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24 hours inside the Peppermill

Big food, crazy cocktails and undeniable warmth: A day in the life of a Strip institution

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Photo: Bill Hughes

8:08 a.m. Like it would be on any other Friday morning, the Peppermill is packed. I dart into one of the few open seats at the counter. Jennifer, a waitress here for 17 years, brings coffee. Do I want French-vanilla cream, too? Sure. Today is special, as I’ll be spending the entirety inside this classic restaurant and its kitschy, lovely lounge.

“Yeah? Bring it on!” Jennifer cheers, her unbelievable perk killing the cliché of the grumpy diner waitress.

8:30 a.m. The rattle of stacked plates and singular crack of food-heavy ones hitting Formica is constant and energizing. Peggy, the general manager, is flying back and forth, and I get her attention for a quick hello. She’s a kind woman, and she thinks I’m crazy. She’s been here four decades and loves her job. She’s had offers to work elsewhere, at newer restaurants inside luxurious hotels, “but I just couldn’t do it,” she says.

8:43 a.m. My food is delicious. It’s Munch’s Breakfast—three eggs over a hash of potatoes, peppers, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese and Portuguese pork sausage. Peppermill food is big food, mighty portions with resounding flavor, which is why so many people remember these meals and keep coming back.

To my left are a couple of first-timers, guys in their late 20s who very obviously overdid it last night. They each order a Scorpion, the signature 64-ounce cocktail, a pink-orange troublemaker comprising six shots of different liquors. And they want them blended with ice cream.

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8:54 a.m. The man to my right is a local. I strike up a conversation and discover he’s a prominent economist. Meanwhile, the Scorpion brothers are using butter knives to cut the crazy-long red straws in their drinks.

9:32 a.m. The 10 cooks behind the line are in constant motion. They churn out face-sized pancakes and football-sized omelets with astounding speed. Fresh fruit comes out, not so much a plate as a mountain of intricately sliced food. A waitress whisks it away, no problem, just a delicately balanced pile of produce among four other heavy dishes.

9:48 a.m. Bill is from Brownsville, Texas, and he’s a happy guy with white hair and a Captain Kangaroo mustache. “You can order anything here, because it’s all good,” he says. He’s been coming to the Peppermill for six years when in town for an annual convention, and he often eats here twice a day. We talk about how Peggy is doing everything, even though she’s in charge. “That’s how you keep everybody happy,” Bill says. There’s nothing like this place in Texas.

10:38 a.m. It’s time to retire to the lounge for the first time today. I crash into a sofa and pull out my laptop to take care of some morning business. It feels weird checking email here.

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I just assume everyone has been to the Fireside Lounge, certainly one of the most iconic bars in Las Vegas. The softly lit space is all low-slung, rose-colored sofas and marble octagon tables. Each has a tiny carafe of honey-roasted peanuts, and right now is the first time I’ve eaten one. The same redpink-purpleblue neon tubes that line the dining room race around this mirrorball ceiling, too, set off by fake tropical plants and many TV screens playing an endless selection of truly odd music and concert videos, stuff you probably won’t see anywhere else. Of course, there’s the fire pit, a bright blue pool with a flame sprouting in the middle, the infamous spot that backdropped that great scene in Casino when De Niro is cozying up to Sharon Stone.

I love this place, but it makes me wonder: Has living in Vegas for so many years completely warped my sensibilities? Am I tacky? Cheesy? How could this have become my normal? The other people are here because they’re waiting for a table for breakfast. No one else is typing.

11:00 a.m. I order a whiskey sour, because that was my first legal drink, consumed in 1997 in what is now the Oceano Bar at the Peppermill in Reno, a hotel-casino with its own Fireside Lounge. There’s a Peppermill resort in Wendover, too. Among its six properties, the company also operates the Rainbow Club in Henderson, which I immediately want to visit once I realize the connection.

I’ve been going to a Peppermill for half my life—all-night study sessions cramming for college exams at the coffee shop in Reno, and before that, family faux-vacations at the long-gone Peppermill resort in Mesquite, and weekend brunches here on the Strip. Little sister always ordering the fruit salad served in a pineapple boat with sherbet. Me, maybe a shrimp cocktail or a French dip. This was as much Vegas as an 11-year-old could handle, neon and nosh as gateway drugs.

