Photos and Review by Oyster.com Investigators
The California Hotel and Casino is all about clean, affordable rooms, a relatively quiet gambling environment and few frills: no spa, no fitness center, and a small, little-used pool. Compared with other Vegas hotels, the aesthetic is minimal. Thrift, not excess, appears to be the guiding philosophy. On-site restaurants like Market Street Cafe, Pasta Pirate, Aloha Specialties, and the California Club keep prices low, furthering the impression that gambling is the near-exclusive draw.
The guests appear to be there for the simple pleasure of playing slot machines, video poker, and live table games. When I got into a cab to head from the Strip to the California, my driver asked, "Why do you want to go there?" Asked whether the Cal caters to an older crowd, he quipped, "Yeah, 70 and up." He was exaggerating, but he wasn't entirely off the mark: Like its sister property, Main Street Station, as well as other downtown destinations like the Four Queens and the Golden Nugget, the California Hotel draws a crowd older than those at many Strip hotels. During my stay, I saw few children or youthful revelers around.
The hotel also has a longstanding tradition of marketing itself to budget-conscious travelers from Hawaii. Boyd Vacations Hawaii, a subsidiary of the casino's parent company, Boyd Gaming, offers reasonable travel packages from Hawaii to the California and next-door Main Street Casino. According to Boyd's website, the hotel draws about 70% of its business from Hawaii. As a result, the hotel has a slight island vibe, from the lei-laden Buddha statue by the elevators to the Hawaiian food at Aloha Specialties to the palm-tree wallpaper outside the meeting rooms.
A fairly slim suite of services, but the hotel handles check-in, checkout and other basic requests quickly.
In line with its bare-bones approach to hospitality, the hotel offers a narrow range of services. Room service is available for breakfast only from 6:45 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. (the food is reasonably priced, but note that a 17% service charge is added to each order). Beyond that, the extras are gaming-related: in-house credit, check cashing, and Western Union.
However, the Cal executes what it offers effectively. Check-in took less than five minutes. Checkout was similarly fast, and a bellman offered to check my bags while I explored downtown . During my stay, a request for towels was met in 19 minutes (longer than usual in Vegas), but room service arrived 16 minutes after I ordered (very fast).
Staff members answer the phone with a scripted greeting along the lines of, "It's a groovy day at the California Hotel, where we're celebrating the summer of '69. This is Margaret. How may I help you?" that feels a bit stiff and perfunctory. On the other hand, a knowledgeable bellman was quick to dissuade me from taking the free shuttle to the Strip, advising me to pick up the Deuce Bus instead. It was sound advice -- see the Location section below.
Even among downtown hotels, the Cal feels removed from the action. Its entrances on Ogden Avenue open onto sister casino Main Street Station -- which is also connected to the Cal by a skywalk -- or the backs of the hotel-casinos located on the busier Fremont Street, one block south. With little foot traffic and not much to look at, the immediate neighborhood is quiet, even dreary. Of course being a five-minute walk from the bustle of Fremont Street also means guests aren't subjected to the flashing lights and noise of Fremont's nightly video shows -- not necessarily a bad thing.
Most Las Vegas visitors want to explore all of the big properties along the densely packed three-and-a-half mile long stretch of hotel-casinos known as the Strip, which is more than three miles south of downtown. The Cal provides a free shuttle to Sam's Town, an off-the Strip casino that's 20 minutes away, and to Harrah's and the Riviera on the Strip, but it's not worth it. The leaves every hour and 15 minutes between 8:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. (You can view the schedule here.) After the 20-minute ride to Sam's Town, guests have to pick up a second shuttle, making it about a two-and-a-half-hour trip to Harrah's. Instead, spring for a 10- to 15-minute cab ride to the Strip, whch costs about $15 to $20. Alternatively, the $3 Deuce Bus leaves from a stop two blocks away at Stewart Avenue and Casino Center Boulevard: Click here for a map to the bus station. The Deuce leaves about every 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the time of day, and a ride down to the Strip will take at least half an hour.
On the Strip, cabs are easy to find at virtually any time of day or night. There's also a monorail system, which stops at MGM Grand, Bally's/Paris, Flamingo/Caesars Palace, Harrah's/Imperial Palace, the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Hilton, and the Sahara. A single-ride ticket is $5; a one-day pass is $13. If you're traveling along the Strip with at least one other person, a cab is often the least expensive option.
McCarran International Airport is about a 20-minute, $25 cab ride from the hotel.
Plain design, but for the price, a great value. For a more recently remodeled room, request the east tower.
