Nearly a century after its Prohibition-era heyday, the boardwalk is back.
There’s more to Atlantic City’s old nickname, “America’s Playground,” than raucous speakeasies and glittering nightclubs. This New Jersey beach retreat was also once known for a more wholesome brand of fun—namely, great food and spectacular shows. Now, after decades of decline followed by casino-focused development and a post-Hurricane Sandy revitalization, a new playground has emerged that mixes some of the old, Prohibition-era delights with more modern pleasures.
In his book Boardwalk Empire, on which the HBO series is based, historian Nelson Johnson writes that Atlantic City blossomed in the 1920s because of its accessibility. Ninety-nine trains, including 11 of the 16 fastest in the world, cruised in and out of A.C. each summer day. The city eventually evolved into a car-centric town, but rail travel returned in 2009 with the launch of the double-decker ACES train, which runs from New York City on weekends and is a far cry from the dreary casino buses (think leather seats and drink specials).
If you arrive in time for lunch, pop over to the White House Sub Shop, a favorite for its overstuffed sandwiches. The walls of this workingman’s deli, which opened in 1946, are plastered with photographs and memorabilia from A.C.’s past, including glossies signed by a zillion Miss Americas and a towel used by Frank Sinatra during his last show at the Sands. Dozens of friendly cooks whip up cheesesteaks and hoagies, using fresh bread supplied by the folks at Formica Bros. Bakery across the street.
When you’ve reached your caloric capacity, take a stroll down the boardwalk to Garden Pier, just north of the Trump Taj Mahal. Here the Atlantic City Museum awaits, with exhibits about the Steel Pier’s diving horses and the very first Ferris wheel. The boardwalk itself has few of the legendary hotels from Prohibition days, but near the Tropicana you can peek into the old Ritz-Carlton (now the Ritz Condominiums). It was from the Ritz’s ninth floor that crooked political boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson ran the city in the 1920s. “Nucky had leased the entire floor from where he reigned as the ‘Czar,’” writes Nelson Johnson. With his silk robes and hedonistic lifestyle, Nucky turned the Ritz into a “lavish temple of pleasure.”
To get a real taste of old Atlantic City, leave the boardwalk and hit the traditional eateries. Several celebrity-chef restaurants have opened in town—including the Borgata’s Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck establishments—but locals will still point you to Dock’s Oyster House. Dock’s has been run by the same Dougherty family since it first opened in 1897, and they often greet you at the door. The dining room retains its old-world feel, with a pianist playing standards from behind the bar and a menu that still lists the same century-old hits: fried oysters and crab cakes.
Farther down Atlantic Avenue, you’ll find an even greater culinary landmark: The Knife & Fork, founded in 1912. It’s housed in an idiosyncratic, Flemish-style building that was first a private club and then a speakeasy until federal authorities raided it. In 2005 the Knife & Fork was purchased by the Dougherty family, of Dock’s fame, and given a makeover. It still serves traditional beef and reef fare, but the revamped menu also offers modern twists like Kobe sliders and Asian slaw.
Not all of the “vintage” establishments in the city are old. The Chelsea, a 1950s-style boutique hotel, opened in 2008 as the first non-gaming resort on the boardwalk in the casino area. Retro lamps and art deco mirrors accent the rooms; the two restaurants were developed in part by Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr. Teplitzky’s is a chic diner and bar straight out of The Jetsons, while Chelsea Prime resembles an old-school steak house with its leather booths and black-and-white photos of 1940s A.C. The tall windows with sweeping ocean views make a perfect backdrop for a succulent T-bone.
Old-school revelry is also making a comeback. Check out the free parade put on three times a day Wednesday through Sunday by the Showboat casino, with dancers, acrobats and singers wearing feather boas and colorful costumes. Showboat may not be the spiffiest casino on the boardwalk, but you won’t find a more entertaining tribute to the glory days of the Steel Pier.
Had enough history? Head to the Pier Shops at Caesars, where you can browse the latest fashions at high-end boutiques (Gucci, Ferragamo) and marvel at the Water Show, a dramatic display of fountains, lights and music. Take a break in the Adirondack chairs on the mall’s third floor (which has great sunset views, by the way), then wander over to the outlet stores on The Walk.
As with shopping, Atlantic City’s entertainment scene has also gotten a serious update. With new casinos popping up across the country, the gaming industry is growing more competitive, and Atlantic City is trying to keep up with the changes by improving its other attractions. So far, the work has paid off. The city has now drawn big-name performers like Bruce Springsteen, Shakira and Lady Gaga, with more consistently on the horizon.
If you don’t have tickets to a show, you’ll find plenty of action at one of the many nightclubs and lounges. Exhibit A: Harrah’s Pool. By day, it’s a huge, watery oasis of hot tubs and palm trees. Come evening, DJs are unleashed and it transforms into an aquatic dance club with mini-cabanas and an MTV Jersey Shore vibe. The nearby Borgata also has several popular clubs and lounges with nightly DJs and live bands.
And to help you recover from your big night out, Atlantic City has tons of spas. Opt for the seashell massage ($125) at Showboat’s Vive Day Spa, which is like a hot stone treatment, but with a shore twist. The South Jersey shore, that is.