Atlantic City Rising


The turning point — the moment it became clear that things really were changing in Atlantic City, that the spirits of Johnny Mathis and Jerry Vale and Red Buttons were going to have a serious fight on their hands for control of the city's soul — came in June, when the boys from Maxim showed up.

You know the magazine. A half-naked starlet on every cover. (Others might call them half-clothed; I, however, am an optimist.) Page after page of spirited, sophomoric prose on the inside. Oh, and 2.5 million sets of horny young American eyeballs scanning each issue, a stat that certifies Maxim as one of the most successful publishing phenomena of the past two decades. If you are searching for a brand that is Of the Moment, that swaggers with the vital (if fickle) energy of Now, you need look no further than America's favorite lad magazine.

Which is why it was so startling when Maxim chose to throw itself and its readers a party this summer at the Borgata in Atlantic City, a town that has not been Of the Moment since the moment included an aging Eisenhower and a young Sammy Davis Jr. “Maxim wanted to do an event at a casino,” explains Larry Mullin, the Borgata's chief operating officer. “They were thinking about Las Vegas, but then they came back to us and said, 'We think this is the spot.' Las Vegas is the obvious choice. They like to be cutting-edge.”

It's a beautiful afternoon in late September, and Mullin, a dark-haired, clean-cut man of 42, is sitting inside one of the Borgata's high-rollerlounges. Now, to be clear, the party that he and the Maxim team put together — a weekend-long event dubbed “Fantasy Island” — is not likely to make anyone forget South Beach when it comes to star wattage. But by Atlantic City standards, it was revolutionary. Heartthrob musician John Mayer and supergroup Velvet Revolver performed. Bold-face names like Cuba Gooding Jr., Kim Smith and Drea de Matteo hung out. Most important, thousands of young people — people in their 20s — descended on the Borgata from Philadelphia and New York, lowering Atlantic City's median age by decades in one fell swoop.

Mullin literally rolls his eyes at me when I note that the Borgata is hip and cool — “If you say you're cool, you're not really cool,” he lectures — but he nevertheless appreciates the goose the Maxim seal of approval gave. “We did very good business that weekend,” he says. “And I don't think you can value in only three days what a brand like Maxim, which has international appeal and which influences other media and other customers, can have. I think we're going to see a return on this relationship for a long time.”

If, by chance, you are struggling to get your head around the idea of Atlantic City — Atlantic City! — as the epicenter of Now, well, this is an understandable thing. For more than a quarter-century, since at least the dawn of the casino age in 1978, it has been a town that most of us have loved to mock — not just for the questionable social experiment taking place there (Look, glitzy casinos! Look, abject poverty! See them exist, side by side!), but also because the casinos themselves have seemed such a symbol of American cheesiness: a down-market mix of has-been or never-were entertainers, bus-riding senior citizens, and garish signs only slightly smaller than Donald Trump's ego.

But lately, the signs along the Atlantic City Expressway — at least the metaphorical ones — are changing. Sixteen months ago, the Borgata opened, bringing to town a younger clientele and a refreshing, sexier attitude. Last summer, four beach bars popped up in front of the Boardwalk — as if casino executives suddenly noticed there was an ocean outside their back doors. A 320,000-square-foot outlet shopping complex, the Walk, opened in the middle of town — giving visitors something to spend their money on besides slot machines and cheap buffets. And now this fall comes Tropicana's the Quarter, a $280 million retail/dining/entertainment/spa complex that features such marquee names as Jeffrey Chodorow's Red Square and Gamble and Huff's The Sound of Philadelphia — and that may actually make the Borgata look a little passé.

The remarkable thing is, this seems to be only the beginning. “Every casino — and I've talked to all of them numerous times — is in the process of doing an expansion project,” says Curtis Bashaw, the dapper Cape May transplant who last spring put his real estate career on hold (he rehabbed Cape May's Congress Hall a few years back) to take over the state-established agency that coordinates development in Atlantic City. “And they're all targeting younger demographics, because the Borgata has proven that can work.” Among the future attractions those ungray visitors will see: the Pier at Caesars, an upscale retail/dining complex with Madison Avenue-style shopping and way-cool Stephen Starr restaurants (El Vez and Buddakan, to be specific). Expansions of the Borgata and the Walk. An as-yet-unveiled project at Resorts from a developer with previous projects in South Beach and St. Tropez. A $110 million makeover of the Boardwalk. And luxury condos from developers such as Hovnanian.

