Haute cuisine? In these parts, a cheesesteak used to qualify.
Now, Georges Perrier is serving up his signature langostinos and clams with pancetta at Caesars Atlantic City Hotel Casino.
Next month, Bobby Flay will open a surf-and-turf restaurant in the same building where Wolfgang Puck plans one of his California grilles and Michael Mina woos gamblers with his seafood specialties.
Call it a feeding frenzy: Lured by casinos eager to one-up their rivals, celebrity chefs have turned their sights on Atlantic City, turning what was once seen as a culinary backwater into the new place to eat — and be seen eating.
After years of feeding gamblers $6.99 buffets and all-night cafeteria food, casinos are signing up big-name gastronomes in a bid for prestige — and profits. The trend, which mirrors one that swept Las Vegas in the 1990s, began here in earnest when the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa opened its doors nearly three years ago.
With restaurants operated by regionally known chefs Susanna Foo and Luke Palladino, Borgata showed anew that eating — once seen by casinos as merely an interruption — could instead be used to drum up new business for the craps tables, slot machines and baccarat pits.
Its rivals are beginning to follow suit, betting on food as an attraction that can help Atlantic City's vibrant $5 billion-a-year casino business withstand competition springing up in Pennsylvania and other nearby states.
"What's happened with the celebrity chefs is a domino effect," said Barbara Fairchild, editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit magazine. "Chefs, at that level, are very competitive with each other. They don't want to be left out of a scene that's growing like that."
The first bona fide star was Perrier.
The 62-year-old Philadelphia chef, whose Le Bec-Fin is regularly ranked among the nation's best, joined with partner Chris Scarduzio to open Mia, a Mediterranean bistro, last December.
Las Vegas had tried to woo Perrier before, but he wasn't interested. Too far. When Atlantic City came calling, he decided the time was right.
"I always felt to be success in this business, not only you have to be good, but the right time and the right timing is very important," Perrier said. "I felt it was time to come to Atlantic City. For me, it was important for me to come to Atlantic City to make a statement."
The statement wasn't in French, though.
Believing they had nothing to prove with another French restaurant, Perrier and partner Scarduzio decided on an Italian theme, settling on a 120-seat space just off the Caesars lobby that has 40-foot ceilings and is framed by towering columns.
When in Rome and so forth.
Mia, Perrier's first venture outside Pennsylvania, isn't on the level of ritzy Le Bec-Fin, where the average check is $130 per person. Entrees run $28 to $38, and its owners have learned already that when it comes to casino dining, "casino" comes before "dining."
"The people who are dining here, they want to get back to the tables," said Scarduzio, 40. "They don't want to spend two hours here. We've had to make changes because of the casino. As much as they're doing in food and beverage, they're not making $5 billion a year on steaks and Cosmopolitans."
Perrier spends two days a week at Mia, Scarduzio three. They're so bullish on the Atlantic City market, they're already planning a second restaurant, though they won't divulge where and when.
As for the impending arrival of all the new competition?
"Bring it on," said Perrier. "We're up for the challenge."
Flay, 41, opens his fifth restaurant, Bobby Flay Steaks, June 30 at Borgata. He said his restaurant will put a premium on steak and lobster, with up to 15 different treatments of lobster. He plans to be there "every minute" in its first few months.
His Jersey roots _ his mother lives in Spring Lake, and he spent childhood summers there and in Sea Girt _ also will play a part in the Bobby Flay Steaks experience, he said.
"I grew up eating steamers and clams and lobsters in the summer. This is a steakhouse, but it'll have a serious seafood bent," he said.
Entrees will cost $30 and up, steaks in the $40 range.
Flay said he's not surprised by the trend, just happy to be involved in it. "Enlisting high-profile chefs is a great way to entice people to come to the properties," he said.
They don't get much more high-profile than Puck.
The Austria-born uber chef, whose success at celebrity haunts Ma Maison and Spago spawned a culinary empire, will have his first East Coast restaurant when Wolfgang Puck American Grille opens June 30 at Borgata.
"Atlantic City can be the Las Vegas of the East Coast," said Puck, 56. "By having fine dining restaurants which are recognized by name, it makes it an important destination."
His place will have a casual cafe in front and a separate, more formal dining area, with prices ranging from $25 to $28 per person in the cafe and $75 to $80 in the dining room.
Atlantic City-area food critic Ed Hitzel says Atlantic City had great food already.
"I don't think this is the beginning of an upsurge in culinary excellence. We've had that for a while," said Hitzel. But he believes the attention they bring is a recipe for success.
"People in Baltimore and Washington and Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y., will read about these celebrity chefs, who may or may not be great culinarians," he said. "It's the publicity that's going to bring people to town."