Atlantic City Restaurant Reviews: Send in the Clones

Philly loves Buddakan and Continental; Boston loves Sonsie. But can these urban living rooms thrive in A.C.'s new Pier?

THE MAN AND his wife are sitting side by side in a pair of Adirondack chairs facing the ocean, feet in the sand, leaning back to let the sun warm their upturned faces. The sky is blue, the Atlantic City surf is calm, and our contented couple couldn’t care less that the noontime temperature is a nippy 37 degrees, because their vantage point is a glassed-in, climate-controlled food court overlooking the Boardwalk.

This improbable indoor beach, with its fragments of dune fence and trucked-in sand, brings a whimsical note to Restaurant Row at the Pier at Caesars, where shoppers hauling bags from Juicy Couture and Banana Republic stroll down a replica Boardwalk as they contemplate which of the seven restaurants to try. Many are familiar: Homegrown Buddakan and Continental are well-known Stephen Starr brands. Sonsie is the first spin-off of a Boston bistro that’s very much like our own Rouge. Phillips Seafood is a chain of traditional Maryland fish houses; Souzai Sushi & Sake, a Phillips affiliate, takes fish in a more contemporary direction. Game On! is a sports bar with 90 high-def TVs; Trinity Irish Pub & Carvery is a bar with a rustic decor and a rotisserie.

What they all have in common is a mid-range price point. Though some do offer high-roller specials, the Pier restaurants are more affordable than the Borgata’s celebrity-chef venues, and more sophisticated than the budget buffets. City-tested Buddakan, Continental and Sonsie, particularly, are designed to attract style-conscious younger gamers, a demographic that Atlantic City is working very hard to please.

THE WOW FACTOR IS FIRMLY in place at Buddakan, the Pier’s most flamboyant restaurant. Day and night, the front door stays wide open, allowing anyone to glimpse the gilded Buddha that looms two stories above a banquet-length glow-in-the-dark onyx table. Around the dining room perimeter, couples snuggle in semi-private dining nooks under a facade designed to look like a Chinese village. The ambient techno-pop is too loud, and the lighting is too low, but the food is more grounded than this unreal setting would suggest. It’s a formula that made the original Old City Buddakan a sensation from the day it opened in 1998, and that’s proving equally effective at the relatively new Manhattan branch.