Will the future of AC be stakes or steaks?
Photography by Aleksey Moryakov
Atlantic City was once the gambling capital of the East Coast. But the odds seem long it will ever be again.
In 2014, four of its 12 casinos closed, including Revel, a $2.4 billion project that just opened in 2012. A fifth casino, Trump Entertainment’s Taj Mahal, narrowly averted closure and remains in bankruptcy. Caesars and Bally’s, owned by Caesars Entertainment, followed the Taj Mahal into bankruptcy in January 2015, though both also remain open.
For years, the city has been trying to transform itself from gaming mecca to a family resort and convention center that offers gambling as an added benefit. While some say it has failed at that mission, others say it’s developing a reputation as a foodie town. It’s just that nobody knows about it—at least not yet.
When a casino closes, it often takes its restaurants down with it. When Revel closed in September 2014, it also meant the closure of four restaurants operated by Philadelphia chef Jose Garces, including Amada, Village Whiskey, a noodle bar called Yuboka, and Distrito Cantina. Some 3,100 people lost their jobs when Revel shut its doors, including 1,000 bartenders, cocktail servers, cooks, food servers, bellmen, housekeepers and room service workers. With the closure of the other casinos, nearly 8,000 workers in the city’s gambling industry, many of them waitstaff, found themselves out of work last year.
Still, though gambling is down in Atlantic City, not every trend has been negative. Gross gaming revenue fell 8.2% on average, annually, from 2007 to 2013, but luxury-tax revenue recorded 6.1% average annual growth from 2004 to 2013, according to Fitch Ratings, which rates casino-related bonds. Food and beverages are a part of those non-gaming revenue figures.
“I think that the food scene in Atlantic City is still strong and holding its own,” says chef David Goldstein, president of the Professional Chefs Association of South Jersey. “We have lost some great eateries since the closing of some of the hotel casinos, but that does not mean we are not still a strong food town.”
Demetrios Haronis, the executive chef at Fin, a restaurant in the Tropicana Casino Hotel, says reports of Atlantic City’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
“I’ve always said the restaurants do
well when people are here for any
other reason than gambling.”
—Frank Dougherty, owner of the Knife and Fork Inn
“Despite media reports filled with doom and gloom, Atlantic City is still a vibrant vacation destination,” Haronis says. “Fun-seekers are still coming to escape their everyday lives and enjoy themselves for a while. That kind of enthusiasm and positivity spills over into the dining scene.”
It doesn’t hurt that every time a casino closes, those left standing inherit the old casino’s customers—and diners. “We have experienced a considerable uptick in business due to the closing of other casino restaurants,” Haronis says. “On any given night—especially the weekends—the dining rooms at Tropicana are more lively and popular than ever.”
Atlantic City has been gradually shifting its focus from gaming to grub over the last ten years. After Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa introduced the idea of bringing in restaurants under contracts, Tropicana soon followed with The Quarter, 200,000 square feet of dining, retail and entertainment. Tropicana continued to expand its non-gambling offerings in 2013, opening six new restaurants. Today, it has 24 restaurants serving a varied clientele, with signature restaurants like Fin and Il Verdi existing alongside family-style restaurants like Broadway Burger Bar and P.F. Chang’s.
The city has attracted celebrity chefs, like Guy Fieri—best known for his role on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”— who opened Guy Fieri’s Chophouse at Bally’s last summer. And Gordon Ramsay, the cantankerous host of Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” is taking over the space in Caesars vacated by Mia’s, which was opened in 2005 by chef Chris Scarduzio but closed in October. Ramsay’s restaurant will be similar to his Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, a British-themed pub with red phone booths and classic pub artifacts.
The city still has its mainstays, like Gilchrist Restaurant, known for its breakfast; Kelsey & Kim’s Southern Cafe; and the Back Bay Ale House, in the waterfront neighborhood around Absecon Inlet. There’s a famous pizzeria called Tony Boloney’s, which offers unique pizzas like a tikka masala coconut curry pie with paneer cheese, as well as culinary favorites like Dock’s Oyster House and Cafe 2825, which was ranked in the top 100 eateries in the country by OpenTable, the online reservation site. There are also the city’s older, more traditional eateries, like Angeloni’s II Restaurant & Lounge, Tony’s Baltimore Grill, and perhaps the city’s most iconic restaurant, the Knife and Fork Inn.
Elaine Shapiro Zamansky, a spokeswoman for the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, believes that the dining landscape in Atlantic City remains strong. She cites the fact that the Rainforest Cafe opted to remain open even after Trump Plaza, the casino property where it was located, closed at the end of September. Moreover, the Caesars Entertainment properties (Caesars, Bally’s and Harrah’s) have recently attracted new restaurants such as the Planet Hollywood– owned chain Buca di Beppo, as well as celebrity-chef restaurants created by Steve Martorano, Guy Fieri and Gordon Ramsay.
