The whole point of being in Atlantic City was to write about the opening of the Hard Rock casino and resort. You know the places, right? Too-loud music and burgers. Guitars on the wall and burgers. Elvis’s roller and burgers.
So what was I doing in Gordon Ramsay’s Steak? The “steakhouse concept” (according to the PR blurb) opened in June, just a week or so before, part of the “trend” I was attempting to write about: Atlantic City reborn, a gambling renaissance on the East Coast etc.
I was worried that I wasn’t dressed right. The blurbs said business casual and I wasn’t sure my jeans and linen jacket would live up to America’s slightly odd definitions of appropriate dress. Sure enough, I walked in behind half a dozen men who looked like they were on dress-down Wednesday, all shorts and sports T-shirts. Oh Gordon, you would not like this, I thought.
That was the least of my worries. After spending 45 minutes finding the right car park during what should have been a 15-minute journey, then another 15 minutes wandering through atmosphere-free slot machine rooms, I discovered that a “steakhouse concept” might very well serve $90 steaks but they won’t sell you a burger. I would have settled for a steak tartare thrown on the grill. But no luck there either.
So I did what I should have did in the first place. Went to the Hard Rock Cafe a night before its official opening. Turned out it had got its licences early, so had thrown open the doors to gamblers and burger lovers ahead of its grand launch.
Nancy, my server, was giddy with excitement. She talked 19 to the dozen, sitting down at one of the spare seats at my table, as she took me through the menu. These are good times for this much blighted city.
On my last visit, in 2014, I arrived on a Greyhound bus packed with half a dozen pensioners who looked like they would grimace their way through a grey weekend of slipping quarters in unforgiving slot machines. Three casinos were closing – following one that had already closed, and another that would soon follow – brought down by market saturation and a city that had none of the fake glitz and Michelin stars of Vegas. A staggering 11,000 jobs were lost. Unemployment hit 20%.
But it’s all cyclical, as a man who sounded too wise to ever set foot in a casino, told me on the boardwalk. And investors spotted an opportunity, what with the Supreme Court lifting its ban on sport betting and the native American tribe behind the Hard Rock brand seeing a chance to inject some fun back into the city that after all gave us the first Monopoly board, and with the saturation problem having been fixed during that last visit of mine.
“Its on the up and long may it last,” said Nancy, above the squall of a soundchecking band that had clearly got the Hard Rock memo about over-the-top noise levels.
I ordered the “local legendary”, apparently a Hard Rock thing that is supposed to reflect its environs. This one came stacked with peppers, spicy provolone, a fried egg and something called “pork roll”. Nancy couldn’t explain it other than to say “very Jersey”.
What it is, in fact, is some kind of processed pork slice. A local Spam. It offered only a burned note to an otherwise solid burger, not entirely unwelcome amid the sweetly oozing juices in each chunky bite.
Somehow it seems to fit this funny town of chancers and dreamers, schemers and losers.