Sands Bethlehem: A Great Time in the Lehigh Valley
New Yorkers have a variety of options when it comes to nearby resort-casinos, including Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods to the north and Atlantic City to the south, but head about an hour and a half west of the city and you’ll find the seven year-old Sands Bethlehem, a sprawling playground of casinos, bars, a hotel, spa, a kids’ room and arcade, restaurants, a great event center, and outlet shops. We had the opportunity to spend a weekend there at the invitation of the resort, and would recommend it as both a great day trip as well as a weekend jaunt.
There are two entrances for visitors, so if you’re staying at the 302-room hotel make sure you drive around the side to the hotel entrance. The hotel itself is comfortable and check-in was a breeze; our room was spacious and well-appointed, with a very comfortable bed. Guests also have access to free WiFi, indoor pool, fitness room, in-room dining, and complementary continental breakfast. For high-rollers, there are a dozen high-end suites, an all-inclusive lounge, huge televisions, and automated Toto toilets.
Getting from the hotel to the casino is a bit of a trek (guests need to walk through the outlets or a side passage and present photo ID), but the casino itself is sprawling with plenty to explore. One of the highlights of the casino floor is live dealer stadium gaming where guests can play low-limit roulette and baccarat from their own console with one central dealer. The 3,000 slots range from the super-modern to old-school, and you’ll find all the classic table games, including craps, poker, pai gow, roulette, and casino war, as well as new games including Criss Cross Poker and King’s Bounty blackjack.
There’s a lot more to do here than just gamble, though. There’s free live entertainment seven nights a week at Molten, in the heart of the casino (above), and an awesome cover band was playing both nights we were there (great drink deals can be found at a kiosk just outside of the lounge as well). If you’re in the mood for full-on clubbing, Vision Bar has you covered. And the 14,000-square-foot event center hosts some pretty big acts; upcoming concerts include Frankie Valli, Dropkick Murphys, and Kris Kristofferson and comedians include Jeff Ross and Dave Attell. Those looking to go shopping can visit the more than two dozen outlet shops on two floors, including Coach, DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, Under Armour, Dress Barn, and Kay Jewelers. And the full-service Steel Magnolia spa offers services including body wraps, haircuts, manicures and pedicures, facials, massages, reflexology, hydrotherapy, and Vichy shower by licensed professionals.
At some point you’re bound to get hungry (we sure did), and the high quality of dining options is one of the resort’s most welcome surprises. There’s something for everyone here: If you’re looking for something quick, there’s a large food court (the croissants and coffee offered at Croissanterie were quite good); there’s a huge variety of authentic Asian fare at Chopstick; and Steelworks Buffet offers an expansive and inexpensive buffet, including weekend specials like Sunday brunch, prime rib dinner, and lobster and filet dinner. Carnegie Deli is also a great lunch option with a full menu of solid Jewish deli fare; when the flagship closes at the end of the year, it’ll be the closest location to New York! Emeril Lagasse also runs Burgers & More, where you’ll find specialty burgers made with Prime chuck, as well as salads, shakes, and starters including gumbo and wings.
Lagasse also runs two additional restaurants in Sands: Emeril’s Fish House and Emeril’s Chop House. Emeril’s Fish House is seafood-focused with entrées including Creole-style shrimp and grits, Portuguese seafood stew, and pecan-crusted halibut with Creole Meunière sauce. Steaks, burgers, and shellfish towers round out the menu.
We had the opportunity to dine at Emeril’s Chop House, the resort’s premier fine dining restaurant (and Lagasse’s East Coast flagship), and couldn’t have been more impressed. The restaurant appeared to attract an even mix of casino guests and locals celebrating special occasions (there were plenty of birthdays in the house), and this is certainly one of the finest steakhouses in the region. The dining room is refined and hushed (not much casino noise makes it inside), with white tablecloths, attentive and knowledgeable servers, and a smart and sophisticated design. To start, James River oysters are panko-breaded and topped with andouille, creamed spinach, smoked paprika, and hollandaise, and are rich and addictive. Emeril’s famous New Orleans barbecue shrimp is also on the menu here, and it’s a must-order. Other standout starters include shellfish plateaus, shrimp or crab cocktail, and a variety of meats and cheeses including housemade kielbasa and house-smoked fresh mozzarella.
If you’re not in the mood for a steak, entrée options include seafood bouillabaisse, herb-roasted chicken, and pan-seared duck breast with goat cheese and duck confit ravioli, but c’mon, you’re here for the steak. Hartley Farms provides the filet mignon (available in either seven- or nine-ounce portions), and the famed Pat LaFrieda provides 16-ounce Prime New York strip, 26-ounce Prime dry-aged porterhouse, and 22-ounce bone-in Prime ribeye. I opted for a 24-ounce Prime 60-day dry-aged bone-in New York strip with onion rings special, and it was perfectly crusted on the outside, full of beefy flavor, and cooked to a perfect medium rare — it was seriously one heck of a steak. All steaks are dusted with Creole seasoning and served with maître d’ butter, veal glace, Worcestershire sauce, béarnaise, and horseradish cream on the side. Optional toppings include jumbo lump crab, Alaskan king crab legs, lobster tail, Oscar (crab and sautéed asparagus), and Maytag blue cheese, and it can also be prepared au poivre with cognac cream sauce. Make sure you try the lobster mac and cheese on the side.
If you’re looking for a more casual dinner option and are in the mood for Italian, definitely consider Buddy V’s Ristorante, Cake Boss Buddy Valastro’s down-home Italian spot. All the red-sauce classics are here, including spaghetti with meatballs, linguine and white clam sauce, cappelini shrimp scampi, and lasagna al forno. Antipasti include eggplant Parm, mozzarella in carozza, and a generous salumi and cheese board. Eight pizzas are available (go for Buddy’s Favorite with Italian sausage, meatballs, pepperoni, cherry peppers, ricotta, mozzarella, and provolone), and entrées include chicken Parm, chicken picatta, bone-in veal Parm chop, and surf and turf. The bucatini carbonara was rich and comforting if a little too creamy (traditional carbonara recipes don’t include cream and the menu didn’t mention its inclusion, so watch out), but the Valastro Sunday Gravy (below), a bowl of rigatoni served alongside a hearty mélange of meatballs, braised pork, and braised lamb neck in a deep and rich red sauce, was insanely comforting and tasted like it could have been made by someone’s nonna. The dessert selection is top notch, as expected; we suggest you go for a flaky lobster tail (sfogliatella).
Constructed on the site of the legendary Bethlehem Steel Works, Sands Bethlehem isn’t just a boon to the local economy and the provider of thousands of jobs; it’s also a lot of fun to visit, even if it’s just an evening out. It was also just approved for a $90 million expansion, which will increase the resort’s square footage by 100,000 square feet with 380 more slot machines, 81 more tables, and two new restaurants: a noodle bar and perhaps a Cheesecake Factory.