It was lunchtime when I bumped into Dena and Jim Lyons at Revel Casino. They were hungry and humbled. Jim craved a BLT, but good luck finding a simple sandwich in the posh gaming palace built to save Atlantic City.
"Seventeen dollars for a burrata mozzarella?" Dena asked conspiratorially, perusing the menu at Central Michel Richard. Dena appreciates the aura of a celebrity chef as much as the next foodie, but she couldn't stomach paying so much for an appetizer that's essentially a ball of cheese stuffed with cream.
Dena and Jim live in Lansdowne and frequent casinos all over the region, so they joined me to talk about what's eating Revel.
As my colleague Suzette Parmley recently reported, dismal gambling revenue has analysts worried that Revel - which cost a record $2.4 billion - won't be able to pay its debt. Wall Street expected the resort to pull in at least $25 million a month, but even during this peak season, Revel has yet to crack $20 million.
So lovely and light - finally, a casino with windows embracing an ocean view - Revel should be the story of the summer. The casino is both nonsmoking and nonunion, two firsts in these parts. The complex covers an astonishing 6.3 million square feet. Beyoncé christened the place.
If Revel is indeed bigger and bolder than any place else in A.C., and if tradition tells us gamblers will flock to the new game in town, why aren't the numbers adding up?
Chew on this
Over lunch at the Mussel Bar by Robert Wiedmaier - $22 burger and $6 Coors Light for Jim, $20 fish and chips for Dena - the couple confirmed my hunches.
Revel may be suffering from its own excesses and for daring to care enough to clear the air.
"The prices," Dena told me repeatedly, "are just outrageous."
And while neither of these 60-somethings smokes, Jim reminded me that many gamblers simply can't spin without a cigarette. "I predicted," he said, "that if they didn't allow smoking, this place would die."
The empty nesters had a room at the Borgata in May when they first visited Revel. Jim played blackjack briefly; all he could find were tables requiring $25 minimum bets.
Dena arrived for the second time Monday, vowing to spend only the $90 Revel offered on her player card, but she left $20 in the hole after learning she had to first put up funds of her own.
Add it up
I know better than to use casino ATMs, but an acquaintance who didn't gulped after incurring Revel's $6 "convenience fee" on top of what her bank charged.
This young lady spent a weekend at the resort with gal pals. The group got a "deal" - $300 a night! - on an ocean-view room. They spent the difference at the bar, where a mango margarita ran $17.
The 20-somethings came to dance, not gamble. But one still lost big after getting a headache: Seeking Advil in the gift shop, she had to shell out $10 for 20 tablets.
After overhearing gamblers gripe about Gov. Christie's "investing" $261 million in Revel, I rang up the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA) to ask whether taxpayers will be on the hook if the newfangled resort cannot reverse its fortune and it falters.
The state has almost a quarter stake in the venture, but no money has changed hands. If and when Revel earns enough to pay sales, hotel, and corporate business taxes, the resort will seek reimbursement for 75 percent of the taxes up to $261 million.
"There's really very little risk to the state," assured EDA senior vice president Tim Lizura.
He likened the deal to "giving away the sleeves of your vest, which you never had." Should you seek such an accessory, Revel has a row of European fashion shops.
That's where Dena Lyons eyed a pair of $168 suede booties, but she settled for a dessert they could afford: Goldenberg's Peanut Chews for two.
Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @myantkinney.