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Peppermill at 50
Decor at the Fireside Lounge at Peppermill on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 26. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto
The Peppermill at 50: Fake trees, real neon and cocktails bigger than a baby’s head

The Peppermill at 50: Fake trees, real neon and cocktails bigger than a baby’s head

Updated December 27, 2022 - 9:27 am

Hot pink and purple neon reflect off the flattened disco ball of a ceiling.

The green-and-blue carpeting swirls in ways that would do a drunk no favors.

Sugar crystals at each table are rainbow-colored, resembling something that’s been squeezed forth from a unicorn.

As the Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge turns 50, it remains a remarkable assault on the senses — even by Las Vegas standards.

Turns out, its history is nearly as colorful as its interiors.

An exterior view of the Peppermill on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Las Vegas. (Chase Stevens/Las ...
An exterior view of the Peppermill on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Las Vegas. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

The early days

Lifelong friends Nat Carasali and Bill Paganetti opened the Peppermill Coffee Shop and Lounge in Reno in 1971. The identical Las Vegas offshoot, at 2985 Las Vegas Blvd. South, launched Dec. 26, 1972.

A year and a half later, a 17-year-old Peggy Orth started working as a waitress.

She never left.

“I went to nursing school,” says Orth, who’s been the Peppermill’s general manager for the past 28 years. “I have a nursing degree. But this is what I love.”

It must be a genetic thing. Her son Nicholas is the executive chef, his daughter Krystin is waitressing there while studying hospitality and business management, and more relatives have passed through there than Orth can recall.

But back to the beginning.

When the Peppermill opened, a cup of Sanka cost 20 cents, a 14-ounce New York steak with the choice of fries or a baked potato was $6.75, and “lasagne — a delicacy from Italy,” described on the menu as “layers of wide, tender egg noodles and tangy cheeses, topped with a heaping ladle of meaty lasagne sauce that has been simmered for hours and hours,” would set you back $4.25.

A cocktail waitress pours a beverage at the Fireside Lounge in the vintage photo at Peppermill on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 26. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto
Pictures taken Dec. 26, 1972, the day Peppermill opened, as seen on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in Las Vegas. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Peggy Orth, general manager of the Peppermill, poses for a picture with her son, Nicholas Orth, ...
Peggy Orth, general manager of the Peppermill, poses for a picture with her son, Nicholas Orth, who is the executive chef, on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 26. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Orth started out earning $1.10 an hour, with the cooks making a little more than twice that. “Now,” she says, seated in one of the restaurant’s booths beneath an artificial tree as dishes clatter in the background, “you’ve gotta pay ’em $24 just to show up.”

When Orth was hired, she was too young to be assigned the swing or graveyard shifts where the real action was, but she got the occasional taste by covering for other waitresses.

When dealers finished their graveyard shifts, the money flowed.

“I made four grand, so here’s $500 for ya. Thanks for the breakfast, babe,” Orth says as an example.

Come swing shift, the joint would be buzzing.

“Oh my gosh, totally different ambiance at night. Every pit boss from every major hotel, every cocktail waitress. This was the spot to come to. And it was safe. It didn’t matter what time of the day or night you went out. Didn’t matter if you were in a bikini. No one bothered you.”

Wait. There were women in bikinis? At the Peppermill?

“Oh you bet there was,” Orth says. “You were just safe, because no one messed around. Because if you did, you weren’t seen again.”

The mob years

Those early days coincided with the mob’s last big push into the city.

A year before the Peppermill opened, the Chicago Outfit sent Anthony Spilotro to Las Vegas to protect the skim from its casinos and to keep an eye on Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. Both men, the thinly veiled inspirations for the “Casino” characters played by Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, were Peppermill regulars.

In keeping with its status as a place where everyone was welcome, much like a gaudy Rick’s Cafe Americain, legendary lawman Sheriff Ralph Lamb frequented the restaurant, his visits often overlapping with Spilotro’s and Rosenthal’s.

“If you watch the movie ‘Casino,’ there couldn’t be a truer story,” Orth says. “That was the best movie about Vegas that they could’ve made. It is so just straight-up exactly what happened.”

Much more recently, Frank Cullotta was a Peppermill regular. One of the leaders of his childhood friend Spilotro’s Hole in the Wall Gang, Cullotta famously flipped and became an FBI informant, helping to break the gangster’s hold on Las Vegas. He later became a key adviser on “Casino.”

“He’s telling me stories, ‘Peggy, you know, I was supposed to be quiet. I’m stabbin’ this guy, and I’m stabbin’ this guy, and the (expletive) guy wouldn’t die. And then the knife broke. So I get my gun …’

“The way he would tell a story was hysterical,” Orth recalls.

Tony Montana, Spilotro’s former driver who oversaw his money laundering sites, frequented the Peppermill around the same time.

