Mileage, Bend-Reno (round-trip), 800 miles @ $2.40/gallon, $76.80
Lunch en route $10
Hotel (two nights with breakfast), Whitney Peak, $390.12
Dinner, Campo, $31.06
Lunch, Roundabout Grill (Whitney Peak), $18
Dinner, Calafuria, $47
Reno Food Tour, $68
Admission, National Auto Museum, $10
Hotel (two nights), Silver Legacy, $162.60
Dinner, The Depot, $45
Admission, Nevada Museum of Art, $10
Lunch, Chez Louie (Museum of Art), $16.50
Dinner, Roxy Restaurant (Silver Legacy), $58.60
Lunch en route, $12
RENO, Nev. —
On the east side of this city, miles from the towering Sierra Nevada that surround lofty Lake Tahoe, an unassuming warehouse stands as a year-round link to the summer week known in this parts as Burning Man.
Reno is the nearest large community to Burning Man’s Black Rock City, the temporary metropolis built each year — and as quickly dismantled — 120 miles north in the dust-filled Black Rock Desert near Gerlach.
Begun in 1986 with solstice bonfires on San Francisco’s Bakers Beach, Burning Man moved to the desolate playas of northwestern Nevada in 1990, and has grown exponentially ever since, first embracing a civic design element in 1997. Described by the nonprofit Burning Man Project as a “mass experience in community, art, radical self-expression and self-reliance,” it now draws more than 70,000 participants from 30 countries.
But Burning Man isn’t merely a one-week-a-year phenomenon. Burners, as its devotees call themselves, form a proud brotherhood that doesn’t end with the festival on Labor Day. They express themselves in local and national politics, support the development of alternative energy and transportation, and even operate an international volunteer group called Burners Without Borders. The largest number of Burners live in the San Francisco Bay area, but they may be found throughout the world, a significant number of them in Central Oregon.
Not surprisingly, Reno is a hub. For the many hundreds of Burners who make their homes in this city of 240,000 (or in the metropolitan area of 430,000), The Generator is a year-round hive of activity. Venture into this warehouse, located within shouting distance of Interstate 80 in suburban Sparks, and you’ll find yourself in a giant maker space described by its website as “an oasis of decommodification,” free from market dependency.
“We don’t buy. We don’t sell,” the site says. “We dream. We convene. We create. We make. We’re inspired by the magic and inspiration we see in all its enormity at Burning Man each summer, and we want to keep it alive all year. We combine forces and share resources in the name of creative growth and community involvement for all.”
There wasn’t much activity when I stopped by on a Sunday afternoon, not during the Generator’s normal open hours. Except for a group of slender young women rehearsing on colorful aerial silks in a corner of the 34,000-square-foot building, the work space was nearly vacant. But the level of trust was such that anyone could have admitted themselves.
Posted on a wall and on a giant chair were the words: “Shut up and make art.” Distinctly Burning Man forms of transportation, including a veritable land yacht, were in various states of construction on the floor. Numerous musical instruments, including a deconstructed, upright piano, occupied various niches. And everywhere were quirky creativity and brilliant color.
“Burning Man has had an incredible effect on the local art scene,” said Amanda Horn, director of communications for the Nevada Museum of Art. “People who might otherwise not have been inspired to explore their creative sides have gone all out.
“What’s more, Burners have opened permanent businesses and collectives here in Reno. The benefit of their art on the urban culture is remarkable.”
Much of that new activity is focused on the Midtown area, the heart of which is on South Virginia Street below California Avenue. The Melting Pot World Emporium advertises that it has been “helping Burners prepare for the playa for over two decades” with its unique fashions and accessories. The Junkee Clothing Exchange has more wildly original, handmade costumes. High Desert Bicycles designs bikes specifically for the harsh desert conditions, while Carter Bros. Hardware has all manner of tents and outdoor gear, including solar showers “and everything else you need for survival on the playa.”
There are art studios and galleries, bookstores, yoga and massage studios, tattoo parlors, metaphysical learning centers, even urban vegetable farms. There are also Burner-owned restaurants, many of them specializing in vegan cuisine or baked goods, and a lively variety of new sit-down restaurants and brewpubs (greater Reno now claims 14 breweries and three craft distilleries).
