Vacation is serious business in Nevada. There are sights to see, bets to place, shows to catch, deserts and mountains to explore. You will work up an appetite. Luckily, you are in the state that popularized the concept of buffet dining, a place that has its share of celebrity chefs and culinary buzz. Here, find an overview of restaurants in the state’s two largest metropolitan areas — Las Vegas and Reno/Lake Tahoe — as well as a look at an unlikely Nevada specialty: Basque cuisine.

LAS VEGAS

Like everything else in Las Vegas, dining can be over-the-top in this city. Celebrity chefs are ensconced in kitchens throughout the Strip; innovative menus and extravagant restaurant design are customary. Since 2007, the city has hosted Vegas Uncorked by Bon Appétit, an annual summer event that involves dozens of culinary activities held at several different resorts. If you missed the festivities, you can still indulge in the city’s gastronomic offerings, including French, Chinese, Italian and American cuisine.

Francophiles may want to try Picasso inside the Bellagio hotel-casino, where you can view Picasso paintings while dining on such specialties as sautéed medallion of fallow deer and pan-seared U10 day boat scallops. The Bellagio also has Le Cirque, which picked up award-winning chef Gregory Pugin in 2011. Of course, the Paris Las Vegas hotel-casino seems like a natural for French cuisine. Here, try the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, where Chef Jean Joho sends out such classics as soufflés and roasted rack of lamb.

Chinese cuisine is served in a setting that recalls French-influenced Shanghai at Wing Lei inside the Wynn Las Vegas hotel casino. The first Chinese restaurant in the United States to receive a Michelen one-star rating, Wing Lei showcases Cantonese, Shanghai and Szechwan cooking styles.

Italian specialties rotate through the regularly changing menus at Fiamma Trattoria & Bar inside the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino. Among the exceptional dishes Fiamma has offered: polipo, grilled octopus with marinated olives, sweet garlic, oven-dried tomato and frisée; and tagliata, prime grade filet of beef with spinach, sautéed cipollini and red wine reduction.

American food is the focus at the Caesars Palace restaurant, Mesa Grill. At Mesa Grill, the province of Chef Bobby Flay, Southwest flavors meet the grill in such dishes as New Mexican spice-rubbed pork tenderloin and chipotle glazed rib-eye.

… a word about buffets

It’s a quintessential Nevada experience to eat at a casino buffet. Besides the fun of choosing from a smorgasbord of delectables, buffet diners can appreciate that they are part of a longstanding tourist tradition.

The buffet made its Las Vegas debut in the early 1940s at the original El Rancho Vegas Hotel, the first hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. The concept — offering a variety of dishes at a fixed all-you-can-eat price — proved popular. Today, buffets are available for breakfast, lunch and dinner at most casino resorts, at a variety of price points.

RENO/LAKE TAHOE

Northern Nevada offers a feast for the eyes, with the stunning Sierra Nevada mountain range and the incomparable Lake Tahoe. But that doesn’t mean your stomach will go unaddressed: The region’s casinos are home to dozens of restaurants. This dining scene, anchored by longtime favorites as well as exciting new ventures, is a sure bet.

A cornerstone of Reno dining is Harrah’s Steak House, which opened in 1967 and — with its classic red booths and low lighting — maintains the feel of that era. Steak Diane, medallions of beef tenderloin flambéed tableside, is a specialty at the steak house, which includes the AAA Four Diamond award among its honors.

In nearby Sparks, find another dining mainstay: the Steakhouse Grill at the Nugget. Originally opened in 1956, the Steakhouse Grill reportedly has served more than 3 million steaks. Or try one of the newer steak houses to hit town: Charlie Palmer Steak inside the Grand Sierra Resort or Cactus Creek Prime Steakhouse at the Bonanza Casino. In downtown Reno, the Siena is debuting Whitewater.

