‘You can never break the chain’; Chain restaurants around the Basin
Sometimes a person comes to Lake Tahoe, falls in love with it, and comes up with an idea that takes off and turns into a beloved staple in the community that lasts for decades. A little restaurant may become so popular that the entrepreneur must expand their empire to meet the demand, taking their winning recipes and environments to other parts of the West. Here are a few famous restaurant chains that got their start in Tahoe.
Riva Grill, Gar Woods, Caliente, Bar of America, Sparks Water Bar
Owner Tom Turner opened Gar Woods in Carnelian Bay in 1988 and created a signature frozen rum punch called the Wet Woody, named after the classic wooden boats, known to grace Big Blue. Located next to the Sierra Boat Company, Gar Woods is accessible by car or watercraft. In the same year that Turner started Gar Woods, he also opened the Riva Grill in the Ski Run Marina. The two restaurants became so popular that he built Caliente in Kings Beach in 2007. Five years later, he bought Bar of America in downtown Truckee and most recently opened The Water Bar at the Sparks Marina in 2021.
Most of Turner’s restaurants are found right on the water, probably because it lends to that sunshine, upbeat atmosphere that helps to sell more Wet Woodys. This beloved Tahoe restaurant chain has sold more than two million Wet Woodys to date, and you can even register yours through its website, http://www.wetwoody.com. Caliente serves Southwestern fare and has its own signature drink called the ChupaCabra (a blended frozen drink made with tequila) and the Cock-Tail at Bar of America, which is a frozen blended drink made with any spirit and stirred with a rooster tail feather. When you register your Wet Woody, ChupaCabra, and Cock-Tail through its website, then you’ll get email updates and a special birthday surprise.
The Tahoe Restaurant Collection has made a name for itself in the Tahoe region and beyond, just be sure to have a designated driver if you plan to get too deep into the Wet Woodys. “I’m always relieved when I come into Gar Woods the next day and see cars in the parking lot- that means people were safe getting home,” one manager said.
Lakeview Social, Lake Tahoe AleWorX, The Cocktail Corner, The Lake House, The Bistro at the Corner and Backyard Bar & Grill at the Corner
If you are spending a few days in South Lake Tahoe eating, drinking, and hanging out, then there’s a good chance that you’ll find yourself at one of these Tahoe Lifestyle & Leisure establishments. Head over to the Y at 2050 Lake Tahoe Boulevard and in the back corner of the former factory outlets you’ll find a Lake Tahoe AleWorX serving up delicious wood-fired pizzas, The Cocktail Corner making one-of-a-kind craft drinks, and The Bistro providing a fine dining experience that’s open seven days a week from 5pm-10pm. Between the Tahoe AleWorX and The Cocktail Corner is also the Backyard Bar & Grill that specializes in burgers, brats, and beers in a home cookout type atmosphere. Tahoe AleWorX also has another restaurant at Stateline.
Last year the restaurant group also opened Lakeview Social, another area next to El Dorado Beach where you can eat, drink, and relax. Picnic tables, fire pits, and Adirondack chairs are strategically placed in front of and around Revive coffee shop, the Barrel Room, a stage (with live music every day at 4pm), and food truck onsite.
The Lake House is also a prominent brand in its portfolio, which is another fine dining restaurant on 1181 Emerald Bay Road that specializes in upscale culinary delights created by its master chef Jimi Nakamatsu. Open from 5pm-10pm daily, you can find escargot, scallops and prawn specialties, and king crab legs in a mountain modern adult setting.
Tahoe Bagel Co.
When brothers Justin and Jeff Kaplan opened a New Jersey-style bagel shop in South Lake Tahoe during the pandemic in October 2020, they sold out of their stash by 12:30pm on opening day. They stayed consistently busy to the point of needing a bigger manufacturing facility and launched its second location two years later on Kingsbury Grade.
Justin and Jeff had culinary experience in their blood starting with their great grandparents Harry and Fanny Wrotzlawsky. The Wrotzlawskys owned bakeries and delis on the East Coast for more than 50 years, so the Kaplan brothers grew up eating pizza, bagels, and Philly cheesesteaks. When the brothers moved to South Lake Tahoe in 2012 and 2016, they worked at local restaurants while enjoying the outdoor activities that Tahoe is famous for. Eventually, after experimenting and learning how to make bagels, they launched a whole line of affordable bagel sandwich combinations (along with a popular Philly cheesesteak and other lunch options) so that they could enjoy their favorite foods in their favorite place.
