Diner Time Machine
by John Curtas
The Peppermill exists within a space-time continuum of its own creation. What has become a time warp anomaly, burst upon Vegas’s restaurant universe on December 26, 1972 — when Richard Nixon was still celebrating his landslide second election, the Vietnam war was dragging on, and neckties were wider than a baby’s bib. On that day, William Paganetti and Nate Carisali opened an offshoot of their Reno “Peppermill Inn” in a free-standing building on Las Vegas Boulevard South, across the street from the Stardust Hotel and Casino. Little did they know they were boldly going where no restaurant has gone before or since.
The normal laws of restaurant physics do not apply to the Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge (its official name). Its gravitational pull on customers defies Newtonian principles of eating inertia. By staying at rest for 40 years, it has created an icon that defines Las Vegas every bit as much as mega-hotels and celebrity chefs. The pull it exerts on customers (and the Las Vegas consciousness) remains stronger than ever, not in spite of, but because of a menu, decor, and service that is firmly rooted in the 1970s.
From day one, the Brobdingnagian portions were something to behold. It is a testament to great menu planning that many original menu items remain, including the enormous fresh fruit salad (then only $3.50), French toast “Ambrosia,” and the ten egg omelets that are now legendary.
No one was making tropical drinks back then from fresh fruit juices, and the idea of a 24 hour diner with a flaming fire-pool lounge was unheard of. And in what might a first for the decade of everyone looking awful (e.g. poly-quad, triple-knit, day-glo leisure suits), even the outfits have survived the test of time. Hostesses still greet you in brightly colored shirts, waitresses scurry about in sexy (but not too), short, schoolgirl skirts, and cocktail servers arrive in low-cut, floor length gowns.
“We were right across the street from the Folies Bergere and right away, we became a hangout for Strip entertainers,” says Martha Montague who has been on the premises since day one, first as an 18 year old waitress and now, for the past five years, as a manager. “Everyone has a story about the Peppermill, and everyone has come here, from Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to Penn Gillette, who put a booth in his home designed after our pink, purple and blue ones.”
Holly Madison, who wasn’t even a twinkle in her daddy’s eye in 1972, loves it because “…it’s a campy, comfortable Vegas original with…a lot of quirk factor. “It’s my late night staple, she says, “and I love showing it to all my friends from out of town. I mostly end up there with whomever I’m with at the nightclubs, ordering a tropical drink by the Fireside Lounge, then some French Toast Ambrosia and a massive fruit plate.”
Back in the day, you could find Tony Spilotro’s Hole in the Wall Gang hanging out here. “You could see the guns under their clothes, but they never caused any trouble,” says Montague. Nowadays, you’re more likely to see Carrot Top, Floyd Mayweather, Mike Tyson or a camera crew chowing down in one of the booths. Episodes of Elimi-Date and Gigolos have been shot here, and traditional Hollywood couldn’t resist the throwback allure as a backdrop for Showgirls and Cotton Club. And Martin Scorcese must have thought he had died and gone to heaven when he walked in and saw a ready-made set for Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci in Casino.
For a restaurant critic, there needs to be a certain suspension of belief when one attacks one of the over-sized platters this kitchen cranks out with preternatural speed. The all-over-the-map menu specializes (if that’s the word for it) in something for everyone, so it’s common to see a Southern-fried steak with (quite good) country gravy along side a classic Cobb salad sharing the table with pork ribs and shrimp scampi “Acapulco” — which roughly translates into “shrimp, Italian shrimp, Mexican beach town.”
If forced to choose, I would say those omelets and gigantic salads are the strength of the menu, and if you can polish off anything on the breakfast side of the menu, you won’t be hungry for the rest of the day. The “Elegant Brownie” — served warm in a shallow dish while vanilla ice cream melts into it — is also a thing of beauty, as is the banana split — which can easily be split four ways.
“In some ways, we’re still a trend-setter,” says Nicholas Orth (30), who has practically been raised among the (fake) leafy trees and mirrored ceiling, and now runs the kitchen while his mother, Peggy Orth, does same for the front of the House. He proudly points to sweet potato fries, his tomato stack “Caprese” and vertical onion rings as items that many a fancy steak house now tout and charge a pretty penny for. “We were doing those things for thirty years, and now you see them photographed in fancy food magazines as something special in a celebrity chef restaurant.”
It’s hard to argue with him, just like it’s hard to argue with the success born of a consistent and caring management style. “We treat our staff like family,” is how Peggy puts it. Like Montague, she was but a pup of a teenager when she started in 1974, and for seventeen years has been the general manager. “For a place of this size (over 130 employees), our turnover is very low. There’s a team spirit mentality to everything we do, and I think our customers know how much we care about them.”
How very true.
How very 1972.
PEPPERMILL COFFEE SHOP AND FIRESIDE LOUNGE
2985 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109