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(This piece ran in different forms in the Boston Globe on April 18, 2004 and in the Chicago Tribune on August 22, 2004. This is the Chicago Tribune version.)

Aug. 22, 2004

The new Reno turns the tables on its past

BY STEVE FRIESS

RENO -- As we stumbled out of the sparkling new Nevada Museum of Art sated by 20th Century abstract painters, we followed Virginia Street down the slope about a quarter-mile to the edge of the Truckee River.

In the shadow of the idyllic, snowcapped Sierra Mountains and under a rouge-swirled late-afternoon sky, Michael and I stood for a time watching hardy body-suited kayakers negotiating the challenging and frigid February waters. Then we made our way in and out of rows of antique and novelty shops, dropped in at the riverside Java Jungle for a warm-me-up latte and homed in on a French bistro for dinner before an evening of experimental theater.

This quaint, artsy ramble is Reno? Believe it or not, yes. The new one. But what about the casinos?

Sure, they're here, looming like lumbering dinosaurs in the background of downtown's obvious but heretofore barely utilized scenic beauty. Reno, having long ago ceded its station as the one-time gambling capital to Las Vegas, Atlantic City and now a nation bursting with other casinos, is actively repositioning itself instead as Nevada's more cultured and outdoorsy choice.

I never knew the Reno that rivaled Vegas. The Reno I've always been acquainted with, both having lived here for a few months in the late 1990s and having dropped in for story assignments many times over the years, struck me as the Nevada version of one of those burned-out industrial Midwest has-been cities, with half-empty casinos substituting for deserted steel mills as the symbols of a tragic, inevitable decline. It had morphed from whatever heyday it had into a tacky, schlocky cigarette-strewn mess of old-style, soiled-carpet gambling joints largely for devoted bettors. And that famous arch over the Reno "Strip" along Virginia Street that announced this in red and white neon as "The Biggest Little City in the World" became a study in self-mockery.

Still, buzz has been growing in the past few years that Reno is in revival mode, trying to reinvent itself with a $16 million art museum, a $70 million high-end riverside resort and, most recently, a $1.5 million, half-mile white-water course for kayakers and rafters, built along the east-west Truckee just steps south of the casino core.

Reno deserved another look, so earlier this year I flew up from Vegas and met my travel companion, Michael, who drove three hours east from San Francisco. To be sure, the results were mixed, but there's been enough of a revolution in Reno offerings to provide a day or two's distraction for the millions who swoop into the city's airport en route to Lake Tahoe, which is an hour away by car.

The centerpiece of the new Reno as a legitimate arts center is the gorgeous new four-story, nine-gallery home for the Nevada Museum of Art (160 W. Liberty St.; 775-329-3333), a 55,000-square-foot marvel with a striking exterior of creased black zinc and glass, intended to evoke the Black Rock Desert north of Reno.

Inside, too, the art itself is impressive, with a marquee show when we were there that featured 50 contemporary works from the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. It's only appropriate after spending a couple hours at the museum to then wander a few blocks north into the compact Truckee River Arts District, a cluster of edgy businesses that runs along and near the river's bank.

Also in that vicinity is the offbeat Bruka Theatre (99 N. Virginia St.; 775-323-3221), where original shows written by local playwrights are staged on Friday and Saturday nights in front of an audience of maybe 40 people who sit on a haphazard collection of old couches probably purchased at Goodwill. This being experimental theater, not all of it is good--the five-act "An Evening of Durang" we saw in February was, in fact, positively wretched--but the attempt is noble and the space itself is emblematic of the adventurous, colorful vibe starting to course through this section of town.

As luck would have it, Michael and I were in town for the monthly Riverwalk Wine Walk, a clunky name for the every-third-Saturday event where browsers pay $5 for a wine glass and a downtown map showing 18 participating vendors offering free drinks and snacks. Walkers spend two hours shop-hopping to collect stamps for the map from at least 10 of the establishments and then turn in their maps at Dreamers Coffee House & Deli (17 S. Virginia St.; 775-322-8040) where the organizers draw winners of gift certificates and other prizes.

