Romantic Restaurants Bucket List

Oaklawn is a beautiful casino centered around the heritage of horse racing. Longtime owners the Cella family has done a lot of things right in growing this Hot Springs dynasty, surprising the masses as it consistently develops into something better than it was before. All this to say, I was skeptical of its food. Only some people can be good at everything.


A bronze statue of a track bugler greets patrons at one of Arkansas’ most elegant restaurants, aptly named The Bugler. Walking into the space, you are immediately transfixed by the expansive floor-to-ceiling windows. The windows frame a highly sought-after view of Oaklawn’s legendary racetrack, allowing the race day experience to emanate through the space.


In the main dining and bar area, an impressive wall gallery, consisting of recessed blue wooden planks, creates a visual backdrop for the black-and gold-framed Oaklawn racing photography and memorabilia.


Upon being greeted, I was seated at a cozy table by the window. It was early evening, and the view of the track and infield were incredible. The track was bathed in yellow and gold light, compliments of a setting sun. An expansive patio on the track side of the restaurant, situated on the first turn, provides a unique perspective. I was told the patio makes for a great brunch spot, especially on early mornings when the horses practice.


Romantic Restaurants

Blueberry Moscow Mule at The Bugler


My server, a soft-spoken waitress named Ashley, took excellent care of me. Ashley started me off with a glass of Mountain Valley Sparkling Water. I ordered a Blueberry Moscow Mule from the cocktail menu. It came adorned with a fresh lime and a horseshoe toothpick piercing two succulent blueberries. I’ve always had a soft spot for Moscow Mules but never had a blueberry one. It was perfectly sweet and refreshing.


Fire and Ice at The Bugler


For an appetizer, I ordered the Fire and Ice Seafood Tower, a two-story tower of seafood imported from across the world. On the bottom layer sat six jumbo shrimp and oysters and lobster cooling on a bed of ice; on the top tier, fresh scallops, mussels and clams rested on a sizzling plate. The food was outstanding and fresh.


Durac Chop at The Bugler


I began to get lost eating the tower of shellfish before I realized there was an entree to be had. I ordered the double bone Duroc pork chop paired with a sweet bourbon sauce, mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. Ashley presented me with a well-marbled chop accompanied with bourbon sauce that was both sweet, yet savory, the perfect compliment.


For dessert, I ordered the chocolate mousse torte, a luscious dessert for chocoholics. The rich, dark chocolate mousse cake was topped with fresh strawberries, blueberries and blackberries and rested in a pool of sweet cream sauce. Oh, so decadent!


I was impressed with the delicacies provided by head chef Omar Escobar’s kitchen. I would recommend The Bugler to everyone. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Unlike some of the attractions at Oaklawn, The Bugler can be enjoyed by the whole family because it’s located just outside the casino floor, meaning all ages can dine there.


After experiencing the consummate fine dining mastery at the The Bugler, I wasn’t sure how The Oak Room could be any better, especially since it’s located on the busy casino floor.


The Oak Room & Bar at Oaklawn, the property’s newest high-end dining experience, is the perfect blend of contemporary and traditional. When you walk into the restaurant, you can go right and have a drink at the bar or go left into the dining room for a luxurious, comfortable fine dining experience.


The bar area consists of elegant wood paneling and has a vintage parlor feel, including softly lit lighting and earth-colored tones complemented by black marble finishings. The furnishings are eclectic with fun, geometric print cocktail tables and bar stools with ostrich-textured upholstery. Globe pendants suspended by leather straps and brass hardware round out an equestrian heritage. 


Romantic Restaurants

Smoked Old Fashioned


In the bar area, I enjoyed three cocktails: Lavender Haze, Blue Diamond and Smoked Old Fashioned. The Lavender Haze was my favorite and it was very smooth. I tried it without knowing it was a gin-based cocktail (my liquor of choice). Along with Tanqueray No. 10 gin, the drink had lavender simple syrup, sparkling wine and lemon juice. The Blue Diamond was one of the most beautiful drinks I had ever seen, deep blue with edible glitter dancing around the glass. The Smoked Old Fashioned was a unique variation, infusing a cloud of smoke added to the top and covered before it came billowing out of the glass. The smoke beautifully brought out the apple hickory flavor of Oaklawn’s Woodford Reserve.


