If you happened to be walking down North Virginia Street in downtown Reno on January 12, you may have been drawn to something just a bit creepy.
The Nugget Casino, known as the “Little Nugget”—to distinguish it from the larger Nugget down the road in Sparks, which is the former John Ascuaga’s Nugget, as well as the Carson City Nugget, the Nugget Tattoo Parlor and many other assorted Nuggets in Northern Nevada—had a little sign by a makeshift door that invited people to “come on in.”
The reason it’s creepy is that this particular Nugget is a preserved carcass. The Little Nugget closed for good in July 2020, a victim of Covid. Its previously open front—a hallmark of those classic North Virginia Street casinos—has been shuttered for two and a half years. However, when the Nugget closed, its owner, Rick Heaney, got permission to keep his gaming license under a Nevada Gaming Control Board rule that lets an owner retain a casino license as long as the property is open for a minimum of eight hours per quarter.
Those eight hours this year were on January 12. A panel on the shuttered front was fashioned into a door, and a paper sign was placed next to it on which a handwritten message invited passersby into the dark space within. It looked like a trap. Someone had to figure there was some kind of group of gangsters inside ready to jump them, and abduct them into servitude on some other continent. (It’s what I thought, anyway.)
Inside the door was a dark space illuminated by 16 slot machines. I haven’t heard what the slot drop was for the day, but a few former Nugget fans evidently popped in to visit their deceased casino.
There were several media stories published about the one-day revival of the Nugget, and the lead paragraph in every single one of them emphasized that the Little Nugget was open for a shift, but “without the Awful Awful Burger.”
The heart of the Little Nugget was the Nugget Diner, and the heart of the diner was the Awful Awful Burger. So named because it was “awful big and awful good,” the half-pound meatfest, with traditional trimmings and house sauce—sitting, of course, on top of a pound of fries—was legendary in these parts. It was a monumental chowdown for $3.50.
The burger even led the stories in 2020 about the Little Nugget closing down. I looked. The prominent lead paragraph in every single story was, in essence, “no more Awful Awful Burger, because the Nugget’s closing down.” The burger was what defined the place as a local attraction. It was beloved.
So, you couldn’t turn on the lights in the diner, whip up a batch of Awful Awful Burgers and serve them for the eight hours the Little Nugget was open? Come on. I’m sure the former Nugget Diner folks would have done it, don’t you think?
The Reno City Council approved the business license letting the Little Nugget open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. One council member criticized the practice as hurting Reno’s downtown area by maintaining a vacant building. Personally, I hope the guy keeps the license long enough to reopen the Little Nugget, and the Nugget Diner.
I miss places like that. Reno was the first place I ever went to a casino, in 1985. I did a feature on a North Virginia Street legend, Harold’s Club, which had just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Harold’s Club started as a sawdust joint in 1935, and even when I visited 50 years later, it still had that old open-front cowboy casino feel.
One of the things Harold’s was famous for was the promotional campaign in the 1940s and 1950s cooked up by “Pappy” Smith, the father of owner Harold Smith, in which more than 2,000 billboards were placed on highways across the U.S., and eventually around the world, each with an arrow marking the direction and the number of miles to Harold’s Club. There was even one on the North Pole.
When I did the story, they gave me a ride around town in this promotional limousine with longhorns on the front and silver dollars embedded across the exterior. They had a cowboy driving me around. I still have a picture.
Places like that on North Virginia Street had character. Just like the Nugget Diner and its Awful Awful Burger. Maybe it will open back up. I know I’m up for a famous chowdown. I’ll keep the antacids handy.