The hatred between the men remained strong, even in their later years — Cullotta, who died in 2020, would’ve been in his late 70s; Montana, who passed away the previous year, would’ve been in his early 80s.

One day, the Peppermill staff made the mistake of seating them too close to each other. The tension was palpable, even though Cullotta carried oxygen with him and Montana was using his table to sort his various medications.

As Orth tells the story, waitress Elisha Tapes, who’s worked there for more than 20 years, stops by the booth and joins in.

“They were about to really fight. That was hilarious,” Tapes says. “They were calling each other names. Frank was like, ‘I’m gonna beat the (expletive) out of that (expletive).’ ”

Patrons relax in the Fireside Lounge at Peppermill on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Las Vegas. The ...
Patrons relax in the Fireside Lounge at Peppermill on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 26. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Its place in pop culture

Speaking of “Casino,” the scene in which Ace (De Niro) and his girl, Ginger (Sharon Stone), make out before she says she’s going to powder her nose, then collects two $50 bills from him, was filmed in front of the fire pit in the adjacent Fireside Lounge.

Even though the scene lasts just 30 seconds, “they were here for easily two weeks,” Orth says. Some of the actors had trailers behind the restaurant. Orth would come in for her waitress shift at 7 a.m. and find De Niro still partying from the night before. “He was a kick in the butt,” she recalls.

“Showgirls” was filming around Las Vegas at the same time and also paid a visit to the Peppermill.

In one of the movie’s many, many curious decisions, rather than using those bold interiors that are a production designer’s dream, the “Showgirls” team went to the expense and trouble of building a patio in front of the restaurant. That’s where Elizabeth Berkley’s Nomi, fresh from arriving in Las Vegas and being robbed, huffs and puffs while flinging ketchup about and mauling an order of French fries as though she were unfamiliar with the concept of eating.

Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club” filmed there, too. The 1984 historical epic was financed by the Doumani family, who own the Peppermill’s real estate.

One night, Orth received a call from an associate of Carlos Santana who said they’d been around town shooting a music video for the song “Feel It Coming Back,” they were out back and were hoping to film in the lounge. The next thing she knew, Santana was playing with Argentinian singer Diego Torres. “He played for two hours in the bar, live,” she says of the House of Blues headliner. “Then he bought everybody shots.”

Among the Peppermill’s other pop culture moments, it’s where Adam Lambert serenaded diners in his “Another Lonely Night” video, where Anthony Bourdain imbibed “mega girly drinks” for “No Reservations,” and where Jerry Seinfeld hung out with his best friend, George Wallace, for “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

Waitresses Haleigh Bilesimo, left, and Marilyn Velez bring out dishes to diners at Peppermill o ...
Waitresses Haleigh Bilesimo, left, and Marilyn Velez bring out dishes to diners at Peppermill on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 26. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Cocktail waitress Behati Perry checks in with patrons in the Fireside Lounge at Peppermill on T ...
Cocktail waitress Behati Perry checks in with patrons in the Fireside Lounge at Peppermill on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 26. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Executive Chef Nicholas Orth prepares gyros and onion rings at Peppermill on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 26. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto
A cocktail waitress checks on customers at Peppermill on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 26. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

‘People come straight from the airport’

Peppermill superfan Penn Jillette frequently got together with comedian Paul Provenza to hash out “The Aristocrats,” their 2005 filthy-joke documentary, in the restaurant’s booths.

Local author Vicki Pettersson used the Peppermill as a neutral ground in her “Signs of the Zodiac” urban fantasy series.

Over the decades, other bold-faced names such as Jerry Lewis, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Tony Orlando, Liza Minnelli, James Caan and Nicolas Cage have been regulars.

For a while, their ranks included the most famous man on the planet.

“When he was at the International, he’d pop in once a week, something like that, just to get away,” Orth says of Elvis Presley, whose record-breaking residency at what’s now the Westgate ran until 1976. “He’d arrive in a limo, come in the back bar door, sit in the back, have a Coke. No one bothered him.”

She was too young to go in the bar, but she’d peek through the door and notice that he was always alone.

There are plenty of regulars, though, whose names and faces you’d never know.

“People come straight from the airport,” Orth says. “You hear it 10 times a day if you hear it once. ‘We got off the plane and came right here.’ ”

“I have people, and it makes me feel so old, (say) ‘My dad brought me, my grandpa brought me here. We’d come and share a hot fudge sundae or a banana split,’ ” she adds, noting that the people telling those stories often are in their 50s.

Orth even knows of at least two people with large Peppermill-inspired tattoos.