On the east side of downtown Reno, the budget Morris Burner Hotel is a membership-based hostel established in 2013 for Burning Man supporters. “In the essence of artistic expression,” owner “Jungle Jim” Gibson writes on his website, “hundreds of Burners have taken an iconic 1928 four-story brick hotel in the heart of Reno and created a very, very magical place.” He describes it “like a beautiful boutique hotel, overflowing with art, music and crazy, fun-loving Burners.”
At the vanguard of Reno’s redevelopment was the Riverwalk District, which began its revitalization in the mid-1990s, about the same time Burning Man began to flourish in the northern desert.
The Truckee River corridor, which runs through the heart of Reno, suffered decades of neglect before dozens of area merchants banded together to clean up the public eyesore. Today, the Raymond I. Smith Truckee River Walk extends for blocks west from City Plaza, passing pubs and eateries, a cinema complex, an outdoor amphitheater on Wingfield Island, public sculpture, artists’ lofts and even a whitewater park (whose flow varies by season).
About twice a month, pub crawls filter through the Riverwalk District, bringing Burner (and wannabe Burner) crowds out in swarms. Events like March’s “Leprechaun Crawl,” August’s “Pirate Crawl” and December’s “Santa Crawl” assure outlandish costumes. There are no holiday breaks: The next crawl is scheduled Saturday, the afternoon of Christmas Eve.
Art and environment
The Nevada Museum of Art itself is remarkable. As Horn told me, “Our identity is at the creative intersection of art and environment.” To that end, visitors might note artist Trevor Paglen’s mylar balloon, 14 feet around, suspended in the grand hall. In partnership with the museum and aerospace engineers, Paglen plans to launch a similar “Orbital Reflector” into satellite orbit as an artistic (and educational) gesture.
The museum’s Center for Art + Environment supports such large-scale installments as Ugo Rondinone’s “Seven Magic Mountains,” in the Mojave Desert off Interstate 15 about a half hour’s drive south of Las Vegas. An exhibit in CA+E’s interpretive center, on the second floor of the museum, describes the stacked limestone structures, 30 to 35 feet high, their bright fluorescent colors in sharp contrast to the surrounding landforms. These contemporary cairns will brighten the desert into May of 2018.
CA+E is headed by William Fox, an author who has written 11 books on the relationship between art, human cognition and landscape. He sits on Burning Man’s board of directors. The Center maintains a research library visited by scholars from around the world.
Current exhibits at the Nevada Museum of Art, extending into 2017, include the Barbara Gordon “Shared Legacy” collection of American folk art; abstract artist Anthony McCall’s specially commissioned immersive-light sculpture, “Swell”; and painter Peter Stichbury’s portraits of people who claim to have encountered UFOs, “Anatomy of a Phenomenon.”
On the museum’s ground floor is the Chez Louie cafe. It was established by executive chef Mark Estee, who since 2011 has opened 10 Reno restaurants and earned a regional best chef nomination from the James Beard Foundation.
Estee’s newest restaurant is the Liberty Food & Wine Exchange in the Riverwalk District. His original Reno restaurant, since sold, is Campo, on the north bank of the Truckee. A pizza, pasta and pork joint with a neighborhood appeal; it’s excellent: I had a dish of bucatini carbonara there on my first night in town.
Two other fine restaurants are Calafuria and The Depot. My entrée at the former, in a former residence a block off Virginia Street in Midtown, was a delicious Italian-style guazzetto, a sort of cioppino with baby octopus, mussels and scallops in a garlic tomato sauce. At The Depot, which incorporates a brewery and a distillery in the city’s old railroad station, I was delighted with a mole-glazed lamb shank served with grits and an Oktoberfest lager.
Eat and sleep
My favorite Reno chef, however, might be Colin Smith, who since June has operated the Roundabout Grill in the Whitney Peak Hotel. With a decade of experience in Reno both as a restaurateur and a caterer, Smith offers a menu extending from Thai butternut-squash soup to oatmeal-crusted chicken schnitzel and braised beef short ribs with creamy polenta.
Even better, he sponsors numerous nonprofit organizations, directs the school lunch programs at six area schools and acts as a mentor to young chefs. And he’s scheduled to appear with celebrity chef Bobby Flay on the Food Network early next year.
