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Behind the Line: All right in Reno
Rapscallion Seafood House & Bar diversifies, refines casual fine-dining concept
By Lauren Kramer
July 05, 2011
When you’ve been serving seafood in a landlocked state for the past 35 years and your doors are still open, you know you’re doing something right. At Rapscallion Seafood House & Bar in Reno, Nev., the 200-seat restaurant still bustles daily during lunch and dinner service inside its rich-toned wood booths. A few things have changed over the past three-and-a-half decades, but not much. The menu, once predominantly seafood, now features steaks and prime rib as well, both introduced in the past five years.
“The perception was that we were only a seafood house, and we wanted to appeal to a larger segment,” says Patrick Dalton, general manager. “We’re constantly fighting the perception that we’re a fine dining, expensive restaurant serving exclusively seafood.”
Still, 65 percent of diners opt for seafood at Rapscallion, where dinner entrées start at $22 for Oregon coast sand dabs, and go up to $37 for a pound of Alaska king crab legs.
Dalton describes the restaurant as casual fine dining with a hint of elegance thanks to Pat Kuleto’s architectural design, which is reminiscent of old-fashioned San Francisco-style restaurants. A large, wood-burning fireplace separates the stained glass bar from the dining room, its dark-hued booths offering diners quiet privacy. On the walls of the restaurant, celebrity guests over the years have scrawled on their photographs, expressing their gratitude to Rapscallion proprietor Warren Trepp.
In the kitchen, Executive Chef Ming Fong adds five daily specials to an already extensive menu that features 10 or more seafood species at any one time.
“I try to get the freshest seafood I can and pair it with seasonal ingredients,” says Fong, 43, whose father taught him to cook at the age of 8. The Reno native worked in a handful of local Chinese restaurants before joining Rapscallion 20 years ago and never looked back.
“I love the freedom I have here to create new dishes,” he says. “I can come out with new stuff daily.”
Fong receives seafood deliveries each day: trout from Idaho, Dungeness crab from California, sand dabs from Oregon and halibut from Alaska. He prepares them using an eclectic mix of cooking styles. Crispy Cajun coconut prawns are offered alongside sesame seed encrusted ahi sashimi and New England clam chowder. Among the entrées, Hawaiian ahi tuna is pan-seared and served Asian-style with soy ginger vinaigrette, while Alaska king crab legs are steamed and served with lemon garlic aioli.
The two most popular seafood dishes on the menu are the breaded Alaska halibut with shaved horseradish and the Chilean sea bass, which is served with bacon-wrapped asparagus and red chili hollandaise sauce. The majority of Rapscallion’s seafood is wild, with 10 percent farmed.
“I try to stay away from farm-raised product, but I need to get seafood that I can make money on, too,” Fong says.
The perception among guests is that wild seafood is of a higher quality than farmed, explains Dalton. “We know that’s not always the case, and that many fish fare better when raised in a farm, but the reality is that there’s more demand for wild seafood than farmed.”
Over the past five years, the restaurant has had to face several challenges. For one, the neighborhood in which it is located has changed and many locals have moved on to trendier areas. As with other restaurants, fuel hikes have affected Rapscallion’s bottom line when its purveyors transfer those surcharges to the restaurant. And federal increases in minimum wage have had a profound effect as Nevada’s hourly minimum wage, at $8.55, is higher than the federal minimum wage. That means a small increase percentage wise in the federal minimum wage can mean up to $30,000 extra in wages for the restaurant.
“Our customers are more sensitive to increased prices than they’ve ever been before, so we can’t pass these price fluctuations on to them,” Dalton says. “We don’t want to reduce the quality of our product, but we don’t want to raise our prices either.”
As a solution, Rapscallion’s menu has changed to fit the times. The 12-ounce lobster tail has been replaced by two 6-ounce lobster tails, and you can sample the product for $30 instead of $60. A 9-ounce steak fillet that once cost $38 is now available in a petite 4-ounce size for $20. And the number of happy-hour food items has increased, ranging in price from $3 to $10.
“We broadened it for the guest who wants to experience Rapscallion but doesn’t want to pay $15 to $20 for a meal,” Dalton says. “You can now get a glass of wine and a fish taco for less than $10.”
The extensive selection of more than 200 wines has also changed. In times past, a bottle of wine cost a minimum of $30 at the restaurant. Today you can purchase a bottle for $20. “We’ve put a lot of effort into giving our menu more value,” says Dalton.
Rapscallion is well known in the Reno community for its annual events. “We’ve had a golf tournament each year for 32 years, to raise funds for the Northern
Nevada Foundation, which distributes them to deserving charities in the area,” Dalton says. “Last year we raised $89,000. Locals also look forward to our St. Patrick’s Day party, which is the largest of its kind in all of Reno.”
The end result is that Rapscallion continues to buzz with activity during meal times. Recognized in town as “the good old boys meeting place,” it’s a restaurant where you could bump into the mayor sharing a meal with the Nevada governor (two frequent patrons) as easily as you might spot tourists having a quick bite to eat.Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in Richmond, British Columbia