The walk is a brilliant stroke of marketing that highlights several of the charming and quirky stops downtown. Among the more eclectic are the odd-gifts and antique shop La Bussola, (211 W. 1st St.; 775-348-8858), an "exotic erotic gallery" called G Spot (138 West St.; 775-333-6969) and an old-is-new "vintage-inspired clothing" store, The Attic (526 W. 1st St.; 775-337-8999). On the north side of the river, The Java Jungle (246 W. 1st Street; 775-329-4484) is a popular hangout for students from the University of Nevada-Reno, drawn by the handsome riverside patio in warmer weather and frequent appearances inside by hip local bands.

That the walk terminates at Dreamers makes especially good sense because this south-bank cafe and sandwich shop acts as a sort of living room and lounge at the ground floor of the Riverside Artists Lofts. The Lofts is an artists commune where painters, sculptors and writers live in apartments subsidized by state and federal arts grants.

Aside from the monthly walk, the businesses in this district sponsor Artown, a popular month-long festival held in July featuring more than 200 visual and performing events at more than 50 locations across the city.

In addition to this new arts enclave developing around the Truckee, the river itself is also a focal point of Reno's renaissance in the form of a bold $1.5 million effort to make it a boating-sports attraction. To accomplish this, the city narrowed a half-mile stretch of the Truckee near Wingfield Park, which is actually a large island in the middle of the river where it passes the heart of downtown. Completed in November, mild rapids now flow over a series of five-foot drops, enticing to both experienced kayakers and tourists who can spend about $50 a day to rent inflatable inner-tube rafts and roll along in the shadow of the perpetually snow-capped and sensational Sierras.

Michael and I were advised against taking to the river when we were there because it happened to be a very cold, very windy February weekend and the river was running dangerously and unpredictably wild. But it wasn't hard to imagine that, come summertime, this stretch of waterway would be a buzzing center of activity for the city.

People with their own gear can jump into the river for free at any time of year, or you can rent kayaks and rafts from a small handful of outfitters that have already popped up. They include the conveniently located Sierra Adventures (254 W. 1st St.; 775-857-1294) and the more distant Reno Mountain Sports (155 E. Moana Lane; 775-825-2855).

One rap on Reno is that its casino-hotel stock is decidedly low-brow. None in the downtown core have any discernible theme like the Vegas properties, and many hotel rooms look out onto ugly alleys or the backs of parking structures.

That's why the 2001 addition of the elegant $70 million Siena Hotel Spa Casino (1 S. Lake St.; 877-743-6233; midweek rooms start at $70; weekends start at $99, depending on season) on the Truckee's south bank is such a refreshing change of pace. It is telling that they threw the word "casino" in the name last, for unlike almost any other Reno hotel it is easy to check in and get to your room without passing a craps table.

The Siena is a "boutique hotel"-- just 214 rooms versus the ugly 1,000-room behemoths over on Virginia Street--and each is pleasantly appointed with drapery, carpeting and bedding in various quiet shades of taupe and tan. The Siena's wine cellar, Enoteca, has the best wine list in town and a reasonably good jazz lounge.

Michael and I tried out three hotels during our three-night stay, and I'd stayed at most of the others on other visits. Aside from the Siena, we were most impressed by the Atlantis Casino Resort (3800 S. Virginia; 800-723-6500; midweek rates start at $36; weekends start at $80, depending on season) which, although about 5 miles south and a $12 cab ride to both the river and Reno's Strip, is the city's nicest hotel and the only one really on par with a mid-level Las Vegas joint. The huge picture windows offer a breath-taking view of the Sierras.

In the don't-bother category were the Reno Hilton and Harrah's Reno, overpriced staples of this city that offer dull-looking rooms with boring views, long hikes to the elevators and no significant amenities. It is perplexing why anyone would choose one of these over the Siena for about the same money.

The Silver Legacy was particularly disturbing. I arrived quite late on a January trip and found myself stumbling into a squalid, dank-smelling room with a tiny TV. I was paying $150 for the room, so I called the front desk to complain.

"I'm quite sure I booked myself a deluxe room," I told the clerk.

"Oh, honey," she giggled as if she'd had to answer this one before. "All our rooms are deluxe." Yikes.

The food scene within Reno's hotel universe is as predictable as the gambling. Most of the major casinos boast a high-end steak joint or gourmet room, a coffee shop, a buffet, something Asian and usually an Italian restaurant. We followed a concierge's enthusiastic suggestion and headed to Brew Brothers at the El Dorado Hotel for what she promised would be "the best burgers in town," only to find them expensive and typical of such sporty micro-breweries.

