Reno-Carson food and drink scene growing fast in flavors, concepts

Taste of Downtown in Carson City regularly features unique samplings from more than 40 area restaurants, like this salad dish served by Bella Vita Bistro in 2019.

Taste of Downtown in Carson City regularly features unique samplings from more than 40 area restaurants, like this salad dish served by Bella Vita Bistro in 2019. Courtesy Photo

EDITOR’S NOTE This story is adapted from the 2021-2022 edition of the Northern Nevada Guide, a 116-page specialty magazine published in late September by the Northern Nevada Business Weekly. Go here to read the digital edition.

In 2013, when Michael Tragash first became the community manager at Yelp in Reno, he immediately noticed something about the food and beverage offerings in greater Reno-Sparks.

“I used to joke that we were about 12 months behind the rest of the country,” Tragash said. “If it was a food trend blowing up on social media, and you’d see a lot of it on Yelp in other bigger communities, we would be about 12 months behind.”

A lot of the region’s population, he also noticed, had a strong appetite for chain franchises, rather than the local eateries dotted in Reno’s Downtown and Midtown districts.

Eight years later, the Biggest Little City has caught up in a big way. With a fast-growing population, the city’s restaurant scene has become multifaceted — traditional and offbeat, casual and stylish, covering hundreds of cuisines from various countries and regions around the world.

In fact, Reno’s reputation as one of the best places to live in America comes not just from its booming job market, burgeoning tech scene and access to the great outdoors, but also from its medley of modern restaurants, food trucks, coffee shops, breweries, bars and more.

“In the last four to five years, I think that the timeline of being behind trends has shortened,” Tragash said. “And we have a population now that’s willing to, and interested in, dining as an experience versus just eating.”

Tragash pointed to Centro Bar and Kitchen in Midtown Reno as an example of an eatery being embraced by Reno-Sparks that would have struggled to fill its restaurant a decade ago. Centro serves an array of small plates, everything from beef tataki to bone marrow, and innovative desserts, like sake kasu cheesecake and croissant bread pudding.

“Today, we have restaurants that sell out on the regular, and have to run limited hours because the interest in them is so great and they can only do so much,” Tragash said. “It’s changed in a lot of those ways. We’re seeing newer concepts come in and change the dynamic.”

A more recent food trend that Tragash said belatedly washed on Reno’s shores is poke (pronounced “poh-KAY”), a Hawaiian dish deeply rooted in Japanese cuisine. A poke bowl traditionally consists of white rice topped with cubes of raw fish that’s been marinated in a blend of sesame oil, soy sauce, vegetables and seasonings.

Four years ago, a search on Yelp for poke in Reno-Sparks would have yielded zero results. Now? Take your pick from dozens of restaurants specializing in or offering poke bowls.


Restaurants are also moving with pandemic-related changes in consumer behaviors. Many, Tragash said, are shifting to a fast-casual concept that allows them to offer dine-in and takeout.

“Many consumers absolutely don’t want to dine in as much as they did before,” he explained. “They still want to support restaurants, but they don’t want the dine-in thing. So restaurants are going to be looking for ways to do that and do that well.”

Rice Box Kitchen in Midtown Reno, which opened in spring 2021, is one such restaurant. Creating Asian-inspired comfort food, Rice Box, which has a small dining space, serves all of its dishes, like its Thai Chicken Noodle or Khao Moo Dang, in an eco-friendly to-go box.

“The fact that they’ve kind of taken off shows the change in the diner’s outlook on what cuisines they’re looking for,” Tragash said. “This is a signal to me that the community is starving for variety and more exotic and different types of dining experiences and dishes.”

Tragash said Northern Nevada’s booming population has enabled the community to support the growing number of bars and restaurants that come in all flavors and sizes. It has also spurred creativity in food and drink establishments, old and new, he said.

From food trucks to white-tableclothed restaurants to brewpubs, chefs and brewmasters gather some of the region’s finest ingredients to transform into immaculate tacos, handmade pasta and imaginative IPAs.

“Restaurants that have a specific point of difference and a unique value proposition will thrive and stay and continue,” Tragash said. “And it will force others to evolve and stay relevant.”


The same innovation and evolution is happening in the bars and restaurants hailing in Nevada’s capital, said Lisa Lee, director of the Taste of Downtown in Carson City.

Echoing Tragash, Lee said more people moving to Northern Nevada is driving more opportunities for restaurateurs and chefs to experiment and carve out a niche in Carson’s food and drink scene.

Lee, in fact, started Taste of Downtown back in 1995 after trying a dish she had never seen on a menu before at a former local restaurant, The Wild Scallion.

“It was an artichoke sandwich,” Lee said. “It was such cutting-edge food at the time. They were part of turning Downtown Carson City into more of a culinary destination.”

Inspired, Lee wanted to raise the awareness of all the restaurants tucked in a then-derelict Downtown Carson City, while also serving as a fundraiser for Advocates to End Domestic Violence, a nonprofit agency led by Lee.

The first Taste had seven restaurants participate and a turnout of 500 people. Fast-forward more than 25 years, the event regularly features more than 40 restaurants and brings in thousands of hungry foodies.

That growth is a microcosm of Carson City’s evolution as a dining destination, Lee said.

She pointed to a popular restaurant like Sassafras Eclectic Food Joint, which opened in Carson City in 2011. Located on Old Hot Springs Road, Sassafras offers unique starters (blackened shrimp fondue), burgers (peanut butter and bacon), salads (roasted beets with spiced pecans) and more.

Examples of the city’s diverse blend of restaurants include The Basil Restaurant (Thai), La Santaneca (Salvadoran) and Cucina Lupo (Italian), among others.

“You need the fresh breath to come in and see potential,” Lee said. “You have to have that innovative eye. Eating out is not what it once was. People want an experience when you eat out.”

Note: The 2021 Taste of Downtown, originally slated for Sept. 11, was canceled due to a combination of poor air quality from nearby wildfires and safety concerns regarding the COVID pandemic. The event is now scheduled for June 18, 2022.


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