Atlantic City Is Still A Great Escape For Old School Simple Pleasures

Uproxx

A short while ago, everything I knew about Atlantic City had been absorbed by way of depressing news reports on failing casinos and lost jobs. Also, the movie Snake Eyes. Despite living only a few hours away, and the fact that my home state of New Jersey isn’t exactly known for an abundance of things to do, I’d never gone to the AC. Warnings from friends about crime in the area sounded another alarm. Also, I’m not much for gambling. (Let’s not say “cheap,” let’s say “protective of my monies.”) And save for an annual long weekend trip to Cape May, I’ve always been pretty dedicated to leaving the state when I go on vacation.

But I’m moving soon, spreading my wings and whatnot, and isn’t there a saying about “seeing Atlantic City before you die?” If there’s not, there ought to be.

I ventured down to Atlantic City to stay at The Water Club by The Borgata to sample the hotel, the casino, the food, and see a Dave Chappelle show. Initially, I wanted to justify my escape from the North Jersey doldrums by weighing the perception vs. the reality of Atlantic City. I’d assess the future prospects of the oceanside town for its residents and, secondarily, tourists. Shine a light on how things really are. Real, meaty stuff. Someone was bucking for one of those fancy internet writing awards. But doing all that in two jam-packed days (much of them spent within the walls of a well-appointed resort) and some light research wasn’t a great idea.

Atlantic City is large and complex and snapshots can easily fool an interloper. See two new casinos and feel optimistic! See the absence of foot traffic and the occasional abandoned building and feel a sense of doom! Without context for how opportunity is distributed (or not distributed) and a clearer understanding of AC’s history and spirit, what the hell did I know? So I moved off of that fool’s errand and resolved to keep things a bit more simple while trying to just experience Atlantic City and suss out the resort town’s worth as a vacation spot. Which, not for nothing, does help to push back against those negative perceptions. Especially when you read about this one meatball sub I had.

Fun Is Fun

Like most other resort casino destinations, Atlantic City’s central pitch to tourists is low key brilliant: draw people to luxe and immense but not back-breakingly expensive hotels, give them ample opportunities to inject a little excitement into their life by winning and losing a few bucks on the casino floor, and feed them all the food. (Just wheelbarrows full of shrimp and a Wyoming cattle farm’s worth of prime rib). Then, sprinkle some glitter on their memories by bringing in name talent for concerts. Some people may pass on that kind of getaway due to the preponderance of other, more exotic or adventurous endeavors. Zip lining across a clear blue lagoon seems nice and I hear the Italian countryside is lovely, but the simple pleasures of Atlantic City still have merit and are maybe a little more accessible for when the “once in a lifetime” trip isn’t in reach this time around. Does that make it sound like Atlantic City is for people ready to settle?

Perhaps, but do not despair. Fun is fun, even when it’s basic AF.

The boardwalk is a prime example of the above philosophy which I am in the process of trademarking. There’s a certain “been to one, been to them all” vibe that Jersey boardwalks kick off when it comes to the delectable trash cuisine and attractions that give them their charm, but those things are also good and fun. And there are other elements that are unique to the Atlantic City boardwalk. For instance, five minutes after I arrived, a man I was talking to pulled down a bandage and eagerly showed me what he said was a recent stab wound. Top that, Wildwood!

Despite that magical experience, the Atlantic City boardwalk seems as clean and safe as any other that I’ve been to and it’s a great way to pass an afternoon. Especially if you wipe out at the casino, need something to do while they refill the buffet, or just want to breathe in the sea air while browsing the myriad of tourist-trap gift shops or the high-end retail at the Playground Pier mall. I guess. I wasn’t there to shop, I was there to play games and eat funnel cake.

The Steel Pier is a 1,000-foot long amusement park section of the AC boardwalk that has been obliterated by fire and nature and rebuilt and transformed multiple times across its 120-year history. The current headliner at the Steel Pier is a brand new mega-Ferris Wheel that shows off the full breadth of the boardwalk from its 227-foot apex. There are also helicopter tours that launch from the tip of the pier. But heights aren’t my jam, so I mostly perused the more earthbound options.

The highlight of the Steel Pier was the three-station seemingly full-size three-point shooting contest that was positioned in such a way as to inspire onlookers to watch, cheer, and heckle. And I got to experience all of those things in about ten minutes as I watched people celebrate the 9-year-old champion who drained eight shots out of 15 before I took my turn and heard someone shout out, “get that trash outa here!” I was the trash and I deserved it. I only made one of 15 shots my first time through, sparking my wife, Michella, to tell me “you were really bad” when I asked why she hadn’t defended my honor and out-shouted my heckler. And now you’ve seen my wound.

Beer And Fried Dough

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Funnel Cake @Vaninas

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After I reclaimed a small shred of my dignity, making five of 15 in my second try at the three-point shooting contest, Michella and I went to Vaninas, a revered funnel cake spot on the AC boardwalk. I’d love to tell you how good they are, but she got chocolate sauce on top, which I consider to be sacrilegious. I understand that there is an unrelenting food trend to pile good upon good, assuming that it leads to great like some kind of carb-y equation, but one can fly too close to the sun and overload their senses. Golden with a crispness that masks an underlying fluff and enough powdered sugar to make it look like you found Pablo Escobar’s secret stash — that’s how you should funnel cake.

I don’t have a lot of rules for how you should enjoy a beer, but a beer garden (named Biergarten) with sausage sandwiches, a vibrant atmosphere with live music, and tabletop games feels like a winning strategy and the proximity to the boardwalk allowed for some people watching. Though, I never did see stab guy again. I hope he’s well and that he got a tetanus shot.

