Reno’s downtown has experienced a gastronomic growth spurt over the past decade as its denizens have cultivated a taste for more sophisticated, authentic eats and a thoughtfulness for the origins of their food.
Once better known for inexpensive casino buffets, the Biggest Little City now boasts more big than little in its variety and quality of dining choices. Creating all the buzz is a hardworking group of chefs who are making their mark on downtown menus, most hailing from leading culinary schools, and all benefiting from the creative energy of their peers.
If there’s a face of Reno’s rising restaurant scene, it’s that of the ever-enthusiastic Mark Estee, chef-owner of Campo, Reno Provisions and Burger Me and Chez Louie at the Nevada Museum of Art. Estee, who first made his name in the area with Moody’s Bistro & Lounge in Truckee, is a tireless advocate for downtown’s redevelopment and flourishing local food movement.
“Our group’s restaurants complement one another and let us cover all the culinary bases,” says Estee, whose eateries range from rustic Italian to chic French. “Each one has its own identity but all are connected by the culture of learning, caring and respect for what we do.” Estee’s accolades—a James Beard Award finalist, who's appeared on the Food Network and earned a spot on Esquire magazine’s list of Best New Restaurants—infer celebrity chef status before even factoring in his charisma.
The words "local, organic and sustainable" now appear on many a menu. But Natalie Sellers, who honed her craft at Bay Area institutions like Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and Jeremiah Tower’s Stars, has long been walking that walk at 4th Street Bistro, housed in a 1930s bungalow on the edge of downtown. “When I moved here 15 years ago, that was already my philosophy,” says Sellers, who opened the contemporary cuisine spot in 2000 with partner and general manager Carol Wilson. “It is what I’ve done forever.”
Local grower City Green Gardens delivers just-picked seasonal vegetables and herbs to Sellers. Sometimes a knock on the back door announces freshly dug turnips from the folks at Urban Roots farm next door. Like other downtown chefs focused on locally sourced food, Sellers also turns to the growing Great Basin Community Food Co-op, including its DROPP, Distributors of Regional and Organic Produce & Products, program that connects restaurants with area farmers, ranchers and producers.
Chef David Stern knows his way around downtown restaurant kitchens. An alum of Charlie Palmer Steak Reno at the Grand Sierra Resort, Stern launched the contemporary SoDo Restaurant + Bar and helped get Two Chicks diner out of the gate. His latest venture is Centro, a small plates and handcrafted cocktail spot on California Avenue owned by veteran restaurateur Alberto Gazzola, of the long-running La Vecchia.
As of late, he’s observed a new nurturing quality among the players in Reno’s food scene. “I like to think of it as family,” he says. “If we work together, we can grow each other’s business.” For example, Centro now gets its daily bread delivery from Estee’s Reno Provisions bakery and stocks its bar with pours from the many growing local breweries and distilleries, such as Great Basin Brewing Company.
A grad of New England Culinary Institute, Larry Dunning honed his culinary chops at San Francisco’s Jardinière, Napa’s Mustards Grill and Squaw Valley’s Plumpjack Cafe. He has owned a series of popular area restaurants, including the former Truffula in Tahoe City and the bygone Sezmu and Rawr in Reno.
In his continued quest to create clever and casual niche cuisine offerings, Dunning currently operates Bowl, where serious comfort food is served, yes, in bowls, and the just opened Gaman Ramen, where there’s beauty in the art of the humble noodle. “Gaman Ramen is my culinary translation of Japanese ramen,” says Dunning. “We’re using things like locally grown organic pea sprouts instead of bean sprouts and Niman Ranch pork.” Both are located at the West Street Market between First and Second streets.
Ben Deinken’s day job is executive chef at the Siena Hotel Spa Casino. A veteran of downtown favorites Wild River Grille and Brewer’s Cabinet, as well as Bistro Napa at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, Deinken further pushes culinary boundaries with Tournant, a pop-up restaurant hosting imaginative themed events, e.g. a Quentin Tarantino warehouse dinner, a meal in the dark or a gluten-free French feast.
Tournant, named for a French term that refers to the relief cook who works all stations in the kitchen, gives Deinken the chance to collaborate with other area chefs for serious fun. “It’s an opportunity to bring new ideas and educate diners about new cuisine,” Deinken says.
Too many cooks in the kitchen? We think not. And if downtown Reno diners are voting with their forks, wallets and collective community conscience, it looks like they are asking for another helping, please.