Michael James compares a Reno stay to a Vegas stay…
Even though my wife and I went to Las Vegas for six days in April, we again jetted off to the left coast to Reno at the end of May for four days for my participation in the USBC Open Championships at the National Bowling Stadium. Many people say that there is no comparison between Las Vegas and Reno; so I’ll take the challenge of trying to compare the two cities.
Reno’s history actually predates Las Vegas, as Reno was in proximity to Virginia City and the famous discovery and mining of the Comstock Lode beginning in 1859. Railroads were built to pass through Reno, and even though mining activity eventually slowed, Reno continued to grow. As this was roughly 50 years before Las Vegas began to be parceled out, Reno gets an edge here. That edge gets sharper as Reno honors that mining history (from the former Comstock casino to the current Silver Legacy) whereas Las Vegas tries to pretend yesterday doesn’t exist (Stardust? What Stardust?)
Although other casinos preceded it, William Harrah opened his first casino on Virginia St in Reno in 1938, and that operation continues today.
According to recent estimates, about 20 zillion planes fly into Las Vegas weekly, while flights into Reno are just a fraction. From California, driving to Las Vegas may be boring, but not difficult, while getting through the mountains from California to Reno is great… except for the sudden snowstorms that can occur late into May.
Personally, most of the options on Southwest Airlines take me into Las Vegas for a plane change to Reno. On my recent trip to Reno, my layover was almost four hours, which allowed me to Uber to Hooters Casino on the strip for some non-airport gaming. When it came time to leave, it took 20 minutes from the time I sent for Uber until I was through TSA. Of course, that never happens when you are racing the clock!
Or Circus Circus?
OK, that wasn’t fair…
Or Sands Regency?
This is another almost-unfair category. Las Vegas’ dining scene in 1989 (with $1.99 Steak and eggs at every property) was probably better than Reno back then, and the gulf has widened exponentially in the past generation. In fairness, Reno does have some good restaurants. The Steakhouse at Harrah’s is excellent, and The Brew Brothers in the Eldorado is many bowler’s favorite casual restaurant with a brew pub and a sports bar environment. Beaujolais Bistro is there with the best French food in town. And my personal favorite is the Sky Terrace Oyster Bar at the Atlantis. I crave their Lobster Pan Roast.
Most of Reno’s better dining, though, are not in casinos. Noble Pie Parlor is a pizzeria with two locations that makes a fabulous pie. Bertha Miranda’s makes killer Mexican food, and Men Wielding Fire makes a toe-curling barbecue (but alas, no Carolina Mustard sauce).
Again not really a contest. Big name acts roll into and out of Reno after a day or two like they do in Middle America, while headliners abound in Las Vegas. But once in a while you catch lightning in a bottle, as my wife and I did when Dana Carvey put on a show while we were in Reno.
Here is where Reno really wins. In Las Vegas, you can spend time in Red Rock Canyon, its bigger brother the Valley of Fire, on Mount Charleston or at Hoover Dam. Other than that, once you leave the city limits, you’re in the desert (and hoping there are no holes with your name on them).
In Reno, you can head to Virginia City about 25 miles away. Along the way, you are transported back to the 1860s. It is intentional, but Virginia City oozes history. From the Suicide Table to the display of antique slot machines to the working gold mine and wooden sidewalks, it is easy to lose yourself in Virginia City.
From there (or better yet, on a separate day) you can head towards the Lake Tahoe region, which is about 50 miles from Reno. The sights are breathtaking. My wife and I have been to Tahoe five times, and even though the pictures all look the same, I can’t stop taking them. We’ve taken both a sunset dinner cruise on a paddlewheel boat and a champagne sunset tour on a sailboat. We’ve also driven the 72-miles around the lake twice. Everything that you’d want to do at a lake can be done at Lake Tahoe, and when the gambling jones gets to you, there are casinos on both the north shore (in Incline Village) and on the south shore (in Stateline).
Ah, the great equalizer. 6:5 blackjack in Reno is hard to find, and full pay video poker and looser slots everywhere. There is even a midi baccarat table on the floor at Harrah’s that usually has a $15 minimum. Keno is also still alive at many places in Reno. Who doesn’t love filling out a Keno ticket while waiting for lunch to arrive? We stayed at the Sands Regency in May, and on Memorial Day with a full house, I played $5 single-deck blackjack for hours (I didn’t play for $5, but it was there and many people played at that level). Local casinos in Las Vegas have generally good gambling conditions, but in Reno they can be found at every casino in town.
Although nobody will dispute that Las Vegas is a superior tourist destination, Reno is not without its charms. I’ve been to Las Vegas 18 times and Reno 10 times, and all I need is a reason and I would go back to either.
To summarize my May trip to Reno, here is the highlights –
- Upon arrival, I had an Awful Awful (a burger synonymous with Reno)
- Nickel craps on a Saturday afternoon
- A Lobster Pan Roast at the Atlantis for dinner
- A Dana Carvey show at the Atlantis
- $5 blackjack (in a full casino on a holiday weekend) on my way to bed
- 8 hours of bowling in the first permanent building in the US designed for tournaments
- A Nobel Pie pizza for dinner
- Full pay video poker on my way to bed
- We took a drive around Lake Tahoe
- Gambling at the historic Tahoe Biltmore Casino
- Nickel craps at the Hard Rock Casino on the south shore
- Barbecue dinner at Fox and Hound, hidden in the mountains near Lake Tahoe
That’s three days in Reno that I will put against any three random days in Las Vegas. Not all of the time, mind, but Reno as an occasional destination can certainly hold its own.
[Images: Michael James, Bellagio Las Vegas, Wynn Las Vegas]