As with all hot streaks in Atlantic City, some caution is advisable here. A similar outbreak of optimism infected people 25 years ago, when the first casinos were built, but in the end all it amounted to was 12 supersized glass-and-concrete boxes with tens of thousands of slot machines inside. And this fall's unseemly casino-worker strike makes you wonder if the town has a shoot-itself-in-the-foot fetish. Yet something really does seem different this time around. In part, it's that Atlantic City is returning to an earlier version of itself — a version in which it was a true vacation destination, not just a place to gamble. But it's also that the world has changed. The forces that made Maxim hot may actually be making Atlantic City cool right before our eyes.

The public at large has long viewed Atlantic City as the height of unhip, but it's worth noting that the casino industry has rarely been anything but bullish on the town. That's for the simple reason that the business of gambling halls isn't cachet — it's gambling. Traditionally, the vast majority of the industry's vast profits have derived from a remarkably basic business model: You wager something will happen, the house wagers it won't, and most of the time, the house is right. Everything else we associate with casinos — the hotel rooms, the boxing matches, the restaurants, the leggy dancers — exists merely to get you in the building and keep you there until your line of credit runs out. If you play, they win. Really, the only one not gambling in a casino is the casino.

The Borgata — with its trendy restaurants, opulent spa and decadent 'tude (no Gideon Bibles in these hotel rooms, wink wink) — was the first Atlantic City property to pull a Full Vegas. Tropicana's the Quarter, which has actually been on the drawing board since 1998, is the second.

“Tropicana came to us and said, Atlantic City is what Vegas was like in the late '80s,” says Jason Spillerman of Philly's MRA International, the consulting firm that oversaw the development of the Quarter. “They said, we're doing fine, but we'd love to give our patrons something else to do.”

MRA understood the notion instantly; after all, the firm has made a name for itself building destination-entertainment complexes all over the country, including Las Vegas, Chicago and Miami. But they were surprised that Dennis Gomes, president of resort operations for the Trop's parent company and a longtime casino veteran, wanted to try something like that in, well, Atlantic City. “We would tell Dennis that we'd be more inclined to get on a plane with our wives and fly out to Vegas from Friday to Sunday than we would be to go to Atlantic City,” says Spillerman. “All there was to do in Atlantic City was gamble. How much can you game? I mean, the average person. We just want to have fun.”

Skeptical or not, MRA took on the project and in time drew up a wish list of restaurants and retail stores it thought would draw people like its own staffers — non-hardcore gamblers in their 30s — to Atlantic City. Price-wise, they focused on places that fell somewhere between middlebrow and high-end. And since Atlantic City draws heavily from both Philadelphia and New York, they targeted institutions — like Philly's Cuba Libre and the legendary New York restaurant Carmine's — that people from those cities would recognize. As Chuck Bragitikos, one of MRA's principals, says, “If someone doesn't typically come to Atlantic City because they picture it as a bunch of blue-hairs, we want them to say, 'Wait, Carmine's is there? The Palm is there?'”

Getting those institutions to actually start doing business in the city of blue-hairs was a whole other challenge. MRA knew it couldn't go the traditional route — in which real estate brokers make decisions — and instead went right to companies' CEOs.

“One of the criteria brokers typically use to evaluate a place is 'comparables,'” says Bragitikos. “There were no comparables in Atlantic City. You couldn't say, 'Oh, Cheesecake Factory is down the street doing $12 million.' So we had to construct a case. We literally would go with our book and sit down with the owners or the CEO and say, 'Let us share the vision with you.'”

What ultimately sold many of the tenants was Atlantic City's huge potential, a.k.a. Operative Factoid Number Two in its development: As all the A.C. movers and shakers point out, the town is within one tank of gas of 25 percent of the U.S. population.

The hope, of course, is that all the new development will attract a big chunk of that population — particularly people in their 20s and 30s, who had, at least until the Borgata came along, rejected Atlantic City. “You walk into the Borgata, and you can feel the energy from those young people,” says Gomes. “There's a party going on.”

Gomes is right about the vibe at the Borgata. Go there on a typical weekend night, and you are struck by one thing: The youngish couples checking into the hotel all look like they're about to have sex. In contrast, across the road at Trump Marina, a more traditional Atlantic City property, the only thing the couples look like they're about to have is a nice turkey club sandwich.

The vision of Atlantic City as a playground for adults, a grown-up Disney World, isn't new. That's what the resort was during its swinging, Frank Sinatra-fueled heyday in the '40s and '50s.

“It was an era before TV,” remembers man-about-town Pinky Kravitz, an Atlantic City legend who's hosted a radio show there for the past 47 years. (You can currently catch the Pinkster, who broadcasts live from Resorts each weekday at 4 p.m., on WOND-AM 1400.) “There was the 500 Club, the Club Harlem. And there were restaurants up and down Atlantic Avenue that were open all night.”

