Upping the ante

Special To The Sun

Fresh off the bus, I spot a dignified woman carrying a bed cushion, sheathed in a bright pink pillowcase. The large tag on a rolling suitcase identifies her simply as "MOM." Then, three Goth-types walk by. The men wear leather pants and trade swigs of hard liquor. They pass the bottle to a young woman whose eyes are encircled with black rings of makeup.

It is 1 p.m., and I'm not sure if it's more disturbing that MOM is ready for bed, or that this trio of Draculas has been up all night. Welcome to Atlantic City!

It is 1 p.m., and I'm not sure if it's more disturbing that MOM is ready for bed, or that this trio of Draculas has been up all night. Welcome to Atlantic City.

Officially touted as "America's favorite playground," Atlantic City (or "A.C." as residents call it) is equally famous for being America's favorite freak show. It is the day-tripper's delight because no one is intimidated by the place and everyone feels loved just the way they are.

If you have a dollar and a delusion, A.C. welcomes you with open arms.

Or, are those open claws? Tremendous changes are under way here, yet most involve ways to rake still more cash from your wallet.

As the 25th anniversary of casinos arriving here is being celebrated this year, Atlantic City has finally wised up to how money is minted by Las Vegas, its high-living cousin out West. According to a recent study by the Rutgers University School of Business, while both cities net just over $4 billion in annual "gaming revenues" -- no one here calls it gambling -- Las Vegas (where an average stay is three days), tops that off with an additional $2 billion in hotel bills, restaurant meals and show tickets. With the typical visit to Atlantic City lasting half as long, its nongambling income languishes by comparison.

To foster increased hospitality -- and increased expenditures by guests -- casino hotels throughout Atlantic City are sprucing up and exploiting their seaside locales.

Tropicana is nearing completion of a $225 million expansion project to add more rooms, a spa and an entertainment complex. Resorts (the first Atlantic City casino, opened in 1978) and Showboat are also building massive new towers. This summer, outdoor bars opened in front of Trump, Hilton and Caesar's, where you can now get a drink on the beach -- believe it not, a first for this town. With live music every evening, and celebrity drop-ins like Bruce Willis, it's a happening scene at sunset. Rest assured, you can still buy funnel cake and saltwater taffy. Three-wheeled gondolas still roll on the boardwalk, and (despite lackluster support from the business community) the Miss America Pageant will return next week.

Yet, more change is inevitable, because the stakes have been raised by the just-opened Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Atlantic City's first new casino in 13 years and, by far, the swankiest. Sheathed in curving planes of golden glass, it shimmers on the city's far horizon, looking like a tall pile of coins at the rainbow's end.

Some like it haute

"Would you like a Borgata Card?" the pretty receptionist asks when I check in. Behind her head is a silent waterfall, upon which plays a psychedelic light show: orange to red to purple to green. "It keeps track of your winnings," she explains of the card. "The more you spend, the more you can earn to buy drinks and stuff."

Confused by the circularity of this sales pitch -- in a casino, "spending" means losing, right? -- I step onto the wrong elevator, which rockets upward. A video monitor installed in the elevator's cabin is showing Moulin Rouge, with Nicole Kidman purring her way through Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend. A good tune for this joint, I think, as Borgata, with its flattering lighting, marble floors, rich drapes and carpeting is cleverly designed to confuse affection with acquisition.

Once in my hotel room -- which is opulently, if neutrally, decorated in white, cream and beige -- I look out the window. Nearby is Harrah's, which has just added a new tower, and Trump Marina, which recently opened its Eden Lounge, an enormous bar with jumbo-size furniture, wrought-iron trees and bartenders who toss bottles about a la Tom Cruise in the film Cocktail.

Borgata is located in a part of Atlantic City once known as the Marina, but now grandiloquently dubbed Renaissance Point.

Presumably, this new name is meant to imply that the boardwalk hotels, a mile or so away, are medieval in their comforts. Donald Trump, for one, welcomes the competition. In a recent interview, he is quoted as saying, "the crowd is getting younger, so hotels need to change to meet demand. ... The Borgata is a good thing for Atlantic City."

With 43 floors and just over 2,000 rooms, Borgata is Atlantic City's largest hotel -- it's also the tallest building in New Jersey. Circulating through its vast casino are cocktail waitresses dressed in sleek minidresses designed by Zac Posen, fashion's couturier du jour. The women are referred to as "Borgata Babes."

