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A Comparison of Chicago-Area Casinos - Part 4: Restaurants25 November 2003
Restaurants at casinos are essentially support services, there to make it convenient for you to return to the main business - gambling - after you eat.
Main business or not, there are some legitimately fine restaurants in local casinos. As I toured Chicago area casinos, I broke down food service into several categories to see how the operations stacked up:
Breakfast options: With Harrah's Joliet, Empress Joliet, Grand Victoria in Elgin and Hollywood in Aurora having dropped breakfast buffets in the wake of the Illinois gaming tax hike, breakfast options have narrowed. At Harrah's, you can grab a muffin or pastry and coffee or juice at the Club Cappuccino coffee bar.
Indiana breakfasters fare better. Horseshoe and Harrah's East Chicago retain their breakfast buffets - in fact, Harrah's buffet is open 24 hours a day. Trump and Majestic Star, sharing facilities in Gary, no longer have a buffet at all, but the Trump Hotel has the Lakeside Cafe for a sit-down breakfast that's my favorite option of them all.
Lunch and dinner buffets: Several years ago, most casino buffets in the area were old-style cafeteria lines, with few choices and too-soggy veggies sitting far too long.
No more. Both Harrah's locations, Horseshoe, Empress and Hollywood have upgraded buffets over the years, offering multiple serving stations.
For example, on my visit to Harrah's East Chicago, a small sampling of choices at the Fresh Market Square Buffet included kung-pao shrimp and fried rice at the Pacific Rim station; barbecue ribs and catfish at the Southern station; fried chicken and corn-on-the-cob at the American station; jerk chicken, chicken mole and Italian sausage at the International station, and turkey, ham and roast pork at the carver.
For my money - or comps - the best buffet of all is at Grand Victoria in Elgin, running neck-and-neck with Horseshoe's Village Square Buffet. Grand Victoria never has had a dreary old steam-table affair. The roast beef seems done just right, the salad fixings are fresh, the pizza tasty and the Asian foods good enough for carryout. Horseshoe has made huge strides both in quality and variety, and I give it extra credit for the fresh, cold crawfish, unique among area casino buffets.
Sit-down lunch: It's lunchtime, and you don't feel like a buffet. You want to be waited on, with food cooked to order. Where do you go?
Choices are surprisingly few. Las Vegas-style coffee shops have never caught on at Chicago-area casinos. The closest thing is Cafe Casablanca at Empress. With soups, salads, sandwiches, steaks and seafood at moderate prices, Cafe Casablanca has long been a favorite of mine.
A couple of steakhouses are open for lunch. Jack Binion's Steak House at Horseshoe is outstanding - try the crab-cake appetizer. At the pavilion serving both Trump and Majestic Star, the South Shore Grille serves up inexpensive lunch specials, including a $7 platter of fish and chips on the Friday I was there.
The Winning Streaks Cafe at Harrah's East Chicago is a fun lunch spot - I like the Pit Crew BBQ chicken sandwich, with seasoned fries for $8.59.
Sit-down dinner: Steak houses are a must to comp high-end guests, and there's great beef to be had everywhere - Van Buren's at Harrah's Joliet, Chops at the Trump Hotel and Buckingham's at Grand Victoria, for starters.
For many years, the best in the area were Fairbanks Jr. at Hollywood - the porterhouse is wonderful - and Alexandria - now just "Alex" - at Empress. Both remain top-notch, but my current favorite is Binion's at the Horseshoe. There's prime beef there, and it gives the others more than a run for their money with steaks, prime rib, veal and seafood.
The French Quarter at Harrah's East Chicago is a treasure. French Quarter was one thing the former owners did right when the casino was the Showboat Mardi Gras, and Harrah's has spruced up the menu. If you're not comped, it's not cheap - the delicious macadamia nut Chilean sea bass is $32.99 and bacon-wrapped veal chops $45.99, for example, but it's all good.
Other options: There are snack bars and delis everywhere. I'll just mention a couple. Deli on Grove at Grand Victoria has tasty soups, salads and sandwiches that also are served at the Fox and Hounds sports bar.
Trump and Majestic Star share several outlets where you pick up inexpensive eats at the counter - Wings 'N' Things, with hot wings and fried shrimp; Miller Pizza, and Jackpot Java with deli sandwiches.
Overall: My taste buds say the best breakfast is at Trump's Lakeside Cafe; best buffet at Grand Victoria; best sit-down lunch at Empress' Cafe Casablanca; best sit-down dinner at Horseshoe's Jack Binion's Steak House, and best "other" at Grand Vic's Deli on Grove.
Best overall? That's a close call, but I'll narrow it to the two with the best sit-down lunches, and give Horseshoe the nod over Empress.
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