[Note: As I’m mostly an author, I mostly write about authorly things here. But, I am also occasionally a human being, and so I occasionally write about human being things here. This is one of those times.]
Encore Boston Harbor, a large casino, opened up in the Boston area Sunday, which was great news for my wife and I, as we enjoy casinos, albeit not always for the same reasons.
This casino opened up in Everett, Massachusetts, which is on the Mystic River, a stretch of water previously recognizable as the end of the sentence A body washed up today on the shore of…
Everett, likewise, is not the part of the metropolitan area one might associate with a future economic boom. (The same could be said of its immediate neighbors, Malden, Medford and Somerville.) The first thing that comes to mind for most locals, when thinking of Everett, probably involves the word “carcinogen”.
So this is a little weird for all of us.
We went to the Encore twice in the past few days: once on Thursday night, as participants in their soft-open, and again for opening day on Sunday. What follows is less a travelogue than a series of impressions, because I am still recovering from the walk and the sunburn.
Can’t get there from here
Getting to Everett–this part of Everett in particular–was always going to be a challenge, because nobody ever wanted to go there before. Certainly, not 30,000-50,000 people a day. As a consequence, there’s no direct subway service, or bus stop, or walking trail. The one road that crosses in front of the casino is a default traffic nightmare because it’s narrow, and there are only a couple of ways to get on and off of it.
There is also very little parking at the casino, and it’s not cheap to park there, which is an intentional thing. The Encore people didn’t want a bad rep for causing even more traffic headaches for locals, so they are actively discouraging people from driving. One way to do this, is to not offer much parking, and to charge for what they do offer.
We drove on Thursday night, because when we responded positively to the VIP access email, it asked us whether we would be driving ourselves or hiring a car. (There were no other options, which was also deliberate: the shuttles and water taxis the casino had been advertising relentlessly in the run-up to opening weren’t in operation yet.)
Incidentally, we are not VIPs. The only reason we got this invitation was that I signed up for a Red Card (Encore’s rewards program) two weeks earlier. I thought perhaps they’d done some minimal background check (“he’s a white dude over 50 living in Cambridge, let’s get him on the list!”) but that was obviously not the case, because the casino was swamped. Basically, everyone with a Red Card and a New England address was invited, and most showed.
Traffic was backed up on Thursday, I’m saying. It was pretty bad, too, enough to leave me with the impression that the Sunday opening was going to seize up the entire region.
It didn’t. I think the most amazing thing about Sunday (among many amazing things) was that people paid attention to the suggestion that they not drive.
Walking, yes indeed
We like to walk places, when we can. The thing about the Boston area is that everything here is in theoretical walking distance of everything else. (For our purposes, we’re deeming “walking distance” as any distance that can be walked within an afternoon. Seven or eight miles, say.)
We live in North Cambridge, AKA ‘the part of Cambridge farthest from Boston that is still considered Cambridge’. Harvard Square is 1.4 miles from our front door, Porter is 1 mile, Davis Square is .6 miles. Going further out, Fenway Park is 5.5. Hanover Street in the North End came out to about 8 miles, but we took a roundabout route, along the Charles and down Newbury, to get there; the direct route isn’t that far.
According to the maps, Encore Boston Harbor is either 4.7 or 4.8 miles, depending on which part of Somerville we want to endure. But because we are Certified Smart People Who Also Like To Walk, we didn’t take either route. Instead, we took the Somerville Community Path, a walking trail that ends unceremoniously in a part of Somerville that looks like a background shot in The Whitey Bulger Story.
It was another three miles from the end of the path to get to the casino: about 5.5 miles in total. Not so bad, except for two things:
- The entire trip was East-facing, in the morning, on a bright, sunny day that was heading for eighty degrees. Neither of us considered suntan lotion in advance.
- We did not, at the end of this 5.5 miles, get to sit down. For a while.
We missed the 10 AM opening, arriving at the Encore at around 11:15. (We heard the fireworks, but didn’t see them.) By that time, the line to get in went all the way down Encore’s much-talked-about Harborwalk–the ‘harbor’ in question is a dock on the Mystic, so it’s a little oversold–and all the way back again.
It would be another hour and another mile, in the sun, before we made it indoors.
A few things about this:
- What Encore did was actually very intelligent. They only let people into the casino in batches, every two to three minutes, so that each person got a chance to go in and experience the place without being trampled to death by a crowd.
- Likewise, the staff inside was able to cope with a steady rush of people rather than being overwhelmed. It was the difference between high tide and a tsunami.
- Speaking of high tide, the Mystic River didn’t even reach the banks. We got plenty of opportunity to see–and smell–the waterfront that had been ‘reclaimed after a hundred years’, and I gotta say, they may want to consider un-reclaiming it. (Someone behind me in line said he thought the casino should have spent some money adding water to the river so it looked nicer. I think he was serious.)
- The casino provided free bottled water and sandwiches to everyone in line, which was also very smart. It didn’t do much for the people fainting from sunstroke (we saw this happen twice) but it was about the best we could have expected, short of a covered walkway. Since this would be the last time a line was needed to get inside–it was gone by midday–a cover was probably not worth it.
