Taste: Scene: Goodbye, Buffets

Atlantic City’s all-you-can-eats are on their way out, replaced by Communist-chic Red Square and soulful TSOP, but those expensive steakhouses are here to stay

Atlantic City casino dining, long limited to all-you-can-eat buffets and high-roller steakhouses, is no longer a gamble. The Borgata evened the odds in 2003 with restaurants like haute-Asian Suilan and upscale Italian Ombra. Now the Tropicana, Harrah’s, Resorts, Caesars and Showboat have upped the stakes with more than a dozen dinner spots opening by summer.

The Tropicana’s Quarter boasts nine of this season’s new dining destinations. Under the towering faux palm trees of the Cuban-themed stone courtyard, Asian chain P.F. Chang’s sits between Philadelphia’s Cuba Libre and Jeffrey Chodorow’s Red Square, one of the Shore’s most anticipated restaurants. Soviet-sexy Red Square is a caviar-and-Communist fantasy, bathed in red light. A certified success in Las Vegas, Red Square sells luxury—there are oversized leather chairs in the bathroom stalls—and quirky combinations like Siberian nachos (smoked salmon and paddlefish caviar with wasabi on wonton wraps), best washed down with ice-cold vodka.

The sleeper hit of the Quarter is The Sound of Philadelphia, or TSOP, from the Bynum Brothers, masterminds behind Philadelphia’s Zanzibar Blue. Stuck in an oddly shaped corner of the second floor, the deep-red restaurant is unexpectedly lively, with an engaging 10-piece band oozing soul, a drink list of carefully concocted cocktails, and a menu that’s more than deep-fried soul food. The peppery seared tuna on a tender salad of black-eyed peas topped with citrus zest and syrupy black balsamic vinegar is particularly successful.

’Cesca at Harrah’s, an $8 cab ride uptown from the centrally located Tropicana, should be another destination restaurant. An offshoot of the trend-setting Italian restaurant of the same name in New York City, ’Cesca A.C. is, thankfully, less expensive, but also less ambitious. The dining room is enlivened by two open kitchens, so you can watch the chef slice the prosciutto for your antipasto. But ’Cesca, sandwiched between the tiki-themed Eden Lounge and the Corner bar and grill, suffers because it can’t singlehandedly revitalize Harrah’s banks of empty slot machines.

Elsewhere, the trend toward chain steakhouses continues, with the Palm at the Tropicana, Gallagher’s Steak House at Resorts, Morton’s at Caesars, and Ruth’s Chris Steak House at the Walk. Meanwhile, construction is under way for a 2006 debut of the Pier at Caesars, with Jeffrey Chodorow’s Rumjungle and two Stephen Starr sequels, Continental and Buddakan. And the Borgata plans a 2006 expansion, to include Michael Mina’s Mediterranean-themed Seablue and unnamed spots from Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck.