Tahlequah Daily Press

February 19, 2008

Cherokee Casino: Great fun, food, folks


TAHLEQUAH DAILY PRESS — Just cruising into the parking lot of the Cherokee Casino in Catoosa is very much like the grand approach to one of the best venues on the Las Vegas strip. Except there's more parking at Cherokee Casino, the rooms and food are less expensive, and if you live in the 14-county tribal jurisdiction, it's less than two hours away.

And while Vegas motifs can be loud and glitzy, the tribal casino's decor both inside and out is lower-key, yet eye-catching and attractive, with the traditional native design elements that will be familiar to any Cherokee County resident.

The Cherokee Casino is huge by any standard, but not quite big enough to accommodate the enthusiastic crowds. And that's why, according to Cherokee Nation Business Communications Manager Amanda Clinton, an expansion project is under way. The construction will take the 95,000-square-foot facility (80,000 for gaming alone) to 337,000 square feet. And the current 150 rooms will more than double to about 350.

"We'll have a focus on suites for the new tower that's going up in the expansion," Amanda says.

My husband and I had made a quick stop at the casino on the way home from Tulsa about a year ago, and plugged just enough coins into a slot machine to pay our toll home. But we hadn't taken time to look around, and we hadn't sampled the cuisine or peeked into any of the hotel rooms. A few weeks ago, we did the whole tour, and came away suitably impressed. Even if you're not a gambler, it's well worth the visit, if only to stay in one of the finely appointed rooms and sample the excellent cuisine. Believe it or not, it would be perfect for a romantic weekend getaway.

A large parking garage is conveniently situated behind the main hotel-casino complex, and you enter through an angular hall that offers a pleasant surprise: a series of displays of traditional Cherokee arts and crafts. Then an escalator takes you down to the floor of the main gaming room, where a turn one direction or another will take you to a restaurant, hundreds of machines, and even live entertainment.

Though there's much else to do (there's a golf course on the property, for one thing), Cherokee Casino Catoosa (hereafter I'll refer to it as CCC) caters to the gambler, both big-time and small, and if you haven't visited a tribally owned casino lately, you might be surprised. Things are different these days -- very much like you'd find in Vegas, in fact. About the only difference between the gaming floors in Vegas the one in Catoosa is that in Catoosa, you don't hear the clank of coins against the metal tray when someone wins a jackpot. At CCC (and other tribal casinos as well), you get a printout of a paper voucher, which you can either slide into another machine or turn in for money at a cashier.

Smoking is still allowed in casinos in Oklahoma, but most non-smokers won't be bothered by it at this facility. The ventilation system is one of the best, and although there's a subtle smell of smoke in the air, you can't see it, and your lungs won't sting the next day from breathing it. (Many of the hotel rooms, of course, are non-smoking, as are the main rooms of the restaurants.)

The excitement on any of the gaming floors is palpable with anticipation, laughing and casual camaraderie, and during our visit, we observed several people winning smaller jackpots. Amanda says there are more than 1,500 electronic games, both slots and video poker; 35 poker tables, featuring Texas Hold 'Em, Omaha poker, seven-card stud, Pai Gow and more; 37 table games, including Blackjack and others; a Bonus Roulette; and a Bonus Craps. The ever-popular progressive slot machines -- Wheel of Fortune is the best known -- are in abundance, linking slot machines in native American casinos across the country.

While penny slots are pretty much confined to the downtown area of Vegas these days, CCC has a machine for every coin and lower-end denomination, starting with pennies and working on up to $5. Most machines will also break larger bills. After playing and observing for a while, we decided the quarter machines gave the best bang for the buck, although the $1, $2 and other "paper money" slots might have been "looser," thus giving you better odds. But at CCC as with everywhere else, to have a shot at a big jackpot, you have to plug in the maximum number of coins every time you play. For some penny machines, for example, the max is 180 coins, which is $1.80, whereas the max number of coins on a quarter machine could be as low as three, thereby costing you 75 cents a shot. (If you're just playing for fun, it doesn't matter; we saw people in line to play some of the penny slots, and they weren't putting in the max number of coins.)

And I counted at least three distinctive gaming floors at CCC, probably owing to the fact that it has undergone expansions already. The older part of the casino, which gives of the aura of a gussied-up warehouse, was the hoppin' spot when we were there. After a quick and tasty meal of barbecue, we ventured into the area, where a country band was doing lively covers on a stage, and a few couples were even doing some modified two-steppin' between the machines.

