|By Melissa Ruggieri, Richmond
Times-Dispatch, Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 3, 2008 - It used to be that people looking for a fun getaway -- a place where they could see cool shows, window-shop at overly expensive stores and eat in restaurants ranging from high-end celebrity chef meccas to well-known burger joints -- would go to Las Vegas.
If all you cared about was feeding another $20 into a slot machine and hoping for a $10 buffet comp, you went to Atlantic City, N.J.
But five years ago, a $1.1 billion enterprise given a name that means "little village" in Italian opened, and with it, the East Coast Las Vegas was born.
It isn't an exaggeration to say that the Borgata transformed the aesthetics of Atlantic City.
Even though its location -- the Marina District -- is a few miles from the traditional A.C. of oceanfront casinos and the deliciously tacky Boardwalk, its immediate success (conservative figures estimate about $2 million in daily income) and bold approach forced its rickety peers to step up their game.
Since 2003, newcomers ranging from ultra-pricey clothing stores to chic restaurants to glistening new hotel towers have literally barreled over the grubbier offerings that used to be the only choices in the area.
But let's not get too carried away. A drive down Atlantic or Pacific avenues, parallel to the Boardwalk, still finds more than a handful of seamy strip clubs, liquor stores and pawn shops.
The difference is that now, a Melting Pot resides two blocks away.
As happens with any revamping, there are those who bemoan change, those who preferred the dingy charms of the past rather than the sleek remodeling of the current.
Well, there are still plenty of remnants for those people -- and, truth be told, many an Atlantic City gem can be found in the unlikeliest of places.
So for those who haven't been to the area since it was synonymous with the Mafia, here, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the city's first casino opening, is a quick rundown of the old and the new, the changed and the untouched.
What's new: With new hotels come new restaurants, and the Borgata can be targeted again for attracting a high-end class of dining -- the kind supplied by familiar names.
Bobby Flay Steak is a sleek leather-and-wood space whose primary menu item is quite apparent, while Wolfgang Puck has his American Grille also at Borgata and Michael Mina made his East Coast debut there with Seablue.
Moving away from the Borgata, the still-newish Pier Shops at Caesars boasts a third level dedicated to dining, with area darling Phillips Seafood surrounded by the atmospheric Asian-themed Buddakan and upscale American bistro, Sonsie, among others.
As Italian food is one of the most popular cuisines in the Northeast, many a paisano raised a fork in excitement with the news that Il Mulino of Greenwich Village has a new post at the Trump Taj Mahal, and is complemented by a less formal Trattoria Il Mulino.
Another name that pasta fans might recognize is Patsy's, the legendary midtown Manhattan restaurant known as Frank Sinatra's haven. In June, the Atlantic City Hilton earned bragging rights to a second Patsy's, with members of the original Scognamillo family helming it.
What hasn't changed: Patsy's and Il Mulino might have the name recognition, but their chefs have the nearly impossible task of surpassing the Italian food served at Chef Vola's.
You've likely never seen it -- it's in the basement of a three-story house (111 S. Albion Place). There is no signage expect a tiny plaque by the door, which is guarded by a Virgin Mary statue.
You won't get in without a reservation -- and make it weeks in advance. Seriously. It's cash-only, BYOB and the most charming, atmospheric eating experience you'll ever have. The family who runs it, the Espositos, will treat you like family once they get to know you. They also just celebrated their 25th year of running the restaurant last year, though the place has existed since 1921.
Make sure to try the angel hair blush pasta, the mammoth chicken parmagiana and the jumbo lump crab cake, which truly is one of the most delectable food creations anywhere. So are desserts: Butterscotch ricotta pie and raspberry Chambord with an Oreo cookie crust are unbeatable.
Also still attracting lines around the block with zero advertising is White House Subs (2301 Arctic Ave.). Know going in that a half sub can feed, oh, about four people, while a whole would suffice for about half the New York Giants.
The sub rolls are perfectly crunchy on the outside, moist and soft inside and stuffed with an array of meats, cheeses and one of the most authentic peppers and eggs concoctions you'll find.
