Restaurants show there are still oldies but goodies

Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House tells the story of Las Vegas from the very first sight of it, a real '50s ranch house surrounded by the stucco tract houses that epitomize modern suburbia.

After finding the restaurant smack in between subdivisions, "you park in the gravel lot and head up the wooded area to the entrance, and you can just smell the prime rib and the steaks cooking," owner Jeff Special says of a place that sat on 50 acres when it opened in 1955.

With its stone and wood and old Western pictures on the walls, "it really is a unique environment. It really is a different world from the Strip."

The Ranch House is one of the oldest of several restaurants that have beaten back both Las Vegas' indifference to history and the sprawl of corporate franchises, which at least until recently inspired the oft-heard Vegas exclamation: "Hey! Was that Applebee's on that corner last month?"

Redevelopment of the Strip claimed most of the classic casino restaurants along the Boulevard. One of the longest holdouts, the Ristorante Italiano at the Riviera, closed "until further notice" just this month.

Las Vegas is such a young city that restaurants from the Jimmy Carter administration count as historic, and those with even more tenure are precious to customers who grew up with them.

The proprietors of El Sombrero Cafe, 807 Main St., say they get visits from seniors who remember walking over from Las Vegas High School for a bean burrito after school in the 1940s, or sweeping the floors for a free taco.

"If it's not broke, don't fix it," says Joe Collura, one of the owners of Chicago Joe's, 820 S. Fourth St., which was started by his uncle Joe in 1975, in a small downtown brick house built in 1933.

He once thought about expanding it beyond its capacity of 50. But "the food is good and the place is cozy and it works, so leave it alone. And here we are 20 years later and we'll make it through this drought for another 15 years."

In that hardy spirit, here's an overview of eateries that will enable you to bluff your friends and pretend you lived in Vegas back when the mob ran the town.

• Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House, 6250 Rio Vista St. The vintage steakhouse is known for smoked prime rib, sirloin, bone-in rib-eye, and shredded potatoes topped with four cheeses and mushrooms.

• Hugo's Cellar inside the Four Queens, 202 Fremont St., opened in 1976 and the gourmet room prides itself on not having changed much.

"It's consistency people look for," says manager Albert Steele. "Literally, we take care of generations of families. The menu has remained the same. The comfort is there, and the quality of food has always remained at a high standard."

The restaurant's enduring traditions include a long-stemmed red rose for every woman, and table-side service of salad and flambeed desserts such as bananas Foster and cherries jubilee.

• Golden Steer, 308 W. Sahara Ave. Don't be surprised to see young retro-Vegas enthusiasts decked out in their vintage-store finest inside the Rat Pack Room.

This steakhouse celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, and you still get that old-Vegas feel in a place where waiters -- some of them 35-year veterans -- are called "captains" and dishes such as cherries jubilee, bananas Foster and Caesar salad are made table side.

• El Sombrero Cafe, 807 Main St. On one of the oldest city blocks downtown, this Mexican eatery remains popular with the downtown lunch crowd. It's small, friendly and the portions are generous. The menu includes items such as huevos rancheros, guacamole salad, chile verde and airy, honey-filled sopapillas.

• Dona Maria Tamales, 910 Las Vegas Blvd. South. Green chicken and red pork tamales have been the main attraction since 1980 in another downtown spot that gets its lunch rush from nearby office workers.

• Macayo's Mexican Kitchen, 1741 E. Charleston Blvd. Another Mexican option came from Phoenix. Woody Johnson brought his famous enchiladas to Las Vegas in 1959, only seven years after he opened the first Macayo's in Arizona. The second Las Vegas location opened at 4457 W. Charleston Blvd. in 1971.

• Chicago Joe's, 820 S. Fourth St. The Collura family is from Palermo, Sicily, so they maintain the kind of Old World Italian place where the red wine is served in short glasses with a slice of peach and the tables have checkered cloths.

The family recipes all filter down from the grandmother who opened the family's first Chicago restaurant: stuffed artichoke, pasta fagioli soup and calamari in red sauce. And the creamy garlic salad dressing is so popular, people buy it by the pint.

• Battista's Hole in the Wall, 4041 Audrie St. Though dwarfed in the shadow of the Flamingo Las Vegas, Battista's kept its Italian comfort food in the minds of visitors since 1970, in part by advertising on Major League Baseball radio broadcasts.

Oh, the stories those red booths and brick walls, crammed with celebrity photographs, could tell. The chicken Alfredo, spaghetti and meatballs, and veal marsala are all wrapped up in an atmosphere as inviting as a smiling Italian grandma.

• Pamplemousse, 400 E. Sahara Ave. Singer Bobby Darrin chose the name, which means "grapefruit" in French, when owner Georges La Forges opened his French restaurant in 1976. (Darrin was supposed to be a partner, but died in 1973).

La Forges worked in other legendary, bygone restaurants on the Strip before opening this little house decorated like a French countryside inn. Menu items such as escargot, foie gras, classic French onion soup, rack of lamb and chateaubriand keep loyal customers coming back.

• Piero's Italian Cuisine, 355 Convention Center Drive. It's two storied restaurants in one! The current location, popular with Las Vegas insiders, is not the Piero's that opened in 1982. But this building it later moved into is the one that hosted a location for the "Casino" movie. That's fitting, because it used to be called Villa d'Este, a mob roost frequented by Tony Spilotro (played by Joe Pesci in the movie).

• The Hush Puppy Restaurant, 7185 W. Charleston Blvd. In 1975, it was the last outpost on the way to Red Rock Canyon. The Hush Puppy has satisfied cravings for Southern fare ever since. It's famous for catfish and the titular fried hush puppies (fried dough balls), along with pickled green tomatoes, barbecued pork ribs and even alligator tail. Mondays are still all-you-can-eat crab legs. And while the restaurant business can be dog-eat-dog, a second location opened in 1986 at 1820 N. Nellis Blvd.

• Mel's Diner, 558 Nevada Way, Boulder City. You have to leave town to go all the way back to the 1930s. The first private restaurant in Boulder City opened as Browder's Lunch in late 1931, along the dusty thoroughfare for Hoover Dam workers and their families. By any name, it remains the kind of no-frills joint where you can get a mean steak and eggs.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ or 702-383-0288.