With promises of new billion dollar developments and glitz, Atlantic City hopes to build its food pedigree to lure visitors who aren't solely attracted by gambling.
Las Vegas has demonstrated that fine food will entice visitors to a gambling mecca, and Atlantic City hopes to follow the same model.
"It's a huge part of the experience," said Kevin DeSanctis, CEO of Revel Entertainment Group, which recently unveiled plans for a $2 billion twin-tower casino to open in 2010 in Atlantic City. "After gambling, food is the number one reason people would come to our place."
If Atlantic City wants to elevate its dining choices, it must continue bringing better restaurants as Las Vegas did, said Bobby Flay, a popular Food Network celebrity chef with restaurants in New York, Las Vegas and since last year, Atlantic City, with Bobby Flay Steak at the Borgata Hotel Casino.
"I think that there's definitely a trend in better food," he said. "What's really interesting is that Vegas has taken a lot of their gambling dollars and shifted to them to entertainment and dining."
Las Vegas, a city once filled with early bird buffets, has attracted some of the world's best chefs to open restaurants: Alain Ducasse at Mandalay Bay, Thomas Keller at The Venetian, Daniel Boulud at Wynn Las Vegas. In November, Joel Robuchon at the MGM Grand received the only three-star top rating in Vegas from the coveted Michelin guide.
"You can come here and experience everything from fine dining to luxury and bargain shopping, from spas and golf courses and some of the best entertainment in the world is here," said Alicia Malone, a spokeswoman for Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Atlantic City has emphasized its history as a beach resort and upgrading its boardwalk as well as opening luxury shops like Tiffany & Co., Gucci, Burberry and Hugo Boss and expanding its convention offerings.
Atlantic City is facing new competition from casinos in Pennsylvania and Yonkers, N.Y., and is on target for its first-ever annual loss. Despite that, developers have committed $9 billion in new casino-hotel projects over the next five years. The Borgata, Trump Taj Mahal and Harrah's Atlantic City are building second hotel towers and MGM Mirage, Revel Entertainment Group and Pinnacle have announced plans for new, luxurious developments.
They're following in the steps of the Borgata, which opened in 2003 away from the traditional boardwalk and caters to the customer who doesn't mind dropping $400 a night for a hotel room.
Adorned with Dale Chihuly glass fixtures, tons of marble and restaurants from celebrity chefs with a presence in Vegas, the Borgata has brought a new dimension of class and a business model that doesn't rely on the penny slots. In addition to Bobby Flay, the Borgata's celebrity chef restaurants include Michael Mina's Seablue and Wolfgang Puck's American Grille.
Upscale customers traveled to Atlantic City last spring for Wine Spectator's Grand Tasting. They filled a grand ballroom at the Borgata to sample the world's best wines from more than 200 producers, including the famous first growths from Bordeaux.
Usually held in cities like New York, San Francisco or Chicago, the magazine chose Atlantic City partly because the event had been successful in Las Vegas, said executive editor Tom Matthews.
"Our events in Las Vegas have been sellouts," he said. "The city's focus on pleasure and fine dining seems to attract people who find an extravaganza wine tasting appealing
Sheryl Buchholtz, 52, who came from New York to the wine-tasting event, said Atlantic City needs more top dining options.
"You need restaurants to become a destination in Atlantic City," said Buchholtz, a health care consultant who lives in Brooklyn.
Joe Lucca, a consultant for IBM who also attended the tasting, said the evolution will take time.
"I'm not sure you'll see Joel Robuchon anytime soon in Atlantic City," said Lucca, 32, who visits Las Vegas a few times a year and said he enjoys eating at the best restaurants. "It really is just a matter of the quality of the resorts that are here and the clientele they attract."
Borgata CEO Larry Mullin said his company's research shows that the market wants more higher-end amenities, and food is one of them.
"I really believe you'll see in next five to 10 years a Michelin three-star restaurant in Atlantic City," he said. "It'll take a little time to ramp up. If you don't take yourself seriously, no one else will."
So far, Atlantic City's franchised restaurants haven't reached the level of Las Vegas, said Ariane Daguin, CEO of D'Artagnan, the Newark-based company that supplies top restaurants across the country with foie gras and other specialty items. She said Atlantic City hasn't been as ambitious as Vegas with its restaurant program, and instead they've gone with popular chefs.
But that could change.
"When people announce they will put many billions in a new hotel that's going to be all gold plated, then it's easier to attract good chefs," she said.
Whether those top chefs will come to New Jersey remains to be seen.
One chef who doesn't see his future in Atlantic City is Eric Ripert, the three-star Michelin chef of Le Bernardin in New York.
He has expanded to Washington and plans to open in Philadelphia this spring, but found Atlantic City a little tacky when he first visited in the early 1980s and hasn't returned. Ripert said was expecting an experience more like Monaco.
He said Vegas has been able to attract high-caliber chefs because casinos have been willing to invest a lot of money to bring them.
As for Atlantic City, restaurants, he said: "I'm sure they are successful and I'm sure they are enjoying their partnership over there and they have a good reason to be there. Myself, I haven't found a good reason."