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The Best of the Casinos

by Peter Proko
What makes a casino great?
That was the question we asked ourselves when compiling our annual roundup spotlighting the latest and greatest things in Atlantic City. Sure, they all have countless gaming options and terrific amenities, but we wanted to dig deeper to find the things that truly help separate each property. In these pages, you’ll learn about the many dining and entertainment options that prove there’s more to the casinos than poker rooms and slot machines. We also devised the perfect weekend getaways, and for the first time ever, we’ve included some of Pennsylvania’s thriving locations into the mix. Read on to find out where to make your next dinner reservation, where you can order a $50 martini and the best spa to help recover from it all.

Food & Drink

At the Borgata’s Bobby Flay Steak, there are 10 standout cuts on the menu, but none more decadent than the American Kobe strip. Extremely delicate and immensely flavorful, this steak will linger in your memory far longer than on your plate. To make the meal even more memorable, order the “strip and shore,” Flay’s take on surf and turf, which partners the Kobe with a fresh lobster tail for the ultimate indulgence. Skeptics may balk at the high price tag when you’re ordering side dishes à la carte, but as our server told us: “People ask if it’s really worth it, and I tell them yes, yes it is.” After several trips to BFS, we wholeheartedly agree.

Diners expect authentic Old World Italian dishes when they sit down to a meal at Il Mulino, but the level of service is also what helps separate this Taj Mahal restaurant from others in town. A courteous, attentive and knowledgeable tuxedo-clad wait staff is seemingly always present without getting in the way of you enjoying your dinner. Whether they are recommending the popular osso buco, delivering a plate of the signature langoustines or reciting the dessert specials for the evening, you’ll wish every night out went this smoothly.

Some special occasions call for a private dining room, but when we are with a group in A.C., we head to The Pier Shops at Caesars to celebrate in plain view at Stephen Starr’s Buddakan. With a massive golden Buddha sitting at the head of the table, your group will be the envy of the dining room as you chow on modern Asian-inspired cuisine like edamame ravioli and kung pao monkfish before polishing off the meal with some crispy banana spring rolls.

Earlier this year, The Water Club debuted Vintage, a one-stop shop for vino lovers where they can peruse more than 200 labels of wine, champagne, sake and a slew of accessories from decanters to a new set of stems. For those who are undecided, visitors can also sample wines or browse the interactive kiosk for inspiration. Thinking about taking that bottle back to the room? Ask the in-store sommelier for a perfect blend based on nose, tasting notes and all the other attributes they understand far better than you.

At Chef Chris Scarduzio’s Mia in Caesars, you are treated to world-class fare in an amazing setting, complete with Roman columns and ceilings that reach to the heavens. But just outside the dining room on the gated patio, Scarduzio gives his guests a scaled-down menu without sacrificing any quality, as evidenced by the pizza “tartuffo.” This $75 selection with forest mushrooms and parmesan reggiano is as gourmet as pizza gets after being topped with seasonal truffles, lobster and melted foie gras. It’s a clear example of a topnotch chef using topnotch ingredients to change the way you look at everyday food.

When we found out the Chart House was opening up a location at the new Golden Nugget, we were hooked, line and sinker. Pescetarians keep the reservation books filled for the opportunity to sample the bronzed swordfish or the dynamite halibut, which is, well, dynamite thanks to its crab crust and basil oil drizzle. Other notable specialties include the perfectly seared scallops with a saffron risotto and the coconut shrimp, rich in flavor and audibly crunchy.

Showing up to the Wolfgang Puck American Grille without a reservation is pretty clueless planning. However, it might just afford you the opportunity to sit at the bar and enjoy the impressive tavern menu instead. It’s casual fare dressed up for a night on the town with items ranging from truffled potato chips with bleu cheese and chives to pizzas blistered in a wood-burning oven like the spicy lamb chorizo with tomatoes, shaved white onions and cilantro. Those who want to take things a step further can partake in entrees like bacon-wrapped meatloaf or the housemade ricotta gnocchi.