Much has been written about how the swinging Atlantic City of the '40s and '50s deteriorated into the depressing, dilapidated Atlantic City of the '60s and early '70s. But the bottom line is uncomplicated: America's idea of what was fun and hip changed, while Atlantic City didn't. As the baby boomers came of age, the carefree, frivolous, let's-get-dressed-up-and-paint-the-town notion of a good time faded, replaced by a fun that was at once more free-form and more self-conscious. To grossly oversimplify two decades of American life: Martinis and Manhattans were out; wine and beer and pot (and coke and insert-your-favorite-drug-here) were in. Nightclubs were dead; rock concerts ruled.

Curiously, Atlantic City's 911 call to the casino industry in the late 1970s was less an attempt to catch up to the times than an effort to re-create — or at least reconnect to — the old times. When Resorts, the town's first casino, opened in 1978, it required gentlemen to wear jackets — a nod to the elegance and formality of both Atlantic City's past and Europe's casinos. The rule didn't last long, alas, as the casino discovered that its best players — the ones with the most dough — had no interest in wearing jackets. Even the adults were tired of dressing up.

In a way, Atlantic City has been caught in a netherworld ever since — not quite in the present, not quite in the past, stuck in its own strange Sans-a-Belt-wearing parallel universe. There have been attempts here and there by rogue forces to make the town feel more contemporary. In the late '80s, for example, Bally's Grand (now the Hilton) did a summer concert series featuring acts with serious baby-boomer appeal — including Bob Dylan. I worked in Atlantic City then, and went to see Dylan perform in a large amphitheater outside the casino. It remains one of the strangest experiences of my life. The people who loved Dylan couldn't stand Atlantic City; the people who loved Atlantic City found Dylan baffling. No wonder the place looked half-empty, even to an optimist like me.

Drive around Atlantic City today, and it still looks much the way it has for most of the past two decades: big glitzy casinos, poor neighborhoods, and not much in between. That's not entirely true — things have been built — but the first impression hasn't changed. It's enough to make you wonder if all the new buzz may be nothing more than a bigger version of Dylan-at-Bally's, a move that looks smart on paper but will just turn out weird in the end.

Two things, fortunately, make that seem not so likely. First, Atlantic City has its act together more than it has in a long time. There is a common vision among the people with power — namely, the casino bosses and politicians — of what the city should become, and there are policies in place, ranging from tax breaks to Boardwalk style rules, designed to make it happen. The result is more investment, not just by the casinos, but also by developers who never passed go when it came to doing business in Atlantic City before. The Walk, for example, was done by the Cordish Company, which built Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The Pier at Caesars is being developed by the Gordon Group, which helped transform Vegas with the Forum Shops.

Some observers speculate that between $5 billion and $10 billion could be invested in the city in the next decade. “Atlantic City went from being one of the top vacation destinations in the East to being a slum to being a gambling place,” says the Trop's Dennis Gomes. “But people forgot what made it great in the first place. Now, I think it's going back to its former glory.”

Even more important, there seems to be an appetite once again for a place like Atlantic City — at least, the new Atlantic City. When we're ready to go out, we want to go out big. We want to eat well and drink something special and spend our money on nice things. Consider what is iconic to our age — South Beach, hip-hop, The Apprentice, P.Diddy, J-Lo, the return of poker — and it's clear we're in the Age of Bling Bling, never farther from the Woodstock days.

The other night, I was standing at the bar at Mixx, a restaurant/club inside the Borgata. Next to me were two 30-something couples who were at the hotel for the weekend. As I watched them smoke and sip cocktails and talk, not about politics or social issues, but about the curvaceous bartender in her barely-there Zac Posen uniform, I couldn't help thinking of Frank Sinatra. Not the one who lit up the 500 Club, but an older Sinatra, near the end of his life. In 1990, Ol' Blue Eyes read an interview with pop star George Michael in which the former Wham man bemoaned his life as a celebrity and talked of “the tragedy of fame.” Frank apparently found this so bewildering that he wrote an open letter to Michael, which was published in the Los Angeles Times. “Dust off those gossamer wings and fly yourself to the moon of your choice and be grateful to carry the baggage we've all had to carry since those lean nights of sleeping on buses and helping the driver unload the instruments,” wrote Frank. “Loosen up, George. Swing, man.”

Maybe that's what the boys at Maxim saw in Atlantic City: the moon of their choice. A place to swing again.

Eat at: One of five upscale restaurants, including Suilan by Susanna Foo and Luke Palladino's Specchio.

Drink at: The Gypsy Bar, a lively tequila joint just off the casino floor. Bruce Willis took over one night and kept it open till dawn.

Dance at: Mixx, which morphs at night from a Latin/Asian restaurant to a sexy club.

Cure your hangover at: Spa Toccare.

Look for: A $200 million Borgata expansion, featuring several new restaurants and six new shops, opening in 2006.


