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Reno, Nevada is a town in transition. (KEVIN CLIFFORD/RSCVA)
Reno, Nevada is a town in transition. (KEVIN CLIFFORD/RSCVA)

Reno's incredible revamp (have you seen what's changed?) Add to ...

It’s a Saturday night, and thousands of zombies are dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller on Virginia Avenue, Reno’s main drag, right next to my hotel. They’re assembled under an arch emblazoned with Reno’s long-time motto – “the Biggest Little City in the World” – and are about to go on a city-wide drinking spree.

Each season in Reno has its costumed pub crawl: Santas ho-ho-ho in December; leprechauns assemble here on St. Patrick’s Day; and pirates yo-ho-ho in the summer. But somehow the zombies – which hit the streets the weekend before Halloween – seem the best fit, any time of year. Reno is at once spooky and cheery – like the old Addams Family, or certain episodes of Six Feet Under.

(KEVIN CLIFFORD/RSCVA)

Its slogan speaks to a long-time penchant for offering big-city vices in a relatively small place (population: 230,000). What’s less discussed elsewhere has long been front-and-centre here, in Nevada’s second city. Not one but two local cabbies decide to recommend strip clubs to me. “It’s raw,” Courtney Meredith, a local graphic designer, says with approval in her voice. “Reno’s always been raw.”

But it’s also midway through an intriguing transformation. With quick divorces and legalized gambling no longer the draws they once were, Reno’s lately worked hard to find new ways of attracting crowds. Many creative types are settling here, and the city’s even cleaning up its act – a little.

My hotel opened in June, and is the first one on the downtown strip without a casino occupying its main floor (it was Fitzgeralds Hotel Casino, before its recent renovation). But it does boast the world’s tallest climbing wall (50 metres), which overlooks Virginia Avenue. And downstairs, where the casino used to be, is Cargo, a cavernous music venue – Wayne Newton just would not work in this cool space – and Heritage, a vast, casual-chic restaurant from Mark Estee.

The Whitney Peak hotel climbing wall.

With Heritage, and his flagship restaurant Campo, this Boston-born chef-entrepreneur has almost single-handedly pushed Reno’s culinary scene beyond the traditional all-you-can-eat buffet. “I worked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley when they were starting that move toward working with farmers and foragers,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of getting that system going here.” To that end, he’s soon to open Reno Provisions, a food emporium in part of a long-shuttered J.C. Penney.

It’s just one example of entrepreneurs trying to bring life back to the downtown, hit hard by the 2008 crash.

I meet with Meredith for dinner at Wild River Grille, in the downstairs of a former hotel that thrived during Reno’s divorce era (heiress Gloria Vanderbilt stayed here while awaiting her decree). Its upstairs suites have recently been converted to artists’ live-work lofts. From the restaurant’s windows, we can see the Truckee, the river for which the restaurant is named. Kayakers often navigate its mid-city rapids, she tells me, but we don’t spot any this evening.

“We had a huge turnout for a recent river cleanup,” Meredith says, “but that’s partly because some of the recently divorced used to come right from the courthouse and throw their wedding rings into the river. Some volunteers probably hoped they might find a diamond ring or two.”

Kayakers often navigate Truckee river's mid-city rapids.

This spot is essentially Ground Zero for Reno. It’s at roughly this part of the river where a Missouri man built a toll bridge in the mid-19th century, and around that crossing grew up a mining town, named for a Civil War general. Three of Reno’s most stately buildings stand here: a neoclassical courthouse (where playwright Arthur Miller famously got the divorce that enabled him to marry starlet Marilyn Monroe), an art deco former post office (empty now, but soon to host a bunch of microretailers) and this vaguely Gothic Revival former hotel. But Reno’s downtown isn’t the area drawing the most attention at present; its newly bohemian Midtown was the subject of a glowing New York Times piece last year. Sophisticated galleries (the Stremmel is the leading one), congenial bean-roasting cafes (the Hub), and cozy gastropubs (Midtown Eats) and wine bars (Craft) line its leafy streets.

Reno’s distinctive perky-macabre mix is all over Midtown, with a hearse parked out front of Death and Taxes (a bar painted black), and religious steelwork in another drinking hole, the Chapel. (The bartender at the latter tells me eerie stories of an abandoned mine up in the hills above Reno.) A strange and stylish boutique, Natural Selection, has just opened: It offers stuffed reptiles, iridescent Indonesian beetles, fossils, and glossy succulents and airplants – the dead and the undead, co-existing, on its shelves.

