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by john curtas | March 7, 2012 | Food & Drink
Prime seating around the fire pit
After late nights out, locals head to the comfy sofas of the Peppermill’s Fireside Lounge to to sober up with heaping plates of comfort food
The legendary onion ring stack, with a side of burger
The enormous banana split, as in split four ways
The Peppermill’s original menu, from 1972
The servers’ outfits have stood the test of time
The Peppermill’s very-Vegas décor
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—as the Vietnam War dragged on and neckties were wider than a baby’s bib. On that day, Bill Paganetti and Nat Carasali opened an offshoot of their Reno Peppermill Coffee Shop and Lounge 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.
By staying at rest for 40 years, the Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge 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, because of a menu, décor, and service 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 items remain, including the enormous fresh fruit salad (then $3.50, which was expensive at the time), French toast “Ambrosia,” and the ten-egg omelets that are now legendary. And in what might be a first for the decade of everyone looking awful (e.g., triple-knit, day-glo leisure suits), even the outfits have survived the test of time. Hostesses greet you in brightly colored flowery shirts, waitresses scurry about in sexy (but not too sexy) schoolgirl skirts, while cocktail servers wear low-cut, floor-length gowns.
“We were right across the street from Folies Bergère, so right away we became a hangout for Strip entertainers,” says assistant manager Martha Montague, who has been on the premises since day one. “Everyone has come here, from Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to Penn Jillette, who put a booth in his home designed after our pink, purple, and blue ones.” Holly Madison, not even a twinkle in her daddy’s eye in 1972, loves the Peppermill. “It’s a campy, comfortable Vegas original with a lot of quirk factor,” she says. “It’s my late-night staple.”
Other local celeb fans include Carrot Top, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and Mike Tyson. And you might just find a camera crew chowing down in one of the booths: Hollywood couldn’t resist the throwback allure as a backdrop for Showgirls and The Cotton Club. Martin Scorsese must have thought he had died and gone to heaven when he walked in and saw a ready-made set for Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in Casino.
For a restaurant critic, a certain suspension of disbelief is needed when attacking one of the oversized platters this kitchen cranks out with preternatural speed. The all-over-the-map menu specializes in something for everyone, so it’s common to see a Southern-fried steak with (quite good) country gravy sharing the table with pork ribs and shrimp scampi “Acapulco” (“Italian shrimp, Mexican beach town”). I would say the omelets and gigantic salads are the strength of the food offerings, 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 banana split, which can easily be shared by four, is a thing of beauty.
“In some ways, we’re still a trend-setter,” says Nicholas Orth, 29, who has practically been raised among the (fake) leafy trees and mirrored ceiling. He now runs the kitchen while his mother, Peggy Orth, runs “the whole show,” he says. He proudly points to his tomato stack “Caprese” and vertical onion rings as items that many a fancy steakhouse now tout and charge a pretty penny for. “We were doing those things for 30 years, and now you see them in magazines as something special in a celebrity chef restaurant.”
It’s hard to argue with him, just as 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 teenager when she started in 1974, and for the past 16 years has been the general manager. “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. 2985 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702-735-4177
photography by beverly poppe