BILOXI — As Tilman Fertitta opened the 700-room Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino on the Mississippi Gulf Coast Friday, the Houston billionaire was treated like a celebrity as fans begged for his autograph and thanked him for putting his faith in their part of the world.
"I was supposed to be on the cover and they decided they needed to put a woman on the cover (Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff)," Fertitta explained. "Now, do you think people in America wanted to read about her or read about me?"
"I want to give you a taste of what's coming into Lake Charles," Fertitta said. "This is a beautiful property but Lake Charles is going to be bigger and better."
"At least they did put you on top," the man said, noting the headline at the top of the magazine, referring to Fertitta as "The Seafood Billionaire," was positioned right next to a headline about billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
"I never thought about that," Fertitta chuckled.
Indeed, with the opening of the lavish hotel — Fertitta spent $100 million to transform the dowdy Isle of Capri (dubbed by some as "Pile of Debris" because of its neglected state) into a sparkling Las Vegas-style resort — the restaurant/hotel entrepreneur is at the top of his game.
"It's special to do a multi-million dollar project in the South. We're Southerners, it's fun to do stuff in the South," Fertitta said, about his first casino foray in the region.
And he's not finished yet.
With an even bigger $700 million flaghship hotel/casino complex slated to debut in Lake Charles in December, Fertitta is targeting Houston travelers as he aims to make Golden Nugget a national brand. (Landry's also owns Golden Nugget hotels in Las Vegas, Laughlin, Nev., and Atlantic City.)
Fertitta was so proud of the new resort that he flew nine members of the Houston media, including CultureMap, in his private jet (a Gulfstream GV) for the grand opening and feted us at his private yacht, the Boardwalk, before sending us back home. (He had entertained 20 high rollers on the yacht the night before after jetting in from Cabo San Lucas.)
"I want to give you a taste of what's coming into Lake Charles," he said. "This is a beautiful property but Lake Charles is going to be bigger and better."
The Biloxi resort has many of the features of a Landry's-owned property, including an H20 pool and swim up bar (like the one at the San Luis in Galveston — only bigger) and such familiar restaurants as Morton's and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company that open up onto the massive gaming floor, with more than 1,200 slot machines and 54 table games. The complex also includes revamped rooms in tasteful shades of brown and taupe, a bar with video poker, and a slew of other lounges, restaurants and stores.
Unlike many resorts where the pool is in an out-of-the-way location, it takes up a prime position at the entrance to the casino. "I don't go bury a pool in the back. I love all the energy with the pool and the restaurant and the casino working together," Fertitta explained.
"Even the flowers match my bikini top," a cocktail waitress named Crystal boasted.
Around the pool, everything is color-coordinated. "Even the flowers match my bikini top," a cocktail waitress named Crystal boasted.
Inside, such restaurants as Lillie's Asian Cuisine and Bar 46, with a live band, open out onto the large casino, where the whiff of cigarette smoke hangs in the air. Upstairs, around the corner from retail shops and the check-in area, a small casino area caters to non-smoking gamblers. In another area, slots are situated near windows looking out onto the ocean for players who yearn for some natural light.
As at most casinos, the Golden Nugget draws its share of eclectic guests. One woman was spotted in a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Jesus is my BFF" while a veteran in military attire from Pensacola, at the casino for his wife's birthday, bragged how he started with $40 and had won $500.
"The slots are good," he said.
But neither looked out of place amid two showgirls in yellow plumes who smiled broadly during the ribbon-cutting even as four men in camouflage uniforms and toting machine guns stood only a few feet away, guarding a $5 million golden nugget — reportedly the largest in the world. Dubbed the "Hand of Faith," it was transferred from the Las Vegas Golden Nugget to Biloxi for the opening and will reside behind bullet-proof glass near the check-in area.
Also on hand were former Houston Oilers Robert Brazile, aka "Dr. Doom," and Vernon Perry, who were members of the team in its heyday during the mid-1970s and early 1980s. Brazile now lives in Mobile, Ala., and Perry lives in Jackson, Miss.