The 7 biggest local food and drink stories of 2021

JOHNATHAN L. WRIGHT/RN&R: Sparks Water Bar opened in August 2021 on the eastern side of the Sparks Marina. The 14,000-square-foot restaurant seats 600 across multiple bars, terraces and dining areas.

Was it really only a few years ago? That online hysteria about the arrival in Northern Nevada of a national bread bowl purveyor? After the 2021 we’ve had, that hysteria seems more silly than ever.

In less turbulent times, I might have felt obliged to include the hysteria in my year-end round-up of top food stories (if only because of hysteria’s extent). But these times are not those times. At the same time, I didn’t want this list to be a mournful recitation of the effects of the pandemic on restaurants (as serious as those effects have been).

Instead, this list testifies to the resilience of our local food and drink culture amid incredible (and ongoing) challenges. Here’s wishing everyone a tasty 2022.

7.           La Vecchia closes

La Vecchia spanned more than three decades of Reno restaurant history — from the beginnings of downtown revival to the emergence of a diverse local food scene to the headwinds of the pandemic. When La Vecchia closed (for non-pandemic reasons) in June 2021, as first revealed by Reno News & Review, the city lost a grand old restaurant (and the superlative pizza and pasta La Vecchia served).

But chef-owner Alberto Gazzola, who opened La Vecchia at 26, isn’t leaving the business. His current project? Centro South, an elegant spot for elevated small plates and cocktails, which he hopes to have finished in the Village at Rancharrah sometime in January 2022.

6.           Food Truck Friday returns

In 2011, Steve Schroeder helped bring a degree of organization and professionalism to Reno’s newish food truck scene when he founded Food Truck Friday in Idlewild Park. The event grew into the largest food truck gathering in the region, featuring about 40 vendors and thousands of visitors weekly during its annual summer run. Even the Travel Channel joined in the kudos.

The pandemic delayed and ultimately canceled Food Truck Friday in 2020, but Schroeder wouldn’t put things permanently in park. He reassured food truck owners he was working on the return of the event, which happened in summer 2021. What does persistence taste like? Street food on a warm evening.

5.           Rounds Bakery rebounds

Rounds Bakery closed its East Moana Lane store in July 2020 at the height of the pandemic. After that, the owners confirmed a merger with new business partners, and Rounds bagels and other products were still sold around town, but details were few. This July, in an exclusive interview with Reno News & Review, bakery co-owner Anton Novak shared those details.

Most notably: Rounds was turning the Old Bavarian World into a $2 million commercial kitchen and store (now open on Valley Road). The bakery was also realizing a $1.7 million café in the Legends center in Sparks (coming soon) and setting up a pizza operation in the Tahoe-Regional Industrial Center. Rounds, it turned out, was building back better.

4.           Sparks Water Bar opens

Word first broke in December 2018 about plans to create Sparks Water Bar on the northeast shore of Sparks Marina. When the restaurant finally opened in August 2021, buzz about the place had been at high tide for a year. Reno News & Review first reported the debut.

The two-story, 600-seat Water Bar very likely had the highest construction costs of any restaurant ever to open in Sparks. Wood, glass, stone, steel, light and views commune across 14,000 square feet that includes multiple dining areas, bars and terraces. Owner Tom Turner also owns Gar Woods at Lake Tahoe, and Gar Woods’ famously potent rum cocktail, the Wet Woody, has made the trip down mountain to Sparks.

3.           Great Basin Brewing sells

In December 1993, Tom and Bonda Young founded Great Basin Brewing Co., in the process becoming pioneers of craft beer culture in the Silver State. In 2019, ready for semi-retirement, the couple agreed to Great Basin being acquired by a California brewery. That deal fell through.

But another deal was eventually on tap, and this September, Great Basin merged into Local Food Group, the hospitality portfolio owned by chef Mark Estee. The merger preserves a founding Nevada brewery while also uniting the Youngs’ beer expertise with Estee’s food chops. Also preserved: the Ichthyosaur “Icky” IPA, Great Basin’s beloved flagship brew.

2.           The Village flavors South Reno

The Village at Rancharrah broke ground in summer 2018. In October 2020, the pandemic delayed the launch of the initial food and drink spots. This June, Perenn Bakery became the first restaurant to open in the Village, a stylish neo-rustic development arranged about a courtyard (with giant chessboard) at the eastern edge of the former Rancharrah Estate in South Reno.

As 2021 closes, all food and drink establishments in the Village are either open or under construction, and the mix is among the most varied in the city. Already open: the bakery, a chocolatier, quick-serve poke, a tequileria, and a soaring wine and whiskey bar. Ahead: a butcher shop, a small plates destination, a bar with beer dispensing machines and Reno’s first omakase (chef’s choice) Japanese restaurant.

1.           Local bars and restaurants persevere

As the Reno News & Review reported, nearly one-third of Nevada restaurants have shuttered since the pandemic began in March 2020. And online lists have noted the closures specific to Northern Nevada. But that’s only part of the story of local food and drink in the past year.

In 2021, the other half of the story has been how folks who own and work at bars and restaurants and breweries and distilleries and grocers and suppliers and other food and drink businesses have persevered through staffing shortages and supply chain disruptions, through rising prices of goods and sometimes-cranky customers and the ongoing potential for new operating restrictions.

I celebrate these gritty, determined, talented people who feed us and serve us and provide us with hospitality. It is my honor and privilege to share their stories as we all look forward to a better 2022.

Johnathan L. Wright is the food and drink editor for Reno News & Review. Follow him on Twitter at @ItsJLW or on Facebook personally or at @FoodNevada. Sign up here for the Reno News & Review free weekly newsletter highlighting our most recent stories.

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