Day Trip: Chumash Casino

July 28, 2010


A group of us hopped on the bus and went down to Chumash Casino today, what the casino p.r. types down in Santa Ynez playfully call “Win Country.” It can happen. We were inside the building less than five minutes when someone in the group scored $2,000 off the dollar slots. Just like that.

A lot of folks around San Luis Obispo snub their noses at Chumash. They’d rather hike up San Luis Mountain or pedal furiously along Highway 1. To them, the Central Coast is about being outdoors. They don’t get this Chumash thing. They’re not into gaming. They certainly don’t want to breathe the cigarette smoke that drifts through the main floor of the casino.

I used to think that way, but I’ve warmed to Chumash since moving to Nipomo. It’s only 40 minutes from our front door to the casino. We started off attending concerts. Today, we just went to try our luck on the slots. I was honestly surprised by how much fun everyone seemed to be having.

The “new” version of the Chumash Casino opened in August 2003. The last figures I saw reported 2000 slot machines on the floor, 62 table games, and a 1000 seats for bingo. Since then, the casino has expanded to be opened 24/7. Their flagship restaurant–a steak and seafood affair called The Willows–gets great reviews. And Chumash now seems to have their pick of major performing artists, with everyone from Sheryl Crow to Tony Bennett passing through.

I remember hitting Vegas back in the ’70s, feeding coins into the slots and pulling the level. Those days are gone. It is amazing to watch the high-tech gaming that takes places now in casinos. You can’t play the slots without first sliding in your credit card-sized Club Card, which is actually tracking what you’re playing, how much you bet, what you win, and what you lose. Coins no longer drop into the tray for winners. Now you settle for a slip of paper that can be redeemed for cash when you’re finished playing.

I don’t play the tables. I stick to slots, mostly penny and nickel, playing very conservatively and stretching out the game. I asked one of the guys today for advice in playing slots.

“Don’t play a machine that’s near a table,” he said.

“Why not?”

He didn’t know, but he had read it in a book somewhere.

“And walk around the slot machines first,” he added. “Look for the ones that are occupied. They’re usually locals and they know the good machines. Stay away from sections where nobody’s playing.”

That turned out to be excellent advice. One woman stuck to the penny slot version of “Kitty Glitter” the entire time and ended up winning almost $150.

The other good news is that the restaurants, always good, have become even better at Chumash. I made the comment to one of the cooks at the upstairs buffet and he mentioned that a new chef had come on board recently. You really can taste the difference.

Lunch at the Creekside Buffet was around $11 and the spread was pretty impressive: pasta, salmon, turkey, and excellent cippino. Dinner is more expensive. Monday night is all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet for $14.95. Friday night is Sushi night at $19.95. They have patio dining outside and the view of the Santa Ynez Valley is a nice change from the din inside.

The more affordable Chumash Cafe is open 24 hours. The Willows, more upscale, is enticing if you’ve been extra lucky in your gaming that day. They’ve even added a Starbucks if you need something to go.

There’s a four-diamond hotel connected to the casino. Don’t want to drive the entire way? Easy. Just hop on the free shuttle that leaves Santa Maria multiple times daily.

I guess that’s the thing about the Chumash Casino experience. They’ve sat down over the last seven years and have figured out what it takes to get people to come, and to keep coming back: Great concerts. Good food. Easy access. A chance at winning (some) money. Starbucks.

There is the issue of the cigarette smoke, which is permitted because the casino is exempt from state laws. But they’ve expanded their nonsmoking gaming area upstairs and it seems to do the trick.

I played my slots today and came out $50 ahead. Not bad. One guy says he drives down from Morro Bay a couple times a month to play. I doubt I’ll go back that often, but it’s nice to have a touch of Vegas in our own backyard.

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My wife and I are heading down there next week for the Huey Lewis concert. Gotta book pretty far in advance if you want to get a room at the casino hotel. I’ve tried a couple times and it’s always full. Not a big deal. Plenty of lodging available in the surrounding area.

I like your blog.