than Reno, despite being pretty much the low rent version of said town.

While we're still in Reno, though, the last big casino in town is the Hilton, which is probably my favorite for the fact that it aspires to be so much more than a casino. The Hilton hosts the city's largest outdoor amphitheatre, a mini-mall (which used to include an independant theatre and still includes a fairly decent arcade and laser tag arena), and it even used to hold the Reno Grand Prix for a couple of years before the tourists realized it was easier to drink and drop coins in machines than it was to watch cars go around in circles (the casino, of course, didn't complain).

Anyway, back to Sparks. Sparks' downtown is refered to as Victorian Square and is actually a pretty nice place to spend an afternoon. Yet another Century Theatre is located here, one which I like to call the "art deco airport". A farmer's market is held here during the summer, providing the locals a convenient place to buy organically grown vegetables and, if they walk a few blocks west, they can tap the El Rancho Swap Meet for all their velvet painting and illegal narcotic needs. There are some wonderful oddities here as well, such as the motel that proudly displays the mysterious sign reading "WE SPEAK GERMAN" (catering, apparently, to the surge of tourists from der Vaterland). Also, Sparks holds an annual rib cookoff here, which is why, if you really look, it appears that the streets are perpetually grease stained (tasty meat, though).

Spanish Springs

This is where all the people fleeing from Caughlin Ranch tend to end up. More pricey homes, and it's located much further from the actual metropolis area, although that's changing as well. Located north of Sparks on the Pyramid Highway (but well before Pyramid Lake), this is suburbia at it's most remote. Plans for its own secondary school and shopping mall are in the works, but personally, I'm waiting for the armed insurrection.

It is, in fact, mildly ironic that the Caughlin Ranch crowd would end up in Spanish Springs proper and not in the nearby Wingfield Springs development / burbclave. Spanish Springs has, in addition to the high price and solitude, a great deal of low-income housing developments springing up. It really is becoming one of Reno's stronger suburbs (in addition to the northern valleys, which have only recently gained their own schools, despite the fact that they've been situated near, but not in, town for decades), a fact that just might end up scaring people back to Caughlin Ranch.

I have a love/hate relationship with Reno. The town has a strange hold on me, and I can't ignore the bizarre things that happen here. A single engine plane crashed into a middle school in 1990. The freakish weather patterns caused by the rainshadow of the Sierra's make for interesting winters... and summers (not many places other than the arctic regions where it snows in July).

Like any town, there's a fair share of nasty politics, and the main division is between the have's (the casinos) and the have-not's (local small businesses). It's hard to get into the particulars while still remaining objective, but let's just say that things get a little convoluted: the editor-in-chief of the Reno Gazette-Journal sits on the board of directors at Harrah's.

I should do my part for the chamber of commerce and recommend that you visit this strange and sad little town, but if you do, don't waste your days at the casinos. Vegas is more about the show than Reno is, and there are plenty of other, more healthy and enriching, things to distract yourself with.

One last thing that I should mention to make painfully clear to the rest of the world, now and forever: Reno is NOT Las Vegas. It is, in fact, nowhere near Las Vegas, which is at the very southern tip of the state. Reno is not as goofy and Disneyland as Las Vegas contents itself to be. It may be a white trash town, but at least we don't have the fucking Pirates of the Carribean.

Also, a note about legalized prostitution: there is none in Reno. The Mustang Ranch used to be the closest whorehouse to the city, but it was closed down (and, before that, actually owned by the federal government) for being used as, of all things, a tax shelter. The closest whorehouse to town that I know of would be the Moonlight Bunny Ranch, although apparently the Old Bridge Brothel, located near where Mustang used to be, is still in service. (hey, you start to pick up these sorts of things after you live in the area for a while, ok?)

1 Sam Phillips was nice enough to put together a nice visual map of how the town is organized, available at http://www.dasbistro.com/~sam/pics/reno_zones.png.

Also, thanks to sphillips for pointing out some minor corrections.

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