If You Don’t Know, Now You Know: Atlantic City

by Alan Philips
06.03.2010

Have you ever seen the Seinfeld episode where Jerry dates the girl who looks stunningly beautiful in some lighting and putridly ugly in others? So is the contrast of Atlantic City. There is the natural beauty of being located on the Atlantic Ocean (with more gamblers in a 100-mile radius than any gambling city in the world), gaming revenues very similar to those of Las Vegas, and a rich and glamorous history. The other side is the personification of Sonny’s line in A Bronx Tale: “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” In this case, the talent refers to AC’s tremendous potential, which has been crippled by bureaucracy, greed, corruption, lack of vision, poverty, and just plain bad luck. Summer sun and visitors from the surrounding shore towns and feeder markets like Philadelphia keep Atlantic City moving. Winters are relegated solely to Friday and Saturday nights, along with a trickle of aging slot players during the week. Showcasing this unrealized potential is the half-built mega casino, Revel. $1.2 billion has already been spent and it stoically awaits an additional $1 billion investment to finish. All the while, billboards advertising flashy new competition from the surrounding areas, like Philadelphia and Delaware, attempt to put a stake in the heart of the boardwalk.  

But even after all that negativity, Atlantic City’s natural beauty, unique culture, and unrealized potential are still very much alive. The Borgata Hotel, Casino and Spa, built in 2003, is one of the most successful casino projects in the history of gaming. It has undergone multiple expansions, and is still generating staggering profits. The Borgata single-handedly proves that upscale customers will regularly visit AC for the right product. The nightlife, of which I have had a major involvement, easily drives over $100 million in revenue annually with continued double-digit growth. My company, SKY Group, has successfully launched nightlife programs for The Borgata and The Chelsea, both of which continue to drive revenue and club experiences on par with any major urban center. There is a vibrant food scene including multiple major food festivals, mega casino restaurants, celebrity chefs, and local institutions such as the White House, Chef Vola’s, and Dock’s Oyster Bar. New boutique casinos are the buzz of the town but are pending legislation. If this legislation is passed, it will allow smaller casino hotels to avoid being burdened by oversized development costs - an idea already being pursued by Hard Rock International. And finally, HBO along with the venerable Martin Scorcese, will premiere Boardwalk Empire this coming Fall, one of the most expensive productions in TV history based upon The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City.

As a businessman, I tend to follow the advice of the icons (or shall I say "Icahns") - in this case Warren Buffet and Carl Icahn. One of Buffet’s most famous quotes comes to mind when thinking about Atlantic City. “Most people get interested in stocks when everyone else is. The time to get interested is when no one else is. You can't buy what is popular and do well.” That makes me keenly aware of the recent purchase by billionaire investor Carl Icahn of the Tropicana Casino, and his current proxy fight with Donald Trump to take over Trump Casino Resorts. Is now just the right time to start betting big on the future of Atlantic City? What does he know that you don’t?

Whatever happens, the future is unpredictable. So for the time being, let’s focus on the present. Atlantic City is a perfect weekend party destination for the summer of 2010.  Concerts this summer include Kings of Leon, MGMT, and Lady Gaga. The Chelsea Hotel, with C5 and Cabana Café, finally provides a sophisticated day and night party destination without the madness of slot machines ringing in your ears. And P. Diddy, for better or for worse, has relocated his White Party from the Hamptons to The Pool at Harrah’s. I guess maybe he was inspired by the success of his MTV Jersey Shore castmates. So hold your breath no more, or a little more if you are on the Jersey Turnpike, and get ready for Cocktail Hour’s guide to Atlantic City…

Nightlife

C5, located in The Chelsea Hotel, is Atlantic City’s only open-air nightclub and the newest spot in town. During the off-season, it is more of a cocktail/lounge scene, but once the weather heats up, it becomes the ultimate late-night party. C5 combines the energy of a nightclub with the sophistication and sensuality of a pool party in Miami. The crowd is a mix of the surrounding shore towns, casino executives, visiting entertainers, and weekenders, looking for a high-energy break from the beach or casino.

mur.mur is the only pure Vegas-style nightclub in Atlantic City. Located in the expansion of Borgata, mur.mur invests heavily in DJs and events from all over the country. They also benefit from Borgata’s extensive entertainment schedule, hosting most of the performers' after parties along with regular celebrity guests. 