Other relative newcomers include the Atlantis’ Bistro Napa, with its creative menu and raw seafood bar, as well as the Peppermill’s Chi, which offers such specialties as double-boiled shark fin and chicken, given a 24-hour notice.

Reno’s downtown properties admirably meet the demands of hungry tourists with such crowd-pleasers as Kokopelli’s Sushi inside Circus Circus, La Strada inside the Eldorado and Pearl Oyster Bar & Grill inside the Silver Legacy.

Lake Tahoe

From Incline Village in north Lake Tahoe to the sandy beaches of south shore, visitors will find plenty of culinary choices.

Lone Eagle Grille inside the Hyatt Regency in Incline Village offers its guests panoramic views of Lake Tahoe as well as such entrees as spring lamb rack and house-made sausage. Travel south to Stateline, where the resorts — including Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, Harveys and Montbleu — offer more options.

True to its name, Friday’s Station Steak & Seafood Grill inside Harrah’s Lake Tahoe delivers top steak and seafood dishes, all the while taking advantage of sweeping views of the lake. The Cabo Wabo Cantina, a project of rocker Sammy Hagar, serves up casual South-of-the-Border favorites including fish tacos and fajitas, perfect complements to the restaurant’s signature Cabo Wabo Tequila. Ciera inside Montbleu lives up to its AAA Four Diamond awards with its menu of steaks, chops and seafood, punctuated by an extensive wine list.

Eat like a Basque

Nevada is home to many people of Basque descent, people who trace their ancestry to the Basque region straddling France and Spain. Since the 1800s, when the first waves of Basque immigration brought them to the American West, to the present day, Basque people have made their mark in Nevada — in everything from politics to arts to food.

Basque dining in Nevada — hearty fare usually served family-style — originated with those early Basque immigrants, many of whom came to the area to work as sheepherders. To support these new immigrants, who spent long periods of time tending their flocks in Nevada’s mountains and valleys, hotels began springing up in rural Nevada ranching communities. Those establishments served the substantial meals that still are the signature of Basque fare: beef and lamb steaks, homemade soups, salads, beans, spaghetti, bread, Picon punch and red wine, served chilled.

The Basque tradition of excellent food, hospitality and unique atmosphere can be found in any of Nevada’s Basque restaurants.  Here are a few well-known establishments:

  • Gardnerville: For decades, the Overland Hotel has proudly served Basque meals on Main Street south.  Across the street is another local favorite, the JT Basque Bar & Dining Room, which displays an amazing hat collection in the bar. 
     
  • Winnemucca: In this Western-style town named for a famous Paiute Indian chief, stop by Ormachea’s Dinner House on Melarkey Street. Entrées include meatballs, pork loin, chicken, leg of lamb, steaks and seafood; with pig’s feet, beef tongue and paella topping the list of specials. 
     
  • Elko: The Star Hotel, a longtime local favorite, has been serving Basque food since its doors opened in 1910.  Dinner entrées change daily and include steak, lamb, pork, chicken and fish.
    Elko is also home of the National Basque Festival each Fourth of July holiday weekend, which spotlights Basque food and culture.

     
  • Reno: Louis’ (Louie’s) Basque Corner and the Santa Fe Hotel are longstanding Basque eateries. Louis’ Basque Corner, recommended by the Frugal Gourmet and featured on the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” in 2010, is just blocks from the downtown casinos and has been a popular local eatery since 1967. Waitresses wearing authentic Basque clothing serve specialty dishes including paella, shrimp, tongue Basquaise, oxtails, tripas callos, rabbit, roast lamb and sweetbreads.

    At the Santa Fe Hotel, on Lake Street and just a block from the Reno Aces Ballpark, indulge in a hearty Basque meal before catching a game.

    Each summer in Reno, the aromas of chorizo sandwiches and other delicacies drift from the Reno Basque Festival as participants cook up delicious authentic food and fun.  Festival highlights include a dance, barbecue, sporting exhibition, wood chopping races and more.

Updated July 2014