March finally arrives and I am eagerly awaiting spring break, which my colleagues and I celebrate not on some sunny Florida beach but in sometimes sunny Winnemucca, Nevada. Why? It all started twenty-two years ago, when two local ladies, Sherri Allen and Linda Dufurrena, got together and decided to start a photography symposium. Famous lensmen from around the world were invited to speak, and also some others, less famous, like myself.
This year I won’t be speaking; I’ll mostly be drinking—and socializing with my friends in various surprisingly good eateries, including The Martin Hotel on Railroad Street, Ormachea’s and The Winnemucca Hotel. All three are Basque restaurants, and all three include bars offering a selection of alcoholic beverages—including a potent aperitif known as the Picon Punch.
Tradition mandates that each arriving guest knock down a Picon prior to being seated in the dining room, where meals are served family style. Which means you might find yourself seated next to a total stranger, but not to worry. Thanks to the Picon, you’ll find you have plenty to talk about and it won’t matter if what you say makes no sense because whoever you’re talking to won’t remember a word you said—thanks, again, to the Picon Punch.
Foodwise, I’d rate The Martin number one and Ormachea’s a distant second. As for beverage service, no one has ever topped Miguel Olano, longtime bartender and proprietor of the venerable Winnemucca Hotel. It was Mr. Olano who first introduced me to the Picon, and also the Winnemucca Coffee, an instant pick-me-up whose fame has filtered all the way back to the old country—of which Mike often spoke fondly. Indeed, the Winnemucca Hotel is like an artifact from a distant civilization. Run-down and deserted-looking by day, it springs to life at mealtimes. Charming serving girls appear out of nowhere; cheap red wine flows; sizzling T-bone steaks, garlicky salads, hot cabbage soup, fresh-baked bread, pasta, French fries, savory beans and greens arrive, and then poof! The tables are cleared and just like that the dining room reverts to a deserted echo chamber.
Today we don’t dine there as often as we used to, thanks largely to the current proprietor Mike Olano Junior., aka “the steak Nazi.” Some in our group are afraid of him, and we haven’t forgotten the ruckus that ensued the time Galen Rowell inadvertently insulted the chef by asking for a smaller portion. Then there was the time a guest at the bar asked if he could have a drink with a little less alcohol in it.
“Go to McDonald’s!” shouted Mike Junior. I understand that this is Basque for “Go to hell!”
I’ve never been thrown out of the Winnemucca Hotel, although I’ve been dragged out on more than one occasion. This year I shall try to stay on my feet, and as the festivities wind down I shall raise my glass to the late, great Mike Olano Senior, whose spirit hovers overhead like a cloud of stale cigarette smoke, among the faded photographs and just below the pressed tin ceiling.