It isn’t easy being Atlantic City.
Always being compared with your casino town big brother out west. Always having to explain that you’re easier to get to than one might think. Always fighting competition from some place, most recently your neighbors in Philadelphia who now have their own casinos.
Perhaps you’ve even heard tales of A.C.’s demise, another recession victim unable to grab a breath at the water’s surface.
Not so fast.
After 34 months of declining revenue, there appears the slightest sliver of a silver lining. According to reports, Atlantic City casino revenue fell just 3.7 percent in June (to $276.2 million), a more palatable figure than the 13 percent dive it took in January and 9 percent decline in May, with all figures compared to the year before.
But while gambling is the heart that pumps this city to life, it isn’t its only vital organ — at least not since the days depicted in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
In recent years, Atlantic City has worked strenuously to add new leisure attractions for tourists. Sure, the Boardwalk, with its dilapidated midway, rickety slatted floor and hodgepodge of psychic readers and pizza joints, possesses a grubby charm unrivaled by any of Las Vegas’ Cirque du Slick.
But for those uninterested in grabbing an Italian ice or taking a ride in a rolling chair along the four-mile Boardwalk stretch, there are hundreds of options for food, entertainment, shopping and well, yes, gambling.
Trying to consolidate these “don’t miss” places into one list is a disservice given the number of choices. But if you plan to head north — and visiting in the fall, post-summer congestion is ideal — here are some definites for the itinerary.
1 Chef Vola’s (111 S. Albion Place, 609-345-2022). Longtime patrons of this extraordinary Italian restaurant located in the basement of a 1920s-era house on a nondescript street cheered and sighed when it was tapped for a James Beard Foundation America’s Classics award this spring. It’s tough enough to get a reservation at what is, arguably, the most fulfilling, authentic Italian dining locale on the East Coast. Now the secret’s out.
From the seared and fluffy crab cakes to the heavenly blush sauce enveloping mounds of pasta to juicy chicken parmagiana blanketed by mozzarella to the must-have desserts of butterscotch rum ricotta pie or chilled raspberry Chambord pie with an Oreo cookie crust (yes, all homemade) — it’s all indescribably delectable. Part of the Vola’s experience is hearing the dizzying menu recited verbatim from a well-versed waiter, or perhaps co-owner Lou Esposito. It’s also typical for his parents Louise and Michael — also co-owners — to breeze in, stopping to greet diners and share food stories.
There are a few rules at Chef Vola’s, though. Reservations are required — often weeks in advance — and the restaurant is cash only and BYOB. First-time callers might be asked how they got Vola’s phone number (unlisted, but now all over the Web). It isn’t being asked out of rudeness; they just want to be sure you understand this isn’t a typical restaurant. For sure.
2 James’ Candy and Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy (on the Boardwalk at Tennessee Avenue, 609-344-0758; and at Park Place, 609-344-0442). If there is a food product associated with Atlantic City, it’s saltwater taffy, the confection with the consistency of Silly Putty that is, nonetheless, super tasty. Even if you aren’t a fan of the stuff, it’s worth popping into one of the Fralinger locations to gape at the rainbow wall of candy, try a creamy mint stick or chocolate almond macaroon or simply inhale a whiff of nostalgia.
3 The Pier Shops and Beer Garden at Caesar’s Palace (on the Boardwalk at Pacific Avenue, 609-348-4411). Both hangouts reside on the Boardwalk behind the mammoth Caesars casino, and likely appeal to different demographics. The Pier Shops opened in 2006, though historians will note that the structure opened as the “Million Dollar Pier” in 1906 and became “The Shops on Ocean One” in 1983. Now, it houses posh outposts such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Armani A/X, Tiffany & Co. and Salvatore Ferragamo, as well as nine restaurants. Meanwhile, the new Beer Garden is a hangout spot for those looking to grab a brew and watch the always-entertaining sites along the Boardwalk.
4 A.C. Outlets — the Walk (1931 Atlantic Ave., 609-872-7002). Recently purchased by Tanger Factory Outlet Centers, the already-sprawling Walk — with more than 100 stores — is expected to add more retailers and a much-needed parking garage. Currently, shoppers can go high end (Coach, Kenneth Cole) or practical (Reebok, H&M) a few hundred feet away from the beach.
