by Ron Donoho | November 10, 2017
On the shuttle bus back from a dusty, hard-hat tour of Pechanga Resort & Casino's $285 million expansion, a man in the front row chatted amiably with the driver. "Y'know, my wife and I have been coming to this casino since it was just a tent."

The driver smiled and nodded. "Yup," he replied," soon, it's gonna be a really big tent."

Pechanga's metal-frame tent era was circa 1995. By December 2017, the AAA Four Diamond property in Southern California's Temecula Valley will add a 568-room hotel wing, bumping the total number of rooms and suites to 1,090. Other new additions will include a luxury spa/salon with 17 treatment rooms, a resort-style pool complex, and an additional 67,000 square feet of event space (bringing the total to 247,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor event space).

Pechanga is doubling its space for trade shows and events with a 40,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Events Center, divisible into five sections. Also coming with the expansion: indoor pre-function areas that wraps around the Events Center; a plant-filled "green roof" available as a pre-function area; and 15 meeting rooms on the new center's second floor, which can double as VIP areas for ballroom events.

Another draw for meeting planners with attendees who don't want to traverse a smoky casino floor: The resort's new lobby check-in area will be adjacent to the pre-function space that connects to the Events Center.

There's also a 1,200-seat, high-tech theater on property, where comedian Ali Wong was performing during my weekend visit. She opened her show by noting: "I was wondering where Temecula was…but this place is lit!" I had to look it up: Lit is Millennial slang for "exciting" or "excellent." 

Wong is right. Temecula Valley -- and it's 30-plus wineries under skies filled with colorful hot-air balloons -- is 60 minutes from San Diego and 90 minutes from Los Angeles. Pechanga has a challenging golf course out back, and roofs a casino floor that rivals and exceeds any in Las Vegas (seriously!).  

And Pechanga's 13-restaurant dining scene is most certainly lit. A highlight is The Great Oak Steakhouse, where the surf-and-turf specials are delivered by veteran servers like Amanda, who will deduce whether you might prefer port wine butter rather than roasted tomato-kalamata compote on your Chilean sea bass, and then confirm that the band playing that night at the Cabaret Lounge will go on earlier than the DJ at the Eagles Nest Nightclub. 

Then there's Umi Sushi & Oyster Bar, overseen by Kiyokuni Ikeda, who toiled in Tokyo sushi bars before coming to the U.S. to study under Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. Ikeda's kitchen produces a seafood steam pot with a mesmerizing fresh herb white wine broth that you'd swear is imbued with healing properties. Ikedo also delivers magical, seemingly simple fried oysters that are panko breaded -- and look like hushpuppies -- but under the crunchy exterior there's the briny, warm gushiness of a perfectly cooked oyster. Lit, indeed.