Reno's not a fancy place. You won't hear phrases like "Michelin star" and "petit fours" tossed around. But this mountain community has plenty of charm and a growing wave of momentum in the dining department. New restaurants with fresh visions are drawing crowds alongside old favorites full of character and history. However, the best culinary destinations have something in common -- a sense of individuality. Reno may be a casino town, but the top restaurants aren't dominated by hotel executives or celebrity chefs. Most are family-owned businesses that earned their customers from the ground up.
Yet restaurateurs still seem eager to double down on a sure bet. Many have multiple locations, sister concepts, and/or have expanded beyond the borders of Nevada. "The fire hose is on about as full as you can get," says Mark Estee, a rare example of a Reno chef with a James Beard nomination. "People are taking a big interest in the food and beverage scene here." The presence of tech companies like Tesla, Apple, Google, and Panasonic are fueling economic growth, creating jobs, and pumping new life into the housing market. And all those people gotta eat. Fortunately, the best restaurants in Reno offer something for everyone -- and many of them have a story to tell.
Old Southwest A fresh take on New American cuisine in a boutique shopping mall The Rattlesnake Club is a major multi-million-dollar investment by Jeff Bacon, a doctor who wanted to bring a unique dining spot to the small boutique shops at Arlington Gardens Mall. The dining room is an inviting space with tall ceilings, stone decor, and a fireplace for a touch of coziness. The menu covers a lot of ground, from photogenic charcuterie plates to house-cured duck confit. Anything you order shines with the vibrant taste of carefully sourced components. The restaurant even has its own greenhouse, providing ingredients for fresh garnishes, seasonings, and sauces used in recipes by Chef Ethan Phelps.
Midtown Craft cocktail lounge with light bites where women are front and center The Reno cocktail scene is getting stronger by the day, and the latest example is The Emerson. The bar is overloaded with style, mixing a mid-century modern aesthetic with a classic Hollywood feel. Women are front and center with an all-female bartending team and a wine list that exclusively features female producers -- a decision made in response to the boys’ club that used to dominate the Reno culinary scene. Even the cocktails are inspired by famous women -- like the Gold Dust Woman tribute to Stevie Nicks, featuring Theory Gin by Truckee's Old Trestle Distillery. Round out all that booze with a food menu that puts a fresh spin on bar favorites. The Caprese flatbread, pork belly sliders, and deviled eggs are all popular.
South Reno Regional Chinese food from a familiar team No website. No Facebook page. Just head to the corner of Virginia and Plumb and look behind the Black Bear Diner for Shanghai Bistro. It's the latest project by restaurateur Ellen Woo, whose highly acclaimed 168 Cafe occupied the same space years ago. Hong Li is back on board -- a chef so good, he once prepared food for Deng Xiaoping and other high-ranking members of the Chinese government. The menu covers a variety of regional tastes, from Shanghai-style Lion Head pork meatballs to the spicy Szechuan flavors in its hot pot. Much of the menu caters to American preferences, but turn to the last page for a collection of chef's favorites that are so authentic it may take your palate a few bites to readjust. Woo is a leading figure in promoting and nurturing Asian culture in Reno, having operated restaurants, markets, and other businesses over the years. She's also planning to open Victorian Square Dim Sum in Sparks in 2020.
Midtown Confectionery business with Turkish Delights, pastries, and coffee Pangolin Cafe specializes in artisanal candies, including almond-based toffees coated in dark or milk chocolate. But the real specialty here are the Turkish Delights -- gummy candies made without gelatin. Flavors range from traditional pistachio to fun combos of macadamia and coconut. The guys behind the operation don't just make candy. They also made the furniture, which gives the clean minimalist space a rustic feel. A full coffee bar serves a nice selection of java drinks and loose-leaf tea -- each with a square of Turkish Delight on the side. The Cubao Breve is especially good, with turbinado sugar and cinnamon mixed in the coffee grounds before steamed half-and-half is added. It goes especially well with the Liege-style Belgaion waffles, made with a thicker brioche-like dough.
