The house finds high rollers. At San Diego-area casinos, if your bets are big, you’ll get noticed. That’s a good thing. VIPs get perks: Free play on slot machines. Complimentary suites. Gratis steak dinners. Spa treatments on the house.
Over her 28-year career, Kara Montanarella has been a host, manager, and director in Las Vegas casinos. For the last decade, she’s been director of casino VIP marketing at Pechanga Resort Casino. “On-property, it’s our job is to make sure high rollers have everything they like,” she says.
Off-property, too. Pechanga’s name is on the former San Diego Sports Arena. VIPs get perks like Andrea Bocelli concert tickets (coming June 15). The casino also has suites at SoFi Stadium for Los Angeles Rams and Chargers games. For Super Bowl LVI, Pechanga filled a luxury limo bus with 20 high-ranked “Jade” level players for door-to-door service to the game.
The ten area casinos use player’s club cards to track your betting habits. That includes casino-resorts Barona, Harrah’s, Pala, Pechanga, Sycuan, Valley View, and Viejas, and casino-only properties Golden Acorn, Jamul Casino, and Pauma.
My assignment: A high-roller fact-finding mission. Recently, my wife and I lived large at six local casinos. We saw a show, got a golf lesson, stayed in penthouse suites, sunned in poolside cabanas, had muscles kneaded in an orange blossom-scented treatment room, and dined in the best restaurants on pan-seared Chilean sea bass, New York steak, and Maine lobster.
The experience was epic. Here are the VIP highlights from “Ron & Jules’ Excellent San Diego Casino Adventure.”
Jamul Casino, Jamul
Our casino road show began with a Valentine’s Day-inspired night at Jamul Casino. The Rooftop is VIP central. This 10,000-square-foot, open-air event venue offers a panoramic view of the Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve. The high-tech, high-concept space can be configured for an array of events. I once played in a charity poker tournament on The Rooftop hosted by former California First Lady Maria Shriver.
My wife and I sat front row at a dinner-and-a-show Supper Club offering. Love Is in The Air was a campy-cute stage show that featured nonstop love songs. While we sang along at our table to “Can’t Hurry Love,” casino staff served us a three-course dinner medley.
Jamul’s high-end indoor eatery is Prime Cut Steak & Seafood. Along with cuts of meat expertly paired with wine from a well-stocked cellar, a worthy alternative is the truffled lobster mac n’ cheese. Sunday afternoons at Prime Cut feature a lobster brunch. 619.315.2250, jamulcasinosd.com
Fun Fact: On-property Tony Gwynn’s Sports Pub has a high-end menu and a sizeable collection of baseball memorabilia.
Pechanga Resort Casino, Temecula
Next stop: a AAA Four Diamond mega-resort. Pechanga has 1,090 hotel rooms. The casino floor covers more than 200,000 square feet. There’s a spacious spa, an event center, theater, comedy club, and two dozen restaurants and bars.
Our 650-square-foot corner suite offered a sweeping view of the challenging Journey at Pechanga Golf Course. I’m a duffer, as affable golf pro Randy Chang had to witness during my one-hour lesson.
Two dinners here truly excelled. Umi Sushi & Oyster Bar Chef Kiyokuni Ikeda went off menu and charmed us with colorful, delicious sushi creations. At Great Oak Steakhouse, server Dale Gonos, blessed with an unparalleled gift of gab, steered me toward a sublime cut of bone-in rib eye.
We commandeered Spa Pechanga, a serene, two-level, 25,000-square-foot facility. Jules glowed after a therapeutic massage and a signature facial. I was blissed out by a deep-tissue massage, and easily impressed by details like waiting-room snacks (raspberry trail bars!).
The Cove (now open for spring) is adjacent to the spa. This 4.5-acre pool oasis has a swim-up bar, two hot tubs, four pools, 27 ca
banas, and a pair of theme park-worthy waterslides. 877.711.2946, pechanga.com
Fun Fact: Pechanga customer service shines. Example: I misplaced my car keys. Golf Pro Shop employee Isaac Morgan spent half an hour carting me around the property, even into the parking structure — where I’d left my keys in the car.
Valley View Casino & Hotel, Valley Center
Pre-pandemic, Valley View completed a $50 million, 43,000-square-foot expansion. This folksy compound now features 143,000 square feet of casino, restaurant, and lounge space.
Have you seen the ads touting Valley View’s All-You-Can-Eat Buffet? It’s truly a well-oiled (buttered?) machine. Maine lobsters are delivered to long lines of eager diners in voluminous amounts. VIPs get to jump the line. And since self-serve buffets disappeared during COVID, servers now bring endless plates of whatever you choose from the menu. The casino’s de rigueur steakhouse is Black & Blue. Order the Cowboy Ribeye and dine surrounded by the aquatic ambiance of a 3,300-gallon saltwater aquarium.