Comparable in size and furnishings to rooms at downtown's Four Queens and Main Street Station, the Cal's accommodations combine ample natural light and simple design. At 264 square feet, my standard room in the west tower (the hotel calls standard rooms "deluxe") had enough space for a vanity, a small desk, an entertainment center, two bedside desks, and of course the bed. Far less luxe than rooms at downtown's higher-end Golden Nugget, they nonetheless represent a great buy.
The bed, a Sealy Posturepedic Dynasty 220 (no pillow-top), was pretty comfortable, but my sleep was disturbed by sirens and the sounds of trucks backing up on Main Street. In general, though, I got the impression that street noise doesn't pose much of a threat at the Cal. It's away from the noisy and light-filled Fremont Street Experience, and when I stayed at the Main Street Station across the street, I slept undisturbed.
In terms of electronics, the room had a tube TV and a clock radio, and that was it. Rooms in the east tower -- which cost the same as west tower rooms -- were remodeled in the summer of 2008 (more recently than in the west tower) and sport flat-screen TVs. As for other amenities, all rooms come with hairdryers, irons and ironing boards, and mini-fridges.
No gym, spa, or business center, and the small rooftop pool is good for little other than short laps.
The small motel-style rectangle pool holds little appeal. The rooftop cement deck is home to a few sad plants, plastic seating and vending machines. No music, no lifeguards are on duty, and the showers feel dated. Even though guests at the Cal's adjoining sister property, Main Street Station, can also use the pool, it was deserted during my stay.
The signal for the wireless Internet, available in rooms for $10 a day, was strong, although there was some lag time when I tried to watch YouTube videos. The California has no free wireless Internet in public areas, but guests can walk across the street to Main Street Station to access the free Wi-Fi zone near the lobby.
Mostly slot-machine action at this quiet and uncrowded gaming floor.
The 1,000 slot-style games dominate the casino floor. Although gamblers can find blackjack and other live table games, as well as a sports book, most of the action is at the slots. Sitting at a video-poker machine, I caught snippets of "Bleeding Love" by Leona Lewis, but the sound of the machines usually drowns out the background music.
Rollaway beds and cribs are available. But beyond an arcade, kids won't find much to do at the Cal.
Of all the casino resorts I stayed at in Las Vegas, the California Hotel had the fewest youngsters, and it's no wonder: The main reason to go to the Cal is the quiet casino (not a child-friendly activity). Once kids tire of the arcade, they'll find little else to do. The pool -- really a glorified lap pool -- is 5 1/2 feet deep at one end and has no lifeguard on duty.
Overall clean and well-maintained, except for some mold in the bathroom.
The rooms at the California Hotel are clean, with no stains on the carpets or markings on the walls. The bathroom was welcoming, though I spotted some mold growing in the grout in the shower. The lobby, casino, and hallways are generally well-maintained.
Not a dining destination, though thrifty guests may appreciate the many sub-$10 entrees available in the hotel's restaurants.
Unlike most Strip properties or downtown's Golden Nugget, the Cal doesn't offer much in the way of high-end dining. The popular on-site eateries lure diners with low prices, not lovingly prepared dishes.
Market Street Cafe serves a $5.95 breakfast buffet, a $6.25 all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar at lunch and dinner, and low-priced entrees like the $7.95 California Prime Rib. Room service also comes from Market Street Cafe. My egg, potato, and bacon breakfast with coffee and orange juice ran $16.15, including taxes and tip.
Aloha Specialties offers inexpensive Hawaiian dishes, including saimin and a "super bowl" of teriyaki chicken over rice. A meal of saimin, a super bowl, and a Coke -- more than I could eat -- cost $9. Aloha Specialties is highly rated on Yelp.com.
The California Club is a cafeteria-style eating area that serves hot dogs for $2.50 and teriyaki beef sandwiches for $5.25. The chili dog I ate there left me with a stomachache.
At the higher-end Redwood Bar and Grill, entrees range from an $18 chicken breast to a $51 filet mignon and lobster tail. The Redwood is open from 5:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Click here for Yelp.com reviews, and here for the menu.
Fortunately, the Golden Nugget, a five-minute walk away, features six restaurants on-site, as well as a solid buffet. Next to the Nugget, the Four Queens' Hugo's Cellar, a downtown Vegas institution, provides classic grilled entrees and above-and-beyond service.
At this sleepy downtown hotel, the rooms are generic (but clean), the pool is puny, and the casino small. All that's nearby is the similar Main Street Station casino. The quiet rows of slot machines and low rates draw a predominantly senior crowd. Travelers looking for a rambunctious or luxurious Vegas vacation should look elsewhere.