Reno: Biggest little city is growing up

The Nevada Museum of Art opens to the public on May 24, 2003 in Reno, NV. (Florence Low/Sacramento Bee/Zuma Press/TNS)

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The Nevada Museum of Art opens to the public on May 24, 2003 in Reno, NV. (Florence Low/Sacramento Bee/Zuma Press/TNS)

RENO, Nev. — Hunched on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, Reno has long suffered a reputation as a poor man’s Las Vegas with snow. Its casinos are more modest than the flashing palaces on the Strip, and even its motto — “The Biggest Little City in the World” — feels strangely self-deprecating.

All that is changing, however, as Reno rides a wave of tech and craft brew spilling from the west. In some ways, that evolution had to happen. More than a dozen casinos have sprouted in recent years between Reno and the Bay Area, granting easy access to slot machines and gaming tables. Reno came back with all kinds of food, music and culture for locals and visitors. That evolution has also been jump-started by the arrival of electric car maker Tesla’s Gigafactory, as well as the expansion of other California companies to income-tax-free Nevada.

A visit to downtown Reno shows off this new vitality. One of the biggest surprises for some visitors is Sundance Books and Music (121 California Ave., 775-786-1188), which has moved into a 111-year-old Classic Revival mansion. This Roman columned temple of culture runs a robust reading series and offers a wide choice of genres, literary works and best-sellers.

Just behind Sundance is the Nevada Museum of Art (160 W. Liberty St., 775-329-3333) with its collection of photography, painting and sculpture, much of it devoted to modern and Western U.S. themes. On view through Jan. 10 is a two-floor exhibition about Lake Tahoe that includes works by naturalist John Muir, photographer Edward Weston and artist/designer Maya Lin.

The casinos still dominate the Reno skyline, but they’ve changed too. Many bring in live acts whose fans wouldn’t usually be caught dead at a craps table — alternative-rock mainstays such as Morrissey and Death Cab for Cutie as well as the University of Nevada edition of the TEDx ideas forum. Over the next months, Reno will also draw superstar comedian Chris Rock and Cantonese pop group Twins.

Finally, you can’t have hip these days without beer and food. One central city favorite is Brasserie Saint James (901 S. Center St., 775-348-8888), which was named the country’s best mid-size brewpub at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival. It just opened a branch in San Francisco’s Mission District. In addition, Jeremy Warren, a co-founder of popular Knee Deep Brewing in Auburn, plans to open his own Revision Brewing in the Reno suburb of Sparks some time soon.

Another recent culinary addition is Morgan’s Lobster Shack & Fish Market (1401 S. Virginia St., 773-683-9300), which started in Truckee, Calif. The restaurant specializes in East Coast-style specialties such as lobster rolls and oyster po’ boys. Yes, heading inland for good seafood isn’t the most obvious move, but that didn’t stop owners Shawn and Heather Whitney.

For those who have long loved Reno, the city still sports plenty of its well-worn charms. Its casinos continue to offer an array of games, including sports betting, which isn’t available on California gaming floors. Over the summer, wannabe miners can look for opals at the Royal Peacock Opal Mine (#10 Virgin Valley Road, Denio, 775-941-0374). And Incline Village is still only about an hour away on the north end of Lake Tahoe.

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