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Steakhouses at Seven Chicago Area Casinos: How good are they?

By Christopher Borrelli and Phil Vettel, Chicago TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

December 11, 2008 --There must be some correlation between casino gambling and beef, because all of the Chicago-area casinos feature upscale steakhouses as their top dining options.

The question, then, is: How good are they?

Because these are expensive steakhouses. You might be in William B's in the Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City, Ind., but you'll be spending as much for your steak as you would at Gibsons Steakhouse on Chicago's Gold Coast.

Money well spent? Not all of the casino steakhouses can compete with the big boys, in our view, but there are two points to consider: First, most of these steakhouses are aimed principally at casino patrons, rather than operating as destination restaurants. Second, many of the customers you see in casino steakhouses are dining free, or at a significant discount, thanks to points earned by frequent gambling.

But we still wanted to know which steakhouses were worth your cash -- or points. So we sent Vettel to the Chicago-area Illinois casinos and dispatched Borrelli to Northwest Indiana. We gave each steakhouse one to four betting chips;

  • one chip for Ante (minimum bet for a just-OK spot),
  • two chips for Check (worth sticking around, as long as you're there),
  • three for Raise (better than moderate interest) and
  • four for All In (we're confident this is a winner).

Illinois

Alex at the Empress Casino, 2300 Empress Drive, Joliet; 815-744-9400, pngaming.com. This steak and seafooder sports a novel look, resembling a British adventurer's club that might have existed during the occupation of Egypt (tying into the casino's Egyptian theme), bedecked with artificial palms, faux antiquities, lazily spinning ceiling fans and a theatrical upper balcony (never occupied, as far as I can tell) equipped with overstuffed leather chairs and bookcases. I had a gloriously juicy cowboy ribeye ($40), topped with crunchy garlic chips and a redundant slab of honey butter (which I immediately removed; this steak needed no extra flavor). The beef was flawed only by a long white strip of connective tissue running through its middle -- easily navigated with the steak knife, but a flaw regardless. Steaks come with a choice of potato (go for the very good baked sweet potato), and Alex sets out a very nice bread basket served with cheddar, cheddar-horseradish and feta-olive-garlic spreads. Desserts, priced at $6, are a conspicuous bargain, and though the wine list is small, it's full of good to great values. Rating: Three chips.

Buckinghams at Grand Victoria Casino, 250 S. Grove Ave., Elgin; 888-508-1900, grandvictoria-elgin.com. With its cherry-wood paneling, fox-and-hounds artwork, double white tablecloths and tufted green-leather booths, Buckinghams looks every bit the classic steakhouse, only more intimate -- there are only 16 or so tables in the whole place, making reservations absolutely crucial (gamblers who strolled in to dine were being quoted a 90-minute wait one Saturday). If you're splurging, try the sized-for-two appetizer platter ($15), a nice grouping of prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, goat-cheese-stuffed piquillo peppers and other goodies; otherwise, focus on the steaks (all USDA Prime) whose quality is evident in every bite. Well, the second bite, anyway; my ribeye steak ($35) was cooked so far beyond my medium-rare request that I had to return it. My waitress took one look at the pinkless beef and apologetically whisked it away, returning shortly with a perfectly cooked replacement and checking on my table assiduously for the rest of the night. Hey, mistakes happen, but I was impressed by how Buckinghams handled my complaint. And this was the best-tasting steak of my group. Rating: Four chips.

<>Fairbanks Steakhouse at Hollywood Casino, 1 New York Street Bridge, Aurora; 630-801-1234, hollywoodcasinoaurora.com. This casino steakhouse is a destination restaurant in its own right, thanks in part to the Paramount Arts Centre across the street (lots of preshow dining customers hit Fairbanks early) and in part to the relative dearth of nearby dining competition. The decor includes some glass-case displays of Hollywood memorabilia, from shoes worn by onetime starlets to the costume Kevin Costner wore in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." A trio of filets ($43) is overwhelmed by its toppings (particularly a large amount of horseradish that obliterated any beef flavor that might have existed) but, paradoxically, the Cajun ribeye ($38) is a genuine hit, because the thick and juicy steak has more than enough flavor to handle the blackening spices crusting the outside. Rating: Two chips.

