DECK: Nostalgia, irony and the need for escape have kept the Peppermill a favorite of tourists and locals alike for 40 years
My dearest Peppermill memory is from 2002 — September 11, 2002, to be exact. It was the first anniversary of what I have come to call “Never Forget Day.” I lived less than two miles from the World Trade Center, so reminders weren’t exactly necessary, especially not 72-hour long, 16-channel (30-during-prime time) reminders. The now-defunct National Airlines was offering $1 flights on 9/11/02, so I and two similarly overwhelmed friends fled to the most oblivious place in the world: Las Vegas. We all arrived at McCarran at different times and agreed the most comforting place to land would be the Peppermill’s Fireside Lounge.
Shielding our eyes from the sun and the newsstands, one by one we made a beeline past waitresses in bobby sox hefting hubcap-sized patty melts and pushed through the smoked glass doors of the Fireside Lounge — home to the magical, legendary pool of bubbling electric-blue water with an orange-red jet of flame shooting up in the middle. We sank into the cushions, drank Blue Hawaiians, nibbled on honey-roasted peanuts and actually watched TV — all three screens were tuned to The E! True Hollywood Story of Loni Anderson, and a less stress-inducing piece of videotape would be hard to find. We weren’t ignoring the world, but at least here we had some space between us and it.
The Peppermill has been there for 40 years, largely thanks to a split personality. It’s both the all-night diner of youth and the posh lounge of adulthood; a must-see experience for tourists and a beloved stalwart of locals. The building has stayed the same, although the sign out front has changed (and, of course, the video screens … more on that shortly), wrapped inside and out with stripes of blue, pink and purple neon and blocky, 1970s serif fonts.
You enter through the dining room, a fairyland of synthetic cherry blossom trees amidst a forest of purple velour banquettes. Waitresses in cheerleader skirts ferry huge, gargantuan, brontosauran plates of food to patrons that range from extended families to biker gangs. The Peppermill specializes in jumbo portions of comfort food: French toast ambrosia in the morning, pastrami burgers in the afternoon, Southern-fried steak in the evening and onion rings and a beer after Charo’s late show at the Riviera. (I find it highly ironic that a place where a single dish can probably hold upwards of 3,000 calories has also hosted lingerie shoots for the Victoria’s Secret catalog.)
But the main attraction has always been the Fireside Lounge, all burgundy plush booths, brass railings and flattering lighting — and dig that crazy disco-ball ceiling! In the center, the mighty fire pit. Robert DeNiro gave Sharon Stone about five carats in diamonds and $100 to tip the bathroom attendant on this very spot in Casino. Usually the canoodling couples run a bit more Schenectady than Sin City — “The kids are finally old enough to be left alone, let’s go to Vegas!” Maybe in the back there’s a post-reception wedding party, the bride swigging a Bud Light, followed by a club sandwich-chewing bridesmaid. Or a guy in a button-down in search of a cigar, couple of hipsters wide-eyed at the irony of it all.
The Peppermill’s cocktail menu has remained unchanged for decades — pastel daiquiris, golden bubbling Champagne cocktails and, of course, the huge, vivid, heavily garnished Bloody Mary. They are borne from sunken bar to black-glass table by waitresses with backless black evening dresses and Kelly Garrett hair. The only flaw in the Fireside Lounge’s glamorous time-warp is the video screens. The cursed, cursed video screens. They appeared about six years ago and have rather dented the serene, vaguely swingers vibe with their nonstop Don Henley and Beyoncé. No one likes the video screens, but everyone loves the Peppermill, so we bear it (and occasionally turn off the nearest one).
Most Las Vegas legends live on only in our memories — Liberace, Elvis, pre-mauling Siegfried & Roy. Even the brick-and-pavement versions don’t hold up forever. Yet, even as the Stardust flashes out and the grinning neon clown of Circus Circus menaces us all, this place remains. Whether you need a mai tai, a four-egg omelet or a few hours’ escape, you can always go to the Peppermill and the Peppermill will always be there.