The Pool at Harrah’s is like watching an episode of MTV’s Jersey Shore in a steam room.  This place is absolutely jam packed all year long and I have no idea why. Proceed at your own risk. 

The Backroom at Teplitzky’s recently launched at The Chelsea Hotel, offers Rock ‘N Roll and Karaoke. For those of you looking for a fun and cool scene without the attitude, this is definitely your best bet.

Gypsy Bar at Borgata is our recommendation for late night live music. Gypsy hosts some of the most talented Jersey cover bands and features an incredible pineapple-infused tequila.

The afterhours scene is dominated by B Bar at Borgata. After 4 a.m., this is the only spot worth visiting.

Daytime partying in Atlantic City is dominated by Cabana Club at The Chelsea Hotel. It is the only option for a Vegas or Miami style pool party in the city. 

If you are looking to make a long weekend of it… Sunday nights you should visit C5 at The Chelsea and 32 Degrees at the Tropicana. On Monday nights, the best spot is mur.mur.  The night to visit Dusk at Caesar’s Palace, the club by the late great DJ AM, is Tuesday.

Side Note: Borgata closed MIXX, their original nightclub, last week. They have begun a $2 million renovation of this club, which will re-launch under the same name around July 4th.
 
Restaurants

The food is surprisingly good in Atlantic City. There are famous restaurants like The Palm, Old Homestead, and Il Mulino, joined by celebrity chef spots by Bobby Flay, Michael Mina, and Wolfgang Puck. Philadelphia’s Stephen Starr has imported The Continental and Buddakhan to the Pier at Caesar’s, and local favorites include Chelsea Prime, Izakaya, and Steve & Cookies. Here are my recommendations…

Chelsea Prime is the steakhouse in The Chelsea Hotel. It is beautifully designed to evoke the glamour days of Atlantic City. It feels like a supper club, but instead of the star being Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis, it's the steak. This is easily the best steakhouse in AC and maybe the best restaurant.

Cabana Café is the new poolside café overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at The Chelsea. With global bistro food and an extensive list of champagne floats and rose’s by the glass, this is the most sophisticated destination for daytime partying and dining. Think of it as SOHO by the SEA.

Izakaya is former Buddakhan chef Michael Schulson’s take on a Japanese tavern. A sort of amalgamation of Nobu, Koi, and Buddakhan, Izakaya is definitely the best representation of vibe dining. 

Teplitzky’s is the top spot to enjoy a classic comfort food breakfast. I am partial to the stuffed French toast, eggs benny, delectable coffee, and a bloody mary known as “The Teplitzky.”

Seablue by Michael Mina is fighting with Chelsea Prime for the right to be called “the best restaurant in Atlantic City.” If Michael Mina lived in Atlantic City, it would take the crown, but there is something about knowing he isn’t making my lobster pot pie personally that claws at my subconscious.   

Chef Vola’s is the Rao’s of AC and my favorite restaurant in town. Impossible to get a reservation without a direct connect to the family, Vola’s is THE place to experience the real AC. There is top quality family-style Italian food, an incredible ambiance, BYOB service, and a butterscotch cheesecake dessert that is out of this world. I was told Jay-Z and Barry Bonds went after the opening of Jay’s 40/40 Club. Barry tried to pick up the tab with his Black Card, but little did he know, “Cash Only.” Hova Hova Hova…

White House is Atlantic City’s answer to the sandwich craze. Opened in 1946, there is a line daily to try out one of these famous Italian subs.

Dock’s Oyster House is the oldest restaurant in Atlantic City (it opened circa 1897).  Deliciously fresh seafood and a well made martini complement this legend.