The Reserve at Harrah's Joliet Casino & Hotel, 151 N. Joliet St., Joliet; 815-740-7800, harrahs.com. This casino steakhouse opened two years ago, which is one reason it looks brighter and fresher than some of its staid competitors. The contemporary look includes a couple of glassed-in wine walls, a display kitchen (very quiet, thank you) and votive candles in amber-glass containers at each linen-draped table. The signature steak is the Filet Oscar ($42), a 6-ounce filet topped with crabmeat and bearnaise sauce, and served with asparagus and mashed potatoes. It's a decent steak, but I wouldn't be in a hurry to reorder it. The New York strip steak ($32) is thinner than the steak you'll find among the big-name steakhouses downtown, but also less expensive. Friendly wine prices and friendlier service are pluses, as is a $35, three-course dining option. Note: Because of its location beyond the casino gaming area, you must be 21 or older to dine at The Reserve -- unlike most other casino restaurants. Rating: Two chips.

Indiana

Don B's Steakhouse at the Majestic Star, 1 Buffington Harbor Drive, Gary; 888-218-7867, majesticstar.com. At the end of a long smoky carpeted hallway that brings to mind the airport terminals in middle American towns, Don B's can feel somewhat like an elegant oasis. It's quiet for a steakhouse, petite, and the ceiling pocked with ornate inverted domes and chandeliers, the service cordial and attentive without getting on your nerves. Indeed, there are so many minor grace notes about Don B's, I hate to say its signature steak, the Filet Oscar ($32), a center cut tenderloin, is a somewhat rubbery dud. Or rather -- is it? The quality of the meat is smothered beneath a mess of tasteless lump crab and glaze of Hollandaise. A heartbreak, alas, especially considering that perfectly red center. Rating: One chip.

Jack Binion's Steakhouse at the Horseshoe Hammond, 777 Casino Center Drive, Hammond; 866-711-7463, horseshoehammond.com. Certain details of the Indiana casino steakhouse experience are self-evident: a musty veneer of cigarette smoke, Sinatra piped into the dining room through recessed speakers, a burgundy carpet that looks like 1978. What you don't expect, but you get here, is surprisingly professional service, and steaks so smooth and with a buttermilk taste, the nearest competition is downtown -- as in downtown Chicago. My server suggested a three-steak tasting plate ($52), and the variety and the flavor was so intense and delightful that I actually, for a second, eating by myself, thought, "This is kind of fun." You get a 4-ounce USDA Prime spinalis (cap of the ribeye - a slightly chewy dorsal cut, with big rich flavor), a 2-ounce cut of American wagyu (thumb size, buttery and salty), a 2-ounce dollop of Japanese Kobe -- as sweet and vaguely grassy as you would hope. Bonus: The fries are cut thick, perfectly fluffy in the middle, fragrant with truffle oil. Rating: Four chips.

William B's Steakhouse at Blue Chip Casino Hotel, 2 Easy St., Michigan City; 888-879-7711, bluechipcasino.com. Picture a steakhouse where everything feels extraneous to the main attraction -- the shiny new casino attached to it, everything else on the menu, the pretty-but-blah salad, the city itself. William B's is in a spot so empty there's a sign on the way out of town that reads "Point of Interest. 1 mile." The casino itself sits in the shadow of the Cook Nuclear Plant reactor. Expectations couldn't get lower. Yet, what works, thankfully, is William B's Prime New York Strip ($39) -- ordered on the suggestion of our archetypal Midwestern waitress (picture Kristen Wiig doing an impression, in a red wig). This 16-ounce monster -- which the kitchen helpfully divided for us into two 8-ounce steaks, generously preparing each half as a separate meal -- is simple and respectable, a peppery crust (not too crusty), light on the fat (though not devoid of it), gray beneath unflattering lights but ruby red in the center. That said, a little invention, a touch of ... flair would add a little personality. Rating: Two chips.

atplay@tribune.com

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