I'm a bit of an Atlantic City regular. Even though I live in New York, I've been coming to this seaside casino town since 2011 to cover the Miss'd America Pageant, a satirical drag queen version of the Miss America pageant, and it's never been a dull time. Once, the tart-tongued Bianca Del Rio—winner of last season's RuPaul's Drag Race—read my outfit to filth when I went to a drag queen bingo brunch. Another time, I stayed at the fabulous Harrah's Resort and wound up dancing the night away with Jersey Shore's Snooki. (And, on another occasion, JWoww.)
Getting sloshed in the morning is how I like to start my day on the Boardwalk.
Gambling has never been the draw for me—my maximum bet has been about two dollars on a slot machine. And the nightlife can be tacky, it's true. Packs of twentysomething girls in suffocatingly tight dresses prowl the nightclubs and casinos each evening, while posses of boys parade through town, hoping to get laid. The hotels blast rock, dance, and pop in their lobbies, and many of the bars are open 24 hours a day—which is great if you're the type who likes to grab a whiskey at 6 AM. It's a bit absurd, and I can't help but love it.
Sadly, though, Atlantic City is dying. In the midst of a massive financial crisis, the city has seen casino after casino go out of business, and thousands of people have lost their jobs as a result. Just this past summer, I stayed at the ill-fated Revel Atlantic City hotel and casino, only a couple of months before it closed its doors for good. The Trump Plaza, Showboat, and Atlantic Club have all shuttered, too.
Now, the city is shifting its focus away from gambling dollars and honing in on other ways to lure tourists back. Last year, New Jersey Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. suggested that visitors on the Boardwalk should be allowed to carry booze around in to-go cups, as they do in New Orleans. Count me in! Last fall, I attended the DO AC Boardwalk Wine Promenade, which entailed going from tent to tent to knock back plastic glasses of wine and Champagne—starting at 9 AM. Getting sloshed in the morning is how I like to start my day on the Boardwalk.
There has also been an effort to boost the city as a food destination. Last week, I came to Atlantic City for a preview of Restaurant Week, which runs through March 7. Some snooty New Yorkers might automatically assume that Atlantic City couldn't possibly have good restaurants, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. (As a fussy Italian-American, I've discovered the Italian food in Atlantic City can be especially outstanding.)
If only I'd had enough time to organize an orgy before I arrived!
You do, however, need to know where to go. Nestled between all of the upscale chain restaurants that have invaded town—like Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Morton's The Steakhouse, Wolfgang Puck American Grille, Guy Fieri's Chophouse, and The Palm—are undiscovered gems that are so good you'd wonder why the owners didn't have the sense to open in Brooklyn instead of here.
Since it was off-season, I stayed at the newly renovated Claridge Hotel—which has hosted Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, and Frank Sinatra—in a suite that was bigger than my cramped NYC apartment: two bathrooms, a huge white Jacuzzi in the middle of the room with mirrored ceilings, a large bedroom, and a living room. If only I'd had enough time to organize an orgy before I arrived!
Of all the restaurants participating in Restaurant Week, the one that caught my eye was Tony Boloney's: a casual, BYOB place near the Boardwalk that makes delectable pizza, salad, wings, hand-cut fries, and cold and hot subs.
The owner, Mike Hauke, is quite the colorful character. Before Tony Boloney's, he operated a laundry delivery service he called Dirty Business. But he hardly felt a calling to cook—at least at first.
Just before the overly ambitious (and ultimately failed) Revel casino began construction in 2009, Hauke bought some nearby property that he had hoped to rent out to a bodega or deli. "No one wanted to rent it," Hauke told me. "So, I said, 'Fuck it, let's just open up a restaurant.'"
'If I'm going to be spending time down here serving food, I won't serve them garbage.'
Hauke had already invested money in some kitchen equipment, but he had zero experience in the restaurant industry. "We started serving frozen shit to construction workers. We had no idea what we were doing: hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken fingers," he said. "Garbage, absolute garbage!"
Shortly later, the Revel casino project ran out of money and halted construction, which was a significant blow to Hauke's customer base. (The defunct property is now in the middle of a bidding war between two competing developers, who are eager to snap up the hotel for roughly $80 million.) "I said, 'Holy shit! Not only have I been down here selling crap, which I don't feel good about, but now Revel's out of business. What are we going to do?'" he told me. "So I flipped the script and we started doing everything from scratch. The mantra was, if I'm going to be spending time down here serving food, I won't serve them garbage."
Since then, he's overhauled his menu and filled it with cleverly named and inventively stuffed sub sandwiches—like the "Let My People Go" sandwich with braised Passover brisket and charoset, or the "Pigface Killer" with pulled pork, provolone, and golden raisin slaw—along with more than two dozen styles of pizza, fries, and chicken. (His super-spicy Buffalo wings are listed on the menu simply as "Death.") Later this month, he's bringing his "Sh#tfaced" pizza—with beer-battered chicken and honey-stout BBQ sauce—along with a special "Pizza That Will Fuck You Up" to the Atlantic City Beer and Music Festival.
And even though a dozen Boardwalk restaurants closed around the same time that Revel and Showboat casinos shuttered, business at Tony Boloney's is still booming. In fact, Hauke has since expanded and turned Tony Boloney's into a small empire, with a branch in Hoboken and two more in Newark, and the Mustache Mobile food truck, which won the LIVE with Kelly and Michael Truckin' Amazing Cook-off last summer.
Despite Hauke's success, he's not blind to the problems facing the city. "Everyone says, 'Oh my God, the casinos are closing! Oh my god!' It's called supply and demand," Hauke said. He credits Atlantic City's mayor, Don Guardian, with helping businesses like his weather the economic storm: "[He's] up on his shit, [he] talks to people, talks to business owners, talks to residents, talks to people who just got laid off."
"The casino game is up," Hauke said. "Everyone has known it for a long time."