Meat Joy

Biergarten was the last place we hit before departing the boardwalk in pursuit of… you guessed it, more food. Don’t judge, I was on a (working) vacation and deeply dedicated to trying out a few different places in the little time I had. It was all for you, in the name of research, is my point.

The search for in-town Atlantic City food, meaning not something from one of the casinos or the boardwalk, took me to White House Subs, a popular eat-in/take-out spot that’s been around for more than 70 years.

The inside is a little cramped, with a few booths and some counter space, but that adds to the allure. They’re there to feed you, not host a gala. One thing to love about a sandwich shop with some history and some grit: they’re going to obliterate any notion of portion control because the food that they give you is likely to be extreme in quantity and too good to put down or save for later. Get a half sub at White House if you possess a normal appetite and a whole (I’m purely guessing as I didn’t bring a yardstick, but the whole had to be a foot and a half long) if you’re thinking about dipping a toe in the competitive eating circuit.

I devoured a whole meatball sub, flavorful sauce thick around the edges of my mouth and covering my hands as though I had murdered the sandwich in a crime of passion. It was, I think I can confidently say, the best meatball sub I’ve ever eaten. And it’s not particularly close.

Anyway, every other meatball sub recommendation is a lie, this is the one and I feel like we’ve built up a trust because I confided to you that a child beat me in a three-point shooting contest.

There are a couple of other in-town places that I didn’t get to hit on this trip that are at the top of my list should I come back. I never got to ride the mechanical bull at the Mountain Bar or have an old school Italian restaurant experience at Angelo’s Tavern. Also, Kelsey’s promises the southern cuisine that I usually can’t pass up. But I did, because, again, there just wasn’t enough time to explore everything. Say that for AC: There’s a lot to do and eat.

A Steak Dinner, The Casino Floor, And A Show

The tightness of my schedule with regard to how many restaurants I had the time to hit was due to the fact that I’d been invited to check out a number of restaurants within the Borgata. This is not a complaint. Free food is never a complaint.

The Borgata’s Sunroom stands out, particularly for its versatility. In the morning, its a breakfast spot with abundant natural light (as the name would suggest) and at night the feel switches to that of a relaxed lounge where you can sip your drink by the fire. Get the Very Berry Mojito. Or whatever you want. I don’t control you.

The best pure dining experience at The Borgata was The Old Homestead, a fancy steakhouse with a lot of history behind its brand thanks to an original location, in New York City, that has been in operation for 150 years.

I’ve been to a couple of non-Atlantic City casinos and most of their restaurants feel like dressed up food court options. You can’t escape the sounds or the draw of the casino floor. Maybe that’s part of the plan, but The Old Homestead does a good job of offering you some separation so you can focus on your food and your company.

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At The Old Homestead in AC earlier this summer.

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Speaking of the casino floor, I guess it’d be weird to talk about Atlantic City without mentioning that key selling point. But something tells me you’re going to stumble upon them if you go on your own AC adventure and I am ill-prepared to talk up the merits of gambling. Super ill-prepared. Basically, I dropped $2 at a slot machine and promptly began to question the logic and value of that endeavor. Then I went to play blackjack because I’d never played a table game and it looked like fun in the movies where crowds gather and cheer and just, in general, seem more supportive than the boardwalk basketball crowd. But that was not the reality that I found as I promptly lost $15 and told the dealer that I hadn’t played since my mom showed me how. Also, did you know there’s a Seinfeld slot machine? That’s all I’ve got on the subject of gambling.

Seeing Dave Chappelle live at The Borgata Event Center conjures more words. The event center doesn’t have the pomp and style of a more traditional theater, architecturally, but there’s more intimacy due to the smaller confines. Especially when the seating configuration is in the round, as it was for Chappelle. We were so close I could breathe in Chappelle’s second-hand smoke. I’ll never wash these lungs again!

I’ve documented my issues with some of Chappelle’s #MeToo material, but I also have a long history of appreciation for his work, so I was curious to see him live and process material that I enjoyed and some that I was bothered by. The closeness only enhanced the experience.

Chappelle is one of the bigger names that The Borgata has brought in during their continuing 15th-anniversary celebration with some playing The Event Center and others playing The Music Box theater. Jerry Seinfeld and Britney Spears are other prime examples with Bill Burr, Sting, Method Man and Redman, and others still on the horizon.

Beyond The Borgata, Harrahs and the new Hard Rock Hotel also offer big-name shows. There’s also a beach concert series and, of course, there are several smaller venues sprinkled around the city for comedy and music.

The Draw Of Atlantic City

As someone who isn’t drawn to Atlantic City’s casinos, the ability to pull-in big-name acts stands out as a key reason why I’d come back (because living in North Jersey, the choices are usually limited to New York City and Philadelphia when it comes to concerts) and the restaurants, clubs, and the boardwalk make it worth staying over for a long weekend. Even if such an escape doesn’t mesh with my bigger travel ambitions.

I’ve been trying to slowly commit myself to true exploration as I travel more. I want to see new places and experience new things. And for me, the Jersey Shore is not (really) a new place that is abundant with new things. But that’s okay. I’m learning that I shouldn’t completely sacrifice simple pleasures or deny my nature (as a fan of such things) in pursuit of a more romantic and epic travel narrative. Not all the time. To do that would leave a lot of fun on the table, so I want to leave some space in my life (and my travel budget) for the occasional Atlantic City getaway or some other easy indulgence that might be less Instagrammable but still memorable. And also, that White House meatball sub. Gotta leave some room for that, too.

The Borgata provided Uproxx with accommodations, event tickets, and meals for this story. You can read more about the Uproxx policy on press trips and hostings here.

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