Atlantic City is well-known for its extensive world-class gambling casinos. Recently, as a guest of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority, I discovered another side to this beachside resort: it is also a mecca for world-class dining and culinary delights, inspired ethnic cuisine and many creative chefs/restaurant owners aspiring to create the next hot spot for eating. I ate like a queen.
While some of the dining spots are known to the “regulars” who frequent them, others are hidden gems popular with the locals and those with hearty gastronomic appetites who search for the best casual and fine dining experiences. Let’s tour together – and savor the flavors of this culinary capital of America.
The beautiful Revel Casino Hotel was our home base. It is Atlantic City’s newest and most spacious casino resort and convention destination, located right on the Atlantic Ocean. Sadly, it is closing this September, 2014, as the mammoth Casino did not earn anticipated revenues.
Our first dining experience at the Viking Cooking School (at Harrah’s Resort) put us to work creating our own delicious dinner. Picture this menu that the two helpful instructors guided us to prepare and cook: individual lobster pot pies, grilled Caesar Salad, Porcini-crusted Filet Mignon with Jumbo Crab-Stuffed Shrimp and the grand finale, a Coconut Layer Cake. There are four people at every prep table so it’s the perfect cooking experience for groups of family and friends. Advance reservations are necessary as classes fill up quickly. And hotel guests can watch us chefs as they wave through the glass windows. The meal was extremely yummy!
Later that evening, it was onto our touring jitney to The Iron Room, a combination liquor and fine wine retail store plus intimate restaurant, where our small group of seven had an international wine and cheese tasting. To give you an idea of the scope of cheeses this special dining spot offers, have you heard of the Dutch cheese called Prima Donna? Owner Paul Tonacci personally paired it with Philip Schell “PSH” Malbec from Argentina. Four other wines from Greece, France, and Spain were paired with the most unusual but fascinating flavored cheeses and one flourless chocolate cake as a sweet dessert. This was a delicious ending to a busy day!
Saturday afternoon was our time to fill our taste buds and expanding stomachs with an “Eat Like a Local” tour of Atlantic City. After driving around as our affable driver pointed out different sections and dining spots we wouldn’t have time to visit, we first stopped at Tony Boloney’s, subtitled Indigenous Atlantic City Pizza, Subs & Grubs. This was the fun, off the beaten path highlight of our culinary trip as Tony, a Brooklyn, N.Y. transplant, played with pizzas, chicken wings, salads, subs, wraps and fries in unusual combinations of ingredients and spices. Nothing was Plain Jane type fast food, and we all devoured the goodies outdoors as if there was no tomorrow! I highly recommend this Tony Boloney’s for a casual lunch or dinner out.
Little Saigon was our Vietnamese restaurant – a small, neon-lighted café filled with paintings and decorations from the Far East. Ha Vu was the delightful owner (along with husband Thomas) who served us several salads and hot dishes most of us had never heard of. We managed to eat everything on our plates, knowing that diners would love to experiment with the exotic tastes of the unusual menu.
The Knife and Fork Inn, a steak and seafood restaurant, is nestled only blocks from the Hilton and Tropicana Hotels, but seems like a century away in its Roaring 1920s charm. It was originally built as an exclusive men’s drinking and dining club, with a second floor “ladies lounge” for women who were not permitted at the bar.
This place reeks of flavored history and fine dining. Frank Dougherty is the current owner and has restored the legendary restaurant to its Prohibition era roots which wow both younger and older generations of diners. The third floor, formerly the family-owned apartment, had been transformed into on extensive Wine Bar. There are sitting areas which feature ocean views beyond the exposed brick walls and gorgeous wood floors. The group enjoyed sharing gigantic lobsters, soft shell crabs and Caesar salads.
That evening we enjoyed our cocktails at Nero’s Chophouse and Sushi Bar at Caesars Atlantic City Hotel. This is truly an elegant night spot for Oceanside dining in a magnificent old world setting. The Bar Menu for our tasting offered many unique choices of specialty cocktails as well as fine Scotch and Bourbon. I ordered a Sucker Punch – Belvedere vodka, triple sec, passion fruit puree, simple syrup and cranberry juice. The “punch” line was I was a “sucker” for this drink, but wisely stopped after guzzling down this delicious drink in record-breaking time. I would definitely come back to Nero’s for a full meal or the fantastic Sunday Brunch.
I anticipated Chef Vola’s as the high point of the culinary tour, wanting to reward it as a five-star restaurant. It has a reputation far and wide as an unmarked restaurant hidden away from the main stream of homes and buildings where it’s nearly impossible to get a reservation because the phone is hardly ever answered. Like everyone else, I wanted “in.”
Judging by the crowds spilling into every table and beyond onto the sidewalks, I expected more. The soup, salad and veal chop were good, but not great. Pretty good but not pretty great. Vola’s reputation superseded its representation. And people in our dining party confirmed my suspicions, so I could only reward it with three stars.
Whether Atlantic City is your destination or local choice for gambling and gaming in the Casinos, don’t forget Atlantic City as your destination for fine dining, exotic flavors and great casual meals. The “C” in City also stands for great culinary delights.
Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa: Wonderful massages at Spa Toccare. 1 Renaissance Way (609)317-8888
Viking Cooking School at Harrahs Resort, 777 Harrah’s Blvd. (609) 441-5228
Boardwalk Hall DO AC’s 3D Light Show nightly, 2301 Boardwalk
The Iron Room 648 N. Albany Ave. (609) 348-6400
Tony Boloney’s 300 Oriental Ave. (609)344-8669
Little Saigon 2801 Artic Ave. (609) 347-9119
Knife and Fork Inn 3600 Atlantic Ave. (609) 344-1133
Chef Vola’s 111 S. Albion Pl. (609) 345-2022