The obvious occurred to me on a recent press trip to the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa (tel. 866/MY-BORGATA; www.theborgata.com) in Atlantic City: this historic, rejuvenated seaside casino destination would never, ever be Las Vegas, no matter how many Borgata-styled casinos are built, no matter how many times its employees uttered the phrase "Vegas-style" to describe the hotel's many lavish amenities. There are many reasons for this -- some obvious, some complicated -- and I won't get into them because that's not my focus. But speaking as a Jersey native who has spent summers at the shore, it seems that the casinos, for the most part, could do a better job of capitalizing on their prime location: the beach.
Historically, these places create a time warp to keep you gambling -- there are no windows or clocks. And sure, you can opt for ocean-view hotel rooms. In the older part of Atlantic City (the Borgata is not a part of this) where you can enter casinos from the boardwalk, creepy faux storefronts face the ocean, with painted-on doors that lead to nowhere and windows that don't open. It is not inviting; it's almost sinister. So, why doesn't someone put a great restaurant on the second (or third) floor of a boardwalk casino? There is a lovely view of a decent-sized beach on the other side of those facades. We're at a juncture when casinos have so clearly morphed into more than just places to gamble, so why not enhance the experience by taking advantage of the natural surroundings? There are plenty of non-gambling distractions in place already. And people do swim in the ocean, so it's not like some dirty little secret.
Someone, though, is paying attention. The Pier at Caesars (tel. 609/345-3100; www.thepieratcaesars.com), after some delay, is finally, albeit partially open. With more than 90 upscale retailers, including another Apple store and an outpost of the U.K cosmetics company Lush, the complex shares a development team with the Forum Shops at Caesar's in Las Vegas, probably one of the most concentrated areas of premiere (read: expensive) shopping and dining in the United States. Right now, about 35 stores are open at the Pier; the rest will follow suit as the summer progresses. Other offerings include new outposts of the popular Philadelphia restaurants Buddakan and Continental. Scheduled to open in mid-October, these dining spots will boast ocean views. And the Caesars resort recently added a restaurant by Chef Georges Perrier (of celebrated Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia) called Mia.
Regardless, the Borgata's quick success -- it's only three years old -- demonstrates it's possible to entice people to Atlantic City with something more than just a casino. (It worked for Vegas.) Extensive market research conducted by Borgata (a joint venture between Boyd Gaming and MGM Mirage) around 2000 indicated that a significant non-gambling population within driving distance of the city didn't think to even come. "We called them the A.C. rejectors," says Michael Facenda, Borgata's director of marketing services. Through research, Borgata discovered that offering entertainment (Sting, Lenny Kravitz and Fiona Apple have performed there), shopping, and dining options created an incentive. Since it opened, a House of Blues at Showboat, an outlet center called The Walk, a dining-shopping expansion at Tropicana called The Quarter, and now, the Pier at Caesars have all opened. The more you add to a city's tourism offerings, the longer people will be inclined to stay. According to 2004 figures from the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority, people who visit are mostly day trippers, staying an average of seven hours, a statistic that is somewhat at odds with the approximately 90 percent hotel occupancy rate citywide. The Borgata's 2,000 rooms are nearly always booked, with an occupancy rate in the mid to upper 90 percentile range. According to Facenda, visitors stay an average of 1.1 nights and the standard room ranges $179-$249 per night.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I went to the Borgata for a two-day, one-night trip on the eve of its $200 million expansion, dubbed "Borgata Amplified," with approximately 36,000 additional square feet including 35 table games, 500 slot machines, and the city's largest poker room, with 85 tables. But what may be most exciting, at least for serious foodies, are the three new restaurants from well-known chefs. The latest include Bobby Flay Steak, the first steakhouse from the celebrity chef more commonly known for his Southwestern tendencies, and the first East Coast ventures for Wolfgang Puck American Grille, and for the James Beard Award-winner Michael Mina, with SeaBlue. It's no accident that all three have a presence in Vegas, too.
In the age of the celebrity chef restaurant, fancy modern décor is de rigueur, and all three restaurants have their own aesthetic, brought to life by well-regarded restaurant architects and designers. Adam Tihany designed the warm-cool, yin-yang contrast of SeaBlue; David Rockwell lent his touch to Bobby Flay Steak, which features leather-wrapped walls and a copper-topped bar; Puck's place, designed by Tony Chi, is marked by the use of seasonally-inspired earthy touches, like the leaves that artfully hang from the ceiling. The large wood-burning oven centers the space, like a hearth. But the food is the star, and the restaurants are great additions to already stellar offerings at the Borgata. Part of our time included a dine-around, in which we spent an hour at each restaurant and sampled small portions and plates of appetizers, entrees, and desserts, and full-sized portions of signature cocktails.
Our first stop was at Wolfgang Puck, and standout samplings include the smoked salmon pizza, with red onion and a creamy dill base, very fresh, in-house smoked salmon, and topped with caviar, and a blueberry crumble with Jersey blueberries, whose sweetness was underscored by the use of orange juice. Glasses of fuchsia-colored drinks -- sweet prickly pair mojitos -- were passed around liberally. Mina's SeaBlue, which he describes as a "Mediterranean fish restaurant" features signature items such as the high-meets-low culture lobster corndogs and a unique scallop ceviche in a tomato base. For dessert, Hawaiian doughnuts were light, sweet, and served with a trio of dipping sauces. One signature cocktail (and my favorite) is the shiso drop, a vodka-based libation infused and served with a Japanese mint called shiso. Bobby Flay Steak is heavy on the surf-and-turf, with dense lobster crabcakes, oyster and lobster shooters creatively served in a shot glass, and his admitted homage to the Philly cheesesteak: a strip steak served with caramelized onions and an aged provolone sauce. Sadly, some of us missed this: the trays didn't circulate too far from the kitchen's entrance, it seemed.
But back to the hotel. Early success prompted talks of expansion, and by late 2007, the second phase will open, containing more shopping (right now, there aren't nearly enough options for a hotel with Vegas aspirations). Another hotel tower, called The Water Club at Borgata will offer 800 rooms, a second spa, and two indoor pools and one outdoor heated pool, no doubt a welcome improvement over its current, often crowded indoor pool. All rooms will have a view of water, whether it's the bay or the ocean, Facenda says. "The goal of the second hotel is to create yet another trade-up experience for our overnight guest," explains Facenda.
As I left with a very full stomach and a growing feeling that Atlantic City could be this year's dining destination on the East Coast -- the buzz is enough to draw people in, but the food, shopping and gambling should keep them coming back -- I got an idea. If you could combine the Jersey Shore's location with the number and sheer excess of Vegas, you'd have one helluva casino resort destination. A.C. has the natural advantage here, but will it be enough?
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