As we suspected, the best choices tugged us away from the casinos and back toward the riverside. One evening, we followed a Reno friend's recommendation and discovered the Santa Fe Hotel, which isn't a hotel anymore but a wonderful family-style Basque restaurant housed in the first floor of a 50-year-old red-brick, now-defunct inn.

Many will undoubtedly be scared off by the austerity of the place and the prospect of sharing a long table covered by a cheap green-plaid tablecloth with other families, but those with a sense of adventure will feel they've had a genuine local experience as well as a terrific $17 prix fixe meal.

Dinner the night we were there comprised a garlic and cheese soup, a salad, a choice of a hunk of butter-drenched ribeye steak, New York steak or pork tenderloin as well as exquisite paella with an excellent house Chianti.

The next night we had planned to dine at the White Orchid, a well-reviewed gourmet room with a view atop the Peppermill Hotel & Casino, but canceled those plans because the staff of the Beaujolais Bistro (130 West St.; 775-323-2227) charmed us so much while we were on the Wine Walk. For half the price of a meal at the White Orchid we enjoyed doting service and savored tender escargot baked in garlic, a flaky, ricotta-filled mushroom tart and a lovely beef bourguignon washed down with a fine Bordeaux.

It's worthwhile, too, to skip the predictable breakfast buffet at your casino-hotel and instead skip over to Peg's Glorified Ham & Eggs (420 S. Sierra St.; 775-329-2600), a couple of blocks east of the Nevada Museum of Art. Peg's is open only from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and often requires a half-hour wait for tables, but the Sierra omelet, stuffed with green chilies, chicken, jalapenos, jack cheese and black beans is the closest thing to authentic Southwestern breakfast food to be found in Reno.

Also, as is typically true of greasy spoons, Peg's serves the best cup of coffee this side of Starbucks.

Reno's revitalization hasn't been without its bizarre mistakes. In an inexplicable move, the city in 1995 plunged $43 million into building the National Bowling Stadium smack in the center of the casino cluster. It might have been a fun addition--the four-story building is shaped like a bowling ball and has been dubbed the "Taj Mahal of Tenpins"--except for one very strange thing: Almost nobody can bowl there because professional bowlers won't hold tournaments on lanes where amateurs are also allowed to play. Thus, it's reserved at all times for the championship tournaments it was built to attract, which happen for a few months every other year or so. Michael and I were there for one such tournament, which draws bowlers from around the country. Visitors are welcome to sit and watch, but since when has bowling ever been a spectator sport of choice for vacationers?

A better choice for those in search of some serious schlock is the National Automobile Museum (10 S. Lake St.; 775-333-9300), a collection of 220 antique cars once owned by the late casino pioneer William F. Harrah. Among the more intriguing pieces in the collection is the 1949 Mercury driven by Jimmy Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause."

Reno's leaders know there's more to do before this returns--if it ever does--to being a serious tourist draw. There is, for instance, nothing resembling high-end shopping. The situation is so dire that the Atlantis' in-room literature cheerily promotes a "nearby shopping mall" that actually turned out to be a small strip mall anchored by a grocery store.

The city also lacks any impressive concert venues, despite the A-list talent that tends to drop in. Michael and I caught Bette Midler in the ill-equipped Lawler Events Center, which is more often known as where the University of Nevada-Reno basketball team plays. Bette sounded like she was singing into a tin can. (In December, the City Council approved $29 million for an events center near the bowling stadium to remedy this problem.)

The riverfront, too, needs more work. Locals warned us repeatedly against being near it after dark; it's a nightly haven for homeless people. This seems to be Reno's most underappreciated asset; a serious facelift that places shops and restaurants along it and lights up the area for evening riverside strolls a la San Antonio would radically alter and improve Reno's image.

In the end, though, the best that Reno can really hope for is that it will be seen as a worthwhile stop for the millions who fly in en route to Lake Tahoe, which holds its own unique place in American recreational areas. That wouldn't be so bad, really, except for this irony: In its heyday, Lake Tahoe was Reno's gateway, not the other way around.

###

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