Philly Chefs’ Betting Big on the Shore

The rush of fresh and returning superstar restaurants coming into Atlantic City’s new casinos — to say nothing of successful eateries in the Jersey Shore’s established slots salons — is as thrilling as the promise of sportsbook betting. “It feels awesome again, being in AC,” said Iron Chef Jose Garces, a man who knows about cuisine, casino and otherwise.

That focus on casino dining is no surprise: For a town that’s watched its fortunes rise, fall, and rise on the broad (but often weary) back of gambling, AC’s gaming palaces learned to find fortuity in fine, diverse culinary enterprise. Ask brand-name chefs Michael Symon, whose Angeline is part of the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa (Bobby Flay’s Steak is also Borgata bound). Or Gordon Ramsay, whose eponymous Steak house recently opened at Harrah’s Resort, a follow-up to his Pub & Grill at Caesars.

For the money, however, it is top-tier Philadelphia chefs and restaurateurs that drive Atlantic City’s culinary scene. Larry Cohen, Barry Gutin and Guillermo Pernot’s Cuba Libre has been AC’s Latin dining-and-dancing domain at the Tropicana for a decade-plus. Stephen Starr’s Continental AC and Buddakan, both at Caesars’ Pier Shops since 2007, are part of the firmament. Michael Schulson of Harp & Crown, Double Knot and the soon-to-open Giuseppe & Sons, not only started his restaurant domain with Izakaya at Borgata, he opened that casino-spa 15 years ago as one of its first restaurants. Then there is Garces, whose newly redone Amada tapas joint and Distrito food truck are back where they belong — Ocean Resorts Casino, the one-time Revel he helped open in 2012 and, closed when the hotel-casino went bankrupt in 2014.

“It’s amazing to have that place, after four years, come back ,” said Garces — staring out into the sky, sea and sand before him — about his renewed relationship with Ocean Resorts’ address. “It’s a moment I have been anticipating. Every year since Revel’s close, I’ve kept watch.”

Garces stayed close to the 500 Boardwalk address, not only through contact with new owner, Bruce Deifik, but courtesy the guy that Deifik bought the Revel property from in January 2018: Glenn Straub, the Florida developer who purchased Revel out of bankruptcy in April 2015.  

In reality, however, before Straub and Deifik, Garces had been part of that property’s dynamic for over 10 years. “I was with Revel since 2007 when I initially designed Amada; waited five years for it to build,” said the chef-entrepreneur. After Revel opened, and its casino rolled snake eyes, what rolled 7s and 11s was Garces’ Spanish tapas joint and his nu-Mexican food truck. “Our restaurant concepts succeeded there,” he said, remarking that victories in AC allowed Garces Restaurant Group to expand into other cities. “The thrill came from the popularity of the brand before we headed down the shore. AC was still a home market as many of our Philly customers travel to AC.  Expansion meant taking advantage of the popularity Amada had built in Old City. When people vacationing in AC recognize the brand,  recognize Amada, they check us out; a strategic move for what was — and is, still  — our strongest concept.”

Garces remained so close to the spirit of Atlantic City that, in 2015, he started conversations with then-Tropicana VP Alan Rivin and CEO Tony Rodeo. The Trop approached the chef based on success of what Garces called “a unique product and great following in Amada.”

What made the Trop’s proposition sweeter was that the space being offered was as wide, as it was long, and driven by Garces’ whim. “Anytime someone gives me license as a artist, I feel fortunate to create a vision behind the physical design and the cuisine.” What Garces opened was the family recipe-driven, Ecuadorian coastal Olón and the playfully Japanese Okatshe, with the double-sided Bar Olón between them. “It’s a personal set of spaces I have at the Trop,” said Garces, showing continued faith in Atlantic City. “I love the Trop, but stayed away from doing Spanish tapas there, as I knew, somehow, the Revel space would reopen.”

That “homecoming” process began through Alan Greenstein, ex-CFO of Revel who serves in the same capacity at Ocean Resorts. Garces loved Bruce Deifik’s positivity, signed a restaurant management agreement, and turned around Distrito’s truck and Amada in time for its June 28 opening.

“This Amada is different in that it has a steakhouse feel, with larger chops and cuts of meat and veggie sides – not just tapas. Plus, in Philly we did live flamenco, until out neighbors were unhappy, and had to stop. Now, at AC’s Amada, we have a stage, so we’ll do flamenco on the weekends. It’s going to be fun. My history here has been enough of a snapshot to understand and appreciate where this town and my restaurants are going. I watched the speed bumps — understand all levels of pitfalls — and know what it is like to be on both sides. Now, it is a great time to be in AC.”

New Eats Now
Hard Rock Casino’s new restaurant scene means grandfathered (from Trump Taj Mahal, its former address holder) restaurants such as Il Mulino and Robert’s Steakhouse, along with freshly-minted hot spots such as the wood-fired Council Oak Fish, Youyu Noodle Bar, the Chinese cuisine-centric Song, and the Rock’s contemporary Japanese-focused Kuro.

For Ocean Resorts Casino, that includes  the Italian seafood-topped Dolce Mare,  American Cut steakhouse, the brunch destination Harper’s, and the casual Zhen Bang Noodle & Sushi nook. We’re looking forward to an overview of these newbies as soon as we tear ourselves from each casino’s roulette wheels.  

The Trouble He’s Seen
It’s no secret that Jose Garces and his restaurant/catering group has been deeply involved in bankruptcy proceedings and company restructuring, as the celebrity chef’s woes made national news. What’s interesting is how some of that ill weight will find relief  (or clearer answers) this week when Louisiana-based restaurant chain operator Ballard Brands takes an interest in all-things-Garces. At June’s end, the Ballard’s initial offer ($6.4 million) for his portfolio of restaurants and catering business, didn’t satisfy Garces’ secured creditor, M&T Bank, for a highest and best bid, as dictated under the bankruptcy code.

With that, Ballard not only upped its offer to $8.4 million; Garces has offered $500,000 of his own money to help settle his debt. “We have felt a lot of vindication with the courts within the last several weeks,” said Garces.

The next hearing is scheduled for July 9, after which – if successful – Garces would be chef and conceptualist, with the Ballards his collaborator-employer. “We have hearings coming up, so this is premature, but on the other side, the hope is that there is a Ballard/Garces partnership that will allow me to do what I do best: culinary execution, development and hospitality,” he said.

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