- My sunburn disagrees with the above point.
- Based on the lack of traffic on the main road as we walked in, everyone in line with us took the shuttles and water taxis to get there.
- Unless they waited overnight. We heard rumors that the first people through the door had been waiting since somewhere between five in the morning and five o’clock the prior night. This made sense to literally nobody. They weren’t there to buy something scarce, or catch an event that was going to end after a certain time. Once Encore’s doors were opened, they would never be closing again. I’d rather get some sleep.
- At the same time, we were in a line to get into a casino that was never going to be closing again, when if we had just decided to show up a few hours later, this wouldn’t have been an issue. So perhaps we are not ones to talk.
- It was amusing, as we waited (and I had little else to do other than Not Faint), watching people walk up to the front of the line and try to convince the security guy controlling traffic that they were somehow more important than the rest of us, and should be allowed immediate access to the casino.
- Once we were in the front, someone straight-up jumped the barrier to skip ahead. Unfortunately, he landed next to my wife, who was not having it. She got the attention of an Encore employee, and the jumper was escorted to the back. If he was looking for a No Snitches ethic, he landed in the wrong place.
We had a plan. It was this: as soon as we get into the casino, walk directly to the restaurant Red 8, make a reservation for dinner, then walk directly to the buffet and eat lunch. We could make this kind of plan because we’d already been in the casino on Thursday and gotten all of the ooh-ing and aah-ing out of our system. (I’m underselling the majesty of the casino here, and I apologize. It’s gorgeous. You will need to budget for ooh-ing, and perhaps also aah-ing.)
The plan didn’t work out. I went off-book immediately upon entering, by popping into Sinatra’s for some ooh-ing, as I hadn’t gotten a chance to see it on Thursday. Then I asked if they were taking dinner reservations. They were, so I made one for 6 PM.
We left the restaurant, to get chased down by a different Sinatra’s employee from the one who took the reservation. She asked if we were staying at the hotel…because evidently, nobody noticed I was wearing shorts until we left the front desk, and they had a dress code.
She canceled the reservation.
The next problem: Red 8 wasn’t taking reservations at all. They would be doing first-come, first-serve all day, and wait-listing if it got bad. Then, rather than go directly to the buffet, we walked to Fratelli’s to see if they were taking reservations. We noticed along the way that there was a long line for the buffet already, and we had had enough of lines. (Also, we’d been on our feet for three hours and 6.6 miles.) Fratelli’s was taking reservations, but they also had a table for us right away, no waiting in line required.
The whole making-reservations thing was in anticipation of there being more people in need of food than there were places to feed them, by nightfall. It was good thinking. But once we got a table as soon as we’d arrived, it seemed like this was an unnecessary concern: sure, it would be busier later, but we weren’t in any rush.
This would end up being a problem.
A brief aside to talk about how I am an idiot
I know I said above that I was a Certified Smart Person, but I was being ironic.
One of the things we had to do more or less immediately–after lunch but before gambling–was recover my windbreaker. I left it at the first slot machine I visited on Thursday night and didn’t realize I’d done so until another hour had passed, by which time all I could no longer identify the machine.
Nobody else could find it either, at least not right away. After talking to multiple staff members, none of whom seemed fully informed on the mechanics of how lost-and-found worked, I ended up leaving my name, address, and phone number with a nice fellow from security named Colby, who would reach out to me if it turned up.
Note: I would have written off the jacket altogether–especially once it became clear nobody in the casino quite grasped how to recover lost objects on the premises–except my house key was in the pocket. Without the key, our options for getting back into the house were: break in, or; wake up my son, who lives in Allston, and steal his copy.
Colby called later, while we were in the car, and asked that I describe the set of keys. (“It still has a Blockbuster Video fob on it” was sufficient.) Then he texted a number to call, upon returning, so they could get someone from security to bring me to the jacket.
(You will note, if you are paying attention, that at this point Colby had both my house key and my address, and when he called I told him I was driving to Allston and not home. Because I am an idiot. Nothing went wrong here, but I am still an idiot.)
After eating, I called the number. I had to leave the floor to do this, because–and you should plan for this–fully three quarters of the casino floor is a dead zone. It sounds like a security feature, but it’s not; it interferes with the staff communications as well, including casino security. (If you’d like to use this information to Ocean’s Eleven the place, have at it.)
The woman on the other end told me to find a red jacket security person and tell him, so he could bring me to the lost-and-found, so I kind of didn’t need to call her in the first place, but whatever.
The first red-jacket we found couldn’t help us, as he was occupied guarding Popeye. This is a human-sized crystal Popeye the Sailor Man statue that cost $3.5 million and has no reason to exist. I am probably the only guest to the Encore who did not take Popeye’s photo, but anyway. Let’s move on.
we found another red-jacket, who walked me all the way back onto the floor, to the rear of the casino, where he eventually reunited me with the windbreaker and the keys. I first had to fill out a slip describing the lost item–apparently, I was supposed to fill out something online, but literally nobody knew this–describing the keys in profound detail. I did not have to consent to a DNA swab for cross-comparison, but I think they’ll be asking for that the next time.
