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Dining and Entertainment at East Coast Casinos

Traveling Gourmet

by Jeff Heilman
TAO Main Dinng With Quan Yin Statue at Mohegan Sun (Photo by Courtesy of Mohegan Gaming)

Atlantic City has a rich history and has always prided itself on being a popular destination for the LGBTQ+ community...

TAO Main Dinng With Quan Yin Statue at Mohegan Sun (Photo by Mohegan Gaming)

While food and live shows have been part of the casino experience since the industry’s earliest days, both generally played second fiddle to gambling until The Rat Pack and Elvis Presley brought star performers into the equation.

Menus mostly lagged until 1991, when Wolfgang Puck, rolling the dice at a time when inexpensive buffets were the norm, brought his legendary L.A. flagship Spago to Las Vegas and sparked a celebrity-led transformation of casino cuisine. Today, about two-thirds of casino revenue in Vegas comes from restaurants, bars, concerts, and other non-gaming experiences.

Following suit, other U.S. gaming centers have since evolved into exceptional epicurean and entertainment destinations. The expanding East Coast gaming market in particular exemplifies the continuing elevation of “dinner and a show” within the casino setting.

My first-ever taste of Atlantic City, in December 1989, was seeing the Rolling Stones at historic Boardwalk Hall. Rocking out with some 16,000 people in that cavernous barrel vaulted landmark from 1929 and then partying until dawn at Caesars Atlantic City put the fabled seaside destination’s proverbial “sand in my shoes” for life.

Show time is a century-old tradition in Atlantic City, long predating the arrival of legalized gaming in 1978. From Lionel Richie and Earth Wind & Fire to Tom Jones and The Who, top-flight concerts keep calling me back. Throughout the years, I’ve seen the destination weather one storm after another, perception included. There is still work to do, but after billions in sustained reinvestment, the outlook is positive, the vibe is strong, and the product offerings much enhanced.

“Atlantic City has a rich history and has always prided itself on being a popular destination for the LGBTQ+ community,” said Visit Atlantic City President and CEO Larry Sieg. “From our luxurious accommodations, rejuvenating spas, delectable dining, energetic nightlife, world-class entertainment, and our beautiful beach and Boardwalk, Atlantic City creates a welcoming guest experience that continues to meet the needs of this important market segment.”

Events, music, and dining are reasons alone to visit. This August, I attended the 20th annual Atlantic City Airshow, joining 485,000 spectators on the beach for thrilling aerial action over the Atlantic Ocean. In early September, it was another annual rite, the Miss’d America Pageant (missdamerica.org). Spoofing Miss America, which originated here in 1921, this drag extravaganza, hosted by TV personality and entertainer Carson Kressley, has been a royal riot since 1994, raising some $500,000 for the LGBTQ+ community in South Jersey, Philadelphia, and nationwide along the way.

Later that month, I saw Duran Duran at Ovation Hall, the luxurious concert venue inside Ocean Casino Resort (theoceanac.com). Celebrating five years in 2023, the resort, which debuted in 2018 as the reincarnation of the failed $2.4 billion Revel from 2012, exemplifies upscale Atlantic City. The rooms, interiors, and spa are gorgeous. Ovation Hall is a 5,000-capacity class act offering superior acoustics and the only skyboxes in town. The outdoor 11th-floor Sky Garden features panoramic ocean and Boardwalk views. Fine-dining options include tapas style Amada from renowned Philadelphia chef Jose Garces. The property is also an avowed ally of the LGBTQ community.

Synonymous with music and entertainment, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City (hardrockhotelatlanticcity.com) also uplifted the scene five years ago. Likewise committed to LGBTQ+ initiatives, the property was ranked second nationally in USA Today’s 2023 “10Best” Readers’ Choice Awards. Signature memorabilia include Elvis Presley’s Rolls Royce and rooms devoted to Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Debbie Harry, and other New Jersey stars. Seven live performance venues, including the 7,000-capacity Etess Arena, keep the party going, while rock star restaurants include the long-standing local outpost of Il Mulino New York (imny.com/location/atlantic-city/).

Founded in Greenwich Village in 1981, Il Mulino stands for consistency, consummate service, atmosphere, attention to detail, and classic Italian cuisine. My recent three-hour experience there was flawless. Formally attired but entirely unfussy, the crew was unerringly engaging and intuitive. The hearty Polipo Alla Griglia (grilled octopus, campari tomatoes, black olives, and potatoes), creamy cacio e pepe, and Paillard Di Pollo (pounded chicken breast with tomatoes, arugula, and red onion) were pure satisfaction.