I'd heard that the casino boasted $1,000-a-pop slot machines, so I asked one of the "Babes" to take me there. In a half-hour of standing outside a roped-off area where two scowling guys were at play, I didn't see them -- or anyone else, for that matter -- win. Or so I thought.

Only later did I learn that Borgata is Atlantic City's first coinless casino. Winnings are noted on a bar-coded voucher, redeemable at the cashier's office.

I wonder about this. Though I've never gambled even a nickel in my life, I instinctively understand the appeal of money surging forth at my (Midas) touch. Then, again, maybe I'd feel like a yokel hauling a plastic bucket of quarters past Dale Chihuly's fantastic glass sculptures that hang everywhere. Some look like enormous candies wrapped in clear cellophane; others resemble a writhing mass of phosphorescent snakes.

A lack of coin buckets, though, isn't the half of it. Since the hotel's credo is that "high rollers and strollers don't mix," only hotel guests, not day-trippers, are allowed to enter with children younger than age 16. Management had hoped to also instate some sort of dress code at its 11 restaurants, but this proved unpopular. And anything remotely unfashionable apparently irks Robert L. Boughner, Borgata's CEO, who has said that he strived to create an ambience that is "edgy, maybe even a little bit naughty."

What Boughner means by "naughty" is obvious at Mixx, a restaurant that morphs into a discotheque late at night. Entrees here are given risque names like "Thai me Up," Asian erotica hangs on the walls and VIP rooms above the dance floor (yours for $1,000 a night) have suggestively dim lighting and deep couches.

At the Gypsy Bar, which boasts 70 types of tequila, a bartender brags about what a bacchanal the place is near midnight. I'm torn. Though this sounds edifying, there's a "Sexiest Couple and Wet T-shirt Contest" being held at an Atlantic City night spot called Club Tru ($2 cover with "European ID," the ad proclaims.). While weighing these possibilities, I visit the Borgata gym -- which has row upon row of gleaming chrome dumbbells -- and Toccare, the sumptuous, 50,000 square-foot spa with a black marble sauna, steam and Jacuzzi area.

Eileen Hughes, an aesthetician, first rubs me down with a pumice of grape seeds. Next, I soak in a seaweed salt tub while my face is swabbed with a "detoxifying" paste made from green tea. After a massage with rosemary extract, I feel so relaxed, I'm close to tears.

Trend-setting Borgata

Are any of Atlantic City's other hotel spas this nice, I ask Hughes, who earlier said she'd worked at Bally's, Tropicana and Caesar's. "Not at all," she says, laughing. "But if they are going to survive, they'll have to at least try."

In my robe and slippers, I pad next door to Shaving Grace, a men's grooming salon run by the four Sgarra brothers, from Philadelphia. While Frank Sinatra croons about flying to the moon, Rich Sgarra offers more earthy advice while shaving my face with a gleaming, straight-edged razor. "A really close shave keeps a man looking young," he practically whispers, " 'cause it slices off the dead skin." I'm in no position to argue.

That night, after a cocktail at Ombra, a cellar bar with 14,000 bottles of wine on display, I eat dinner at Suilan, where I allow my pleasantly efficient waitress, Patricia Chiu, who was born in Hong Kong, to dictate a menu and wine selections. This includes something called "Chrysanthemum Shark Skin Soup," baby lamb with eggplant, and an order of crab cakes. These latter are perfect spheres, crispy as a French baguette, but moist and incredibly flavorful on the inside. Suilan's crab cakes are by far the best I've ever eaten.

As I sip Chan Yu, a 1997 cabernet sauvignon imported from China (who knew?), I imagine I could be many places -- New York, Peking, Paris -- but not Atlantic City.

A dip into the past

After a run the next morning, I have lunch at Gardner's Basin, a sleepy backwater at the end of New Hampshire Avenue where, starting in the 1850s, Atlantic City's first hotels were built. There are old "Rum Runner" houses built out over the water during Prohibition, so boats filled with cases of alcohol could secretly offload underneath. The Flying Cloud is a famous seafood restaurant here; the Back Bay Ale House, a newer addition.

At both places, reggae music plays at a pleasantly mellow volume. Clam boats chug out of the harbor, headed forth in search of Quahog clams, and yachts-for-hire embark for the "Canyon," a spot 95 miles offshore where North America's continental shelf drops into a deep-sea angler's paradise.

I wander about, squinting happily at the sunny skies. While it's easy to forget the delicate ecosystem here, each year, Atlantic City witnesses the migration of snow geese, hawks, sandpipers and other shore birds. They stop here to feast on the hatched eggs of horseshoe crabs.