11:32 a.m. Back in the restaurant, there’s a 30-minute wait for a table, and there are six bulky bros in the first booth, plowing through pancakes and paninis. No doubt they’re plotting a reckless weekend.

12:09 p.m. JoAnn, assistant manager, says the Peppermill stays this busy Thursday through Monday, with even busier weekend mornings. She started as a breakfast waitress in the ’80s. “Sometimes I have people come in and say they remember me from back then, and remind me I used to wear that outfit,” she says, referring to the electric blue, skirt-and-suspenders jumper. She rolls her eyes. “Don’t even go there!”

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When it opened on December 26, 1972, the Peppermill had orange shag carpet and fake leather booths, and waitresses wore orange and white uniforms with the same short skirts. A 1986 makeover—the only one—added the silk plants and faux cherry blossoms, glowing mauveness and updated outfits. The lounge waitresses, however, still wear low-cut, floor-length black gowns. As a kid eating sandwiches here, the only thing more fascinating than the pretty lady refilling my Coke was the other pretty lady in black floating through the room with a tray of colorful cocktails. Mesmerizing is probably the right word.

12:50 p.m. No matter what time or day, this restaurant always offers the most amazing mix of people. Right now, there’s a group of teenage girls wearing matching green soccer warm-ups; a tattooed, rockabilly couple that could be straight from a retro photo shoot; the biggest handlebar mustache and cowboy hat combo ever, and a pair of middle-aged ladies on their annual girls-only reunion trip. And that’s just one row of booths.

1:10 p.m. I grab a seat at the counter for lunch next to an older gentleman spooning crème brûlée and waiting for a takeout order he’ll deliver to his group of conventioneers next door at the Riviera. Peggy reels off his order: “Another pastrami wheat onion rings pickle! Another BLT wheat fries!” Waitress Kathy helps bring over the food and chats him up, saying she’s also from New York. Peggy interjects: “She’s been here with me for at least a decade, but she still says she’s from New York. Sooner or later she has to stop saying that.” Kathy immediately breaks into song: “Sooner or later, love is gonna get ya ... I got a song for everything.” I believe her.

1:39 p.m. I’m working my way through the Conquest, a wonderfully messy roast beef sandwich. The guy who cooked it, Rob, hovers over me mid-bite. “That one’s good. It’s like the kitchen sink.”

He’s a whirlwind on the flat-top grill, tossing thick slabs of French toast through the air, strategically ladling butter here and there, spatula-slicing sandwiches and managing those huge pancakes. In writing about restaurants and chefs over the years, I’ve learned how important economy of movement is in the kitchen, working fast and clean. Fine-dining chefs aren’t the only ones with such skills.

2:03 p.m. Assistant chef Dre is giving me a back-of-house tour while a delivery takes place, and I’m trying to stay out of the way. These massive food drops happen at least three times a week, refilling six walk-in refrigerators and multiple dry-storage areas. The kitchen, prep and storage spaces aren’t small, but the restaurant does so much volume it seems like everything is emptied and refilled constantly.

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Dre has been in Vegas for 15 years. His first restaurant job was at Wendy’s. He started here as a part-time cook and worked his way up, common practice at the Peppermill. “What I didn’t know as a cook was how much everything matters. Every little detail. Not being wasteful. Getting along with the crew.” Most of the kitchen staff has been around for 10 years or longer. When I come out of their space, I discover a tiny, hidden, makeshift break room.

“This is a fast restaurant,” waitress Angela says, “and we have to eat fast, too.”

3:38 p.m. It’s as quiet as it’s going to get. No one’s at the restaurant counter, but the dining room is still more than half full. I’m sitting in the lobby, and a hostess in a tropical flower-print shirt is looking at me like I’m nuts, probably wondering if I’m ever going to leave.

4:00 p.m. The early shift is over, and some of the crew members are sitting at the bar having a beer or smoke or dropping a few dollars into the slots. I’m drinking an icy Bud Light with Rob, the journeyman cook from Detroit, San Diego and other places. He likes the fast pace in the Peppermill kitchen, probably because he’s fast, too. “The Conquest is one of the hardest sandwiches to make, because the bacon is over there but the mushrooms are over there ... it’s complicated.” He’s only been here two years but can see staying a while. Vegas is fun. “Get done on Saturday, go down the Strip or to Fremont Street, get home on Monday, do laundry, come back, start again on Tuesday.”