Opened in 2003 as the destination’s first new resort in 13 years, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa (mgmresorts.com) and its non-gaming sibling The Water Club (2008) set a luxurious new high standard for entertainment and dining. Following a $55 million redesign, the latter is now the MGM Tower, while Borgata celebrates 20 years as the go-to for shows at the 2,400-seat Event Center and 900-seat Music Box theater.

Borgata’s fine dining collection includes superb seasonal fare at American Bar & Grille (mgmresorts.com). Executive Chef Aram Mardigian, formerly at Spago in Beverly Hills, uses local and regional ingredients to great effect, such as the flavor packed Berkshire Farms pork ribs with house BBQ sauce and homemade cornbread. Prime seats include the 12-person Chef’s Table with kitchen views.

American Bar & Grille at Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa (Photo by Courtesy of MGM Resorts)

American Bar & Grille at Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa (Photo by Courtesy of MGM Resorts)

Caesars Entertainment’s most recent reinvestment in Atlantic City, a three-year, $400 million commitment launched in 2021, includes the rejuvenation of Caesars Atlantic City (caesars.com/caesars-ac). The makeover of the 40-year-old flagship includes two celebrity restaurants, Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen and Nobu Atlantic City, plus an integrated Nobu Hotel. One of 600 refreshed rooms, my 14th floor Empress Suite in the Ocean Tower was fit for Caesar himself, with décor to match. For me, the crowning glory comes from Caesars’ partnership with Vegas-based show producer Spiegelworld and its “Impresario Extraordinaire” founder, Ross Mollison.

Opened in 1929, the 4,300-seat Warner Theater was once Atlantic City’s premier show palace. Following a multi-million-dollar reengineering, including restoring the original Spanish-Mediterranean façade, the former “Wonder Theatre of the World” now enchants as an adult funhouse that integrates dining at Vegas export “Italian American-Psychedelic” Superfrico restaurant, four cocktail bars, and Atlantic City’s first-ever permanent residency show, The Hook (spiegelworld.com/thehook).

The Hook (Photo by Spiegelworld)

The Hook (Photo by Spiegelworld)

Backed by an energetic soundtrack, including the late, great Sylvester’s all time disco anthem “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, the predominately queer, very likeable cast of international acrobats, contortionists, and circus performers bring a refreshing humanity to the ocean-themed production.

Differing from Spiegelworld’s aggressively raunchy Absinthe show in Vegas, The Hook, while likewise audience-interactive and plenty risqué, just felt easier on the nerves. In one notable scene, a lesbian cast member delivered a funny but thought-provoking monologue on homosexuality. Everyone in the packed 420-seat house had a mighty good time.

The local dining scene in Atlantic City is a story unto itself. Old-school classics include Dock’s Oyster House (docksoysterhouse.com), Atlantic City’s oldest restaurant from 1897, and Knife & Fork Inn (knifeandforkinn.com), the Prohibition era watering hole where Boardwalk Empire’s Enoch ”Nucky” Johnson was a regular.

Other notable places included Little Water Distillery (lwdco.com), which opened in 2017 as Atlantic City’s first legal craft distillery; and housed in an adjoining building, Seed: A Living Beer Project (theseedbeer. com) that was named the nation’s “Best New Brewery” by USA Today in 2021.

In the board game Monopoly (1933), inspired by Atlantic City’s streets, the Orange trio of New York Avenue, Tennessee Avenue, and St. James Place are the most frequented. Launched around five years ago as a neighborhood renaissance project, The Orange Loop (visitorangeloop.com) has revitalized the Orange streets’ beach blocks with restaurants, bars, and shops and is a popular landing spot for visitors.

Hotspots include Cardinal (cardinalac.com), Executive Chef-Owner and local son Michael Brennan’s reincarnation of a former gentleman’s club and sports lounge. Join locals at the bar, in the spacious dining room or outdoor patio for inventive cocktails and delicious bites such as oysters, marinated raw fluke, fried Brussel sprouts, and Korean fried chicken wings with spicy apricot ginger glaze. Brennan, taking stock of the transformations underway around town, affirmed that “this is definitely a new era for Atlantic City.”

Since first venturing to Mohegan Sun (mohegansun.com) in November 2017 to see Lady Gaga, this fetching casino-resort on the banks of the Thames River in southeastern Connecticut’s scenic Mystic Country has been another siren call for top-line concerts and cuisine.