A boutique hotel (108 rooms), Valley View offers super-sized luxury suites (1,050 square feet). Our over-sized bedroom chamber was centered by a dark-wood platform bed — like the avant-garde boudoir design featured in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Two balconies overlooked lush backcountry and affirmed why you’d name a casino after a valley view. That bucolic view is also available from the property’s one-of-a-kind infinity pool. Its vanishing-edge effect conjures an illusion that the pool merges seamlessly into the surrounding Palomar Mountain Range. 760.291.5500, valleyviewcasino.com
Fun Fact: Casinos regularly do product giveaways to player card-carrying VIPs. Jules’ face lit up when presented with Valley View’s gift of the day: a Chefman Rotating Waffle Iron.
Sycuan Casino Resort, El Cajon
Sycuan added a $260 million resort to its existing casino space in 2019. A 12-story luxury hotel tower boasts 302 rooms, including 57 suites. One of the resort’s high-profile rooms is the Padres Premier Suite. Its over-the-top calling card is wall-to-wall baseball memorabilia. The custom wall wrap behind the bed depicts a from-behind-home-plate view of Petco Park. Hanging on the wall is an autographed Manny Machado jersey, a Tony Gwynn Louisville Slugger, and framed paintings of Padres Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Trevor Hoffman. Other touches: an Astroturf wall, a catch-all tray made from a Rawlings leather glove, baseball-themed light fixtures and throw pillows, and a framed photo of the Swinging Friar mascot, playfully hung in the bathroom.
The Padres Suite has a wraparound balcony overlooking Retreat Pool & Cabanas. The pool complex includes two pools, a swim-up bar, and a lazy river. While I wandered around the Padres Suite giddy as a Little Leaguer on Opening Day, Jules took a swing at Spa Ritual, and
warmed up with a “Relax” Swedish massage before dinner.
Of course, Sycuan has an upscale steakhouse. Bull & Bourbon’s surf & turf entrée, paired with sea-salt-and-butter-seasoned Yukon Gold garlic mashed potatoes, was a home run. 619.445.6002, sycuan.com
Fun Fact: Our stay coincided with the opening of Pan-Asian eatery Pink Buddha and adjacent Karma Lounge. Try the “Bite Mi” menu and enjoy the sassy neon sign about the downside of karma.
Viejas Casino & Resort, Alpine
It’s a good sign when your room at the end of the hallway has double doors. After checking into an enormous villa suite, we played a game of pool — because there was a pool table in the room. The villa came loaded with a full kitchen and an outdoor patio enhanced by a table-sized, tempered-glass fire pit.
Viejas opened the luxurious, 159-room Willows Hotel & Spa in 2018. The AAA Four Diamond, Forbes Four-Star, adults-only property is a gorgeous combination of textures and upscale décor finishes. Willows Spa lured us out of The Villa. After superior massages and a facial for Jules, we met at the saltwater spa pool. There are daybed-sized swing chairs to relax on in this private area. We dipped our feet in the pool and drank complimentary flutes of champagne.
For dinner: The Four Diamond Grove Steakhouse exudes old-school congeniality. We split the Spanish Octopus appetizer. I had a 14-ounce New York Steak with Seared Atlantic Sea Scallops. Jules picked the Chilean Sea Bass and cannily mixed it with the trimmings of the Loch Duart Salmon. 619.445.5400, viejas.com
Fun Fact: Just across the street is Viejas Outlet Center, with two dozen brands, including Coach, Michael Kors, and Polo Ralph Lauren.
Harrah’s Resort Southern California, Valley Center
Another set of double doors. Harrah’s has 1,087 rooms and suites. Our “Home Suite Home” penthouse measured 1,345 square feet. Starting at the foyer, the room tour includes a dining table with seating for eight, a living room and L-shaped couch that could accommodate the Brady Bunch kids, a wet bar and kitchen, bookshelves filled with great literary works, and a master bedroom with connecting marble bathroom.
In late March, the sun was shining. We had one of 23 cabanas reserved at Dive. This aquatic complex includes three pools, eight hot tubs, a 400-foot lazy river, and swim-up bar. The swim-up bar was at capacity. Cocktails flowed. The main pool bar’s water misters filled the air.
Yes, we were pampered. An 11,000-square-foot spa offers “The Best Massage Ever,” pleasantly scented by orange blossoms.
The VIP dining option was Fiore. My Volcan Cut Jumbo Pork Osso Buco (yes, pork!) was tenderly braised. Note: Chef Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen arrives on property this summer.
At Spiked Bar, mixologist Tiffany Ten-Napel whipped up a 24-karat gold-flaked martini. Then she fired us up with Woodford Reserve bourbon in the form of a sweet cocktail garnished by dark cherries and flavored in a “smoking box” fueled by hickory wood chips. It was the nightcap on one suite road trip. 760.751.3100, harrahssocal.com
Funner Fact: In 2017, the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians officially renamed its footprint Funner. It’s had two celebrity mayors: David Hasselhoff and Rob Riggle. A new mayor will be sworn in May 16.