Eats and Treats in Atlantic City

It’s no secret that the waves of change are breaking over Atlantic City. Competition for tourism dollars is stiff these days, bringing down a number of the city’s casinos. But there’s also hidden quality in the city that gave Monopoly its names, made boardwalks fashionable and beauty competitions and sand sculpture stubbornly enduring items.

AC Rocks, a 3D sound and light show, illuminated Boardwalk Hall throughout the summer. An eloquent memorial to construction workers who died building the city faces the hall with spectators seated on and around it.

If like me, you have an interest in food, whether fine dining or good old-fashioned grub, the city has offerings. I spent much of a 2-day visit eating my way through town during a summer convention. Can you get a square meal in AC? Yes you can, in all sorts of shapes. The usual fast food joints pepper the landscape, but there's a cut above for those who look. Plus more to see and hear — you'll see (below).

 

Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa was my DO|AC intro during an eat and run evening as about 50 of us walked and sampled our way through their fine dining options. From Italian to Japanese, the foods and restaurant décor are a class act. Packed dining rooms were the tipoff. Vodka martini and sushi, anyone? If not, there are cupcakes in the lobby.

A surprise fog replaced our anticipated sunrise for an early morning photo shoot, providing a rare opportunity for some unusual images.

Bally's (upper L), Taj Mahal (above), Korean War Memorial (R)

Lunch was at The Irish Pub and Inn.  Don't expect all the fare to be Irish, though. Since we were by the sea, I had the fish and chips and a draught Guinness.

On a post-dessert tour of  the inn upstairs owner Cathy Burke explained signage covertly advertising the place as a Speakeasy during Prohibition years. 

The brand new Historical Museum (free entrance) packs colorful city history into a tight space opposite the expansive glassed-in Revel casino resort, a 2 billion dollar dream that didn't make it. Potential renewal plans are as grand as any the city has ever entertained: a university think tank for world problems. This is thinking big.

A page from history: City historian Vicki Gold Levi knows the Boardwalk, having been a young page to Miss America 1945, Bess Myerson. Vicki's father, Al Gold,  was AC's chief photographer from 1936 - 1964.

John Candy was busy directing a crew that was turning his prized sculpture design into sand (above). James' Saltwater Taffy company (above R) is actually an amalgamation of 3 successful confectioners, one of them on the Boardwalk since 1870, the year it was built. Tested over time, original recipes are still being used.

 

A metal plaque on the large building with a Moorish facade is the only reminder of this building's use as a Boot Camp during Word War II. For those years it was known as Camp Boardwalk. I'll bet most people don't know that inside Boardwalk Hall is the world's largest pipe organ ever built (based on the number of pipes). The Midmer-Losh Organ Company labored through the Great Depression to complete this musical megalith which weighs in at approximately 150 tons and boasts 33,114 pipes (no one knows for sure!) ranging from pencil size to 64 feet in length. Organist Dr. Stephen Ball greeted us at the door and ran through a familiar rendition. Click on Stephen and turn up the volume. Curator Carl Loeser (in the background, R) constantly plays the role of a mechanic among the pipes. Best news of all? Free summer concerts.

One undeniable benefit of being in a hotel at the center of it all is the convenience of returning to freshen up anytime you want. We took advantage of that at Caesars (L) to prepare for an evening out.

Cappriccio is the flagship restaurant at Resorts Casino Hotel. Old world Italian is the style, with well polished cuisine, decor and service. But first, the creation of a classic martini at the bar could have been a scene from the film Casablanca. The food was equally photogenic ...and who doesn't photograph their plate these days? Outside, people strolled the Boardwalk. My impression: an experienced staff — nicely practised service without airs — partners well with Chef Steven Klawitter's straightforward approach to traditional fare. 

In summer months Tony Boloney's offers 2-hour Saturday morning cooking lessons for 1920's-style pizza. Owner Mike Hank proudly makes indigenous AC-style pizza with skin-on Jersey tomatoes and hand-pulled mozzarella. Everything's made from scratch. The way he dimples pizza dough with his fingers reflects his philosophy: "We're not going for niceness; we're going for character." Mike describes his family background as a pizza with multiple ingredients.  Regarding the business, he says "Our goal is having people leave with an awsome experience." 

Chef/owner Curtis Taylor tells a long and entertaining story about how Los Amigos Restaurant came to be. Some of this is on the restaurant's website, so I won't go into that here. It's been vividly decorated throughout by Curt's sister Mimi in Guadalahara-style paintings to give an authentic Mexican feeling. Chef Genaro Castillo (seated) imparts that as well with his cooking. You could do worse than begin your meal with a glass of El Espolòn tequila. This ultra smooth libation from Jalisco, Mexico, is made from 100 % blue agave. The label is a work of art in itself with Day of the Dead figures epitomizing a chapter of Mexican history. This is the real deal, muchachos.

Formica Brothers Bakery has been a restaurant supplier of note in Atlantic City since 1919. With casino business down, owner Frank Formica is investing in artisanal breads — made with city water that Frank says is so pure it's been banned from municipal water quality competitions. Formica maintains a modest storefront for retail sales, but their rolls are everywhere. For foodies in the know, it's also conveniently located in the same block as White House Subs where a signed celebrity photo implies that even the "Soup Nazi" has dropped by. No Sub for you!

You'll find Atlantic City Bottling Company at an unlikely location a short drive from downtown, beside a storm-damaged Salvation Army store in a residential neighborhood. Don't let that fool you. Inside is a trove of good wines, beer, spirits and expertise. The retail store is jam packed with bottles from floor to ceiling yet still manages to squeeze a tasting table into one corner. The Iron Room in back is a Small Plates restaurant and wine tasting bar. The passion and knowledge of Managing Partner Paul Tonacci (below L and R) is immediately evident as he pours samples while dispensing information and answering questions about the wines. This is definitely a place to stimulate one's palette.

Atlantic City is 48 blocks long. The Boardwalk, ocean and promotion that made it famous might be considered permanent fixtures, even as the economy bobs with the waves. On the plus side, the teak walkway, (built long before the trees became endangered) has been refurbished to the tune of $1.7M, together with other major infrastructure improvements in the designated Tourist District. The Board's function has changed from that of mainly keeping sand out of hotel lobbies to being a pedestrian gathering place and retail avenue. Joggers love it in the early morning hours. Whatever the future, tourism built the city, and remains #1 for everyone. There's still lots happening in AC

Photos, text and layout 

© 2014 by Gary Crallé

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