News | Christmas at the casino: Inside the new Golden Nugget the good times roll with holiday spirits

December 28, 2014

By Clifford Pugh | CultureMap 

Christmas in Lake Charles. 

It doesn't have quite the same ring as New York or London, but with only a couple of days off from work and no family ties in Houston, we decided to spend the big holiday at the newGolden Nugget Hotel & Casino.

With no state-sanctioned casino gambling in Texas, billionaire hospitality tycoon Tilman Fertitta built the new $700 million casino and resort just about as close to Houston as possible — and although the new hotel is surrounded by chemical plants in a Louisiana industrial wasteland, it is a convenient two-and-a-half hours away.

CultureMap's Shelby Hodge covered the big opening earlier this month, but my partner and I wondered how the hotel and casino is faring so we decided to make it our Christmas destination. The spa just opened on Christmas Eve and the pool area remains closed as construction workers are busily laboring to get it finished, but otherwise the Golden Nugget is shining and visitors are flocking to it.

The hotel has a Las Vegas feel, with a gigantic entrance featuring the state's largest porte-cochère and dozens of glass doors that lead into a lobby bathed in shades of orange, brown and beige, with modern glass chandeliers. Upscale shops and restaurants line the hallways, along with a Starbucks and a barber shop where you can get a shave — all leading to the main attraction — the mammoth casino, with 1,600 slot machines and room after room of blackjack and baccarat tables, along with craps, roulette and other games of chance.

On Christmas Eve and Day, the hotel had a sizable crowd that ranged from stylish senior citizens to wide-eyed college-aged couples who marveled at the plush surroundings. It also included a large number of families — several with babies in strollers and groups of children who walked the hallways. A lot of stylish young women were seen wearing skinny jeans tucked into stylish boots; a number of men were in Texans jerseys or LSU caps.

Room with a view

We found a cheap rate on the Golden Nugget website for a deluxe room a couple of weeks ago (mid-week rates run around $139 but jump up significantly on the weekends). Once we checked in, we inquired about a possible upgrade — most hotel professionals agree it never hurts to ask — and without hesitation, the clerk bumped us up to a pool view room with a large soaker tub on the 18th floor.

There is no wall between the bathroom and the bedroom, only a curtain, so a guest can sit in the oval tub and watch the 42-inch screen in the other room. (This must be a new hotel trend, as the JW Marriott in downtown Houston has a similar set-up.)

A cute dining nook is tucked along one wall but there is no mini-bar or refrigerator; I think casino owners don't want guests to stay in the room very long. So we, of course, headed down to the lobby, which was hopping with guests — and blessedly, very little holiday decorations or music.  

One of the big advantages of the Fertitta tie-in is there are a lot of restaurants, many with Houston connections, including Grotto, Landry's, Saltgrass Steak House and Vic & Anthony's. We stopped in a sushi restaurant called Lillie's Asian Cuisine and ordered the sashimi sampler and the "Sex on the Beach" roll (tuna and lots jalapeno). (Lillie's is open until 3 in the morning, so is a perfect late night spot after a night of gambling.) Fertitta is aiming for an upscale cliente at the Golden Nugget and there are no bargains on food. Our sushi tab with drinks was $82, but we had no complaints about the quality of the offerings.

Then we ambled over what turned out to be my favorite spot, the Ice Bar. With all-white motif — marble floors, slinky sofas and a long bar — it is at the intersection of two hallways —the perfect place to sit and people watch. On the first night, our bartender Jade fixed me the smoothest martini I ever had, with Double Cross vodka, a Slovakian spirit that she swears is the best around. After my second martini of the evening, I had to agree.

The next night, Austin, the bartender, made an equally satisfying martini. On both nights, the bartenders were fun and friendly and didn't seem the least bit embarrassed to be wearing an outfit that consisted of silver sequined mini-skirt and silver spandex tank top with a blue sequined bustier peeking out and go-go boots.

A smoking casino

The casino is the prime gathering spot, with hundreds of blinking slot machines and game of chance tables, including blackjack, roulette, craps and baccarat. Tucked in the back is a high limits room for the high rollers.

Not being much of a gambler and put off by cigarette smoke — casinos must be the last place in America where smoking is still allowed and encouraged — I stopped into the Blue Martini, a hip dance bar, before retreating to the Ice Barthroughout my stay while my partner played the slots. (Restaurants and bars are, thankfully, non-smoking.)

We also enjoyed oysters on the half shell and some nifty cajun Bloody Mary's at the bar at Landry's and a blowout meal at Vic & Anthony's, which seems every bit as excellent— and pricey — as the Houston namesake. (Our meal at Vic & Anthony's was comped by the Golden Nugget PR agency; everything else we payed for.)

My filet mignon on the bone was so good that I was determined to take what I hadn't finished home with me. Without a refrigerator in the room, I got inventive and filled the sink with ice and chilled my leftovers over the night.

New spa

On Christmas Eve afternoon, I treated myself to a massage at the Golden Nugget Spa & Salon, which literally opened a hour before my massage took place. Employees were beaming with pride and with good reason, the facilities are first rate. A winding staircase leads to a spacious boutique, filled with spa products. Separate men's and women's areas are accented with beige and brown tones, with large rooms with comfy chairs, magazines, several TVs, lemon water and light snacks. 

Guests are provided with lockers, a soft robe and slippers. Showers with all sorts of shampoos and a sauna are available and the steam sauna was open. A large jacuzzi and state-of-the-art workout room are just about finished and should open any day now. I had a satisfying 80 minute massage for $175, plus tip.

While all employees were super-friendly, the resort doesn't quite yet have the level of service that is expected of such a plush destination, which I suspect is because the quality worker pool is not large in Lake Charles. For example, the 17-year-old shucker at Landry's did not clip the muscle from the shell so it was difficult to remove the oyster and the massage therapist's nails were a tad too long.

But hopefully the quality of service will rise to the level of the surroundings. Judging from the number of Texas license plates on cars and Texans jerseys worn by guests in the lobby, the Golden Nugget is becoming the go-to getaway for Houstonians.

Count us in the crowd. We'll be back.