I’m adding The Peppermill in Las Vegas to my Favorite Restaurants in the World list—right alongside the Gare de Bonnieux in Provence, Les Delices in Alexandria, Egypt, and the Dioforo in Athens. It takes its place not as purveyor of extraordinary food—braised veal cheeks daubed with wild rosemary is an easy find in Vegas—but for more elusive qualities. Maybe it was the waitresses in their Heidi-esque uniforms, or maybe it was the grove of artificial cherry trees, but I could sense the bonds of affection and loyalty forming the minute I stepped inside.
The Peppermill is old Vegas, retro Vegas, vintage Vegas, the city as it’s been cast in the imagination through film and photo, the one with glamorous women wrapped in fur stoles and men wearing skinny ties. The decor is 70s, but it’s the 70′s redoing the 50′s, so the arc of simulated nostalgia extends further back than it might first appear… and further forward. Built forty years ago, recent facelifts have factored in the postmodern penchant for making new things look old. All this adds up: the Peppermill has a continuous identity (rare in the Vegas of 2012) and a real history. It’s fresh and dated at the same time.
In a city where top restaurants opt for a rigorously understated decor—detailing is an anathema to current tenets of good taste—the Peppermill flaunts a lush, romantic garden theme. Jasmine and Birds of Paradise shelter the tables, and flowering fruit trees spread their blossoms across the ceiling as if reaching to artificial suns, the points of light reflected in the mirrors overhead. Nearly every surface is upholstered in thick, velvety plush, in color combinations of rose, azure, teal, lavender, carnation, ultramarine. Purple and pink neon runners edge the horseshoe-shaped booths, clustered like botanical islands throughout the main room. Nearly everything is rounded and curved, including the Tiffany flamingo lamps above the tables, and the long, low lunch counter with its 50s diner appeal.
Nestled in my bower and taking it all in, I realized that the reduction of right angles, combined with the deep blossom palette, created a relaxing ambience that was neither pretentious nor forced. A cadre of social scientists could not have done better than the Peppermill’s interior designer. I succumbed. I scooted closer to my companion without really even noticing I had done so. I lowered my calorie guard and ordered dessert.
Peppermill fare is mainstream American, with a bit of Mexican and even an improbable (and delicious) crème brulée factored in. Since the restaurant is open 24/7, it serves breakfast round the clock—along with crab cakes, burgers, BLTs, steaks and broiled fish. The portions are generous, the food fresh, and service efficient. The waitresses wear white, button-down shirts and short skirts with suspenders. It is one of the few places in Vegas where billowing cleavage is not part of the job description. Good legs are. When the waitresses bend over—they wear support hose and white tennies—their matching panties peek from beneath the hem.
Although the lights of Circus Circus and the Riviera Casino blink in the tinted windows, the Peppermill reclines, oblivious, at once in the center of the action and apart. One of the few freestanding structures left on the Strip, it has a parking lot in front of the building, like the imploded casinos of yore before they were replaced by gargantuan resorts. Because the Peppermill sits back from the road, most visitors don’t notice its cheerful neon signage, let alone broach the nondescript side entryway. All the better. Locals like myself can sit contentedly in the booths amid the foliage while pop music plays at a conversable volume and the one video screen, at the end of the lunch counter, slowly rolls shots of waterfalls and gardens.
After we’d paid up, we wandered into the Fireside Lounge, the Peppermill’s separate bar, where I gazed with wonder at a sunken, circular booth. In the center, a fire slowly burned, its flames lapping out of a small pool of water. The mirrors, color scheme and curves carry in from the restaurant, but the lighting is dimmed, the booths low and cozy. Instead of foliage, soft pink and purple neon outline the ceiling. The mood in the Fireside is yesteryear and intimate, almost as if Dean Martin might be sitting at the bar, ordering a very dry martini. Kitsch has never been so good, I thought, as I stepped down into the cozy conversation pit for a nightcap.