Over at the Trump Plaza, Roberto’s Ristorante boasts one of the best views in all of Atlantic City, with sprawling windows giving way to breathtaking scenes of the Atlantic Ocean. Tucked at a nearby table for two, it’s the perfect place to pop the question or rekindle an old flame. But you’ll want to plan ahead, so order the Grand Mariner soufflé at the start of your meal and wind down the evening sharing a dessert and a moment you won’t soon forget.

Across the bridge in Bensalem, 360, Parx’s hip lounge, is the place to be when the DJs are spinning and the live bands are rocking the night away. But, 360 also has one of the best happy hours around, where ladies can sip cosmos for $7 and the fellas can drink $4 Dogfish Head craft beers. There’s also a daily drink special for $5 and light bites come by way of cheese plates and pretzels and mustard. Stop by Wednesday through Saturday from 5 to 8 p.m. or on Sundays from 3 to 5 p.m., and chances are you may just wind up staying the night.

Emeril Lagasse provides the celebrity chef treatment at the Sands in Bethlehem, where he hosts diners at his white tablecloth Chop House and his more casual Italian Table. It’s also where Emeril “kicks it up a notch” with his first-ever hamburger restaurant, Burgers and More (yes, that’s BAM for short). Think prime and grass-fed beef topp­ed with every­thing from chedd­ar cheese to crispy onions marinated in hot sauce. Skip the fries and go with the andouille barbecued white beans when ordering the grilled Atlantic salmon or Portobello mushroom sandwiches. The hardest part may be choosing a milkshake, where we flip flop between the bananas foster and the peanut butter.

You’ve heard of the three-martini lunch, but what about three martinis at once? You get that and more when you head over to Red Square inside The Quarter at the Tropicana. That’s where you’ll find the Communist Martini, a “party-sized” 32-ounce cocktail pour­ing in at $50 and ideal for imbibing with those who always think bigger is better.

When Luke Palladino was at the Borgata, he oversaw three restaurants, but at his namesake establishment inside Harrah’s, he’s focused on one dining room. And the results are notable, especially when it comes to the handcrafted pastas. We aren’t talking fettuccini and ravioli here; instead, you’ll find traditional takes on agnolotti and strozzapreti. Made in-house daily, the fresh pastas are an homage to the four years Palladino spent cooking in Italy and are delicate works of art that deserve your firm attention.

Michael Schulson’s background living and cooking in Japan has made him an expert in the culture and the cuisine. So it’s no wonder foodies flock to Izakaya in the Borgata where Schulson updates standard dishes with plenty of showmanship. And while we love the specialty rolls (we’re talking to you, soft shell crab spider), our current obsession happens to be the robatayaki or grilled meat and fish. This is where you’ll find octopus with smoked tomato jam and arugula salad as well as prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with a cilantro pesto.

Inside the Sands, cocktail lovers and all around boozehounds find their fix at Infusion. Here, a semi-enclosed glass wall gives way to specialty infused drinks with names like the Tight Screw Martini, where the mixologists behind the bar combine Patrón XO Café, Baileys Irish Cream and butterscotch schnapps, shaken and laced with chocolate and butterscotch sauces. If you’re interested in livening things up a bit, go for the High Voltage—Cuervo Gold tequila, Monster Energy Drink, and a splash of grenadine garnished with two Hot Tamales.

As you make your way into the Borgata’s underground location of Fornelletto, you are immediately taken by the expansive wine lock­­er bordering the rest­aurant’s main dining room. The 26-page wine list here caters to all pref­­erences (med­ium whites, full body reds, etc.) and price points (there are 50 offerings under $50). Whether ordering by the glass at the bar or a magnum bottle at the table, wine lovers are never at a loss when searching for something to pair with Chef Stephen Kalt’s South­ern Italian menu.

