It’s a take-your-breath-away-cold, late January evening in Gardnerville, Nevada, but the Christmas decorations still hang at JT Basque Bar & Dining Room.
Nobody appears to care.
It’s a mostly local crowd that’s tightly packed around the old Western bar and customers spill into the rest of the room. You can tell the first-timers (like us); they’re the ones staring at all the folded dollar bills stuck to the ceiling and the collection of former customers’ hats mounted behind the bar.
The JT is obviously a popular watering hole, but it’s the food we’ve come for.
The family-style meals are nearly the same as they were when the restaurant was a boarding house for Basque sheepherders. We’re talking four courses (salad, Basque beans, stew and soup) before we even get to the entrée.
Also included in the price: red wine, soft drinks, ice cream and coffee. (All but the soup is gluten-free, but call ahead and they’ll make a gluten-free batch.)
Unlike the old days, there are several entrées, but there’s no menu. Our friendly and efficient server announces the choices.
It’s safe to say that the JT is a favorite here in Carson Valley, a broad, high-desert plain nearly enclosed by the stunning, snow-covered Sierras and the Pinenut Mountains. The valley’s three towns — Gardnerville, Minden and Genoa — lie southeast of Lake Tahoe; Carson City is only 20 minutes north.
Visitors come to the valley for the scenery, to learn its history and to revel in the wide-open countryside. There is hiking; horseback riding; skiing; snowmobiling; hot air ballooning; water activities at nearby Topaz Lake; golf; and annual events like Carson Valley Days; the 90-year-old Candy Dance; Genoa’s Cowboy Poetry Music Festival; and winter’s Eagles & Agriculture (more on that in the next column) and more.
Earlier, we met JT co-owner J.B. Lekumberry, whose father, Jean, immigrated from Europe’s Basque Country with three brothers.
All returned but Jean, who worked as a sheepherder among other jobs, then bought the JT boarding house. His children — Robert, J.B. and Marie Louise — grew up playing and working in the restaurant and in the valley’s great outdoors.
After Jean died in 1993, J.B. and Marie Louise took charge.
“The freedom to enjoy the outdoors was practically uninhibited,” J.B. says, “(and) growing up in the restaurant, I was able to meet a lot of wonderful people and a great many characters.”
J.B. and wife Lisa live in nearby Genoa on her family’s historic, 350-acre ranch, known as Ranch No. 1, so named because it is the first recorded land claim in Nevada.
Lisa’s family bought it in 1909 — five generations ago — and now she’s in charge.
“Growing up in Genoa was special because we had a close-knit community and did potluck dinners at different holidays,” she recalls. “We had our Halloween hayride every year, and I got to get on my horse every day after school. (Carson Valley) is a beautiful place to live and I’ve always just wanted to live on the ranch.”
In a unique arrangement, the Lekumberrys graze their grass-fed cattle on 400 acres that belong to the adjacent River Fork Ranch Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy.
“I guess it is unique,” says J.B. of an organization that typically guards their lands for habitat restoration and conservation. “I’ve been happily surprised with what the Nature Conservancy is doing. I think they are doing a great job of partnering.”
And the arrangement brings other benefits.
“Yes, interfacing with the public like we do at the River Fork Ranch is a little more unusual than what I’m used to,” Lisa adds, “because … people walk through on the trail while we are working our cattle.”
Ironically, J.B. comes from sheepherder stock; Lisa’s forbearers are cattle ranchers. Historically, the two factions have waged legendary wars over grazing rights in the West.
“Love is a very strange thing,” muses J.B. “Historically, there was competition for feed. By the time Lisa and I were born, other entities were trying to kick cowboys and sheepherders all off the land, so we needed to stick together.”