Anyway, I got the jacket and the keys back, which is a good thing, as those Blockbuster fobs are hard to replace.
Gambling and definitely not eating dinner
I have modest goals when it comes to gambling. I set aside a small amount of cash I can afford to lose, and then I spend however many hours at the casino doing my best to return home at the end of the night with at least the same amount of cash. (My wife’s goals are similar: try to lose as slowly as possible, while amassing comp points. Tomato-tomahto.)
I failed utterly at this the first half of the day, but rallied in the evening, so that now I can state with great pride that I came out $1.20 ahead. Since my wife was rallying at the same time–the machines were very loose in the evening–we blew right past the normal dinner hours. We also missed the afternoon barbecue on the lawn; we toured the lawn and saw the barbecue, and were not hungry at the time, and skipped it.
Then suddenly it was approaching 10 PM, I had broken even, and I was crashing badly.
I couldn’t text my wife to alert her to this fact, because of the lack of a signal. Also, non-trivially, my phone was at 15%. It had been on power-saver all afternoon, because I used the maps app to get us to the casino on foot and I hadn’t brought any way to charge it with us. (This is also why the last communication from me on Instagram was a number of photos from Fratelli’s.) I secretly believe if my phone dies, I will as well–I know I’m not the only one like this–so I was dealing with a real fear that I wouldn’t be able to locate her before a number of bad things happened.
I did, eventually. Then we headed to Mystique, which boasted a spacious dining floor with Asian fusion food that looked interesting, and claimed to be serving food until 2 AM.
There was a line. It wasn’t a normal line, either. It was a You’re Not Special line. Unlike earlier in the day, people could walk up to the front of this line and say I am important enough to not wait in this line and they would be RIGHT, and the guy at the front would let them in.
It turned out the restaurant was no longer taking walk-ins for dinner, but nobody told the guys outside this, which was why, even after I went to the front and said, “we just want to eat, are we in the right line?” I was told no worries, it’ll move again, the people jumping the line have reservations.
By the time we received notice–from the host inside–that we couldn’t eat there, but we were “welcome to have a drink at the bar”, I was ready to murder (and then eat) someone.
Really, it was our own fault for not sticking to the plan and either making a reservation somewhere, at a more normal time to eat food, or getting wait-listed early. (By 10:45, the wait for a table at the On-Deck Burger Bar was 2.5 hours.) At the same time, places like Mystique need to figure out if they’re a dinner spot or a nightclub, and communicate that difference a little more clearly.
Dinner did come, eventually, at close to Midnight, in the form of upscale bar food at Waterfront. We had something called Lobster Thermidor Poutine, which is exactly as outrageous as it sounds.
The other half of this grand scheme, after walking to the casino from home, was to walk back home again at the end of the night. There were a couple of obvious problems with this plan:
- we’d logged over 10 miles of walking already by then
- it was 12:30 AM and the path home led through parts of Somerville that I would not personally feel comfortable walking at night
- we’d been drinking semi-regularly since we walked in the door
- we needed a phone with enough power left to navigate us back
That left public transportation–which was probably not still running after Midnight on a Sunday–taxi, or an Uber.
I know the saying is, the house always wins, but at the end of the day I think I found the real winners: the Uber and Lyft drivers. We ended up getting an Uber (“I haven’t seen a taxi in a while, you should use an Uber,” was what the guy at the front door said) with the last vestige of life remaining on my wife’s phone. He arrived in under ten minutes, because Encore added a parking lot across from the casino for rideshare operators to linger.
Our driver received notification from Uber, while taking us home, that he had to go do something else for a while, because he’d been at it for twelve hours. He would have kept on going otherwise: “all I see is green,” was his comment, regarding the new casino.
It’s a fair point. Everything about Encore–the lack of parking, the distance to the nearest public transportation, the rideshare lot, and even the guy at the front who said a taxi was a rare thing–translates into nothing but dollar signs for all those Uber and Lyft drivers in the area. Rather than walking, we’ll probably just use an Uber to get there the next time, especially if we want to dress well enough to sit down at Sinatra’s or Rare Steakhouse.
This is actually the second area casino opening we’ve attended, as we drove out to see the MGM Springfield for its opening weekend last Fall. I would not call that experience pleasant: the casino floor was terribly overcrowded and loud, the food options were (and remain) terribly limited, and not everything was open yet.
At no time–aside from the wait in the line outside–did Encore feel overcrowded. It felt crowded, but not overly so. This was especially true on the casino floor, where there were always free machines, and wide corridors, and a high ceiling that canceled a lot of the sound.
If you’re planning to show up for the tables, bring a lot of cash, because I didn’t see anything under a $50 minimum, and I understand they went up to $100 as the night went on. Likewise, if you’re planning on a eating a decent meal, bring a lot of cash, because the menu prices are up there.
Basically, just bring a lot of cash. Even if you aren’t gambling.
And if you plan to walk, and you’re heading into the sun, apply sunscreen.
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If you’ve been to Encore Boston Harbor and would like to share your experiences, add a comment!