By Matthew Stafford
The first time I headed up to Lake Tahoe a decade or so ago, I figured the place would be lined with rustic, pine-timbered ski lodges where grizzled mountain men grilled trout fresh from the lake and served it on a plank with a few huckleberries and a mug of hard cider. Imagine my disappointment when upon arrival at the lake's southern shores I beheld instead a sort of alpine Anaheim brimming with pizza parlors, chop suey joints, frat-boy cantinas, golden arches and (a favorite motif) Swiss-chalet pancake establishments. I was on a regional food kick at the time, and my outrage was keen. Where were the High Sierra variations on the New England clam shack, the Deep South catfish parlor, the Pacific Coast oyster bar?
Although Lake Tahoe Boulevard still offers up its share of formica-limned fast food joints, the local restaurant scene has improved exponentially in the last few years. Topping the list is the Blue Water Bistro (3411 Lake Tahoe Blvd., Timber Cove Marina), a temple of cutting-edge California cuisine and one of the few local dining establishments, believe it or not, that's situated right on the lake. From the restaurant's second-floor perch, the lucky diner can gaze out at jewel-toned water and distant alp while sipping one of the soul-warming house-infused toddies (the pear-apple-rum concoction is especially bracing). My favorite entree is the filet mignon salad, a bountiful bowl of fresh greens, caramelized red onion, roasted walnuts, chunks of silky-pungent Point Reyes Blue and thick filets of tender, juicy steak. Housemade persimmon cobbler is the ideal cold-weather meal-closer.
Just uphill from the lake is Nepheles (1169 Ski Run Blvd.), a Tudoresque hideaway complete with blazing hearth and cozy adjacent pub. Here the weary traveler can unwind and replenish over rustic forest fare like sauteed snails, broiled elk with currants, wild boar chops with apricot brandy and venison with stilton. (Impressive wine list, too.) Just next door is the even cozier (seven-table) Cafe Fiore, where dreamy Italian fare like lox-filled eggplant crepes, fettucine with lobster, chicken with wild mushrooms and artichoke hearts and a dreamy-creamy tiramisu are served up with friendly aplomb.
The South Shore casinos have grown beyond their old 24-hour/prime rib/all-you-can-eat buffet standards as well. Ciera, a classy little red-velvet steakhouse in the MontBleu casino (formerly Caesars), regularly serves the most delectable food on the strip: amazingly fork-tender filet mignon, scalloped potatoes laced with sharp white cheddar, sweet green asparagus perfectly grilled and, as a grand finale, complimentary chocolate-dipped strawberries presented atop a platter emitting billows of dry ice. Free Fiji bottled water too. Atop Harvey's is 19 Kitchen-Bar, a marvelously eclectic rendezvous where the smoked-salmon flatbread with caviar, scallops benedict with applewood bacon and hollandaise and (best of all) the lobster-laced mashed potatoes are a heady distraction from the dazzling lake views. Across the street at Harrah's, the Cliche cigar and cocktail lounge up on the 16th floor is a matchlessly swingin' place for a post-meal cognac, single malt or Macanudo. That fabled grilled lake trout, though, remains elusive as ever.