5 White House Sub Shop (2301 Arctic Ave., 609-345-8599). There is a reason this legendary, over 60-year-old sandwich spot churns out more than 1,000 subs a day. It makes a difference that its sub rolls come from the neighboring Formica Brothers Bakery several times daily. It also doesn’t hurt that a half-sub is about a foot long, under $10 and stuffed with fresh cold cuts or meatballs. While the “White House Special” — Genoa salami, ham, capicola and provolone cheese wrapped with lettuce, sweet peppers and a spritz of olive oil — is the standard, don’t discount the peppers and egg, a Jersey staple elevated to perfection here.
6 The Borgata (1 Borgata Way, 609-317-1000). Almost instantly after opening in July 2003, the $1.1 billion hotel-casino in the city’s marina district ushered in a new era in Atlantic City. Visions of blue hairs sucking on cigarettes while shoving their oxygen tanks out of the way were replaced by the slicked-back hair and stiletto heels of the hip New Jersey-New York crowd. The art deco design and airy casino floor has helped maintain the Borgata’s dominance in a market threatened by remodeled Trump, Harrah’s and Resorts properties and the summer 2012 arrival of Revel, a frequently stalled Boardwalk casino-hotel sure to attract a similar upscale crowd. In 2008, the Borgata opened a sister property, the Water Club, a tony boutique hotel with dark room appointments and high-tech gadgetry. If you can snag a room here, do. It’s worth the extra money. The original Borgata tower is in the midst of some much-needed room renovations after eight years of serious wear. It’s about time. When even the rooms at Holiday Inn Express contain flat screens, you know you’re overdue for an upgrade.
7 The Quarter at Tropicana Casino and Resort (on the Boardwalk at Brighton, 1-800-843-8767). When the Quarter opened in 2004, it seemed almost a direct response to the arrival of the Borgata. Regardless of its intentions, the enclosed Little Havana-themed mall, with its dim lighting, palm trees and fountains scattered around, at the very least infused the aging Tropicana with a jolt of cool. Though stocked with chain restaurants, some of them, such as Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar and Carmine’s well-regarded family-style Italian restaurant, were newcomers to the market, giving their presence a hint of novelty. A trio of nightclubs, including 32 Luxe Lounge, ensures that the younger set tramples over from the Borgata most weekend nights.
8 The Boardwalk (from about Cornwall Avenue to New Hampshire Avenue along the coastline). Aside from the aforementioned grungy charms of this historical site, the Boardwalk, which was the inspiration for Monopoly, is also the landing spot for Boardwalk Hall, the major arena in A.C. (and location for the Boardwalk Information Center), as well as the Absecon Lighthouse (at Pacific and Rhode Island avenues) and the goofy Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum (at New York Avenue).
9 Boardwalk cats. You might see them huddled under a pier or strolling across the sand. Don’t feed them, but feel free to say hello. About a decade ago, Alley Cat Allies started the Boardwalk Cat Project, a trap-neuter-return program. The group’s volunteers feed and care for the colonies of cats, many of whom were abandoned and now make their home on the beach.
10 Harrah’s Waterfront Buffet (777 Harrah’s Blvd., 609-441-5000). While Las Vegas is reputed for its buffets — both gourmet and economical — A.C. never had many to shout about until, yes, the Borgata. While their offering, particularly Sunday brunch, is a tasty feast spread across a spacious room, the newer Waterfront Buffet at marina district neighbor Harrah’s is a head-spinning delight, from spring rolls to snow crab legs, Cold Stone Creamery-styled customized ice cream to a pasta station. The casino also recently adopted the promotion that has been a success among its Vegas properties this past year — the “Buffet of Buffets.” Buy a 24-hour pass for $49.99 to $54.99 and get access to the four buffets in the Harrah’s chain — Bally’s, Showboat, Caesars Palace and Harrah’s. Just make sure to hit the outlet mall first for some sweatpants.
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