San Diego-area casinos raise the steaks
You’re nestled into a sumptuous velvet booth next to a crackling fireplace and listening to the soothing sounds of a pianist tickling the ivories.
Your waiter delivers an amuse bouche while handing you a warm towel for your hands. You peruse a menu brimming with delectable options and a carefully curated award-winning wine list.
You could be at a four-star New York restaurant — or at any one of the seven casino steakhouses in the San Diego area.
Like hotels and spas, these showcase dining spots occupy a rarefied role at area casinos, having evolved into a signature luxury amenity that draw gamblers and non-players alike.
Ensconced away from the hubbub of the gaming floor, San Diego’s steakhouse seven could rival any of the finest restaurants of their kind in town. From Temecula to Jamul and everywhere in between, they feature clubby, sophisticated decor, romantic lighting, polished service and elevated fare that goes beyond beef.
The steakhouse is where the casinos’ top chefs can flex their buffest culinary muscles, whipping up innovative appetizers, seafood dishes, desserts and, of course, steak, from the finest ingredients they can procure.
“When people go to casinos locally or Las Vegas, the steakhouse has always been the premier restaurant to flock to,” said Roy Hillis, vice president for food and beverage at Pala Casino Spa & Resort.
“The steakhouse is a place for celebrations, it’s a more elegant dining experience and you’re transported outside the casino.”
So whether you’re looking for a special place to hold a birthday dinner or you’re just craving a delicious, grown-up night out, here’s what makes each San Diego-area casino steakhouses a distinctive dining option.
Barona Oaks Steakhouse
Barona Resort & Casino
The meal: From the jumbo crab cake described as “all killer and no filler” to the garlicky, Pernod-spiked escargot, there’s no bad choice when ordering your first course. Just don’t get too full: the steaks are all hand-cut in-house and cooked on a wood-burning grill. Barona has its own dry-aging room, where the USDA Prime meat spends 21 days developing flavor and tenderness. Serious steak lovers should look for the ultra-marbled domestic wagyu from Idaho’s famed Snake River Farms or the giant dry-aged long-bone ribeye, priced by the ounce and ranging from 32 to 50 ounces.
The chef: Chef de cuisine Michael Davis, who honed his San Diego fine-dining cred at Pamplemousse Grille and Dobson’s.
Point of distinction: We love the easy-to-read back-lit digital menus and the exciting yet exceptionally reasonable wine list. But it’s the skill and charm of longtime pianist Jonathan Zarzosa that makes Barona Oaks truly memorable.
Details: 1932 Wildcat Canyon Road, Lakeside. Closed Mondays. Reservations: (619) 328-3126 or barona.com
Harrah’s Resort Southern California
The meal: If one dish exemplifies Fiore’s penchant for culinary creativity, it would be the quail-stuffed tortellini with buttered spaghetti squash, blueberry goat cheese sauce and a garnish of mouth-rocking Pop Rocks. Even the classics are given a twist: the lobster tail comes with tomato, oranges and foie gras, and the calamari is served with mojo verde, blue Curaçao and sweet chili. But don’t think steaks are an afterthought here. In this area, tradition is not turned on its head.
The chef: Chef Amanda Colello has clearly been influenced by her time at Per Se in New York, working for legend Thomas Keller.
Point of distinction: Harrah’s Resort SoCal is a prime party spot, making Fiore on New Year’s Eve party central. Chef Colello’s black-and-gold themed menu includes her modern take on mac ’n’ cheese: squid ink pasta with creamy mornay sauce and sous vide chicken.
Details: 777 Harrah’s Rincon Way, Funner. Open nightly. Reservations: (760) 751-3100 or harrahssocal.com/taste/fiore.
Hollywood Casino Jamul-San Diego
The feel: With its high-end finishes, swanky Tinseltown glamour and picture windows affording sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, Final Cut perfectly captures the juxtaposition of Hollywood and Jamul.
The meal: Hollywood Casino puts a premium on the dining experience — and nowhere is that more evident than at Final Cut. From the in-house sommelier to the skilled kitchen, this steakhouse earns its four-star reviews. The A-list menu includes a lump-tastic crab cake with citrus marinated asparagus and fennel, caper berries and gourmet tarter sauce and a juicy slab of expertly seared prime New York steak with chimichurri worthy of an Argentine parrilla. Long after the credits, we’re still dreaming of the truffled mac ’n’ cheese and the pillowy beignets with caramel sauce.
The chef: Sous chef Michael Montoya, formerly of Fiore at Harrah’s SoCal, aims to transform dinner into a red-carpet event.
