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Travel | Staycation

Sycuan’s new resort worth waiting for

Sycuan Casino Resort features the Retreat pool complex with a lazy river.
Sycuan Casino Resort features the Retreat pool complex with a lazy river.

Sycuan, which ushered in Indian gaming to San Diego, is the last major casino in the region to open a hotel resort

Some things are worth waiting for.

Take the gleaming, new Sycuan Casino Resort, which took two years to build but was 36 years in the making.

In 1983, the Sycuan Bingo Palace ushered in tribal gaming to the San Diego region. Now, Sycuan has became the latest, if not the last, to open a Las Vegas-style casino hotel and resort, joining Barona Resort & Casino, Harrah’s Resort Southern California, Pala Casino Spa & Resort, Pechanga Resort & Casino, Valley View Casino Hotel and Viejas Casino & Resort.

Having all of those resorts precede it has clearly provided Sycuan with a well-worn road map of what to do and what to elevate when it came time to create its own casino getaway. The new facility borrows some elements, as with its lavish Retreat pool complex (à la Pechanga, Harrah’s SoCal and Pala) and the use of elegant, high-end finishes (Viejas, Valley View and Pechanga).

But Sycuan Casino Resort differentiates itself from the competition in some notable ways: its commitment to providing a non-smoking environment and a ground-breaking approach to its culinary offerings.

Earlier this month, my sister and I staycationed at Sycuan by checking into one of its 302 hotel rooms for the night, indulging in a spa treatment, hanging out at the pool and eating at three of its new venues. Here are some highlights.

Sycuan Casino Resort’s elegant lobby has a giant digital screen with San Diego scenery on a loop.
Sycuan Casino Resort's elegant lobby has a giant digital screen with San Diego scenery on a loop.

The hotel

The centerpiece of Sycuan Casino Resort is a gleaming 12-story tower that feels like a home away from home — if you live in a beautifully designed, meticulously appointed home with an eager-to-please service staff, that is.

The lobby is an impressively airy space, with soaring ceilings, a quarry’s-full of stone and a massive video screen behind the front desk that shows the San Diego coastline or skyline on a loop, depending on the time of day.

Beyond luxurious seating, the lobby is where you’ll find the gift shop, Starbucks, concierge desk and a new center bar. To the right of the bell desk is a private VIP guest lounge, complete with a massive marble-topped fireplace, that I got to see when a friendly staffer was arranging my late check-out. (He didn’t know who I was; I stopped him in the lobby to ask if it were possible and he invited me in. I was thoroughly under-dressed to be in that swanky enclave.)

Our reception at the reception desk could not have been warmer. Even though we showed up at 10:30 a.m., and check-in isn’t until 3 p.m., we were given the keys to the only deluxe double queen available. (He also didn’t know who I was.)

Rooms at the new Sycuan Casino Resort hotel have many wood accents.
Rooms at the new Sycuan Casino Resort hotel have many wood accents.

The room itself emanates understated glamour, with soft, soothing earth tones and a significant amount of solid wood surfaces and touches, like doors, shelves, decor and bathroom accessories. It was obvious that whoever designed the lighting was as sick of dark hotel rooms as we are. Smart illumination choices are everywhere, from the sconces to a table lamp, a pendant light, four goose-neck bedside reading lights, and (my favorite) a motion-sensing closet light.

We found pure comfort — and had an excellent night’s sleep — on the luxury mattress and premium quality bed linens. Our reluctance to getting out of those beds was softened, however, by being able to don the softest bathrobe either one of us has ever worn. We even scoured the labels for information on it (Chadsworth & Haig; Style #MPR3000). It’s for sale in the gift shop for $120, and that company’s motto is Pure Luxury, No Compromise, which pretty much sums up Sycuan’s new resort.

The family pool at Sycuan Casino Resort’s Retreat Pool & Cabanas.
The family pool at Sycuan Casino Resort's Retreat Pool & Cabanas.

Retreat Pool & Cabanas

A fancy, expansive pool complex is a must at casino resorts these days, and Sycuan’s fits that flashy bill.

Retreat is divided into three areas: an adult pool, a family pool and a lazy river. Each area has seven cabanas, which are tastefully furnished with high-end wicker patio couches and chairs as well as ceiling fans, TVs and fridges.

A bar with patio seating serves all three pools, offering lunch, snacks, cocktails, beer, wine, soft drinks, juices and cool treats. The adult pool also has its own swim-up bar.

Two weeks after the resort’s March 27 opening, Retreat is already the place to be on a sunny day. A bunch of women were celebrating a birthday at a cabana by the adult pool; gaggles of kids and their parents were frolicking in the family pool; a group of stylish 20-somethings were enjoying cocktails in the jetted spa, while others slowly bobbed along the lazy river. Despite all the activity, the adult pool truly does have the feeling of a retreat; though the delighted, squealing kids weren’t that far, you could not hear them from where we were.