5:15 p.m. The inside lights I love so much are always on, but the outside ones just came on.

5:49 p.m. The early-bird dinner rush is on, and judging from the number of hunting vests and camo caps in the dining room, these folks are from the gun show at the Riv. Tables are covered mostly with burgers and fries, but one imposing man is attacking a waffle piled high with whipped cream and glittery sprinkles.

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6:39 p.m. The fire pit, which seats about 10, is full of women. Two have been there at least two hours, deeply embroiled in life conversations, mixed drinks and fried appetizers. I want to find out who they are and where they’re from, but I know better. I’ve done that, the discussion by the fire. This place kind of coaxes it out of you, or maybe it’s the drinks.

7:14 p.m. Somehow, their conversation has evolved to the point where one lady has her shoes off and her socked feet up on the ledge by the fire. The warm comforts of the lounge are making it so very difficult to step out for fresh-air breaks.

7:38 p.m. The small bar in this mighty establishment is powered by two bartenders and only two or three cocktail waitresses serving the lounge and delivering drinks to the restaurant. Right now, Ruth is behind the stick, an 8-year Peppermill veteran. Considering how many voluptuous cocktails she has to make, things can get a bit frenzied back here.

A stylish foursome takes a booth. They’re noticeably younger than the crowd in the restaurant, looking better suited for a night at the Cosmopolitan or SLS. But their first round of the night will be Mai Tais and Appletinis, not pricier craft cocktails at a cool casino bar. They’re headed to Wynn for dinner and clubbing, but they’re going retro to get their Vegas going.

7:58 p.m. Finally, a Luther Vandross video.

8:02 p.m. That lady still has her feet up.

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8:07 p.m. Two chain-smoking, White Russian-swilling gals at the bar have been joined by two devilish fellows they almost certainly met earlier tonight. The new arrivals announce themselves thusly: “You might recognize us from Nursing Home Orgies 4.” It is AVN weekend, after all.

8:42 p.m. The other lady at the fire pit has her feet up now.

9:49 p.m. My strategy to make it through this marathon was built on frequent visits through the day and night, but things fell apart. My lunch date no-showed, and my happy-hour date is running late. One of today’s discoveries is this: The peak of Las Vegas loneliness is sitting in a booth alone in the Fireside Lounge when the photographer who takes romantic souvenir shots of couples comes around, looks at you and then silently walks away. But reinforcements finally arrive.

10:42 p.m. I cannot drink the Blue Hawaiian right now. It’s so sweet. I want it, but I’ve waited too long. I’ve fallen behind any reasonable Peppermill pace. I should be slightly sloshed, sociable and snacky. I’m not. I flee the lounge for a fresh-air break and then—Bill from Brownsville! He’s back, at the counter eating soup. I throw my hands on his shoulders like we’re old friends and startle him. But he quickly remembers me. He’s surprised I haven’t given up yet.

11:05 p.m. The group smashed onto one sofa with me has become the biggest, loudest group in the lounge. If I didn’t know these people, I would observe and perhaps question them.

11:55 p.m. It’s club-sandwich time, so a few of us head to the restaurant. The lounge lighting has affected my sight. Does the girl a few booths down have pink hair, or is it just a crazy reflection in the window? I knew things would get weird, and apparently 16 hours is the mark. Be gentle, Peppermill.

1:15 a.m. I had two bites of sandwich. As they filed out of the building, my friends passed by our table, grabbing handfuls of fries.

In the lounge, an entirely new group has replaced us. In every nook, people are sagging into their seats and smiling. Two older Cuban men are having a heated conversation at the bar, the type where you can’t tell if they’re happy or angry, and their much younger female companion is picking at a mountain of nachos.

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1:39 a.m. A sleepy couple sit in a corner booth in the dining room, both wearing shorts and T-shirts, both methodically devouring identical, gigantic ice cream sundaes. It’s surreal.

1:49 a.m. Back in the bar, Becky and Bill are cranking out cocktails as Ruth finishes her shift. I ask if the romance of the Fireside Lounge causes inappropriate behavior, if they ever have to kick out amorous couples. “Not really kick them out, more just go over there with an ice bucket,” Ruth says.

