There’s a new contestant in the Chicago-land casino action, and it’s playing for keeps.
The Four Winds Resort Casino is just across the Indiana/Michigan border on reservation land of the Pokagon band of the Potawatomi. Last weekend I attended a wedding reception in Detroit with a friend and we decided to extend the return trip by checking out Harbor Country and staying at the controversial resort.
It’s extremely easy to find. As soon as you get off I-94’s Exit 1 you’re greeted by a Four Winds water tower. We turned into the reservation property and followed a long, winding road. (There didn’t seem to be any purpose for this meandering path, but it sure was fun to drive.) The first impression upon turning the last bend is “wow – that’s a lot of cars” and then “what a cool canopy.” As we learned later, there were birch-look inverted canoe canopies throughout the casino.
After some confusion and a little bit of a wait, a bellhop greeted us and took our bags. The circular entrance flanked by fireplaces led directly into the casino, where the tinkle of slots welcomed us to try our luck. The floors were carpeted in a fall foliage motif, the light fixtures featured cattails, and overhead were more birch beams. The resort is suffused with tribal elements, all subtle and tastefully done.
Our bellhop, Travis, chatted with us on the way to check-in, and kept Kenny company while I found out our room would be ready in about an hour. Travis promised to safeguard our stuff while we explored. Of course, we immediately looked for a bar.
This proved to be a little difficult. Like Vegas, the casino is built on grand proportions. We asked a cocktail waitress, and bless her heart the poor girl had no idea. I recognized the slightly panicked look on her face: “please don’t ask me anything because if you do I’m going to forget the 12 orders I have in my head.” We explored a little more and found a curved bar with games and a tiny stage behind it. I situated myself at a bar table while Kenny got us drinks. As he offered mine to me he said in a stage whisper “they’re only $1.50.” Woohoo! I liked this place already.
We enjoyed our cocktails, and I sang along to the local cover band that appeared on stage (a really annoying habit of mine that drives my son crazy). Travis came by to ask us to give them another 15 minutes. Yes, Travis found us. In that enormous space – 130,000 square feet – he searched for us to let us know it was taking a little longer. Then, when it was ready, he returned to inform us we could check in whenever we were ready.
That service proved to be representative of our stay. There were hiccups, but every time something wasn’t up to par the staff bent over backward to correct any problems. For example, we had late reservations Sunday night so we tried to order the meat and cheese platter to tie us over. They were out after the busy weekend, but Britney said she would try to put something together. She personally delivered a plate of flatbread crackers, lunch meats, and sliced cheese. It wasn’t the prosciutto, brie, and roquefort platter I had in mind, but her effort made up for it and it was the best darn salami and colbyjack I’ve ever had.
Waiting in the room for our 9:30 reservation was a treat. Our Junior Suite had a living area with a flat screen TV, wet bar, microwave, refrigerator, coffee maker, an L-shaped couch, and an elongated desk that accommodated all of my work stuff. The sleeping area had another flat screen TV, a comfortable chair, and, as I found out later, one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept in.
And then there was the bathroom. A curved hall with a closet on one side and a vase set in a lighted alcove on the other led into the enormous room. His and Her sinks, a shower with his and her showerheads, and a jacuzzi tub encircled a tiled space large enough to fit my Chicago kitchen into. I tell ya, I was ready to just camp out in the room and luxuriate in the comfy robe they provided. Alas, I was there to work, so we set off for dinner.
Copper Rock is the resort’s steakhouse concept. It’s named after the 8,640 pound block of copper gracing the entrance, and patrons are invited to rub it for good luck (it was found in Dollar Bay, Michigan).
Steakhouse veterans of Chicago will recognize most of the wines on the extensive list, and they’ll also recognize the prices on the menu. Unfortunately, the service and the cuisine isn’t what we’ve been trained to expect. Granted, I’ve served in steakhouses for years, and Kenny’s a chef in one of the top restaurants in Chicago and the country, so we’re aware of every nuance. That experience also means we know what Chicago’s clientèle will expect. Don’t get me wrong, dinner was good, it just wasn’t great. I won’t go into the details because I believe that, given some time, they’ll get all those kinks worked out.
Why do I have that faith? Partly because of Travis and Britney, but also because of our experience the next night at Swimm.
Their seafood concept has a much more contemporary decor and a more complex menu. You can get everything from sushi to barramundi. You can also get every wine they have by the glass. (You can do that at Copper Rock also.) Every single thing we had was tasty and wonderful (except for the undercooked potatoes, but I can forgive those). Our server Joanna recommended the crab cakes, which were mayonnaise-less and full of crab. Earlier in the day Steven Kline, the VP of Food & Beverage, had told us about their twist on the cedar-plank: instead of cooking fish on top of a block of cedar, they wrap it in thinly-sliced sheets of the aromatic wood. We had the salmon prepared that way and it infused the entire fish.
Joanna was another example of the level of service you can expect at Four Winds. She was attentive and pleasant and when she said “I love making people happy” we believed her. She certainly made our evening memorable. When she served the Baked Alaska and confessed we were her first ones, we were pleased to be her guinea pigs.
Joanna told us that the majority of the employees drive at least an hour and a half to get to work. That may not seem long to Chicagoans used to long commutes, but in Michigan that means they live about 90 miles away. As we left, our bellhop Dave told us he “only” drives 40 minutes.
There was quite a bit of resistance before its opening on August 2, but Four Winds has provided jobs for 2400 people. Dave told us he was happy to make the drive because he doesn’t have to work in a factory any more, after 20 years of repetitive labor. Now that it’s in place it can’t help but improve the economy of the area, which is almost completely seasonal. There’s obviously a demand: Travis told us there was a three-mile back-up on I-94 the day they opened, and other staff mentioned the constant stream of guests and gamblers since then.
The casino itself is, well, a casino. Except the ventilation is so great that I couldn’t smell people smoking who were sitting five feet away. They also have dealer-less poker. I tried a demo and the computerized version is a lot less intimidating.
When Tuesday morning rolled around I didn’t want to leave. We’d explored Harbor Country on Monday and we both wanted more time to loll around in our luxurious room and camp out in the casino, but unfortunately reality beckoned.
Four Winds Casino
11111 Wilson Rd, New Buffalo, MI, (866)4WINDS1
Quick Tips, Facts, Minutiae:
- Although Four Winds is on reservation land, they still have to abide by Michigan’s alcohol laws. They’re not allowed to comp booze, hence the $1.50 casino floor drinks. That also means there’s a “last call”. For 24 hour drinking and gambling you still have to go to Vegas.
- Be aware: There’s a “martini bar” that serves better liquor, but also charges Chicago prices. ($11 for a Bacardi & diet and a Grey Goose & tonic.)
- There are lockers/humidors for wine lovers and cigar afficianados (meant for high rollers, but call for details). These will especially come in handy come January 1 when Illinois’ complete smoking ban kicks in.
- Sign up for their W Club to be eligible for random jackpots.