4th Street Bistro
Without trend or hype, Reno eatery remains a bold choice.
STORY BY ENGRID BARNETT
PHOTOS BY KIPPY S. SPILKER
As a mainstay of Reno’s culinary culture for close to two decades, 4th Street Bistro continues to flourish. An impressive feat in an industry known for ridiculously high failure rates—around 80 percent within the first five years, according to CNBC—4th Street Bistro bucked the trend. Along the way, Chef Natalie Sellers (of Chez Panisse distinction) and General Manager Carol Wilson have inspired a few northern Nevada restaurant trends, including the use of seasonal, sustainable, organic ingredients in all of their preparations and the inclusion of gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan menu fare.
But no matter how good the food, a restaurant’s ultimate success requires more than palate pleasers. The secret ingredient for 4th Street Bistro? According to Carol, “We’ve never, ever cut corners, and we’re both very proud of that.”
The story of how Natalie and Carol launched a successful and influential restaurant in northern Nevada starts in the most unlikely of locations, a quaint mid-century bungalow well-removed from Reno’s neon-lit, casino-dominated downtown core.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
While the secluded address might appear counterproductive to the success of a high-end enterprise, the location represents a kind of geographic muse for Natalie and Carol. In fact, it was the location that lured them from the dynamic San Francisco dining scene where both enjoyed highly successful careers.
“We’ve never thought about being anywhere but here. It’s because of the charm of the building. This is the only place that we want to be,” Carol says.
Dating to 1945, the cozy structure feels far more like a home than a restaurant. Indeed, guests may be surprised to find that all of its incarnations have been as restaurants. In past days, Old Highway 40 provided ample traffic to the area. Today, Natalie’s delicacies and Carol’s attention to detail provide the powerful draw.
Regular patrons flock from as far as the Bay Area, Southern California, and Las Vegas, and celebrities stop by, too. Natalie and Carol speak fondly of entertaining Patrick Stewart of “Star Trek” fame. Nevada’s version of California restaurant The French Laundry, according to one of their Southern California devotees, 4th Street Bistro earned the Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence for seven consecutive years. The Huffington Post noted, “4th Street Bistro [is] doing [its] part to bring appreciation and understanding to the west, elevating the food culture of Reno.”
IT STARTS HERE
Natalie and Carol achieved this success through hard work, non-negotiable standards of excellence, and focus on a clear concept that drives all aspects of their business to this day: to offer the finest, cleanest cuisine in the region. From melt-in-your-mouth, organically sourced duck rillettes with fig or apricot mostarda, cornichons, and grainy mustard atop freshly baked crostini to tender morsels of herb-grilled lamb loin chops, Chef Natalie crafts some of the best dining in Reno. What’s more, the cuisine served at 4th Street Bistro is local, organic, sustainable, and never created using factory-farmed ingredients. Natalie and Carol stand behind the local farmers and purveyors who supply their ingredients, and they take pains to support humane animal husbandry.
This refusal to settle for less, plus a deep-seated awareness of the problem’s plaguing America’s food industry, led Natalie to spearhead a local food movement in northern Nevada back in 2000 when the restaurant first opened.
“When we first moved here, the farmer’s market was very small, the one on California Avenue, and there was only one organic producer there, Bill Meywalt,” Nancy recalls. “He had a little teeny booth, and he grew one kind of tomato, celebrity tomatoes.”
She asked Bill to expand his enterprise, and he started cultivating and providing her with heirloom tomatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, spring garlic, and Japanese and Chinese eggplants.
Soon, other nearby organic producers entered the picture including Churchill Butte Organics, a solar-powered, off-the-grid, organically certified producer out of Stagecoach. Run by Steve and Marcia Litsinger, Churchill Butte Organics’ relationship with 4th Street Bistro blossomed as the Litsingers cultivated herbs, chervil, Miner’s lettuce, and other unusual greens for the restaurant. A food revolution was born.
Today, along with Bill Meywalt, City Green Gardens—owned and operated by Craig Frezzette with his wife Gail and his son Cole—provide much of the bistro’s produce. Jacobs Family Berry Farm—owned by Diana and Jack Jacobs—contributes the intensely flavorful berries highlighted in many of the bistro’s recipes during the warm-weather months.
Naturally, the bistro’s menu evolved with the expanding availability of locally sourced, organic products, and it remains Natalie’s job to craft this fresh produce into innovative, mouthwatering cuisine.
“At first, I thought that Reno was going to be how it used to be…meat and potatoes. That they wouldn’t welcome things that I was used to doing in the Bay Area, but they came around,” she says.
A quick scan of the menu reveals a multitude of reasons why Reno patrons quickly “came around” and continue to do so. Among the bistro’s signature dishes is the O’Liberty duck confit featuring a crispy leg of duck served atop a bed of black beluga lentils, roasted beets, wilted spinach, and aioli. The Porcini-dusted and pan-seared sea scallops, served with pea and pancetta risotto showcasing New Harvest Farm’s pea shoots and mushrooms, tantalizes visitors’ palates. The braised Durham Ranch bison short ribs, pan-roasted Alaskan halibut, and cabernet-braised Niman Ranch lamb shank offer other gastronomic marvels, and that’s just a small cross section of their menu.
Raising Reno’s culinary standards and expectations did not come without bumps, though. One of the greatest challenges of featuring seasonal cuisine involves explaining to customers why they won’t get iceberg lettuce with tomatoes in the dead of winter.
Natalie explains, “I cook things with the seasons, with the availability. I don’t really go by trends.”
That statement makes Natalie’s uncanny ability to foresee trends all the more fascinating. For example, the restaurant’s menu contains an impressive array of gluten-free items, and it always has. The bistro also accommodates vegetarian and vegan diners with diverse selections both on and off the main menu. Finally, Natalie prepares a nightly offering of menu additions based on the available produce and creative inspiration. Many gourmet gems well worth a diner’s attention glitter on this list including a savory homemade cream of mushroom soup topped with Chantilly.
A SELECTION WORTH TOASTING
Accompanying elegant presentations of award-winning, contemporary food stands an impressive reserve wine list. From full-bodied cabernets like Napa Valley’s 2003 Colgin Tychson Hill to flavorful reds like Ventura’s 2006 Sine Qua Non Raven No. 1 Grenache or buttery whites like Sonoma’s 2007 Dumol Isobel, Carol handpicks extraordinary bottles. Their staff—most of whom have worked at the restaurant for more than a decade—is imminently skilled at pairing hors d’oeuvres, soups, salads, main courses, and desserts with select wines and cocktails.
Although the star of the show remains the bistro’s innovative, contemporary cuisine, the setting is worth note. Warm, comfortable, and fittingly elegant, the restaurant overlooks the distant dazzle of Reno’s downtown corridor. In late spring and throughout the summer, guests are beckoned to the outside terrace, which is surrounded, by glittering garden lights and rustic landscaping. Inside, patrons enjoy an equally intimate ambience surrounded by carefully selected fin-de-siècle French prints straight out of Toulouse-Lautrec’s imagination and the subtle overtones of jazz.
“Old school and charming” as Carol puts it, the atmosphere expertly enhances the overall dining experience making the 4th Street Bistro a divine spot for a unique, satisfying evening.
TASTE THE SENSATION
4th Street Bistro
3065 W. 4th St.
Reno, NV 89523