Las Vegas, 5am: David Cooper, 46, has his breakfast. Photograph: Joshua Stein
It’s just before 5am at the Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge in Las Vegas when David Cooper, his eyes still smudged with kohl, pushes open the door. He’s wearing a tight Whitesnake T-shirt under a leather jacket, and spikes of his blond hair are wilting after a long night. The sky over Las Vegas is still deep black, beyond the neon lights.
Cooper – a 46-year-old former sex club owner turned rock’n’roll singer – walks past a solitary bank of flashing slot machines. A cheery waitress greets him and ushers him into the Fireside Lounge.
The Peppermill, rather ingeniously, is bifurcated. Angels of night occupy the lounge; angels of day the restaurant. In the pre-dawn hours the lounge, with its low-lying sofas and hexagonal tables, is remarkably full. Around the fire slump the night owls, the early birds, the oblivion seekers.
The Peppermill in Las Vegas. Photograph: Joshua Stein
Since it opened in 1972, the Peppermill has attracted winners, losers, winners who think they’re losing and losers convinced they’re on top. This morning, couples sit in varying stages of stupefaction. An older man slumps on his wife’s shoulder as she sips a glowing cocktail. At the bar, where keno machines are embedded on the counter, a few lonely men sit, underlit like horror villains. Cooper glances around and heads to the restaurant side.
You’ll find 24/7 restaurants in nearly every city and town in America. But in Las Vegas, where night and day blur into one, a 24/7 joint takes on a unique character. Without the circadian rhythms of sunrises and sunsets, time takes on an undulating shape, not unlike the outline of the Spring mountains in the distance. So it is at the Peppermill, where low-to-the-ground purple neon lights give the dining room a Space Odyssey feel, and two fake cherry trees remain in perpetual bloom mounted on the banquettes.
Add to this the gasoline that runs the place – the adrenaline, the addictive ka-ching of the slot machine arm, the melodic adhans of the blackjack dealer – and minutes, hours and days seem irrelevant markers.
“I feel like it’s still on here,” says Cooper, “Something is still happening and, well, there’s plenty of parking.”
Cooper is right, of course. It’s neverland in here.
Mary Randall, the manager of the graveyard shift, started at the Peppermill as a cocktail waitress after running away from a bad situation with a month-old son. Now her son is a cook, and Mary’s a manager with a 401K, benefits and a late-night smile. She says she knows enough to welcome guests with both a “Good morning … or good evening” when they walk into the door. One good indicator is, of course, their order. The menu is voluminous, as at thousands of diners like it, and the portions are notoriously generous.
A four-deep stack of pancakes arrives, overhanging the plate like a too-large duvet. A perfectly round ball of soft butter sits on top like a pouf pillow. Omelettes have 10 eggs. A fruit salad consists of a pineapple boat, oranges, bananas, watermelon, honeydew, grapes, kiwi, strawberry and pears. It comes with marshmallow sauce.
Many of the breakfast favorites come in skillets, perhaps a nod to the restaurant’s roots in Reno, Nevada, or perhaps just because no plate could hold the amalgam of sautéed peppers, onions, linguica sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, hash browns, eggs and cheese that makes up Munch’s Breakfast, a favorite.
Pancakes at the Peppermill. Photograph: Joshua Stein
But if breakfast is available at any time, so too is dinner.
A three-top of Russian-speaking men wearing tight shirts hungrily devour cheeseburgers and fries. As the plates are cleared, one of the men gently puts his head on the table and dozes off. In a neighboring booth, sit three women from Texas – Adriana, D’ana, and Elena. They have spent the night in clubs and wearily tumble out of their dresses. D’ana seems as if the night has gotten the better of her, staring glumly into her phone and ignored the chicken caesar salad in front of her. Elena reaches across the table to pick at Adriana’s french fries. “Aw mom!” says Adriana, annoyed.
In the back, three more young women, who arrived just as dawn broke, wear plush sweatsuits and are accompanied by a sullen man in a hooded sweatshirt. They order french toasts and bagels.
One of them, Jazmine – that’s with a Z, she specified – says they often wind up at the Peppermill at the end of the night. “It’s a good place to sober up after a night’s work.” But when I ask of what that work consisted, the three girls laugh nervously. Amanda, twirling a bagel coyly around her finger, says, “Just call us hustlers.”
But the Peppermill isn’t just the terminal of a debauched night. The counter is lined with casino workers fresh off their shifts and others getting ready to go.
At one end of the counter, 76-year-old James Spear sits with his wife, 74-year-old Barbara. Spear wears a Kangol bucket hat and an oversized blazer with a crest that reads, “Century Security”. He is a security guard, it turns out, for the convention center. She works at the convention center too. “We come here every morning,” says his wife, “so we can just spend some time together.”
Barbara and James moved to Las Vegas from Paramus, New Jersey, 16 years ago. They have been married for 52. “I had just come back from the service,” James explains, “and I saw her at the Paramus skating rink. I told her I needed a sergeant to tell me what to do.” Barbara chimed in, “And I still tell him what to do!”
Back in his booth, Cooper has invited some friends over. He’s halfway through his regular order (a turkey club sandwich, which he dips in a pool of ketchup, and a side order of strawberries and pineapples) when Mary walks by. Cooper stops her to say, “You know, Mary, I was thinking about people who mean a lot to me tonight and I thought of you.” A genuine smile turns up the corners of Mary’s mouth and creases her eyes into tender crinkles. “Aw, thanks, honey.” She tells me, “We really are like family here.”
It’s 7am and the sun has risen. There’s a storm coming, and the morning sky is blindingly incandescent. Speakers play Don’t Stop Believing into the desert air. A few cabbies mill about, waiting for fares to take back to the strip. Even they take a moment to gaze upward, and for once in this city stuck in man-made dusk, morning is triumphant.