Side Note: the best late night food in town is a tie between South End Pizza and Noodles of the World. South End delivers pizza 24 hours a day and is without a doubt one of the best pies in the city. Noodles of the World is a noodle bar in The Borgata that serves gamblers delectable noodles, rice, and soups until the wee hours of the morning.

Hotels

There are only three hotels in Atlantic City that I would be caught alive in. There are a couple others I would not want to be caught dead in.

The Chelsea is a boutique hotel designed by Shaun Hausman who did The Standard Hotels. The Luxe tower has beautifully renovated rooms similar to what you would find in most boutique properties. There is an incredible coed spa and the only true outdoor pool scene in AC. The Chelsea also has its own beach complete with cabanas just a two-minute walk from the property.

The Water Club is the only other boutique hotel in an hour radius of Atlantic City.  It was designed to be a sanctuary for guests and gamblers visiting the Borgata, who wanted to get away from the casino. The Water Club has multiple indoor and outdoor pools, and a spa on the top of the building.

The Borgata is a 2,000-room hotel attached to the premiere casino in town. It looks a little weathered compared to its debut in 2003, but if you plan to stay in a casino, this is your best bet.

Insider Tips

• It takes two hours to drive to AC from New York City without traffic. It could take over four hours if there is traffic. Do not leave during rush hour, ever, especially on a summer Friday.

• A direct train began last season which runs from Penn Station to Atlantic City on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. It is not exactly what I would call a “luxury train” as billed, but it is far better than sitting in traffic and you can drink alcohol while surfing the web.

• Atlantic City Outlets are great for “Woodbury Commons-like” discount shopping. There are outlets by Lacoste, Nike, Addidas, J. Crew and many others. I can proudly proclaim that all of my socks and underwear come exclusively from the AC Outlets. “I am not only the president, but I am also a client.”

• If you want to pay full-price for your goods, check out the Pier Shoppes at Caesar’s.  Developed by the same group behind the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Las Vegas, the Pier includes stores such as Scoop, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors, and Tiffany.

• The game of Monopoly is inspired by and modeled after the streets of Atlantic City, there are a couple of things I think Milton-Bradley got wrong in the game…
o You should only be able to build casinos in the game, because any homes or hotels would end up being repossessed. 
o They should have made one of the utilities "Cash for Gold" instead of Waterworks. 
o One of the "Chance" cards should have read, "Do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not eat an oversized Italian sub from White House or Dino's, don’t go to high school, and go straight to jail."

• The famed Steel Pier has been under pending redevelopment since 2007. It is currently still in operation until the pending development moves forward (it is now delayed till 2012).  Don’t miss your chance to experience this famed amusement park which has been open since 1898, over 110 years.

Paul Sevigny, proprietor of Kenmare and formerly the Beatrice Inn, is widely regarded as one of the hippest and most “on the pulse” New Yorkers. Before I got to The Chelsea, he and the crew from Beatrice Inn, ventured to take a shot at Atlantic City. Though they were unable to transport the hipster haven to AC, an unlikely combination, I am told by Chelsea owner Curtis Bashaw that Paul embraced the town. They spent time on the boardwalk enjoying the Steel Pier’s amusements (including Go Karts) while wandering the beach and boardwalk. I have found myself doing the same, igniting a strange and erotic love affair with Atlantic City. “America’s Playground,” like a great lover, is at once comforting and scary, delivering professional triumphs and personal challenges. After years of fighting the city’s grasp on my heart and mind, it now exists along with New York, the Hamptons, Florence, Italy, Los Angeles, and Miami as a vital part of defining who I have become.

Atlantic City may have fallen on some hard times, but the truth is, Atlantic City, like LIFE, is what you make of it. It’s all just a gamble.

“Sometimes you're flush and sometimes you're bust, and when you're up, it's never as good as it seems, and when you're down, you never think you'll be up again, but life goes on.” -Fred Jung (Ray Liotta), Blow

See you next time at Cocktail Hour, where more often than not one drink turns into ten and no one knows where and when the night will end.
- AP

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