“There are quite a few local, independent restaurants—non-casino restaurants—that do well, and we have numerous family and high-end steakhouse franchises as well,” Zamansky adds.
When Revel closed its doors, some
3,100 people lost their jobs, including
1,000 bartenders, cocktail servers,
cooks, food servers, bellmen,
housekeepers and room
Jeff Guaracino, executive director of the Atlantic City Alliance, says the allure of the AC restaurant scene is not just the celebrity chefs and fine dining but the city’s diverse population, which has spawned some of the best ethnic cuisine in the region. He cites Italian restaurants like Angeloni’s and Tony’s Baltimore Grill, a Mexican restaurant called Mexico, and a Vietnamese restaurant called Little Saigon, which The New York Times said ranks among the best in the nation for authenticity.
“These neighborhood restaurants outside the casinos are run by local folks, who moved here and brought their family recipes and are using the ingredients they use in traditional restaurants back home. You get great authentic meals,” he says. “That’s a nice juxtaposition to the foodie dining.”
Food and entertainment in general have become a draw, Guaracino says. He points to hotel occupancy, which was up in 2014 for casino properties and held steady for non-casino properties, despite their raising their rates. And there is strong weekend demand all year long, not just from gamers but from people looking for leisure and fine dining, he says. He would know. The ACA conducts surveys of people who go to Boardwalk Hall, a sports and entertainment venue in Atlantic City, and they’re increasingly hearing that people came to the city for a concert or event at the venue, that they’d driven at least 50 miles in order to get there, and they were staying overnight in a hotel.
“Beginning in 2012 and 2013, people were coming for a variety of reasons—the nightlife, dining, spas, quick getaways,” Guaracino says. “We know this because the boardwalk is jam-packed. The hotel rooms are jammed. And the hotel rates on weekends are as high as New York City, all year long, in both the casino and non-casino properties.”
Frank Dougherty, owner of the Knife and Fork Inn, a men’s drinking and dining club founded in 1912, says Atlantic City hosts a far different restaurant scene than it did when he returned to his family’s business in 1999. Eight years ago, when the city was still a gambling mecca, restaurateurs didn’t necessarily court gaming and meeting business. Today, with gambling revenues down by more than half, restaurants aren’t as picky, Dougherty notes.
Dougherty says the city’s attempts to attract more family and convention business have seen some success. The Knife and Fork Inn has enjoyed double-digit revenue growth every summer for the last three years—the summer of 2013 was particularly good, with revenues up 30%. But even last summer, Fridays and Saturdays were so strong that he had capacity issues. And there was a lot of midweek business that wasn’t there before.
“That’s where we really saw gains,” Dougherty says. “People were coming, and we were less and less of a weekend town. In the summer, and then in the off-season, we’ve been consistently strong.”
The Knife and Fork Inn isn’t Dougherty’s only restaurant to see growth—his company also owns Dock’s Oyster House and Harry’s Oyster Bar and Seafood. Dock’s used to be a March-to-November operation. Due to popular demand, it’s now open for dinner seven days a week year-round.
Dougherty says he’s confident Revel will reopen, and he thinks there’s a good chance Showboat will reopen as well. But the casinos were always a mixed bag anyway, he points out. They drew people in, but they then kept them in, leaving them little reason to leave the casino.
“I’ve always said the restaurants do well when people are here for any other reason than gambling,” Dougherty says. “If you’re just here to gamble, you go and gamble, and they give you free food, and you never have to leave the casino. But people who are coming for a show or a bachelorette party weekend generally leave the casino. They travel, they do different things. That’s really helped our business over the last four or five years.”
Paul Drew, the executive chef at Phillips Seafood, says some of the restaurants in Atlantic City are now attracting more of a local crowd, some of whom are cost conscious, and his restaurant has tried to attract customers with specials.
“The prices on our menus have to be more aggressive,” Drew says. “Five, six, seven years ago, people weren’t looking at that. Now, we’re adding oyster and seafood potpie, and other more cost-friendly items.” He also offers cooking classes the first and last three months of the year and attends food festivals in Philadelphia, to try to draw the city crowd out to the shore.
“People come in Friday, Saturday, Sunday, but we had to find a way to bring customers back Monday through Thursday,” Drew says. “That’s where we need to hit the local market.”
Drew notes that the influx of great chefs to Atlantic City is making it a better destination overall. While for years Atlantic City eateries have piggybacked on the city’s gaming business, that may be changing. If the city’s profile as a food destination continues to rise, one day it may be the casinos who will be feeding off of the restaurants.