When Dos Caminos arrived earlier this year at Harrah’s, it wasn’t just another place to grab chips and salsa, it introduced A.C. to “modern Mexican” cuisine. From the tasting trio of made-to-order guacamole (mango, habanero and jumbo crab chipotle) to the Maine lobster enchiladas, this is the place for those looking to add a little Latin flair to their casino fare.

If you’ve ever wondered what goes on in the kitchen at your favorite restaurant, there’s no better way to find out than by sitting at a chef’s table just feet away from all the action. At the Tropicana’s Il Verdi, groups from four to 14 can do just that, dining on a customized six- or seven-course menu complete with wine pairings at $145 per person. You’ll not only get an insider’s look at how the kitchen operates, you’ll also get some one-on-one time with the chef who will offer a culinary education on what’s plated in front of you.


If you think your kids are hooked on video games, wait until you see your best friends try their hand at “Rock Band.” Inside Parx’s Play 2, the interactive sports bar from the folks behind Chickie’s and Pete’s, groups can rent one of 18 “amusement pod entertainment centers” and spend anywhere from an hour to the entire evening trying to master the latest games on PlayStation, Wii and Xbox. Each pod comes with its own server and game sensei ready to assist, and when you’re not focusing on the video games, you can catch some real games on the many TVs anchoring the hip bar area.

The boss’ complaints are wearing thin and the weekend can’t get here soon enough. The problem is that it’s only Wednesday. Well, we’ve found a great remedy for letting off some steam: Grab a few friends for a few drinks over at Philly’s SugarHouse, where every Wednesday night the legendary Jerry Blavat is behind the turntables spinning those oldies but goodies inside The Refinery overlooking the Delaware River. Where else can you sing and dance the night away with a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer in the middle of the week?

Dusk, Caesar’s energetic gem of a nightclub, is one of the most coveted nightlife experiences in all of A.C., and for good reason. With world-class DJs appearing regularly and VIP bottle service banquettes encircling the always-packed dance floor, it’s not unusual to find yourself sharing a little real estate with some very recognizable faces. While lots of clubs are known for bringing celebs to the party, only Dusk makes it feel like you are actually partying with them.

Once the clock strikes 12, the upstairs of Cuba Libre is transformed into the Missile Bar, an after-hours hot­spot where even the wallflowers come to strut their stuff until dawn. With balconies overlooking Atlantic Avenue, it’s the only place of its kind in town to offer an outdoor component, which comes in handy when you need to take a breather from push­ing it too hard on the dance floor.

When mur.mur opened at the Borgata, it seemed to steal some life from the property’s original club, MIXX, and we could see why. MIXX felt big and outdated compared to mur.mur’s trendy underground quarters. But the modern makeover of the bi-level space has us falling in love all over again, with the big-name DJs now at the head of the dance floor, a state-of-the-art video board, and a more intimate VIP experience.

The Pool After Dark at Harrah’s is a nightlife destination that combines a bit of Miami with a bit of Vegas for a truly unique experience in A.C. Bikini-clad servers whisk drinks to those hanging in the cabanas or guests enjoying a little more private experience upstairs in The Loft area. And now, thanks to new regulations that allow gaming tables to be placed outside the casino floor, the space will be home to six tables by Christmas, further enhancing the evening.

Girls’ Getaway

With so many great restaurants in town, the last thing you would think a trip to A.C. would include is a cooking lesson. But, thanks to the popular Girls’ Night Out at Harrah’s Viking Cooking School, women are spending lots of time in the kitchen. During the sessions, which start at $75 per person and range from 90 minutes to three hours, guests work with instructors to craft multi-course meals and cocktails centered on pre-determined themes like A Night in Rome. And the best part is you don’t have to worry about any of the shopping or cleanup.

