Basque Restaurants in Nevada

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.

A war story of three Nevada veterans

The Basque Hotel, a novel by Robert Laxalt
Robert Laxalt was a prominent Nevada author and educator. His books include “A Man in the Wheatfield” and “The Basque Hotel.”

The following story was told to me by Robert Laxalt shortly before he passed away several years ago. At the time I was doing some work on his irrigation system at his home in Washoe Valley. Robert’s wife, Joyce, told me Robert wanted to meet with me because he knew I had written a book and Robert always was interested in writers and writing. He was very ill at the time, but we had a delightful conversation.

Robert asked if I was related to a Bill Cassinelli. I told him Bill was a cousin of my father, Raymond. He then told me that Bill Cassinelli, Paul Laxalt and another fellow I knew named Leon Etchemendy all had served in World War II together. Paul Laxalt was Robert’s brother. Leon Etchemendy worked at the Nevada Department of Transportation at the same time I worked there in the 1980s. Both Paul and Leon were from Carson City. Bill had been born and grew up in Reno. Somehow, the three of them ended up in the Aleutian Islands under attack by the Japanese.

Apparently, the three men had never met before. As they introduced themselves to each other, they were surprised to learn that they all came from western Nevada. The time came when Bill Cassinelli took a hit from a Japanese shell, which took off one leg. With the assistance of Laxalt and Etchemendy, Bill was taken out to a medical facility where they were able to save his life, but not the leg. Bill was a frequent visitor to the ranch where I grew up in Sparks. Before the war, he had been an avid baseball player. After his return, he continued to be a fan of the game. We often attended games at the old Threckels Ballfield on East Fourth Street in Reno in the 1940s.

Bill and his wife, Clara, a cousin of my grandmother, Edith Cassinelli, moved to Stockton, Calif. Paul Laxalt later became governor of the state of Nevada. Leon Etchemendy and Bill remained close friends. Leon and I both worked at the Department of Transportation in Carson City during the 1970s and 1980s. He remarked how unusual it had been that two Bascos and an Italian from the same area just happened to end up in the same place at the same time during the war.