Est. 2018 | Downtown Intimate Asian bistro specializes in authentic Cantonese recipes Kwok Chen worked his way up from bussing tables at a casino to attending culinary school and eventually owning and operating his own restaurant. Kwok's Bistro -- just two blocks west of the Reno Arch -- does Chinese food the right away. Yeah, you can have sweet and sour chicken if you want, but the goal here is to expose customers to traditional Cantonese cuisine, including clay pot stews and whole roasted fish. While more expensive fine dining restaurants charge a mortgage payment for Peking Duck, Kwok's version competes with the very best for a fraction of the price -- prepped at least two days in advance, dry hung with a spice rub, and roasted for a candy-like skin on the outside. The small stand-alone restaurant feels even more miniscule in the shadow of the old Downtown casinos, but the front courtyard opens up for extra seating when the weather allows it. Kwok's Bistro does big with Chinese tourists and Panasonic employees who take a nearby shuttle to and from their Sparks facility.
Est. 2016 | Riverwalk Artisan pizza and a dedication to local sourcing by Reno's first nationally acclaimed chef After founding and selling off Campo (see below), Mark Estee answered back with Liberty Food & Wine Exchange -- just one block away -- although the chef insists there's no rivalry. As always, Estee's commitment to Nevada farms and ranches is reflected on the menu. Plus, there’s a woodfired oven for locally sourced roasted vegetables and pizza made from 72-hour fermented dough. The dining room has a modern edge, while the downstairs market and butcher shop is responsible for charcuterie, sausages, breads and pastries. An eclectic wine list is always expanding, but seasonal changes carry over to cocktails prepared with house-made syrups, shrubs, and garnishes.
Est. 2014 | Powning District High-end modern French in a charming brick setting by the river Chef Bill Gilbert is from Maine, where he grew up immersed in the French-Canadian culture that later influenced his culinary preferences at Beaujolais Bistro. The food is ingredient driven with extensive prep work. You'll find a few French staples -- escargot, French onion soup, steak frites -- to draw in casual crowds, but the menu also ventures in more adventurous territory with sweetbreads, braised lamb shoulder, or duck breast enhanced with dried curry spice, vadouvan, and caramelized pineapple. Gilbert likes to celebrate the comradery that's associated with great food, which is why the restaurant consciously avoids a stuffy dining room in favor of a contemporary brick, and glass design. When the weather is nice, tables are brought out onto the porch and a grassy front yard underneath string lights and tree branches -- and just steps away from the rushing waters of the Truckee River.
Est. 2013 | Multiple locations Fast-casual healthy food catering to all lifestyles If you've got restrictions to your diet, Great Full Gardens should be your go-to. Meats are grass-fed, fish is wild-caught, and pretty much anything is organic whenever possible. Gino Scala started the business with his wife Juli after he was diagnosed with diverticulitis and shifted to a plant-based diet. At the time, there was little for vegans in Reno, but his background was in food supply and distribution. So the couple founded what would become Great Full Gardens by ordering all the healthy foods that other restaurants seemed to be avoiding. They began with a line of soups (that's grown to 18 recipes marketed under the Gino the Soup Man brand) and continued with burgers, pizzas, and salads. Raw bowls are popular. So are raw desserts -- specifically cheesecakes made with nuts and fruit. However, the biggest crowd pleaser is the tomato soup and grilled cheese combo, also available in vegan form.
Est. 2011 | Riverwalk Wood-fired pizza and farm-to-table bites by the river Campo was the baby of Chef Mark Estee, who earned national attention and a James Beard nomination. Since then, others have shaped the direction of the restaurant, including Chef David Holman, adding new elements to the original core vision. The menu continues to follow Estee's preferences for fresh ingredients while skewing heavily Italian. Pizzas are roasted in a wood-fired oven. All pastas, including a 14-inch-long bucatini, are cooked to order -- often for just a few minutes to produce a perfect al dente bite. The daily-pulled mozzarella is so fresh you can smell it from across the dining room. Other favorites include the crispy polenta with truffled mascarpone and fluffy-fresh house-made focaccia bread, never kept for more than 48 hours. The restaurant sits in the heart of Reno on the Truckee River with a large patio overlooking the water. Reserve a table outside, order a bottle of wine, and you're already off to a great start.