Ranked the nation’s number one casino hotel in USA Today’s 2023 “10Best” report, the AAA Four Diamond, 2,000-room resort is a feast for the eyes, with Rockwell Group designed interiors that vividly showcase the culture and heritage of owner-operators the Mohegan Tribe.

Welcoming nearly 15 million people since 2001, the integrated 10,000-seat Mohegan Arena is consistently ranked among the top three best-selling venues in the U.S. and globally for its size. The hot streak continued in 2023 with a run of 16 consecutive sold-out shows starting in late 2022, including Carrie Underwood, Chicago, and Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo. As of August 2023, the multi-purpose venue had recorded 29 sellouts en route to an anticipated 40 for the year. In March 2023, Pollstar Magazine ranked the arena number one in the U.S. and number two worldwide for its size. In 2021, the arena hosted the 100th anniversary of Miss America to kick off a three-year commitment.

Before catching other shows, including Sheena Easton at the resort’s intimate Wolf Den, and high-kicking Connecticut queens at the recurring Lipstick, Lashes & Lies variety drag show at Comix Road House, I’ve eaten lavishly at Ballo Italian Restaurant, Mexican-driven Sol Toro, and Todd English’s Tuscany. With its striking décor, TAO Asian Bistro & Lounge sets a theatrical pre-event stage for cocktails and dinner. Scheduled for spring/summer 2024, another TAO Hospitality Group lifestyle brand, Beauty & Essex, will heighten the high-energy mix.

For wine connoisseurs and food aficionados, Mohegan Sun’s annual four-day Sun Wine & Food Fest celebrates its 20th edition in January 2024 as one of the largest and most popular culinary festivals in the Northeast.

From MGM National Harbor (mgmnationalharbor.mgmresorts.com) in Maryland to Wynn Resorts’ luxurious Vegas-style Encore Boston Harbor (encorebostonharbor.com), East Coast gaming abounds with event stages, nightlife options, and restaurants. Other distinctive destinations include Wind Creek Bethlehem (windcreek.com/bethlehem), which stands on a reclaimed portion of the former Bethlehem Steel plant (1857-1995) in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.

Featuring a brand new 276-room hotel tower with a stunning two-story lobby and sweeping views of Bethlehem’s surviving blast furnaces from the west-facing rooms, the 552-room casino-resort is rich in creative design references including inlaid gearwheels, dripping molten, and wall coverings featuring Bethlehem Steel blueprints.

Offering VIP suites and attached nightlife experience The Club, the 3,300-capacity Wind Creek Event Center hosts a full calendar of headliner shows. In April 2023, Carson Kressley, who hails from nearby Allentown, hosted Drag Queen Fight Night at the venue in a talent throwdown featuring Kennedy Davenport and other famed TV queens.

Gordon Ramsay at Hell’s Kitchen (Photo by Mike Manger, PhotoGraphics)

Gordon Ramsay at Hell’s Kitchen (Photo by Mike Manger, PhotoGraphics)

Upscale culinary retreats include Mixx, the luxurious new lobby bar, and The Chop House, a modern American steakhouse located in a back corner of the casino floor. The dining room is handsome, the service is impressive, my Manhattan cocktail was rocket-fueled, and my oysters, bone-in pork chop, and vanilla bean crème brûlée with honey-orange macerated blueberries were right on the money.

The hotel end of the resort appends the 1907 Hoover-Mason Trestle, now an elevated walkway in the style of NYC’s High Line that runs alongside the mighty blast furnaces and other infrastructure. Set amid other relics of the Bethlehem Steel complex, SteelStacks is a ten-acre, multi-venue campus devoted to music and the arts, staging 1,000-plus concerts and eight different festivals annually.

Also in Pennsylvania, AAA Four Diamond-rated Mount Airy Casino Resort (mountairycasino.com) in the picturesque Pocono Mountains has a unique personality, with headline entertainment at the 2,000-plus capacity Outdoor Concert Pavilion and refined dining at the award-winning Bistecca by Il Mulino.

With Caesars Entertainment, Hard Rock International, Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts, and Mohegan Gaming among the major players submitting bids for three approved NYC area commercial casino licenses, the competition for customers will surely raise the ante on premium non-gaming experiences.

“Casinos have always been event-driven and one of the best marketing tools that differentiates your property is the level and quality of entertainment,” stated Thomas Cantone, Mohegan Gaming’s president of sports & entertainment worldwide, in Pollstar’s August 2023 ‘State of the Casino Market’ report. “Whoever can book the hottest names will always win the day.”

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