The Overland Hotel and Restaurant in 2005. It's one of many wonderful Basque restaurants scattered across Northern Nevada. (Photo courtesy of the Western Nevada Historic Photo Collection. Photographer: Scott Schrantz. View original photo by clicking on the image.)
When I worked for the Nevada Department of Transportation and traveled extensively around the Silver State, I often stopped at some of the wonderful Basque restaurants for lunch or dinner. Basque people and Basque culture are woven into the fabric of most towns in Nevada. The Basque people were originally from the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France. Many of these people emigrated to Nevada many years ago to become sheep ranchers in the mountainous areas of Nevada that resembled the Basque homeland.
These enterprising people often built boarding houses or hotels with restaurants for their workers and for the general public to enjoy. My first experience with this came when I was working in Winnemucca and went to the Martin Hotel for dinner. It was in the late 1960s and some people I knew in town told me about the place. There is another Basque restaurant in Winnemucca named Ormachea’s I have visited.
Traditionally, when eating at a Basque restaurant, you start with a Picon Punch at the bar before dinner. One of these is not enough, but two is sometimes too many. When the dinner bell rings, everyone goes into the dining room and takes a seat at one of the long, family-style tables. Almost immediately, waitresses start bringing out bowls of soup, French bread and heaping bowls of salad. Before you finish filling up your plates and bowls, they then bring out plates of French fries, along with bowls of stew and beans. The final touch is a heaping platter of steaks cooked to please any of the diners.
Customers include boarders at the hotel along with the general public. A few of the Basque places offer menu selections along with the traditional items. These may include calf fries, mountain oysters, chicken or even bacon wrapped chicken livers. No one ever leaves hungry after dining at a Basque restaurant.
When I was working for NDOT and studying for a correspondence course in engineering in the 1960s, I took room and board at the Martin Hotel for a couple weeks to save a few bucks. It cost $7.50 per day. Breakfast was greasy bacon and eggs, lunch was a paper bag with a peanut butter sandwich and an apple and, thankfully, dinner was at the restaurant.
I will tell about some of my favorite Basque restaurants I’ve personally visited. In Gardnerville, there’s the J & T Restaurant, specializing in lamb chops and steaks that are smothered in several cloves of garlic. Be sure to go in to the men’s room to see the risqué carvings the Basque sheep herders carved on aspen trees. Almost across the street is the Overland Basque Restaurant. There’s another south of town near the golf course. While in town, you also can see my American Indian artifact collection at the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center nearby.
In Elko, be sure to visit the Star Restaurant or the Nevada Hotel Restaurant on the same street. You can order from a menu at either of these places. These are our favorite spots to stop when on hunting or fishing trips when in the area. If these are full, there’s another I haven’t tried a few blocks east. Every year, there’s a Basque Festival held in Elko where Basque dancers and performers dressed in their native costumes put on a great show and serve their favorite foods. In Ely years ago, the Nevada Hotel there served Basque food, but the last time I was there, it had changed.
Basque people have been prominent in Nevada politics for many years. Robert Laxalt was a prominent Nevada author who wrote several books about the Basques and was instrumental in creating the program in Basque studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. Paul Laxalt served both as a Nevada governor and as a U.S. senator.