Casino File: When Sly Stallone and Tiger Woods were restaurateurs – Atlantic City casino eateries of the past
That 2021 has been a banner year on the Atlantic City casino-dining scene has been a months-long through-line in this column. From Dougherty’s Steakhouse & Raw Bar at Resorts Casino Hotel to American Bar & Grille at Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa, seaside gambling dens have not let the COVID-19 pandemic recovery hinder their culinary ambitions.
The introduction of seven new restaurants at six casinos since late spring has had me reminiscing about dining rooms that, for a variety of reasons, still reside in my memory banks. Here is a look at some of them:
Located inside what was then known as Caesars Boardwalk Regency (now Caesars Atlantic City), Bacchanal opened in 1984. The concept was a communal experience that offered a family-friendly version of decadent Roman Empire dining.
The prix fixe, four-course meal was hardly Michelin-star fare, but the draw wasn’t the food. Instead, it was the fun of eating while magicians, instrumentalists and the like entertained as female servers poured endless goblets of wine (for those of legal age) and gave each guest a brief neck-and-shoulder rub.
Bacchanal closed in 2009.
Today, the theme-restaurant format is generally seen as kind of tired and dated, but in the mid-‘90s, the worldwide Planet Hollywood chain had a stranglehold on popular culture. That was due in large part to its front-people being some of show business’ reigning stars of the era, including Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. Borrowing a page from the playbook of the still-thriving Hard Rock Café, Planet Hollywood, which was located on the second level of Caesars, served up entertainment memorabilia along with burgers, wings and the like. Scores of movie and television artifacts—costumes, props, stills, etc.--filled the restaurant’s walls and display areas, among them Jim Carrey’s The Mask costume and several items used/worn by Stallone in various Rocky installments.
The grand opening VIP bash remains one of the most memorable casino-era events of its kind: Schwarzenegger and Stallone schmoozed the invited guests while Willis’ blues band, The Accelerators, jammed on the Boardwalk in front of Caesars.
PH’s decade-long run ended in 2005 when, despite its continuing popularity, Caesars bought out the lease in order to redevelop the space as a dance club.
Official All Star Café
The success of Planet Hollywood inspired the chain’s corporate overlords to duplicate the meals-and-memorabilia blueprint with a sports motif. Instead of Sly, Ah-nold and the like, such superstar jocks as Tiger Woods, Shaquille O’Neal and Wayne Gretzky lent their names to the chain whose locations included Trump Taj Mahal Casino-Resort (now Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City).
The Taj outlet opened in the late-‘90s and lasted just a few years; for whatever reasons, it just never caught on with the public as Planet Hollywood did.
As noted, themed restaurants reached their apogee in the mid- and late-1990s. In 1995, another since-torn-down gambling den, Sands Hotel & Casino, dove into that pool with the Epic Buffet.
While the movie-souvenir idea was hardly novel, the twist here was that all of the items on display were limited to those from “epic” motion pictures like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur and Cleopatra. A cool gimmick was that such flicks were continuously screened on video monitors placed throughout the space. When one of the props on display appeared in a scene, it was illuminated to call patrons’ attention to it.
The Epic Buffet was intended to be the first step in the Sands’ transition to the “Hollywood” brand, but that never happened.
The brainchild of Las Vegas nightlife titan Jeffrey Chodorow, Red Square was an original tenant at The Quarter, the Havana-themed retail-dining-entertainment complex that opened at Tropicana Atlantic City in late 2004.
While I always found the place, with its giant statue of Vladimir Lenin and emphasis on vodka and caviar, expensive and too focused on being hip and trendy, it did have a successful eight-year run and a loyal clientele.
I always include Ivana’s in any discussion of AyCee eateries of the past because to this moment, it stands as my all-time, least-favorite casino restaurant.
Named for Donald Trump’s first wife, Ivana’s reflected the couple’s obsession with what they perceived to be “class.” But what they saw as “classy” was actually a suffocating ostentatiousness that was stuffy to the point of being obnoxious. Add to that a kitchen whose super-pricey “Continental” fare was mediocre at best and a condescending maitre d’ who was a German-accented caricature of a haughty, imperious head waiter, and you had the makings of a truly miserable dining experience.
When he opened the Taj Mahal in April 1990, Donald Trump was obviously intent on outdoing Ivana’s. Thus was born Scheherazade.
Located in a space overlooking the casino floor, it was supposed to take exclusive fine dining to new heights. Its hook was that there was no menu. Instead, patrons could—at least in theory--request whatever they desired, be it a corned beef sandwich or a five-pound lobster stuffed with king crab and caviar.
The food, as I recall, was superb and though the atmosphere was a bit too upper-crusty (but not painfully so) for my somewhat plebeian tastes, I nevertheless enjoyed my visits there.
Alas, the concept never gained traction with Taj customers, and Scheherazade disappeared within a year or so of its inception, and was replaced by a high-limit table games salon.
Live! Philly tribute acts
Live Casino Hotel Philadelphia has announced the first bookings in what is expected to be an ongoing series of musical acts that perform the hits of superstar artists.
Kicking things off on Nov. 5 is The Prince Experience. November 19 is dedicated to South of the Border sounds with performances by Almost Selena, which salutes Selena Quintanilla, the late Tejano queen, and Mana Mana, who recreate the sounds of Mexican chart-topppers Mana. Also on sale is the Dec. 3 gig by 24K Magic, which serves up tuneage from popster Bruno Mars.
For tickets to all three shows, click here.