As the first major hotel on Reno’s Virginia Street “strip” to be free of both gaming and smoking (dogs are allowed), the Whitney Peak is a story in itself. Once Fitzgerald’s Hotel and Casino, an old Reno institution, the 310-room Whitney Peak reopened in June 2014 with new owners, a major renovation and a totally new focus.
The guest rooms themselves, designed with attention both to Reno’s artistic bent and to its love of the outdoors, are stylishly quirky. The hotel’s third-floor ballroom is adorned with stunning pop-art portraits of performers of the past and present, and its Cargo Concert Hall welcomes up to 1,000 music lovers for shows that range from country to indie rock.
More stunningly, the Whitney Peak is home to the world’s tallest man-made climbing wall — 164 feet, or 16 stories up the outer wall overlooking Virginia Street’s “Biggest Little City in the World” sign. If you feel fit enough, even without climbing experience, the staff of BaseCamp will set up your rope and belay you. An hour costs $50. You can also go indoor bouldering, try slack-lining, or simply settle for yoga and pilates classes.
The Whitney Peak’s transformation doesn’t mean that Reno is no longer a gaming center. Far from it. While Reno visitors now come to the city for many more reasons than casino play, there are more than enough casino hotels to satisfy gamblers’ tastes.
Most of them are along Virginia Street north of the Truckee River, including Harrah’s and the Eldorado-Silver Legacy-Circus Circus complex, owned by the Carano family of Sonoma winery fame. Others are outside the downtown core, including the Peppermill and the Atlantis, both in south Reno, and John Ascuaga’s Nugget in suburban Sparks.
I’m not much of a gambler, but the Silver Legacy is a nice casino. Comedian Adam Carolla performed an entertaining show during my visit, and the Roxy Restaurant in the adjoining Eldorado Hotel had excellent food (Dover sole à la Meunière), outstanding service and a good wine list. (I opted for a Ferrari-Carano fume blanc.)
Seeing the city
With another day or two in town, I might have strolled north a few blocks, across I-80, to the campus of the University of Nevada, which has a notable public science facility, the Fleischmann Planetarium. I might have driven the half-hour south to Carson City, the state capital with a fine history museum, or climbed into the mountains east of Reno to visit the 19th-century silver-mining center of Virginia City. Of course, Lake Tahoe, its deep-blue waters surrounded by a plethora of ski resorts, beckoned to the southwest.
Instead, I stayed in Reno to enjoy a few hours at the National Automobile Museum, incorporating the Harrah Collection. Founded in 1962 by gaming industry pioneer Bill Harrah (1911-1978), the museum has more than 200 cars in four galleries, dating back to 1892. Included are James Dean’s 1949 Mercury from “Rebel Without a Cause,” John Wayne’s 1953 Corvette, Frank Sinatra’s 1961 Ghia and Elvis Presley’s 1973 Cadillac Eldorado.
I stepped into the National Bowling Stadium with its International Bowling Museum & Hall of Fame. One plaque honored longtime University of Oregon bowling coach and author Lou Bellisimo. I climbed to the fourth floor and found grandstands surrounding the stadium, with its 78 lanes. I could hardly imagine what the noise level might be like when pins are falling on every lane.
I also joined Reno Food Tours owner Melissa Smith on a walking tour of the city’s downtown, punctuated by frequent midday stops to nosh. That meant a slice of spicy “Angry Pig” at Wild Garlic Pizza; a delicious lentil salad with avocado at the Old Granite Street Eatery; a bite of hanger steak from chef-owner Joel Giandalia at the SoDo Restaurant & Bar; and an exquisite charcuterie plate at the Liberty Food & Wine Exchange.
We finished our wandering in The Basement of 50 South Virginia. The Art Deco Moderne building was Reno’s main post office from 1933 to 2012. Combining food and retail, the eccentric space now has coffee and cocktail bars, a salad café and a chocolate shop, as well as a boutique, an art gallery, a florist and a barber shop.
The Basement was the brainchild of Brianna Bullentini, a Reno native who studied at the renowned Parsons School of Design in New York, then came home. Her particular passion is Rawbry, a juice bar (also serving loose-leaf tea) at the entrance to The Basement.
It should come as no surprise that Bullentini is a Burner.
— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at email@example.com .