A long weekend of cutting loose in A.C. can take its toll on your body. Which is why, before heading home, you should extend the stay a little longer and head to the Bluemercury Spa at the Tropicana for a little recovery time. The detoxifying sea salt scrub is an ideal way to bring your skin back to life thanks to a head-to-toe exfoliation, followed by a massage designed to alleviate stress. Follow up with a hydrating coconut sugar mani/pedi and you’ll look, and more importantly, feel, as good as new.

The Bernie Robbins outpost at the Taj Mahal is not just a spot reserved for splurging your winnings from the roulette table (though, we wouldn’t blame you if you did). It’s a store trusted for its high-quality jewelry and knowledgeable staff. Here, you’ll find collections from Baume and Mercier and Ippolita to Hearts on Fire and Tacori, further proving not everything glitters is gold. Sometimes it’s also diamonds and platinum.

The Shoppes at The Water Club is just the place for well-heeled women to get outfitted for the night. From the latest haute couture courtesy of famed designer Ro­berto Ca­valli to the sleek looks of Hugo Boss, you’ll find both casual clothes with class and formal, yet functional looks. Don’t forget to stop by Fixation for shoes and accessories that will draw plenty of attention from across the room.

Over at The Pier Shops at Caesars is where you’ll find Stephen Starr’s Continental, a restaurant with plenty of retro charm and the old-school cocktails like the Pimm’s Cup to back it up. After you finished noshing on the crab cakes and mushroom flatbread, order up a party shaker—a six-person martini with unique offerings like the Twizzle, which contains vodka, puréed strawberries and lemon with a red licorice wheel.

Atlantic City’s only karaoke lounge can be found in the Tropicana’s Planet Rose at The Quarter, where women flock to channel their inner Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Get a group of ladies together and reserve the private room where no one will look at you funny for not being able to quite hit the high notes in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Guys’ Getaway

Over at Tropicana’s Fin, diners come for the fresh local seafood creations courtesy of Executive Chef Demetrios Haronis, but the guys will find the outdoor cigar deck especially inviting. Here, you and the boys can puff away on stogies from premium brands like Macanudo and Romeo y Julieta. And, because the deck is heated, it means you can grab a glass of single malt bourbon and enjoy a smoke all year round.

You may fear a trip to the spa more than the dentist, but trust us; it’s not all flower petals and facials. At the Borgata’s Spa Toccare, guys are given the royal treatment inside the barbershop, where they can get everything from a haircut to a hot towel facial. For our money, we’ll take The Whole Nine Yards treatment—a two-hour session that includes a haircut, straight razor shave with facial, and a sports manicure. We guarantee once the 120 minutes has elapsed, you’ll never look at a spa the same way again.

Being a member at The House of Blues’ Foundation Room certainly has its privileges, from the intimate nightlife experience to the various private events such as wine tastings to meet and greets with musical artists taking the stage that night. Not only is it a great place for your buddies to hang with other notable high rollers, but higher rated members get access to free golf at six area country clubs.

Whether you are starting off a bachelor party or just looking for a night out with the fellas, you’ll want to head to Chef Chris Scarduzio’s namesake eatery which recently opened its doors at Showboat. Start off with one of the nine sushi rolls or the shellfish sampler from the raw bar before carving into the dry aged, bone-in sirloin with a side of truffled Yukon Gold potatoes.

Los Angeles may have birthed the Pussycat Dolls, but Atlantic City has its own burlesque troupe known to turn more than a few heads. The Taj Mahal is home to the Almost Angels, a group of scantily clad ladies singing and choreographing their way through inviting routines Thursday through Saturday evenings inside the Ego Bar and Lounge. It’s as much fun as you can have without getting yourself into trouble at home.

The Tropicana’s Firewaters is A.C.’s mecca for beer lovers. With 50 on tap and 101 bottles chilling in the cooler, this is the place to find your favorites or try something new. If you are new to the craft beer game, go for the sampler and see what mix of hops and barley suits you best. For your stubborn buddy who still drinks the same fizzy light beers he did in college, don’t worry, they also carry all of the standard domestics.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 9 (December, 2011).
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