It dawns on me, as I await chicken wings, that though I’ve been here so many times with so many different people, the only date I’ve ever brought is my lovely wife. I will have to make note of this in an effort to score some points with her. I guess I just did.

2:27 a.m. On the big screen in front of me and my wings, Gloria Estefan is riding across the stage on a giant alligator.

Becky, who’s been here 15 years, is in a weekly cycle of three swingshifts and two graveyards. She likes the latter, because a lot of industry people come in. Amazingly, she’s already prepping for the morning rush, making sure Bloody Mary stuff is stocked.

3:18 a.m. I was so curious what the lounge crowd would look like at this hour, but it’s slow—all the action’s in the restaurant. An energetic group of post-club diners has arrived, three-piece suits, grown-up prom dresses and lots of smudged makeup. Their orders are laughably insane. One quintet does turkey sausage with eggs, the Garden Omelet, the nachos, the crab cakes, fish and chips and a $35 bottle of Chandon. The diminutive, spiky-haired leader raises his arms in victory as the food arrives.

4:05 a.m. I’m a zombie. Destiny, the waitress who served my club sandwich, is concerned. “You’re back again? You okay?” A new waitress, Alma, offers me a menu when I sit down at the counter. “Not yet,” I say, and she looks me over, a weirdo scan. A cocktail server comes out of the lounge and checks on me, too.

Alma’s been here two years, always on the graveyard. “When I first started, you should have seen it. People get crazy. But it’s Vegas.” She seems capable of tolerating almost anything, but I might be the craziest person in the building now. Me from 20 hours ago would have interviewed weirdo me, the only man at the counter, ordering nothing to eat and sipping on a Pepsi. The Smeagol of the Peppermill.

4:48 a.m. Can I do the lounge? I can’t do the lounge. There’s a spot near the fire and I want it so bad but ... that might be lights out. Time for some fresh air.

6:11 a.m. I’m doing the lounge, and I’m kinda delirious. I’m sitting on the sofa nearest the fire pit, and my laptop is broadcasting the episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee where Jerry Seinfeld and George Wallace go to the Peppermill. You should watch it. But I’m not watching it. I’m getting revenge on the Blue Hawaiian, sweet ferocious revenge, and plotting whether I want French toast or a waffle.

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6:38 a.m. The sun is not quite up. Everyone in the dining room looks like they just woke up. They don’t see me lurking through the cherry blossoms like a ghost. I sit at a table I haven’t been seated at and wait for French toast I haven’t ordered.

6:45 a.m. Alma checks on me as she finishes her shift. I wonder if these super-nice people will be happy to see me finally leave. “Do you do this a lot?” she asks. What, stay awake for 24 hours? No. Who does that? “I do. I have kids.” I don’t. “You’re lucky.”

7:21 a.m. Rihanna is on in the lounge. Two giant men who work security at a Wynn nightclub are sitting at the bar discussing religion, specifically whether either of them has any. At the fire pit, two glamorous women are scrunched tightly into the corner, texting swiftly, tossing back long, fake hair, taking tiny bites of a quesadilla. I’m sitting by the fire, too, so cozy and sleepy and happy that I don’t know why I would ever leave this spot, and Zua is taking care of all of us.

I’m not even sure Zua is real. She says she’s been in Vegas all her life but only started working at the Peppermill three months ago. She sits on the steps between me and the strippers, I mean, dancers, and she must be real—a puff of wild, curly hair, kind eyes behind thick-framed glasses, red lipstick. It’s her name that gets me. I make her write it in my notebook: Zuayaremy. For real?

7:48 a.m. Rob the cook is back for his last shift of the week, and he’s a little shocked to see me. My objective was simply to be here for 24 hours, watch what happens, observe and record, but I ended up doing what I always do at the Peppermill, what everyone does here. I relaxed and enjoyed myself, had some food and drinks and forgot about real life. It’s what Las Vegas is for.

8:08 a.m. Breakfast is ramping up. The hostesses have been warned that a party of 13 is incoming. I see the same waitresses from yesterday carrying the same plates of eggs and pancakes and hash browns and bacon. It looks so good, I almost want to stay and order some.

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Brock Radke is Las Vegas Weekly's managing editor and has been writing about Las Vegas for more than 15 years.

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