Flamingo lamps, one of the notable decorative items at Peppermill, are seen on Tuesday, Dec. 13 ...
Flamingo lamps, one of the notable decorative items at Peppermill, are seen on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Las Vegas. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

People dine at Peppermill on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celeb ...
People dine at Peppermill on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 26. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Waitress Marilyn Velez takes an order at Peppermill on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in Las Vegas. ...
Waitress Marilyn Velez takes an order at Peppermill on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 26. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

‘Denny’s on crack’

So what exactly is it about the Peppermill that’s made it such an institution over the past half-century?

For starters, it’s that over-the-top interior that’s a mix of Old Vegas and a synthetic, space-age Vegas that never was.

“Denny’s on crack” is a description Orth often hears.

The current design, with its Tiffany-style flamingo lamps and decor that looks like it could’ve come from a brothel’s liquidation sale, was established about 25 years ago when the booths were first covered in royal blue, violet and seafoam spun silk.

Before that, the color scheme was maroon and mauve. That, in turn, had replaced the original orange-and-brown motif, complete with wagon wheel lamps over the tables and four-inch deep orange shag carpet in the lounge.

The artificial cherry blossom trees that populate the dining room were brought in from the Peppermill Resort in Mesquite after it was rebranded as The Oasis in 1994. They’re every bit as expensive as they are massive. A decade ago, a smaller version made for the bar cost the owners $10,000.

With its mirrored walls, red furniture and complete lack of natural light, the attached Fireside Lounge has a distinct glow, as though it were the lair of a vampire who was turned while watching an episode of “Miami Vice.”

Believe it or not, there once was a string of identical Peppermills, with two in Denver and others packed into Northern California, including the cities of Concord, Citrus Heights, Corte Madera, Cupertino, Daly City, Fresno and Santa Clara.

Now it’s down to just ours and the original in Reno, which still initiates any changes before they make their way to Las Vegas, not unlike the way a new play will get an out-of-town tryout before moving to Broadway.

Abiy Megenta, left, and Beza Toelessa look through the menu at Peppermill on Tuesday, Dec. 13, ...
Abiy Megenta, left, and Beza Toelessa look through the menu at Peppermill on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 26. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Connie Mejia, left, and Jerry Marquez, of Laughlin, sit down for their first visit ro Peppermill on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 26. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto
A man takes a call while dining in a booth at Peppermill on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Las Vegas. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Dinner and a show

Of course, the Peppermill is more than its visuals. A meal there is an experience closer to a theme park.

More than a decade into the age of selfies, photographers still sell $20 memories of your time there.

It’s practically dinner — or breakfast or lunch — and a show, as servers wearing cocktail gowns stop by to see if they can bring you a drink, regardless of the hour. More often than not, they’ll end up hauling at least one Scorpion, the Peppermill’s signature 64-ounce drink that’s bigger than a baby’s head.

“It’s diabolical,” Orth says of the behemoth that includes two shots of cherry brandy, two shots of rum and two shots of vodka.

“On the weekends, you can have 80 of them out in the restaurant at one time, easy. But as a rule, no less than 25,” she says. “People see it, and they want that.

“Sometimes four people share it. Sometimes four people have one each.”

And the food!

During a separate morning visit, a simple order of pancakes yielded three buttermilk giants, each the size of a hubcap.

Their delivery turned heads.

One woman gasped.

Elsewhere, another customer marveled at her seemingly endless meal: “I don’t think this soup bowl has a bottom.”

Waitresses wait to take out orders at Peppermill on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in Las Vegas. (Ch ...
Waitresses wait to take out orders at Peppermill on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in Las Vegas. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Patrons are led to their seats at Peppermill on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed ...
Patrons are led to their seats at Peppermill on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 26. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Bartender Kyle Tomsic makes a drink in the Fireside Lounge at Peppermill on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2 ...
Bartender Kyle Tomsic makes a drink in the Fireside Lounge at Peppermill on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in Las Vegas. The famed restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary on Dec. 26. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Staying put

The Peppermill’s look hasn’t changed much since that overhaul a quarter century ago.

In 2018, its sign was replaced, with the 18-year-old predecessor making its way to the Neon Museum.

That was one of numerous events over the years that scared fans into thinking the Peppermill was closing.

Its North Strip neighborhood is changing. Resorts World is now open across the street. The Fontainebleau, just north of the restaurant, is expected to come online next year. The Las Vegas Convention Center expansion is a short walk away.

Each new development has led to rumors of the Peppermill’s demise.

“It’s one call after the other after the other after the other,” Orth says. “ ‘Are you closing? I wanna get in there. Can I buy a lamp?’ ”

In reality, the restaurant is still in the early days of a 10-year lease. Orth expects it to be around as long as owners Carasali and Paganetti want it to be.

That’s fantastic news to the restaurant’s faithful, who can’t get enough of the plush, tri-colored booths.

Unfortunately, neither can the Peppermill.

The restaurant keeps some of the material in storage for repairs, but there’s a finite amount of it.

“Once we run out of that,” Orth says, “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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