ATLANTIC CITY - Drinking at the Shore is always a different sort of proposition. In places like Sea Isle or Wildwood, it's all about quantity over quality. I almost never drink, say, Red Stripe beer at home (or listen to much reggae), but dammit if every summer I don't find myself somewhere listening to a middling rendition of "Legalize It" and drinking $3 Red Stripe on special.
At the Shore, you just accept strange notions of drinking. Take Ocean City. There, they ban consenting adults from bringing a bottle of their own wine to a local restaurant because . . . why, exactly? But the city fathers seem OK with OC residents getting into their cars to drive over to Margate or Somers Point to tie one on. Everyone just shrugs and says, "That's Ocean City. America's Greatest Family Resort."
And then there is Atlantic City. "Can you find the best drinks in Atlantic City?" This question, from my editor, seemed reasonable enough on its face. I have been drinking in Atlantic City since long before I legally should have been. When I worked for the local newspaper there in the early 1990s, A.C. was the place my friends and I went after everything else in every other town was closed. We'd find ourselves in a bar at 4 a.m., rubbing shoulders with prostitutes with gold teeth or mob thugs in bad suits or off-duty blackjack dealers still in uniform.
In those days, Atlantic City existed as something dangerous, seedy, fascinating, and exhilarating, and for a young man it also existed as a sort of warning. I remember once - at my brother's bachelor party - stumbling upon a former neighbor, a once successful, wealthy attorney who'd made some bad choices and fallen hard. He was now working the door at a strip club on Pacific Avenue.
Of course, this Atlantic City - my own coming-of-age Atlantic City - supposedly doesn't exist any longer. With the advent of the Borgata, and hotels like the Chelsea making regular appearances in the New York Times' Style section, with Philly restaurateurs like Stephen Starr and Jose Garces opening copycats of their Center City spots in casinos, and with sexy clubs like the Pool at Harrah's boasting of a summer "residency" by Jersey Shore's Pauly D . . . well, you just aren't really supposed to talk about the old Atlantic City.
I started off my recent evening of drinking in Atlantic City on the scenic fifth floor of the Chelsea Hotel, at the bar of Stephen Starr's Chelsea Prime. The bartender presented me with a fancy cocktail list, and I liked the look of the classic Old Fashioned, made with Eagle Rare bourbon, a favorite. So I ordered one - even though the list price was $10.
I cringed as the bartender muddled an orange slice and a cheap maraschino cherry in the glass (yes, incorrect), but then she reached into the rail, grabbed a bottle of Seagram's 7, and poured. "Yo!" I yelped, almost as a reflex.
"What?" The bartender said, glaring at me.
"Are we replacing $25 Eagle Rare with $9.99 Seagram's 7?"
"We're out of Eagle Rare," she said, with a shrug. She set down the Old Fashioned - twice its usual size - in front of me and asked, "Is there a problem?"
I had to admire the Boardwalk Empire-style defiance. Almost like: "This is how we effing do it in A.C., city boy. If you're dumb enough to order a fancy bourbon, we'll straight-up pour you a crap Canadian whiskey without batting an eye."
To her credit, the bartender later came over (after her manager had stepped away from the service bar), told me she "hated that they made us do that," and charged me only $7 for the drink.
I'm just going to say it: This cocktail experience at Chelsea Prime is pretty typical in Atlantic City. Despite recent trends in craft cocktails elsewhere in America over the last decade, the bartending here still tends to be stuck forever in the 1980s and 1990s: Dump a bunch of cheap, cloying ingredients into a huge goblet and give it a cute name. Or else stock a huge bar with ridiculously expensive name-brand pours of high-end spirits for showy high rollers.
The bartending talent in Atlantic City simply does not rise to the level of even Philadelphia, and it's astonishing how often ham-handed corner-cutting takes place.
Better to stick to less ambitious mixology but better execution. The $5 happy hour caipirinha at Cuba Libre in the Quarter at Tropicana was a fine example of a simple (cachaça, fresh lime juice, sugarcane syrup) but delicious, well-made drink. I wish more places at the Shore could just focus on doing one simple drink well like this.
Even less ambitious, just wander down the Boardwalk and end up at one of the half-dozen beach bars - about every Boardwalk casino has one.
The Beach Bar at Trump Plaza, voted one of the "21 Sexiest Beach Bars" by the Travel Channel a few years ago, is as good a place as any to people watch. As for drinks, ummm . . . drink whatever cheap beer is on special - maybe Red Stripe? Whatever you do, stay away from the signature drink, Get Ship Wrecked, a $9.99 conflation of Captain Morgan, Malibu coconut rum, triple sec, and pineapple juice.
1988 called! It wants its cocktail back! Unless, of course, this is your thing. In which case, knock yourself out, and feel free to shout "Wooohooo!" as you do.
One place that did give me hope for a new era of drinking in Atlantic City was the new Revel resort. I enjoyed a number of places inside Revel, though perhaps none more than simply sitting at the counter of Jose Garces' Distrito Cantina drinking a can of Tecate beer with tacos - which I guess stands to reason, since I like happy hour at the Distrito in University City.
Likewise, the A.C. replica of Garces' Village Whiskey is a good effort. Though I have to admit, it was a weird experience for me. I go to the Center City Village Whiskey often enough, so eating the same deviled eggs and pickled vegetables and sipping the same Manhattan variation in a same-but-not-quite setting, with the sound of slots in the background, was a little unsettling.
The biggest, most pleasant surprise in Atlantic City, however, might be Revel's Mussel Bar by Robert Wiedmaier. Based on his place in Bethesda, Md., known for its great beer selection, Wiedmaier's spot is just about the only bar in A.C. I visited that seems to have a solid cocktail program in place. I ordered a classic Sazerac that was made with the right bitters, the right touch of absinthe, and a good rye whiskey, and the Topsy Turvy, with Calvados apple brandy and sauternes, which was an inspired original creation.
As for drinking off casino property, things go downhill pretty quickly. The Irish Pub is a place that holds fond memories for the younger me, and I'd be lying to say I'd never walked out of there squinting into the sun. I've always been impressed by the stone-faced old pros who tend the bar there, who have probably seen every form of human depravity happen in front of their eyes. When the drunk next to me accidentally sucked down half my beer, the bartender immediately poured me another without a word or a change of expression.
I defy anyone, as a single male, to get into a taxi in Atlantic City after 11 p.m. and not have the driver suggest that he take you to a strip club or massage parlor. One driver, en route between the Irish Pub and Harrah's, handed me "free passes" to a "hot club" called Luxx Lounge, which I (too late) realized was inside the Diving Horse Cabaret & Steakhouse (!).
Inside, I was told that the "lounge" was always free (and on that night empty), but that if I wanted to go up to the crowded second floor where exotic dancers danced, entrance would be $20. Dear reader, I cannot offer you a report on the quality of the mixology at Diving Horse. I assumed that the only "Brandi" here would be spelled with an "i" and be wearing a g-string adorned with dollar bills, and so I continued on.
Besides, we're not supposed to talk about the "old" Atlantic City, right?