The nearby Nevada Museum of Art also happens to have an exhibit featuring much taxidermy (on display until Jan. 15), along with traditional landscape painting and contemporary wildlife photography. It’s just one of this institution’s continuing explorations of the place where art and the natural world meet. The dark grey building with tall, protruding chunks was completed in 2003 by architect Will Bruder, and itself riffs on a natural feature near Reno: the tall black rocks in the desert near where the annual Burning Man festival occurs. (As the nearest city to Burning Man, Reno has filled its parks with some of the massive industrial sculptures that feature centrally in that hallucinogenic desert arts festival.)

The enormous National Bowling Stadium also has a museum. (RSCVA)

Reno never bores: Its attractions are diverse – if a little random. I take a bowling lesson one day at the ginormous National Bowling Stadium, and visit a former casino owner’s vintage car collection another. We drive to where the electric car company Tesla is building a new factory – it’ll be among the world’s largest buildings – and see wild horses galloping through the industrial park. I walk through the ivy-covered buildings of the main quad at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“No one thinks of this as a college town,” historian Alicia Barber says, over lunch on my last day in Reno at Noble Pie Parlor, which has won national awards for its pizzas. The restaurant is at the foot of the El Cortez, a once glamorous but now beat-up hotel; Trevor Leppek, the restaurant proprietor, hopes to revive its old ballroom, once a Rat-Pack hangout. He and a partner have also just finished renovating an old Victorian house, adding barbecues to one of its many patios and decks. The place looks a bit like the Addams Family’s mansion. “The idea is people will come, drink, purchase meats that are already marinading, and grill them up on our barbecues. We hope it’ll take – Pignic is a new idea for a gathering place.”

After lunch, Barber shows me old silver baron mansions on the Truckee, and speaks of her adopted city in general terms. “Reno’s the kid who’s saying, ‘Like me, like me, like me.’ The city knows what it is to be popular, and it’d like to be so again. Many creatives are flocking here, but it’s hard to say what will stick of everything that’s being tried right now.”

The outdoor climbing wall at Whitney Peak hotel.

IF YOU GO

If flying to Reno from Canada, expect at least one connection through a western U.S. city such as Los Angeles, Denver or Seattle.

WHERE TO STAY

The Whitney Peak Hotel is the only major hotel on the strip not attached to a casino. Rooms from $110 (U.S.). 255 N. Virginia St., whitneypeakhotel.com

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

Chef Mark Estee’s flagship restaurant Campo does tasty thin-crust pizza and house-made pasta in a rock ’n’ roll room overlooking the river. 50 N. Sierra St., camporeno.com

Midtown Eats has a certain out-of-Portland feel, with its casual ambience, quirky menu and intricate cocktails. 719 S. Virginia St., midtowneatsreno.com

The attractions at Noble Pie Parlor are threefold: its location in an old Deco hotel, its pizzas and its wings, both of which have won prestigious national tasting competitions. 239 W. 2nd St., noblepieparlor.com

The Wild River Grille boldly started up in 2007, when the downtown still felt to many locals like a no-go area. 17 S. Virginia St., bestrenorestaurant.com

The Chapel Tavern is where the Midtown bohemians go to carouse in a setting made rough and attractive with bespoke steel fixtures. 1099 S. Virginia St., chapeltavern.com

The Hub is the city’s premiere coffee roaster and café, and has two attractive locations, one in a tight space in Midtown, the other in an airy one by the Truckee. 32 Cheney St. & 727 Riverside Dr., hubcoffeeroasters.com

WHAT TO SEE

The suites at the Morris Burner Hotel have been made trippy by Burning Man artists, while the massive steel sculptures that are common at that desert festival fill its backyard. 400 E. 4th St., morrisburnerhotel.com

The bulk of the cars in the National Automobile Museum were collected by the ebullient, movie-star-dating casino owner Bill Harrah (1911-1978) from the mid-20th century on – and include yesteryear cars from Bugatti, Duesenberg and Pierce-Arrow, as well as Elvis Presley’s Cadillac Eldorado. 10 S. Lake St., automuseum.org

The National Bowling Stadium has a huge silver ball poking out of its roof, and is the Churchill Downs of the bowling world, with well-oiled, state-of-the-art 10-pin lanes and a museum, telling, among other things, the story of Richard Nixon’s attachment to the sport. 300 N. Center St., gobowlreno.com

Exhibitions at the Nevada Museum of Art often examine human interaction with the environment – and it has a great brunch place, Chez Louie. 160 W. Liberty St., nevadaart.org

WHERE TO SHOP

Natural Selection has a curiosity-inducing, slightly disturbing miscellany of goods derived from nature. 39 St. Lawrence Ave., naturalselectionstore.com

Parts of the writer’s trip were subsidized by Visit Reno-Tahoe, the Whitney Peak and other local businesses. They did not review or approve this story.

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