Est. 2011 | Midtown New American comfort food made simple with a fun, unique cocktail program When Midtown Eats first opened, it built a reputation on burgers made with elk, lamb, and bison. Since then, those items took a backseat to pan-roasted chicken, ribs, pasta, and other entrees, although the spicy Atomic Burger (with chipotle aioli and charred habanero salsa) remains a favorite. The restaurant's popularity mirrors the growth of Midtown itself and with patrons crowding the bar while waiting for tables, it only made sense to open Death & Taxes as a sister cocktail spot next door. While Midtown Eats is bright and inviting, the bar is moody with dimly lit candles and black leather furniture. The cocktails are masterfully crafted with in-house syrups, fresh-squeezed juices, and compelling spirits. (Take a few bottles home with you from the hidden retail lounge in the back.) There's no ignoring the yin-and-yang relationship between the two places, yet both feel suitable for the evolving image and identity of modern-day Reno.
Est. 2008 | Multiple locations Quirky Reno-based chain reinvents brunch with a fun, inventive menu Squeeze In is known for having the best omelettes around. So what's the secret? The eggs are folded gently around the toppings instead of being mixed together. It's a nice touch, but the menu is loaded with so many intriguing brunch-centric variations on eggs, pancakes, and sandwiches, it gets hard to narrow down an order. Just start with the chocolate-covered bacon and take it from there. Mimosas, served in goblets and other unconventional glassware, are pale in color, which means you've got the right ratio. Squeeze In actually got its start across the state line in the quirky California town of Truckee. A Reno family loved visiting it so much, they bought the business, expanding the concept to locations not only throughout Nevada, but California and even Texas. Each one retains its own hyperlocal identity, but they all come with pop-culture decorations and walls scribbled in crayon. Feel free to sign your name.
Est. 2007 | Grand Sierra Resort A casino steakhouse that balances the line between casual and fine dining The signature steakhouse at the Grand Sierra Resort is probably the closest Reno comes to having a standard-issue celebrity chef restaurant. Charlie Palmer Steak is really designed to make fine dining accessible for the casino crowd with a dining room that takes full advantage of wide-open space, modern decor, and a colorful blend of deep color schemes. The place is far from intimidating, but still feels like an event. Palmer's attention to detail and preference for Midwest cattle is felt throughout the menu with daily operations left in the hands of Executive Chef Michael Mahoney. Prime certified angus beef is cooked hot and fast on a Montague top-down broiler, trapping in the juices while producing the right amount of char. The cuts are topped with the restaurant's own salt blend of about 30 ingredients, including fleur de sel, white pepper, garlic, celery seed, and paprika. The house potato chips, fried at the beginning of every shift, playfully complement the powerful hunks of beef.
Est. 2007 | Midtown Soup… lots of soup (and maybe a few sandwiches and salads) No, the name isn't short for "what's up?" It's pronounced "soup" -- because that's the specialty here. The restaurant makes about 60 to 70 gallons of the stuff each day with a selection that rotates frequently. Chicken noodle, tomato bisque, broccoli cheddar, and chicken tortilla are the staples, but you always get loaded baked potato on Monday and New England clam chowder on Friday. Anything else is fair game, including intriguing global recipes like African peanut or a Colombian stew known as Ajiaco. No matter what you order, the recipes tend to be simple but flavorful -- with no overwhelming heaviness. The idea got off the ground when the husband and wife behind the venture began inviting friends over to try their homemade pots of soup. The passion carried over officially to Süp in a 1920s-era Midtown space with a large outdoor wooden deck underneath string lights. (Bring the dog.) Beer, wine, and a few sandwiches and salads are thrown in to round out the menu, but every dressing, sauce, and stock is made in house. The steak baguette is just as good with either chimichurri or roasted red pepper horseradish. A second Süp location is scheduled to open in 2020 as part of the Village at Rancharrah.
