The Casino File 2022 in Review: Hard Rock and Ocean challenge Borgata’s status as Atlantic City’s best
Literally from the moment Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa opened its doors late in the evening of July 3, 2003, the bayside pleasure dome was indisputably the “gold standard” of Atlantic City’s gaming industry.
With a level of quiet elegance unseen in AyCee’s legal-gambling era, a glittering, celebri-chef-driven restaurant inventory and an entertainment strategy that resulted in the presentation of such A-plus-listers as Aerosmith, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder and The Who (not to mention Billy Joel, who in July, 2007 played a private show for the Big B’s most coveted gamblers), Borgata spent the ensuing 18 years as the town’s most prestigious casino-hotel. But as 2022 heads to the final roundup, it’s legitimate to ask if the bayside adult playpen is still the undisputed top dog.
The past 12 months have seen serious, years-in-the-making challenges to its supremacy among AyCee casinos. This is not to suggest Borgata is now a Motel Six with slot machines. To the contrary, it is still a top-tier property by any local or national yardstick and, most crucially, it remains by a large margin the perennial revenue champ. Nonetheless, it is difficult to argue it is as it always was.
As we head into 2023, the likes of megastar stove jockeys Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck are long gone from the property: Bobby Flay Steak and Wolfgang Puck American Grill have, respectively, been replaced by B-Prime steak house and the American Bar & Grille. Both are in-house operations (big-timers Philly-based Michael Schulson (Izakaya) and Michael Symon (Angelina) remain, as does the recently renovated Old Homestead Steak House). And perhaps, more tellingly, one only need to look at the entertainment Borgata has programmed the past year to see the impossible-to-miss changes.
The headliner schedule has declined in both quality and quantity. Once the presumptive AyCee home of arena-level artists, Borgata now specializes in second-tier comedy acts whose audiences tend to skew on the younger side. And as this is written, the two main venues, the 2,500-seat Event Center and 1,000-capacity Music Box (arguably the best room in town—at least for its size) boast only two upcoming acts of real note booked through March: Chris Rock and Smokey Robinson.
Without taking too deep of a dive into the whys and wherefores of what happened, we don’t need an industry analyst to figure out that things began to change when the MGM Resorts gambling conglomerate assumed control of the day-to-day operations.
Through the middle of 2016, Borgata was run as a 50-50 partnership between MGM and Boyd Gaming, with the latter in charge of the property. Boyd’s corporate culture was, by all accounts, far more family-like (not surprising as the majority of the company remains owned by the Boyd family) and encouraging of management autonomy, as opposed to what various insiders have described as MGM’s buttoned-up, from-the-top, management strategy.
Meet the new top dogs
But, like nature, Atlantic City’s gaming realm abhors a vacuum. While Borgata’s star was losing some of its shine, two Boardwalk properties—Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Casino Resort were making plenty—if not all—the right moves.
Thanks to the global buying power of its corporate parent, Hard Rock International, and the 7,000-seat Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena, Hard Rock AC is now the primary place to see the biggest touring acts. This winter, Hard Rock Live is serving up bluegrass phenom Billy Strings (who is so hot he is doing three nights), the explosive ‘80s-rock double bill of Def Leppard and Motley Crue (who co-headlined baseball and football stadiums earlier this year) and contemporary rock favorites The Killers. Due later in the year are Janet Jackson and country top-liner Keith Urban.
In addition, Hard Rock’s restaurant lineup can go spatula-to-spatula with Borgata’s, the large collection of pop music memorabilia is quite interesting and all 2,000-plus rooms and suites at what was Trump Taj Mahal were gutted and completely renovated prior to The Rock’s 2018 debut.
On a more intangible level, at most times, Hard Rock has a palpable atmosphere of energy and excitement that screams “Fun!” when you enter—an important element for a casino.
As for Ocean, after it rose from the ashes of the epic fail that was Revel (2012-2014), its future was anything but assured as a series of owners couldn’t make it work. But current ownership—the New York hedge fund Luxor Capital Group and the Ilich family of Detroit (Little Caesars)—has presided over a complete reversal of fortune that has made Ocean, which is one of the most architecturally spectacular casino-hotel complexes in North America, a powerhouse.
With 1,500 contemporary rooms and suites—some 500 of which were just completed this year—a massive casino, the 5,200-capacity, state-of-the-art Ovation Hall and a myriad of culinary options from uber-chef Jose Garces’ Mediterranean-based Amada to an outpost of the acting Wahlburg family’s popular Wahlburger’s burger chain, Ocean has rightfully claimed a piece of best-in-town turf.
Caesars on the come
While the city’s two newest properties were battling it out on the eastern end of the Boardwalk this year, a midtown landmark was roaring back to life.
Thanks to an infusion of $200 million in capital-improvement funds from its corporate overlord, Reno-based Eldorado Resorts, which purchased Caesars Entertainment a few years ago, Caesars Atlantic City, once a jewel of AC’s gambling industry, made great strides toward regaining relevance in 2022.
Not only did the 43-year-old property refurbish 750 rooms and suites, it opened a Vegas-y party pit at its outdoor pool and debuted two high-profile dining rooms, Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen and Nobu, the ultra-high-end Asian dining salon whose ownership group includes Hollywood titan Robert De Niro.
And there’s more to come: 2023 is scheduled to see the opening of the three-floor, Nobu-branded “hotel-within-a-hotel” atop the Centurion Tower and The Hook, an unprecedented-in-Atlantic City entertainment-and-dining concept that will include an envelope-pushing Italian restaurant and what will be Atlantic City’s first Vegas-style, original, permanent-residency production show.
Which is why it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on Caesars in the coming 12 months and beyond.
From me and mine to you and yours, here’s wishing you a peaceful, healthy and joyous 2023.