Restaurants preserve the dining traditions of the Comstock
Summer is gone, and so too is the warm spell that languished through October. Winter has yet to really arrive in the Truckee Meadows, but, just to the southeast, the communities of Virginia City and Gold Hill on the historic Comstock Lode are already experiencing the onset of the season.
Winter is often hard in these little towns that cling to the side of Mount Davidson, where once a rich body of silver ore drew thousands to work and live. Historical accounts tell of snows that delayed food and supplies for weeks and winters when the ground froze so hard that the dead had to be stored for burial in the spring.
These days, winter still presents challenges, albeit different ones.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Comstock underwent several boom and bust cycles before mining interests largely petered out. The towns, however, never fully died. Nor did their booms and busts cease. Today, though, the cycle is annual, driven by the seasonal ebb and flow of the district’s current economic motherlode—tourism.
Virginia City became a national historic district in 1961. The success of the television show Bonanza—which aired from 1959 to 1973 and was set in a fictitious Virginia City—ensured a steady stream of visitors in the decades to come.
A host of long-running, annual events stills draw visitors, sometimes by the thousands. They arrive to find steep, narrow streets lined with historical buildings from which many of the Comstock’s remaining residents run their businesses—peddling standard tourist-town fare like costumed photography sessions, trinkets, antiques and, of course, food.
Restaurants are a staple of successful tourist towns, and the Comstock is no exception. With fewer than 1,000 permanent residents, it’s still home to more than a dozen dining establishments. They include the expected—everything from family-friendly stopovers for burgers and fries to intimate venues for fine dining.
But the restaurants in Virginia City and Gold Hill represent more than just the trappings of a tourist town worth its salt. In fact, current chefs on the Comstock know they’re keeping alive a tradition as old and rich in regional history as mining.
By the book
At its peak after the largest bonanza discovery there, Virginia City had an estimated 25,000 residents and was often called the richest city in America. And the wealth of some of its residents was indeed prodigious.
“People forget that back then, the people up here had a lot of money,” said Richard Oates, chef and owner at Canvas Café. “The dining establishments up here, they weren’t cheap. If you were to bring those into the modern era, they’d be ranked up there with the best restaurants in the country, at least—if not the world.”
He’s right. The Washoe Club was once compared to its famed 19th-century contemporary, the Lower Manhattan restaurant Delmonico’s. It’s a historical tidbit most visitors might never learn—one of many contained in a 1953 cookbook compiled by then-Comstock residents.
The Virginia City Cook Book: A compendious collection of hundreds of receipts in all branches of domestic cookery, contributed by the residents, past and present, of Virginia City, Nevada is full of anecdotes as well as recipes. Compiled from newspaper clippings, journals and recollections, it’s a time capsule in writing, with stories and recipes that recall the history of the Comstock from the bonanza days through the years following World War II. The cookbook is fairly well known among residents still and was reprinted in 2009 in honor of the town’s sesquicentennial. Some local chefs have even made use of it on occasion. Among them is Brian Shaw, chef and owner at Cafe Del Rio.
“As a matter of fact, I think there’s one in there for pasties, which are those meat pies,” he said. “It was by Virginia Nevins. We kind of ripped that off and used it a couple of times. And then, I’m not sure if this one’s in there, but, when you say receipt, the funny thing is, our rellenos—the recipe we have—came from a lady who gave it to us, who had been given the recipe on a receipt from a dentist up here.”
The cookbook is literally full of stories like these. Recipes for simple, comfort foods—like Matilda Pollard’s lasagna, printed alongside a commendation of her work as the town’s justice of the peace—share pages with recipes for delicacies like pâté de foie gras and tales of grand parties hosted by silver barons long dead.
Though he hasn’t used any of its recipes, Chef Oates said he and wife Alexia Sober Oates received a copy of the cookbook when they opened their first Virginia City restaurant, Core at the Cider Factor, in 2013.
“It was interesting from a chef’s perspective, just to see the types of things that people were cooking back then,” Oates said. “Because, you know, most cookbooks are based around what society is in the process of eating. That’s why these days you have all of these vegan, gluten-free—all the healthy stuff. There’s always the timeless classics, you know, but, in general, cookbooks reflect society.”
Oates is right about this as well, and The Virginia City Cook Book bears it out. Some recipes, like ceviche and marrow toast, reflect the region’s history of ethnic diversity. Others recall its boom and bust times.
And the echo of these epicurean traditions remains in restaurants on the Comstock today. At Cafe Del Rio, Chef Shaw serves up Southwestern cuisine and honors local tradition with the occasional adaption of an old recipe. At Canvas Café, the presence of Chef Oates—a native of Scotland and a veteran of kitchens across Europe—represents a continuation of the cosmopolitan contributions that have influenced food in Virginia City for more than a century.
And just a few miles away in Gold Hill, owner of the Crown Point Restaurant and Gold Hill Hotel Pat McNamee is also doing his part to keep tradition alive. Since taking ownership of the historic property earlier this year, McNamee has been focused on finding ways to honor the Crown Point’s established fine dining reputation while also adapting it to the current realities of life on the Comstock.
A part of his plan for doing this is to appeal to locals with another longtime Comstock tradition.
“It’s called a miners’ dinner,” McNamee said. “You know, for like a low-priced thing—$7.99, $8.99—I’m not sure how much we will charge, but something like that, and just cater to the locals. They take a night of off cooking and can come in and have a nice dinner but not break the bank.”
The dinners are planned for Sunday evenings this winter. They’re one of many regular special events McNamee has in the works—like ghost tours and historical lectures—to drum up business in the slow months.