Down a hall and around a corner we found a fascinating, gargantuan version of Wheel of Fortune, where groups of people actually sat around the wheel on benches -- two to a bench, but one per play. (A car was to be the eventual jackpot.) Then, farther down, the main (and apparently newest) floor opens out to the left, and this is where most of the gaming tables can be found. Another band was onstage at one end, this one playing rock 'n' roll covers.

For our stay, my husband and I were treated to one of the "King Suites." It was just as posh as that of any boutique hotel we've stayed in, well-appointed and tidy, and featured all the amenities: a sink-and-fridge bar combo, a couch, easy chair, king-sized bed, handsome wood furniture, red and gold accents, and plush carpet.

The lighting is fairly low and directional, depending on what part of the room you're in. In-room movies and outstanding room service are perfect for the kids or the non-gamers in your group. The bed itself is quite comfortable -- and that's a major compliment from us, because we're picky about our mattresses. A line of fluffy pillows resting against the headboard, and a couple of chocolates on a doily on the nightstand, complete the setting.

The king bathroom features marble-like floors, a Jacuzzi-type tub that will easily accommodate two, and plenty of counterspace. Most interesting is the roomy shower, which had not just the usual single head, but what's called a "body spa" -- a series of four water outlets aimed at different levels of the body.

But while the gaming floors are electric and alive with an eclectic bunch of intriguing and lively folks, and the rooms are impressive by any standard, the attributes that keep so many customers coming back are the employees themselves, and the cuisine at the on-site restaurants. Amanda says there are 1,800 employees at CCC right now.

"The expansion will translate into approximately 400 to 500 new jobs in hospitality, gaming, IT, and many other jobs of various specialties," she says.

While I only met a couple of dozen CCC employees, every single one went out of his or her way to make us feel welcome and appreciated. And they had no idea I was a newspaper editor out to do a story! From the two women who checked us into our room, to the security guards, to the folks at guest relations, gracious, amicable demeanors were the order of the day.

When we first checked in, we noticed a seemingly endless line of people, wrapped around the now-famous chopper (by Orange County Choppers, I must add) in the lobby and back down through the gaming area. When we asked about the line, we were told it was for the Wild Potato, CCC's signature buffet. We found it hard to believe people would wait an hour or more for an evening buffet, even if the price was more than reasonable.

The next morning, the same sort of line was in place, and we found out why. Not only is the Wild Potato serving at rock-bottom prices like the Vegas buffets used to do, it's offering a wide array of delicious food. I have no trouble saying it's one of the best breakfast buffets I've ever sampled -- and I've sampled quite a few. And this buffet was only $3.95 (at the time, half off again if you were a hotel guest!).

We were stunned to find Eggs Benedict on this buffet, and as we greedily scooped up our servings, an attendant was checking the temperatures of the food to make sure it was perfect (it was). Ham, bacon, sausage, all types of fruit, pancakes, waffles, French toast, omelets, different potatoes -- you name it, they've got it. Yes, there was a line, but it was worth the wait, and the cashiers were good-natured and patient. Though it was a buffet, we had servers for our drinks and other amenities, and ours -- Brenda -- was friendly and attentive, a model of efficiency as she made her rounds.

Despite everything else, Saturday night's meal was probably the highlight of our adventure: dinner at McGill's. Though there are two other Tulsa-area locations for this acclaimed restaurant, we had never eaten at one -- and now I'm wondering why. The menu and wine selections are splendid, all with an "appropriate starch" and crisply steamed vegetables (as Cherokee Chief Chad Smith insists upon as part of his tribal health initiatives). We found the atmosphere to be warm and intimate, and the service (provided to us by Cassie, who as it turns out is from Tahlequah) exceptional. We had the sumptuous spinach and artichoke dip to start, then for entrees, the melt-in-your-mouth steak and lobster tail. We were so stuffed we could only share dessert: a sinful, chocolatey concoction with a gooey center.

While we were there, we talked to several employees, and they all told us they loved their jobs, mainly because something new happens every day. One woman said she gets a "charge" out of seeing people win money because "you can count on it, they're happy at that moment!"

The entire casino complex melds together to give the impression of a class act -- refined and organized, a well-oiled machine where customers are treated like royalty, and the staff is glad to do the honors. It's truly a feather in the Cherokee Nation's cap and another visible sign that, in terms of business acumen, the tribe has once again -- as during its early days in Oklahoma -- come of age.

What's next

In the coming weeks, we'll take a look at the Cherokee Nation's Tahlequah Casino; the United Keetoowah Band's Tahlequah casino; and Creek Nation's Muskogee casino.