Est. 2000 | West Reno Hillside restaurant feels like home and thrives with fresh ingredients Contrary to popular misconception, 4th Street Bistro isn't an old home that was turned into a restaurant. It's actually always been a dining spot -- serving French and Swiss cuisine under different identities over the years -- although the residential feel is part of the charm. The floors creek and a corner stone fireplace sits by windows that overlook train tracks, trees, and the rolling hills of Northern Nevada. Chef Natalie Sellers and General Manager Carol Wilson relocated to Reno from San Francisco nearly 20 years ago to carry out their own concept after working for other people. The proteins stay the same. It's the setups that change throughout the year, depending on the seasonality of local ingredients. Organic duck is always popular. Sellers, who comes in early to carry out the hands-on prep herself, describes her food as "California cuisine" but admits the C-word isn't popular among Northern Nevadans. Regardless, 4th Street Bistro has become so entrenched in the local community, it's hard to think of it as anything else but a homegrown favorite. And with herbs and vegetables delivered daily from Nevada farms, who's to argue?
Est. 1998 | Midtown Creative, cultural destination that proved Midtown could handle modern fine dining LuLou's doesn't have much of a website, isn't big on social media, and the tickets are written by hand, but the restaurant is sharp and modern -- in both look and feel. The dining room makes an immediate impression with an open kitchen, industrial decor, and a rotating collection of artwork on loan from local galleries. It's a formula that's worked for 20 years. LuLou's was born from a desire to prove that Reno was ready for something more than steak and potatoes. The restaurant opened in Midtown before Midtown was a thing, reinvesting every dime into luxuries like a walk-in refrigerator and eventually, an expanded bar area. Some things are kept simple. There's a wine list, but no cocktail menu. (Ask for a classic or whatever the server recommends.) The food lineup changes roughly every month and frequently features game like boar, venison, and squab. There's little in the way of fusion. Global and regional influences are kept authentic, but that doesn't mean the dishes aren't playful. A recent example is a tempura shrimp-stuffed chili relleno whose spiciness is balanced by grapefruit and microgreens. Similar complex flavor profiles are also seen at Kauboi Izakaya, a Japanese small-plate restaurant by the same owners just a couple blocks away.
Est. 1956 | West Downtown Iconic round-the-clock diner with a deep history This 24-hour diner is heavy on history and one of the most iconic restaurants in Reno. The Gold n' Silver Inn is a longtime gathering spot for the governors, senators, and lobbyists who've shaped Nevada law in nearby Carson City for decades. While it might not seem like much to an outsider, the restaurant is a taste of "Old Reno" and one of those places where families return for generations -- often with lines out the door on busy weekends. At least one of the servers worked there for 40 years. Another came up with the chocolate pistachio cake recipe. There are a few fun, semi-famous signature dishes on the menu. The Lemonade Pork Chops are topped with a tangy tomato sauce prepared with a whole lemon while the boiled and sauteed tri-tip steak sandwich is served with the restaurant's secret "Mahogany Sauce." (There's definitely bacon in there somewhere.) In case you're wondering, there's no actual inn, but you can play slots at a small casino off to the side.
Est. 1937 | North Reno Reno's oldest restaurant is a historic display of Italian-American heritage To some, it's a dive. To others, it's home. Casale's Halfway Club has been around since 1937 when it doubled as a roadside food stand and family residence. It eventually evolved into a classic Italian-American restaurant and even today, you can still see doorways of what used to be bedrooms separating parts of the dining room. The lasagna is cooked to order in single-serve portions. It's probably the newest thing on the menu -- and even that was added about 40 years ago. The ravioli is legendary. Get it split between the meat and cheese versions. You know the drill -- meatballs made with breadcrumbs, heavy tomato sauce, and red-and-white checkered tablecloths. The same family has looked after Casale's Halfway Club for generations -- most notably under the guidance of matriarch "Mama Inez" Casale Stempeck, who's almost a mythological figure in Reno.
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Rob Kachelriess has been contributing to Thrillist for more than five years. His work has also appeared in Travel + Leisure, Modern Luxury, Leafly, and Luxury Estates International's seasonal publication. He believes eating your way through Reno belongs on any Nevada bucket list. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.