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Unexpected New Jersey

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

The games—row upon row of video poker machines and one-armed bandits, and the roulette, craps, and poker tables—cluster in the center of the hotel’s ground floor. The shops and restaurants cling to the periphery, but never so far away that you can’t hear the ka-ching of the gaming floor or watch the players in action. The casino does its best to keep you inside its doors, but we were eager to get out and see the town first.

Beyond the Borgata are some elements of the new Atlantic City that approach something you’d see in Las Vegas’s ersatz wonderland. The two-year-old Pier Shops at Caesars, an edifice stretching 1,000 feet into the Atlantic, houses the largest shopping-mall fountain in the world. The mall is chockablock with luxury retailers—Bottega Veneta, Prada, and Louis Vuitton—and just outside the doors of Stephen Starr’s sleek Buddakan restaurant are sandy alcoves with Adirondack lounges, where you can recline on an air-conditioned “beach” and watch the goings-on of the actual beach below.

But none of these features held our attention like the small collection of old photographs of Atlantic City on the wall of the Knife & Fork—a curious 1912 Flemish-style building that became a rowdy men’s club during Prohibition and was recently renovated as a steak house serving an excellent Jersey corn chowder. The pictures are small, almost an afterthought—you can’t see them from the tables—but it’s worth a tour around the room to scrutinize them. One is a group portrait of a hundred well-dressed men attending, the caption notes, Lobster-eating Contest, Jersey Hotel Man’s Association, 1950. Another photo from the 40’s or 50’s shows a gaggle of women in waitress uniforms running a race at an Atlantic City Hotel Staff Competition. In a third, a young Bob Hope stares down a policeman attempting to enforce the “shirt required” rule on the beach. In a city with scant evidence of its history (and with such a fabled past), the pictures were a kind of salvation, fleshing out the story of a place that seemed both exotic and familiar.

True, we did find a few new story lines back at the Borgata. At SeaBlue— the only Northeast restaurant helmed by chef Michael Mina—we sidled up to the blue marble bar next to two women in cocktail dresses drinking martinis and eating platters of crudo. They were from Sea Isle City, a town a few miles downshore, and were Borgata regulars, thanks to the gambling habit of one of their spouses. We enjoyed chatting and comparing cocktails—the delicious lychee gimlet was our favorite—and after a short while, a husband arrived, wearing gym shorts and a Sea Isle City T-shirt. His wife proffered her purse; he took two crisp hundreds from it and a sip of her martini, and went back to the slots. By the time we were tucking into lobster potpie, served in a copper four-quart saucepan, the Mister was back for more moola.

A safer bet than the Borgata’s slots is the legendary White House Sub Shop, an Atlantic City institution that soldiers on in the shadow of the glitzy casinos. Fiercely independent, with oddball rules—if you want a beverage to go with your meal, the cashier will reluctantly make change of a dollar bill so you can use the soda machine at the back of the store—on this bright August day the establishment seemed summer-weary. The place had just opened when we arrived at 11 a.m., and the sandwich jockeys appeared exhausted already.

The tuna sub, fortunately, was still a knockout. Slathered with a potent, sour hot-pepper relish, it was the perfect sustenance for the trip to Long Beach Island. About 30 miles up the coast from A.C., LBI is a narrow strip of sand just two blocks wide and 20 miles long that’s linked to the Jersey mainland by a narrow causeway. There’s only one route on and off the island, which gets backed up for miles on weekends. As we munched happily on our subs, we debated—worse than the Hamptons? Worse than Cape Cod?—and wondered why anyone would be willing to wait for two hours to drive 10 miles.

The answer came shortly after we’d dropped our bags at the Daddy O, a sprawling inn with some South Beach swagger. We walked the sandy block of picturesque shore cottages to the ocean. It was here that we found that Creamsicle of a lifetime, and realized you can have it all on the Shore—a weirdly wonderful concoction of old and new. Once you finish that drippy Popsicle, you can retire to the vampy, bordello-chic bar back at the hotel for a nice cold glass of Grüner Veltliner.

Despite the impression the causeway had created, Long Beach Island seemed remarkably uncongested, even relaxed. The genial stores and attractions that dot Long Beach Boulevard—the main drag that runs the length of the island—are the lifeblood of this place. We played a round of miniature golf at the Sand Trap and ducked into Ravioli & More, a take-out shop with a brisk trade in expertly done, house-made ravioli (pumpkin, lobster) and sauces (marinara, vodka). We bought a hermit crab (all sales final) at Things A Drift, a shop packed to the rafters with driftwood sculptures and seashells, and set out to explore the beach hamlets to the north, towns with picturesque names like Ship Bottom, Harvey Cedars, Loveladies.

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