From my photographer friend Bob Goodman comes the sad news that the Winnemucca Hotel is being demolished. This after 152 years—meaning that the Winnemucca Hotel has been around for as long as Nevada has been a state. Indeed, even the tattered Z-Brick veneer is listed on the historic register.
But now it’s coming down, leaving a hole not just on Bridge Street but also in the hearts of those of us who remember good times among good friends in what was the greatest unreconstructed saloon in the entire American West. In particular, we remember the late proprietor and bartender Miguel Olano, a Basque from the Old Country. Matter of fact, everything about the place savored of the Old Country. There you could imbibe drinks from Mike’s homeland, including one specific to the hotel, reputed birthplace of a potent cordial known as the picon punch.
I loved to watch Old Mike mix a picon. If I remember right, it’s equal parts grenadine and brandy with a twist of lemon and a splash of club soda. However, I don’t remember whether Mike actually added the soda water. It was more like he just waved the bottle over the glass while muttering some sort of Basque incantation. Whatever, it was delicious. After downing just one, you were completely at ease with everyone else in the place, which was a good thing because it was then time to stagger into the dining hall for a family-style Basque feast. Out of nowhere would appear comely serving girls bearing platters of garlic-infused green salad, bowls of beans and pasta, hand-cut French fries, tureens of soup, baskets of crusty bread and bottomless carafes of burgundy that may well have arrived in railroad tank cars but which, in the context of a Basque restaurant, was the finest wine you ever tasted. Then, just when you thought you couldn’t take another bite, your entrée would arrive—a steak approximately the size of a dinner plate—sometimes larger.
I remember once that one of our group asked if he could have a smaller steak. Presently, the cook appeared bearing a steak twice the size of the one he’d just sent back. “You eat that!” he ordered, and the customer dutifully did as he was told.
Little Mike—thereafter known as The Steak Nazi—was Old Mike’s son. Less genial than his father, we never knew quite what to make of him. He was an intimidating figure, although I’ve been told by those who knew him that he had a good heart. Unfortunately, three years after inheriting the hotel following his father’s death, Little Mike died—reputedly of liver failure. That left no one to keep the doors open, the booze flowing, and the steaks sizzling. For the past six years the establishment has been shuttered and the fixtures removed, including the ornate oak bar that came round the Horn from Europe, thence from California via the Overland Stage.
Nowadays, if you wish to enjoy a picon punch and a traditional Basque meal in Winnemucca, you can go to The Martin, which is a very nice restaurant. To be honest, the food is better there, and the cook won’t threaten to break your legs if you don’t clean your plate. And if you should complain that your drink is too strong, the bartender won’t shout, “Go to McDonald’s!”—which, I understand, is the harshest of all Basque imprecations.
So you will come away from The Martin satisfied, if not edified. You may even have a good time, though not nearly as good as we had it, back when the Winnemucca Hotel was in business.