Tropicana's the Quarter
Brighton and the Boardwalk; 800-THE-TROP

Eat at: One of 10 restaurants, including Jeffrey Chodorow's Vegas import Red Square, Palm, Cuba Libre, and PF Chang's.

Drink at: Gamble & Huff's The Sound of Philadelphia; Philly import 32 3/4; Ri Ra Irish Pub.

Catch a flick at: The Imax theatre.

Get Gawked at: In Planet Rose, an NYC transplant where it's all karaoke, all the time.

 

Showboat

801 Boardwalk; 800-621-0200

Stay in: The 'Boat's 2003 19-story hotel tower.

Look for: The first East Coast House of Blues, the national restaurant/music chain rumored to be opening in 2005.

 

The Walk
Michigan Avenue between Baltic and Arctic avenues; 609-343-0081

Shop at: More than 40 new outlet stores.

Eat/drink at: BaBaLu Grill, a Cuban-inspired restaurant with Nuevo Latino cuisine.

Try to keep it all down at: PassPort: Voyages of Discovery — a “movie ride” with surround sound and moving seats.

Now showing: Oceanarium 2 and TimeElevator America.

Look for: An expansion of the Walk, opening in 2006.

The Pier at Caesars
Opening summer 2005; 2100 Pacific Avenue

Eat/drink at: One of nine restaurants overlooking the ocean, including Stephen Starr's El Vez and Buddakan and Phillip's Seafood, a longtime Maryland Shore institution.

Drop Serious Dough at: One of dozens of high-end boutiques inside this David Rockwell-designed space, featuring luxury products from Gucci and Hugo Boss.

Another Surprise: Shopping

By Kathleen Fifield

Until recently, shopping in Atlantic City couldn't be distinguished from hitting the hotel gift shop, with casinos offering only a smattering of jewelry and other boutiques in which to part a gambler from his wad. Even the Borgata's arcade failed to generate buzz last year in the way its spa and restaurants did (something the company says it's working to improve). But now, in the retail spirit of “If you build it, they will come,” several new ventures are promising shopping meccas to rival complexes like the Forum in Vegas. By next summer, everyone from Gucci to Jake's Dog House will have hung a shingle at the Shore, which means we may soon be heading to the strip to shop without gambling at all. Here, what's coming to a revitalized casino area near you:

Shop Now
The Walk, Michigan Avenue

This string of mid-to-high-end outlets looks like a suburban main street as much as a strip of discount stores, and has attracted a good deal of foot traffic since opening in late August between the Convention Center and the Boardwalk. Its anchors, and biggest draws, are at the corner of Pacific and Atlantic avenues: Tommy Hilfiger, Banana Republic (opening this month), Nautica and Kenneth Cole. All are worth a visit for their trimmed price tags and well-organized, in-season inventories. Two other upscale bargain-shopper finds await in the interior: the only Coach outlet in New Jersey, and Brooks Brothers, where the service is on a par with Walnut Street but the prices aren't — the classic men's dress shirt is reduced here to $54.

Shop Soon
The Quarter, the Tropicana Casino & Resort, Brighton and Pacific avenues

The feel may be Old Havana, but the idea behind the shopping is hip boutiques (25 of them) with a specialty feel. You'll visit Bluemercury, of course, for Fresh brown-sugar scrubs and Dauphin face creams, then stroll down the hall to Salsa Shoes for a pair of peep-toe Kate Spade pumps or Manolo spikes. For the guys, there's Brooks Brothers, the real deal; Tinder Box, with cigars, yes, but also wine and cognac; and the Spy Store, a takeoff on the Detective Store in New York's Greenwich Village that sells everything from night-vision goggles to cigarette-lighter cameras to global positioning tracking systems. And for the pooch at home, approach the bone-shaped checkout at Jake's Dog House, a Cherry Hill-based phenomenon offering everything from freshly baked doggie cannolis ( $2.25) to Swarovski crystal necklaces — er, collars ($59.95).

Shop Next Summer:
The Pier, Caesars Hotel and Casino, 2100 Pacific Avenue

With dark-blue terrazzo floors and walls of glass overlooking the surf, the slick and contemporary setting planned for this $145 million complex promises to be a suitable backdrop to the chichi retailers already signed on. With an eye toward attracting celebrities (and hype), a luxury shopping section is planned for the second level, accessible via skybridge from the Caesars gaming floor. In it, you'll browse the likes of Gucci, Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Tourneau, among others. On the first floor, and accessible from the Boardwalk, will be more mainstream stores, such as Bebe, Guess, Steve Madden and BCBG. And this month, the developers are announcing the newest trendy tenants, which include island fashion and home retailer Tommy Bahama, women's clothier Max Azria, Vegas boutique Marshall Russo, and MAC Cosmetics.