Smoked Shrimp Cocktail


For the appetizer, chef presented me with a smoked shrimp cocktail — yet another interactive piece decorated by smoke — and amuse-bouche surf and turf with yellow tuna sided with lemon curd, and a ribeye cap topped with beech mushroom demi.


Oak Room Wedge


The entree was a massive Duroc chop topped with cranberry sauce and sided with greens and real potato chips. The Oak Room Wedge Salad is a sight to behold. A delicious lettuce wedge bursting with crispy fried Louisiana crawfish, cherry tomatoes, smoked bacon and boiled egg. The masterpiece was drizzled with cayenne-buttermilk dressing. 


Lavender Haze


The fine dining room side of the restaurant has an intimate feel as the varied ceiling heights provide a cozy atmosphere. The walls of the eatery feature aqua-colored wooden panels accented with mirrored columns. The antique-inspired globe pendants are a thing of beauty while tables are adorned with candles placed inside quartz crystal holders, representative of Hot Springs’ love affair with crystals. Original LeRoy Newman art pieces decorating the walls add a sense of elegance and the chic geometric-print wool carpet finishes out the space.


The Oak Room meets a peak standard of excellence Oaklawn strives for in every aspect of its resort. Everything, from the atmosphere to the food to the service, right down to the bathrooms, screams attention to detail.


Blue Diamond


“What happens when Oaklawn gets too good?” I earnestly asked Food and Beverage VP Stephen Greer.


“There’s no such thing as too good,” he said in reply.


Speaking of a high standard of excellence, it was Greer who recruited Ken Bredeson to Oakland Racing Casino Resort as executive chef. Greer had previously worked with Bredeson in Las Vegas and convinced him to come to Oaklawn.


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Chef Ken Bredeson


“I’ve been in casinos for almost 27 years,” Bredeson said. “Prior to that, I worked in Europe for almost three years. I’ve got a mixed skill set between savory cooking and pastry chef.


“We really try to focus on high-end ingredients. I enjoy importing items not usually seen around Arkansas and watching people light up because it’s something they have never before experienced. The beef is sourced from Iowa and Omaha. We source our meat from specific cattle ranches we buy from. We do our own butchering in-house as well. Our fish mostly comes from Honolulu, Hawaii, and ships fresh weekly.”


Bringing fine seafood to the land-locked is always a challenge, but not under the skilled management of Chef Bredeson. The restaurant’s seafood hails from many ports of call around the world, including rock lobster from Africa and shrimp from the Gulf and Asian coast.


“Unfortunately, we can’t get [the lobster] fresh because of where it comes from, but it is in the top 2% freshest that you can get in the world,” Bredeson said. “It comes from the southern coast of Cape of Good Hope, which is between Africa and Antarctica, so it’s some of the coldest and cleanest water in the world.”


“We use Tiger shrimp and Texas Brown. … The same with our oysters. People like Gulf oysters, but we also buy East Coast oysters to switch it up. There’s more of an oyster variety on the East Coast, as the water is a little more tropical.”


Chef added that they also are trying to source many local ingredients as well, whether it’s locally sourced beef or chocolate from a Fayetteville chocolatier who makes it from homegrown cocoa beans.


Bredeson says food has been misrepresented for many years.


“Food is a way of sustaining and sustenance for us, right? But really, it can be a journey,” he said. “You can take a sensory taste trip without leaving. If you go and eat in a restaurant, you can feel like you went to Italy. You can feel like you went to Asia, if they do it right. And sometimes, if you’ve been able to visit those places, you could be like, ‘Man, I remember….’


“We’re a hidden gem. A lot of people don’t know about us … [Oaklawn] has really never been known for its food. It was always about racing, racing, racing. We’re trying to change that. We want people to come for the food and have the gambling, racing and concerts as a secondary option. We really want to become a culinary powerhouse.”


And Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort is well on its way to becoming just that.   


romantic dinner bucket list oaklawn


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