There's Still Magic in Atlantic City
In the simulated world of Atlantic City casino hotels, time is fluid. Like Vegas, a conspicuous absence of clocks and windows—who needs daylight when you’ve got rose-patterned carpets and gleaming marble columns?—tricks the guest into never leaving. As a result, his experience plays out uninterrupted. He glides blissfully between elevator and lobby bar, from boutique shops to the casino floor. Chronology never enters the picture.
Some find the casinos, and the glaring absence of those recently shuttered, quite depressing. Not me. Like the setting to a Lana Del Rey music video, their seductive, 24/7 theatrics and faux opulence is a never-ending source of amusement. But recent negative publicity has deterred many from setting foot here. A Guardian profile last fall ran menacingly under the paper’s “Urban Decay” column.
Related: The Best Beaches in New Jersey
It’s true, the casinos are no longer the money machines they once were. But rather than signaling the end, some see this as merely a transition period. “Atlantic City," one optimistic local tells me, "is finally becoming what it was always meant to be: an entertainment destination for families.” Just how many families would choose this blighted Monopoly town over, say Disney World, remains to be seen.
Still, I’m a firm believer in second (and third, and fourth) chances. Could the magic really be tapped from Atlantic City? On a recent Saturday night, some friends and I hit the town to find out.
Fighting the urge to plunk down at the nearest roulette table for six hours, we venture outside. Along the beach, which runs the entire length of the boardwalk, couples are strolling and kites are being flown.
Classic cocktail, classic city. Bartender Stacy pours up the best old-fashioned in town, in a 70s-glam-inspired bar on the fifth floor of the Chelsea Hotel. Stacy tells customers to shake her hand for good luck before heading to the casino: “That way, if they win they come back and spend the money on my tip!”
One thing this city’s not short on? Dining options. What will it be: hoagies at White House, the landmark 1946 sandwich shop, where Oprah, Frank Sinatra, and The Beatles have all visited? Window seat at the Chelsea’s fifth floor restaurant (pictured)? Instead, we settle on osso bucco ravioli and chicken Milanese at Fornelletto. Al Capone would approve.
It’s true that daytime pool parties have become less of a thing since Revel closed, but those seeking fun don’t have to look too hard. The LGBT scene is particularly thriving these days—Club 11, a new gay nightlife venue, opened in June, and Fire Island Black Out, one of the country’s biggest summer fests for LGBT African-Americans, relocated to Atlantic City in 2015.
This budding Paganini turns the Boardwalk into his own personal Carnegie Hall each Saturday night, turning up to offer free sonatas and concertos to passersby.
The Boardwalk is also pooch-friendly. This family brought along all five (5) of their tiny sweater-vested Chihuahuas.
Tangy, stretchy, molar-clogging taffy isn’t technically made with saltwater; nor does Atlantic City claim to have invented it. Still, the paper-wrapped treats have been a Jersey Shore ritual since the late 1800s.
A 16-seat shuttle van called the Jitney ($2.25 a ride) makes stops at every casino in town, 24 hours a day. But if you’re on the Boardwalk and need to be somewhere quick, flag down one of the wicker push carts. Sure, it’ll cost more, but at least you’ll be able to devote more time to that towering plate of funnel cake you just bought.
As they say, travel heals the soul. It’s also a great aphrodisiac. A warm summer night on the Boardwalk will have you and your significant other acting like a couple of high school sweethearts winning stuffed bears at the county fair.
Thought I was joking about the funnel cake?
And if you have some last-minute shopping to do, a 99 cent store simply named “Everything” claims to stock over 10,000 items.
Since funnel cake and the Steel Pier Slingshot only go so far, we plan our evening around a show (Seinfeld, and yes, he told the one about the US Postal Service). In the next two months, Eddie Izzard, Cedric the Entertainer, and Madonna are all scheduled to make appearances. And on Sunday September 13, the 2016 Miss America Competition returns to the Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall (the iconic pageant got its start here back in 1921, and remains a key part of the city’s heritage).
Since the closing of Revel, the Water Club at Borgata has reclaimed its spot as Atlantic City’s top casino hotel. (No word yet on whether Beyoncé’s coming back.)
In any other town, a velvet roped nightclub entrance has me walking in the other direction. But in Atlantic City, where everything is a performance, I throw on my nice pants and say, ‘what the heck?’ It’s all part of the show.
After the clubs gets out, we keep the party going at Malcolm’s, a tiny alcove bar tucked inside the historic (and recently refurbished) Claridge Hotel, where bartender Jerry will happily regale you with stories from the hotel’s Depression Era beginnings.
The next morning, I’m regretting that final nightcap at the Claridge, but all is forgiven when room service arrives. The coffee is hot, the eggs aren’t overcooked, and outside our ocean-facing suite, the coastline glitters in a way I hadn’t noticed yesterday. It’s going to be a perfect beach day, but first, I decide to hang out, watch TV, just take things easy. It’s a vacation, what’s the rush?