Point of distinction: True to its Hollywood name, Final Cut exhibits authentic movie costumes worn by such stars as Christopher Reeve, Will Smith, Natalie Wood, Daniel Craig, Halle Berry, Marilyn Monroe and Tobey Maguire.
Details: 14145 Campo Road, Jamul. Open Wednesday-Sunday. Reservations: (619) 315-2279 or on OpenTable at bit.ly/2mwvPF0.
The Oak Room
Pala Casino Spa & Resort
The feel: Like the AAA Four Diamond resort itself, The Oak Room is a study in white-tablecloth refined elegance.
The meal: A classic upscale steakhouse, The Oak Room grills its 28-day aged Prime and Black Angus beef at 1,600 degrees, finishes the steaks with primo butter and serves them in a sizzling pan. Customize your surf and turf with your choice of cut and seafood specialties like Australian lobster tail or King crab legs. Don’t miss the luxurious lobster bisque in a warm, flaky puff pasty dome — it’s worth the trip in itself.
The chef: Executive chef Robert Camerota, a veteran of top-of-the-line Las Vegas dining.
Point of distinction: The Oak Room has hands-down the most extensive selection of fine wines — 1,600 bottles from 550 different labels — thanks to the collection at Pala’s underground wine cave. Blockbuster Napa cabernets abound. Hey big spender, may I suggest a vertical of Quintessa?
Details: 11154 Highway 76, Pala. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Reservations: (760) 510-4540 or palacasino.com.
Great Oak Steakhouse
Pechanga Resort & Casino
The feel: Stately, serene yet grand, The Great Oak is worthy of carrying the name of the 1,800-year-old, 100-foot tree where Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians have gathered for generations.
The meal: This AAA Four Diamond steakhouse hits all of the key notes: first-rate service, wine selection, premium seafood and beef, plus a smattering of creative dishes, like the Cajun-seared lamb chop appetizer with roasted garlic potato aioli. Visit on a Sunday for the Châteaubriand special, a 20-ounce USDA prime tenderloin for two, with potato, vegetable and artisan breads for $110.
The chef: Chef Martín Venegas, whose mission is to offer approachable fine dining.
Point of distinction: The Great Oak’s secret weapon is Pechanga’s executive pastry chef, Jean-Jacques Granet. The French-born and trained Granet has created sugar magic from Cannes to Buenos Aires and at the ultra-posh Mansion at MGM Grand. Skip dessert? Sacré bleu!
Details: 45000 Pechanga Parkway, Temecula. Open nightly. Reservations: (951) 770-8507 or pechanga.com/eat/the-great-oak-steakhouse.
Valley View Casino & Hotel
The feel: From the warm hand towels to the amuse bouche, complimentary post-dessert desserts and first-rate wine flights, Black&Blue has the air of a celebrity chef-run, $300 per-person restaurant.
The meal: At this steakhouse, even the bread course tastes like quality. Four homemade varieties are offered (the flaky roll is a buttery cross between a popover and a croissant), alongside house-churned butter and whipped mascarpone. You could choose to stop there but then you’d miss the superlative Caesar, juicy Brandt Beef filet mignon and killer warm chocolate cake. Those dishes also happen to be on the bargain-priced three-course $40 menu. Stand-out à la carte choices include duck tacos, King Crab gnocchi, the 10-ounce wagyu burger and Sonoma rack of lamb.
The chef: Executive chef Michael Knowles, who worked for the quintessential celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck.
Point of distinction: The “Ultimate Surf & Turf” is listed for $85 but you actually gamble for its cost — it’s a casino after all. A Black&Blue manager discreetly rolls a card table over and you pick a card, any card, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get your steak and lobster for free.
Details: 16300 Nyemii Pass Road, Valley Center. Open Thursday-Sunday. Reservations: (760) 291-2130 or valleyviewcasino.com.
The Grove Steakhouse
Viejas Casino & Resort
The feel: A stylish, cosmopolitan eatery that satisfies traditional steakhouse fans and more modern, adventurous diners.
The meal: The Grove has arguably the most innovative, “cheffy” menu of all the local casino steakhouses. Case in point: My grilled watermelon salad with pistachio butter, mache greens, fennel and charred jalapeño vinaigrette was a textural and flavor bomb unlike anything I’ve ever had. Count on only USDA Prime steaks, including Châteaubriand and porterhouse, and be prepared for surprises like a game meat trio (venison, elk and wild boar), grass-fed American bison and stuffed quail with huitlacoche.
The chef: Executive chef Larry Banares, formerly of Disneyland Hotel and the Queen Mary. (See story on Banares here.)
Point of distinction: San Diego-area casino steakhouses have racked up an impressive list of awards; the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast consistently recognize them for excellence. But The Grove is only one of two to earn the prestigious AAA Four-Diamond award.
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