Only the slots are well-fed at SugarHouse Casino
You may not be totally shocked to learn that the beautiful people depicted on the dining website for the new SugarHouse Casino are taking the day off when you happen by.
When I happened by the first time more than a week ago - a month into its Fishtown/Northern Liberties debut - the crowd wasn't swirling brandy snifters.
They were slump-shouldered and hollow-eyed, weary from minding the slots, and puffing away on cigarettes, the casino having won an exemption from the city's smoking ban.
The sprawling smoking section is just beyond the border of the Refinery restaurant and bar, a rather ironic convergence of name and activity. And not a very appealing one if you decide to order food.
I'm not a neutral observer of the casino scene. Above the murmur and plink of the machines, I hear the cynical chuckle of gaming execs, watching the sheep - gray-haired pensioners, hobblers, Hoverounders, sad cases - fleece themselves, coughing up precious chunks of their Social Security checks.
That first "dining" experience in the Refinery was notable, though, in one respect. We got to eat on the outdoor terrace (after pleading smoke-phobia). And from there, facing downstream on the Delaware - the casino is next to Penn Treaty Park on Delaware Avenue - you get a grand view of the Ben Franklin Bridge. (Facing upstream, you get the tangled ruins of an industrial pipe, a marshaling ground now for gulls).
Unfortunately, this was the high point of a meal that made ballpark food - or rock concert food, or hospital cafeteria food - seem rather haute. And in keeping with the general theme of cynicism, the food was as deceptively advertised as the beautiful people. (Trashy was the adjective that several Yelp posts assigned to the weekend crowd; actually, it was one of the milder of the adjectives.)
OK, the burger was, at least, so-so. More egregiously offensive was the Fishtown Stacker, overbreaded cod fish fingers stacked like Lincoln Logs, absent any detectable association with seasoning - or even the sea.
Bringing up the bottom was the Chili Pretzel Bowl, a gummy, hollowed-out loaf loaded with some sort of chili con carne, its chemical aftertaste redolent of a flavoring envelope.
This wouldn't matter quite as much if the casino didn't advertise "Delectable Dining." Or if it didn't make a big deal of featuring "the best local ingredients."
It may have local vendors - Wells Meats, from across Delaware Avenue; Dietz & Watson for hot dogs and cold cuts; and, for its rolls, Le Bus and Amoroso.
But local sourcing typically means tomatoes from down the road, or grass-fed beef from Chester County, or goat cheese from some nearby farmstead - none of which appears to be in evidence at SugarHouse.
It is a bus station of a casino, and, frankly, its other eatery, Jacks Sandwiches, succeeds by not trying to be more than what it is - a stadium-style fast-food counter. Its slow-roasted Philly Roast Pork sandwich had a mild sweetness and appealingly moist chew, and its toasted Italian hoagie had a tangy attitude, though the Amoroso rolls are limp and lifeless.
The casino is wall-to-wall slots and a few board games, and has the charm of a Wal-Mart. There is nothing to do here but gamble. Or have a drink at the bar (which is inset with video-poker screens). No shopping. No strolling the Boardwalk. No fine dining. No escape in this big-box monument to escapism.
To be fair, on a second visit last week, the Refinery's kitchen was trying out a couple of specials - a butternut squash bisque with the consistency of butterscotch pudding, and a tender, house-made mushroom ravioli in a marsala cream sauce with a whiff of truffle oil that could have held its own in a South Philly cafe.
Still, your mind ponders Las Vegas, its casinos lousy with celebrity-chef-run venues outdoing themselves. It considers the temptations of Atlantic City's posh Borgata, one of the attractions of which is Izakaya, the sexy, Japanese gastropub.
SugarHouse doesn't presume to such ambitions. It doesn't pretend to be a resort. Or a destination. Or a place to feed your hunger for finer things.
It is, bluntly, a place to empty your wallet.
1001 N. Delaware Ave.