Hotel Online  Special Report


Atlantic City Finally Catching On - Casino Travelers More Likely
to Play at Gambling Resorts that Offer More than Just Slot
Machines and Table Games


The Philadelphia Inquirer gambling column
By Bill Ordine, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Aug. 29, 2005 - --THE QUARTER MAKES ATLANTIC CITY A BETTER BET: Someone in Atlantic City finally got it -- meaning the lesson that Las Vegas learned years ago. And that's the message that casino travelers are more likely to play at gambling resorts that offer more than just slot machines and table games.

The Quarter, a 200,000-square-foot dining, entertainment and retail shopping mall at the Tropicana on the Boardwalk, opened in November, but this summer proved its value in dramatic fashion. In July, the casino win for the Tropicana increased a whopping 31 percent, or about $11 million, over the same month a year ago; the Atlantic City average increase was 6.5 percent.

While the Cuban-themed Quarter has helped line the pockets of the casino that has so far tossed the dice and won, patrons are being engaged by an experience that's been sorely missing in Atlantic City. For more than a decade, Las Vegas visitors have been strolling through vibrant retail-dining malls such as the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, which recently added a 175,000-square-foot third phase; the Canal Shoppes at the Venetian; the Desert Passage at the Aladdin; and the 2 million-square-foot, free-standing Fashion Show Mall on the Strip.

Clearly, the Quarter is a relatively modest move toward the Las Vegas experience -- and one that will be augmented by the opening of the Pier at Caesars mall on the site of the old Million Dollar Pier next year -- but it's a pleasant break in what had become a dreary casino landscape of slot machines, gaming tables and buffets.

The Quarter has been built in Disneylike fashion to resemble a fanciful version of pre-Castro Cuba, with Spanish colonial and stucco-style storefronts, tiled floors, palm trees, fountains, and a faux sky. And while it is very much simply a variation of the Forum Shops' similarly executed turn on an Italian village, the Tropicana still gets high marks for making it an appealing space.

The new Atlantic City mall has two main floors and a third level, the bottom one, where a handful of restaurants have entrances from Pacific Avenue, with the heart of the Quarter being a plaza where several of its other restaurants are clustered.

In part because of its location in the main plaza but largely because of its own theme, the restaurant and club Cuba Libre becomes the de facto anchor of the Quarter.

With a restaurant already operating in Philadelphia's Old City, Cuba Libre -- like the Quarter itself -- arrests Havana in its pre-Communist days, although one bar on the second level has a quirky, historical tribute to the 1962 missile crisis.

The menu features items such as lobster seared with Cuban coffee, Tia Maria and chipotle pepper, and beef brisket simmered in red wine, sofrito, peppers and onions. Helping to give life to the experience is salsa entertainment that happens Fridays and Saturdays beginning at 11 p.m., with four shows each night; patrons can dance between performances. Earlier in the week, salsa dancing lessons are offered. The second floor is where the so-called missile bar is located, with a replica of a Russian medium-range rocket and a periodic countdown in Russian, plus a history of those tense two weeks when the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in nuclear brinkmanship.

For anyone who lived through the Cold War, it's a little hard to believe that we're waxing nostalgic for the era, but that appears to be the case, not just with Cuba Libre's nod to the missile crisis but also with the entire theme of one of its neighbors, trendy Red Square. With a statue of Vladimir Lenin out front and posters hailing the people's revolution on the walls, this Red Square -- part of the mini-chain made famous by its cousin at the Mandalay Bay casino resort in Las Vegas -- would make a real Marxist apoplectic.

Here, the favored high-end vodka, called the Jewel of Russia Ultra, goes for $26 a shot, although most vodka drinks are in the $8-to-$12 range. As is the case in the Las Vegas version, the Red Square in the Quarter has a walk-in vodka freezer where patrons slip on fur coats, imbibe, hang out, and can have their photos taken and e-mailed to them. One can safely assume this isn't what Leon Trotsky meant by a workers' paradise. The menu is similarly capitalistically decadent -- rack of lamb, filet mignon, lobster, duck and, of course, an assortment of caviar from moderate Alaskan to pricey Beluga.

Also among the Quarter's dining spots is Ri-Ra, an Irish pub where most of the furnishings have been salvaged from the Old Sod, such as the carved bar that came from the Henry Grattan saloon in Dublin. The entertainment is Irish on Wednesdays with cover bands later in the week. Closer to home, The Sound of Philadelphia restaurant and nightclub offers a soul fusion menu and live music from hip-hop to R&B.

Among the appeals of the Quarter is its range of dining and entertainment, both in style and price. There is a high-end Palm restaurant with its classic $30 to $40 steaks, and steps away is Carmine's, a family-style Italian eatery with pizzas and pastas. Brulee, which offers dessert extravaganzas such as a tableside-prepared chocolate bananas Foster, turns into a late-night ultra lounge.

Along with places to eat and drink, the Quarter features an Imax theater with both typical jumbo-screen presentations (one of the latest is a safari film) plus first-run movies, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The more than two dozen retail shops run the gamut from mall standards to local shops such as Jake's Dog House, a place for pet accessories. A stroll-and-sample shop is Zeytinia, a gourmet grocery that sells hot food and pastry, including ricotta swans and chocolate coffee cups filled with vanilla creme, for take-home or take-to-your-room dining.

No, the Quarter isn't Vegas. But it's a big step forward for Atlantic City.

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Copyright (c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Bill Ordine:

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