In the early '90s, when I moved to Henderson, Nev., from Orange County as a high school freshman, the town was a blot in the desert. The air was dry and crisp and often filled with the buzzing chorus of locusts and overworked swamp coolers. Downtown Henderson, just 15 miles from the lights of Las Vegas, was a mismatched assortment of slightly run-down buildings lining Water Street, and there was only one high school, named Basic High--after a local employer, not because it was mediocre.
The place to be in those days was the Skyline Casino, a two-story, white stucco affair framed by wide stretches of vast nothingness along Boulder Highway. The parking lot was bigger than the building itself. Inside, the blue-hairs played nickel slots and $1 blackjack, puffed on cigarettes and nursed watery drinks. The whole thing was awash in neon, and the blips and bleeps from the video poker machines were almost melodic.
In the back of this smoky den of iniquity sat a culinary gem, arguably the best thing to come out of Henderson since . . . well, anything. It was the casino's restaurant, where a penny less than a buck got you two eggs (any style), bacon (or sausage), hash browns and biscuits and gravy (or two pieces of toast). If you were a big spender, an extra buck got you a cup of joe.
It was fast, it was greasy, it was good. We called it, simply and proudly, "The 99-Cent Breakfast."
Locals knew to line up early. My fellow pimple-faced yearbook nerds, theater dorks, mathletes and I often began our school days tearing through mountains of triglyceride-boosting fare and talking about Mr. Smuskiewicz and his big forehead. Because there was little else a high school kid in Henderson could do for fun, weekends were similar.
Family occasions, from weddings to graduations to funerals, also were punctuated by The 99-Cent Breakfast. We trotted our out-of-town visitors to the Skyline so they could marvel at what I at one point dubbed "The World's Cheapest Breakfast." (We lived, after all, in the shadow of Vegas, the Town of Superlatives, home of the "World's Biggest Buffet" and "The Loosest Slots in the World.") Paris had the Eiffel Tower, Rome the Colosseum. Henderson had The 99-Cent Breakfast.
One summer, I had the privilege of working at the Skyline as a busboy. In those days, I never bothered to figure out how it and other casinos were able to offer such inexpensive eats, but now that I'm an adult I know enough to reveal, with confidence, that the joints with all-you-can-eat offerings and the like figure you'll throw some coins in the slot machines along the way to your eggs-over-easy. (To wit: My mother once dropped 200 bucks while waiting for a table. That was a $200.99 breakfast, folks, not including caffeine or tip.)
After I moved to Los Angeles for college, I often drove to Henderson just for the famous feast. And to see my folks, of course. From Baker Grade to Barstow and past the peculiarly named Zzyzx Road, I'd fantasize about the slippery eggs and oily meatstuffs, the red pleather booths, the Flo-"Kiss My Grits"-like waitresses with beehives and large hoop earrings. And about paying 99 cents for a whole meal.
Time passed. Henderson--a.k.a. Henderhole, as locals now call it--became one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. Tract homes sprouted in gated communities. Out went the run-down storefronts on Water Street; today it's a boulevard of wide sidewalks, palm trees and pink-and-beige gravel beds.
Naturally, as more and more escapees fled Southern California to set up camp in the desert, not only the look but the ways and customs of Henderson were bound to change. As were the prices. And so it is that, with a heavy heart, I report that The 99-Cent Breakfast today costs $4.95. (The mathletes among us will calculate the increase as 400%.) The cup of coffee, though still bottomless, will set you back $1.75.
I have yet to make the pilgrimage, but I've kept up with events. Word from an insider--OK, it's my cousin--is that the Skyline has gone to hell in a handbasket. The crowds are gone, which is a bonus, but the portions are smaller, the quality not as good and the service terrible. And did I mention the part about the price going up 400%? Sure, anything less than five bucks is pretty reasonable for a meal. But there is simply no ring to "The $4.95 Breakfast."
And, these days, Henderson might just as well be Vegas.