Like Chef Vola's, they also have some rules: Cash only, takeout orders cannot be eaten in the restaurant and only parties of two or more will be seated in a booth (a counter is available for singletons).
Sometimes, as "Seinfeld's" George learned with the Soup Nazi, you join the system because the product really is that good.
What's new: Along with Borgata's Water Club (see Page G11), Harrah's Waterfront Tower is giving the Marina District a glittering skyline and contributing to the roughly 3,000 new hotel rooms that will be added throughout the city this year.
The tower opened in March and was the finale to the hotel's $550 million expansion.
Often regarded as one of the favorite haunts of longtime A.C. visitors -- many of them day-trippers -- Harrah's decided to inject some spiffiness into its old-fashioned decor and provide a bit of competition to Borgata.
The 525-foot tower is currently the tallest in the city, and at night, it becomes its own form of entertainment as lighted designs and patterns swirl across its windows.
This spring, the hotel/casino debuted a new wing that houses the Waterfront Buffet (just voted best in the city by Casino Player magazine), an Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa, a pool complex that turns into an ultra-lounge in the evening (celebs such as Carmen Electra and Poison's Bret Michaels have been guest "hosts" recently) and a food court.
Trump Plaza on the Boardwalk has also recently undergone a conversion. The Boardwalk entrance now leads into the modish Liquid Bar, and the gaming areas have been upgraded with wider aisles and brighter colors.
Also, The Chelsea had a soft opening over the Fourth of July and officially opened this weekend. It's the first non-gaming hotel on the Boardwalk since the 1960s and, with its sleek South Beach art deco decor, is a stark contrast to the Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson it replaced.
And, for those who want to be far away from a slot machine or hipster-dipster crowd, a Marriott Courtyard opened in April in the Resorts/Showboat vicinity.
What hasn't changed: If you were a hotel/casino owner, would you want to admit to that?
Everything is changing.
What's new: If you still have money left after a few rounds at the casino, perhaps you'll be able to afford something at the tony Pier Shops at Caesars.
Open since June 2006, the complex, which attaches to Caesars Palace and stretches into the ocean, was the type of arrival that made shopaholics bored with A.C.'s nothing-to-do-but-gamble offerings positively giddy.
Kenneth Cole. Louis Vuitton. Michael Kors. Burberry. Hugo Boss.
It's not for the light of wallet, but the Pier Shops provides an escape from the Boardwalk -- especially in the summer heat -- and its light and water show, while not quite Bellagio quality, is still a reasonable way to kill a few minutes (for a complete listing of stores, visit www.thepiershopsatcaesars.com).
For the more thrifty-minded, there is The Walk, the 100-store outdoor outlet mall that opened in 2003, but has now swelled from five to 15 blocks.
Among the choices: Calvin Klein, Coach, Reebok, Disney Store, Izod, J. Crew, Old Navy and Perry Ellis (for a complete listing, visit www.acoutlets.com).
What hasn't changed: No matter how vast the shopping choices become, be comforted to know that Fralinger's saltwater taffy and mint emporium still resides on the Boardwalk.
What's new: It's still 4 miles long, and the seagulls still mercilessly swoop toward whatever food might be in your hand. But the Boardwalk -- built in 1870 -- is in the midst of a $100 million Facade Program funded by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
Among the new touches? New storefronts and signage -- and perhaps a few fewer tarot card readers.
What hasn't changed: A lot. And that's fine with us.
The legendary Boardwalk cats still scatter around the sand, mostly shying away from beachgoers, but clumping in locations where business owners leave them food and water.
And those rolling carts, still regarded as the traditional way to visit the Boardwalk (they've been around since 1887), remain an alternate mode of transportation. Fares start at about $5, depending on the length of your ride and the temperament of the cart pusher.
But these days, don't be surprised to see an ad for anything from a casino to a brand of soda plastered on the side of the cart.
So much for tradition. Contact Melissa Ruggieri at (804) 649-6120 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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