Our grown-up experience included some delicious fare from the bar and grill, which is operated by Las Vegas-based Clique Hospitality. They also run the Bull and Bourbon steakhouse and the Elicit Bar & Lounge. The Retreat Burger, with smoked sharp cheddar, herb aioli and a side of thin, crispy fries, was perfectly cooked and its wafting scent got the ladies in the cabana jealous. I paired it with my new favorite cocktail, the signature Blackbeard’s Delight, with Maker’s Mark bourbon, blackberries, lime, mint and ginger beer, served in a metal mule cup. My sister, meanwhile, enjoyed the avocado toast with marinated cherry tomatoes and a pineapple mojito. The cabana crew didn’t drool over that so much.

Bull and Bourbon is the glamorous new steakhouse at Sycuan.
Bull and Bourbon is the glamorous new steakhouse at Sycuan.

Culinary offerings

Sycuan set a new standard when creating its dining choices for its new resort. Not only was bringing in trendy Clique Hospitality to operate three venues a first of its kind for a San Diego-area casino, but its food court, The UnCommons, is the only one to include iconic regional brands — Hodad’s, Phil’s BBQ, Lucha Libre and Luna Grill (plus, the homegrown pizza concept, The Hangry Slice).

By taking this approach, Sycuan manages to both appeal to a younger, hipper crowd, as well as satisfy longtime San Diegans’ craving for popular and familiar fare.

Clique’s Bull and Bourbon is Sycuan’s new, signature high-end steakhouse, something the casino was sorely lacking. B and B makes up for that and more. It is gorgeously designed in amber, chic cream and dark wood tones, with an open kitchen, wood-burning Santa Maria grills, beef dry-aging room, a large bar area — smartly separated from the main dining room — and a patio overlooking Retreat. Bull and Bourbon feels like an urbane oasis in the El Cajon countryside.

Under the talented direction of executive chef Aldo Negrete, whose résumé includes stints at Lionfish, JRDN and Whisknladle, the restaurant’s kitchen is turning out some pretty exciting food. Some friends met us for dinner, and we tried a total of 12 dishes, 10 of which were outstanding.

Bull and Bourbon’s excellent crab cake.
Bull and Bourbon's excellent crab cake.

If you had to order only one appetizer, it has to be the jumbo lump crab cake. Slightly crispy on the outside and luxuriously creamy on the inside, it’s one of the best crab cakes in town. We also loved the full-of-flavor Maine lobster and artichoke dip, the braised oxtail ravioli and truffle mac and cheese side.

It’s a steakhouse, so three of us ordered steak, the prime rib cap, Delmonico ribeye and dry-aged New York. All were perfectly prepared, tender and unique in flavor. The braised short rib with creamy white polenta was also rich and satisfying.

For dessert, the bourbon bananas Foster was, happily, not too sweet and the doughnuts were tender and nicely cakey inside. They’d be even better if they came out of the kitchen hot.

After dinner, we popped into Clique’s stylish Elicit Bar & Lounge, where a DJ was spinning a mix of vintage and current tunes and the party was hopping from the dance floor to the patio overlooking the pool. Elicit serves its signature cocktails tableside and there are bar bites as well.

Other new dining venues are Rank & File, a sports pub with comfort food and 30 beers on tap, Viewpoint Neighborhood Kitchen, an attractive breakfast, lunch and dinner eatery with a pool-view patio, and House of Fortune, a bustling pan-Asian restaurant with a separate to-go counter right on the casino floor.

Sycuan’s Spa Ritual.
Sycuan's Spa Ritual.

Spa Ritual

Sycuan’s full-service day spa and salon is a soothing sanctuary that feels worlds away from the humming casino and resort. The spa menu includes facials, massages and body treatments, while the salon offers manicures, pedicures, waxing and hair services.

The day spa features eight treatment rooms, showers, a men’s and women’s steam room and sauna, while only the women get to enjoy a snazzy tiled hot tub. The relaxation room is co-ed.

My sister and I both got a gloriously relaxing, 50-minute Ritual massage from skilled, highly professional and friendly massage therapists. The Ritual is an exquisite hybrid treatment, combining a back scrub, hot stones, a scalp massage and full-body rub. It starts with a tribal ritual — an herbal cleansing smudge akin to a sage burning — that leaves the treatment room’s air fragrant and calming. After your treatment, slide back into that amazing robe and get ready to face the real world again.

Smoke-free fun

No expansion would be complete without more gaming, and Sycuan has added 60,000 square feet to its casino floor — bringing the total number of slots and tables to 2,800 and 56, respectively — and a new high-limit room, both off the hotel lobby.

Like the resort — from the hotel to the restaurants, pool complex, spa and new event spaces — the new gaming area is 100 percent smoke-free (smoking is allowed in the high-limit room.) This is on top of Sycuan’s original, fully enclosed, upper-level non-smoking area, already one of the region’s largest.

At the resort’s ribbon cutting ceremony on March 26, the California Clean Air Project commended Sycuan for its commitment to providing a smoke-free environment. The proclamation was nice but a fellow hotel guests’ comment might be more telling.

A couple that had rented a cabana next to where we were lounging at Retreat was talking to a waitress about how impressed they were with the new resort, especially the new smoke-free casino area.

“It looks great and it smells great,” I overheard the man saying. “It’s not like at (insert other casino’s name here), where you walk into the hotel lobby and boom, you’re just hit with the smoke. This is great.”