I'm procrastinating, paying more attention than necessary to the sweetly low-tech exhibits at the Ocean Life Center, because after being pampered at the Borgata, I am about to subject myself to the boardwalk's bare knuckles. At this moment, I recall my barber's advice: to stay young, scrape your skin. Off I go.

In Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness, (1979, Ten Speed Press) historians Vicki Gold Levi and Lee Eisenberg describe the five stages between 1870 and 1896, during which the boardwalk grew from a narrow wooden sidewalk to the present size of 40 feet wide and four miles long -- the world's biggest.

The book is filled with pictures of everything from the Heinz Pier, where free pickles were given away for decades, to the Steeplechase Pier, which featured oddities such as boxing matches between midgets, and the Hilton Sisters, Siamese-twin performers from the 1930s.

These days, eccentric tastes are still indulged, but inside the air-conditioned casinos. After I check into the Tropicana Casino and Resort, for instance, I meet Blanche the singing bartender, who belts out show tunes while serving up drinks. Waitresses stomp about on stilts, one being a multipierced drag queen whose long nails are encrusted with rhinestones. A live chicken housed in a glass box regularly beats all human opponents in a game of computerized tick-tack-toe. And, inside a clear sphere called the Fortune Dome, a man waves a net about, frantically trying to catch dollar bills that are whirling about him in a cyclone.

When it opens next March, the Tropicana's Latin Quarter promises still more hilarity by recapturing the gaiety of pre-Castro Havana. Part of the allure will be a stage show featuring topless women -- old news in Las Vegas, but another first for Atlantic City.

"There's something incredibly sexy about that era," says Maureen Siman, a Tropicana spokeswoman. "Back then, in the '30s and '40s, people would dance salsa in the sand."

Boardwalk boogie

Block to block (or state by state -- each thoroughfare intersecting the Boardwalk is named for one of the 50 United States), you can feel the convulsions between Atlantic City's past and future, the chic and the shabby.

Case in point: the famed Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall, recently restored to its 1929 opening-day splendor when it was the largest and grandest assembly hall on earth, is now home to the Boardwalk Bullies, an ice hockey team.

I enter Bally's in search of the Blue Martini, a new circular bar, where one can choose from over 100 martini recipes while sitting at a counter made from smoking dry ice. I order the eponymous elixir -- made from Stolichnaya Razberri, blue curacao and a twist of lemon -- and feel heroically hip, if $9 poorer.

Outside again, I stroll past gift shops selling trinkets in gloriously bad taste (breast-shaped coffee mugs, anyone?), raw bars so dingy that the oysters appear to be served with a side order of ptomaine, and dimly lighted storefronts where sullen women named Miss Liza or Teena lurk behind gold lame curtains, waiting to read palms.

At Caesar's new Temple Bar, a ceiling mural depicts suspiciously 21st-century-looking "Ro-mans" cavorting in an orgy of grapes and rose petals. I overhear two young emperors-to-be debating the merits of a $200 half bottle of California merlot. "At the end of the day, it's really just grapes," one concludes with great solemnity.

Eventually, I end up at Opa Bar & Grille, the boardwalk's newest restaurant, at the corner of Indiana Avenue. Its snazzy front rolls up like a huge garage door, and, to my mind, the best seats are at a tall counter that faces the ocean.

While I eat excellent seafood pasta with "blistered tomatoes" and saffron broth, I watch the passers-by. A group of adolescent boys do a bang-up job playing empty plastic buckets. Girls in bikinis amble along munching cotton candy with one hand, clutching packs of cigarettes and cell phones to their ear with the other. An old lady carefully touches up the polish on her poodle's toenails.

It occurs to me that despite Atlantic City's current attempts at sophistication, this frightful and fabulous parade will always be the town's chief charm.

I have an opportunity to reconsider this notion, when on my way out of town the next morning, I see a man asleep outside the bus station. In one hand, he clutches a bottle of Excedrin and a thick wad of cash. Judging from the grime on his clothes, it seems he'd spent the night at this spot, rather than lavishing his bankroll on a king-sized bed and a grape-seed massage. Nearly above the slumbering man's head, though, construction derricks are swinging, and concrete gushes forth, laying the foundation for still more castles in the sand.

And therein lies the high-stakes gamble for Atlantic City as it attempts to reinvent itself. Will the Borgata and all these new hotel rooms attract big numbers of big spenders, or will this town continue to be the preferred destination for bus-riding day-trippers who prefer penny ante?

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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