Virginia City lights

Owner Richard Oates prepares a version of the Blank Canvas special, with blackened salmon, applewood smoked bacon, frozen blood oranges, fried bell peppers, onions, grapes and a chipotle drizzle.

Owner Richard Oates prepares a version of the Blank Canvas special, with blackened salmon, applewood smoked bacon, frozen blood oranges, fried bell peppers, onions, grapes and a chipotle drizzle.

Photo/Allison Young

The Canvas Café is open 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.

When entertaining guests from east of the Mississippi, a tour of Virginia City’s old timey saloons and a walk through the gravestones of Boot Hill is a must for tales of the Old West. So it was during a visit by my daughter’s New Jersey sweetheart. We ended up at one of VC’s funkiest eateries, the Canvas Café.

With cups of colored chalk on the tables for spontaneous creativity—and walls covered with art for sale—the joint was hopping with live music and animated conversation on a Sunday afternoon. Large mugs of hot chocolate and strong coffee ($1.95) helped cut the chill of a bitingly cold December day.

Seafood chowder was the was soup of the day, though the “cup” I received was a very modern, ovoid bowl containing at least a pint of soup ($3.50). Unlike most gravy-esque chowders served out West, this broth reminded me of chowder I was served in a Martha’s Vineyard café. It was just slightly thickened with a terrific balance of seasoning and seafood, including shrimp, salmon and chopped clam, as well as a couple of whole clams on the shell. The only seafood chowder I’ve enjoyed more was that made by my New Englander mother-in-law.

Doubling-down on the ocean theme of my brunch, I chose an Oscar Benedict with home fries ($12.95). A split and toasted English muffin was covered in tasty crab meat, then topped with a poached egg and Hollandaise sauce. The sauce tasted fresh with not too much butter and a bright lemon note. The square-shaped eggs let the rest of the dish down a bit, as one was cooked clear through and the other had just a bit of run to the yolk. It’s easier for this to happen when using a poaching pan—really a form of double-boiler—rather than suspending the eggs in water. The menu indicated the potatoes were baked rather than fried, which explains the lack of browning or crispness. The diced spuds were just a tad undercooked for my taste, but their seasoning and a dip in the Hollandaise made up for it.

My daughter—a chip off the old block—also ordered a cup of chowder with bread ($3.50). I think she enjoyed it even more than I did. Her boyfriend ordered steak and eggs with home fries and toast ($14.95). It was only when our food arrived we realized the server hadn’t asked how he’d like it cooked. Regardless, the eggs were done perfectly over-medium, and the peppered hunk of sirloin was dead-on medium rare. The potatoes on his dish had a bit more color than mine, but I didn’t get a comparison taste because that young man eats faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. He seemed pretty pleased with his selection.

Offered along with the daily specials is something truly special, the Blank Canvas. Our server explained that you simply tell the chef what you like to eat, choose how much you’re willing to pay, and he’ll create something for you. My son—always up to try new things—jumped at this option without hesitation. He was invited back to the kitchen to consult with the chef, to whom he said, “I pretty much like everything you have here.” This brought a tear of pride to my epicurean eye. There are few things worse than dining with a picky eater.

Having agreed to a $12.95 dish, my son was presented with a breakfast he’ll not soon forget. A housemade, lightly-grilled biscuit was set atop a pool of Hollandaise, topped with a poached egg, two slices of thick-cut bacon, a petite sirloin steak, and a clamshell filled with clam, shrimp and salmon. As I write this, I’m still amazed that dish was served for just $13.

With plans for dinner service and sushi Sundays during the summer months, this creative little spot is a welcome addition to a town known more for bars and Western kitsch than creative cuisine.