Both locations are always busy, and people drive from Reno to buy a bag of bagels. They are also excellent employers, treating their staff the way that food industry workers deserve to be treated. It shows when you walk in, the employees are friendly, efficient, outgoing, and clearly have fun on the job. Anything you get is delicious (I recommend Back 2 Life bagel sandwich with the pork roll) and especially appeals to those with East Coast tastebuds.
Visit the Sushi Pier on 177 US-50 in Stateline, Nevada and you’ll find sushi roll specialties with names like Marilyn Monroll, the Mountain Roll, the Mt. Rose Roll, and ones named after the Reservoir Dogs (Mr. Pink, Mr. Blonde, and Mr. Orange). It also serves the Reno Roll made with shrimp/ebi and avocado and the Tahoe Roll consisting of salmon, crab, avocado, unagi sauce, and sriracha, showing its sense of place. Both its Reno and Stateline locations have been around for years.
The flagship Sushi Pier opened on 1290 E. Plumb Lane in Reno in spring of 2000. Heejin Kim’s daughters came up with the idea of opening their own sushi restaurant after serving at other places such as the Japanese-style Sushi Bar across from the Club Cal Neva and the Korean BBQ restaurant Bamboo Garden located a few blocks down. Their tiny Sushi Pier was booming four months after opening, and in 2010 they expanded to South Lake Tahoe. Twenty-three years later, both locations still provide outstanding customer service and delicious sushi combinations, which makes them stay successful.
The first MoFo’s Pizza opened in Incline Village in 1986 when John Morrison named the restaurant after the shortened phrase to mean “Mo Fo’ Your Money”. The pizzas’ famous marinara sauce came from John’s father Walter Morrison who was shot down over Italy during World War II when he was serving as a P-38 pilot. Walter ended up living in the mountains with sheepherders behind enemy lines when he learned how to make traditional Italian sauce.
John sold MoFo’s to his son Justin in 2015 and moved to Colorado Springs to open a restaurant there. When Justin took over the pizzeria, he remodeled the place and started serving lunch six days a week and dinner nightly. MoFo’s at once saw an uptick in business.
John sadly passed away in 2017, but the Morrison family legacy lives on. In December of 2021 he opened a second MoFo’s in the Galena Junction Shopping Center at the base of the Mount Rose Highway, which he manages with his sister Melissa Negrillo. Their pizza dough is made daily, their ingredients are freshly sliced, and Justin believes that MoFo’s is still the best priced pizza in town.
The first Squeeze In location opened in historic downtown Truckee in 1974 with only 39 seats available, making patrons literally have to “squeeze in” to get the opportunity to try their omelets. Reno residents Gary and Misty Young would take their daughters (Kay and Shila) to the Squeeze In on special occasions, and the girls loved it so much that they talked about owning it one day.
In the early 2000s, the Youngs went for it. They quit their jobs, cashed in their savings, and moved to Truckee. In 2008, Gary and Misty brought Shila and her husband Chad Morris in as partners, and they opened another Squeeze In in Reno.
Due to its amazing food and welcoming atmosphere, Squeeze In has continued to expand while keeping its hometown vibe. In 2010, Squeeze In was even featured on the Food Network in its show “Throwdown with Bobby Flay”. It started offering franchising, and there are now several more Squeeze In’s in the Reno area, Las Vegas area, Carson City, and even in Modesto and Idaho. New breakfast squeezes are also expected to open in Gardnerville and Spanish Springs.
Its eight-page breakfast and lunch menu at the downtown Truckee location is arguably bigger than the restaurant itself. There are at least eleven omelets on the menu, as well as French toast, pancakes, healthy options, sandwiches, salads, spirits, and sea breeze mimosas. Regulars can also join the Egghead Breakfast Club to get free food and exclusive offers. A few years ago, Shila Morris gave a TEDx talk with University of Nevada, Reno, to share with students how her family achieved the American Dream. It’s available to view on https://squeezein.com/.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the 2023 edition of Tahoe Magazine.
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