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Drag, Dining & Discovery: 36 Hours in Atlantic City

by Matthew Wexler
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Oct 23, 2017

The invitation was too intoxicating to resist. A two-night experience at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, VIP tickets to the Miss'd America pageant and culinary revelry at some of the property's acclaimed dining options. I don't gamble, but this seemed like a royal flush.

Confession: casino-centric destinations like Atlantic City and its flashier cousin, Las Vegas, have never been at the top of my vacation bucket list. But as a travel writer, it's my obligation (tough job, I know, but somebody's gotta do it) to put myself in the mindset of someone who wants to be sequestered in a 161,000-square-foot casino at the epicenter of a 2,000-room hotel.

In an era of tweet-slinging judgments, I put aside my desire to seek out world heritage sites and locals digs and, instead, embraced the blings and dings in a destination that is desperate for a comeback. As we all know, desperation isn't pretty -- whether you're stalking someone on a social app or haphazardly trying to resurrect what was once one of the most formidable vacation destinations on the east coast.

Borgata is the last luxurious bastion standing among Atlantic City's faltering skyline. In the last several years, the city has seen Trump Taj Mahal, Showboat Casino, Trump Plaza, and Revel shutter. Stockton University is scheduled to open an Atlantic City campus this fall -- a project costing upwards of $220 million. And while I'm not sure I'd send my kid to the beach for his or her undergraduate education, I quickly become convinced that I'd send friends for a weekend getaway.

It's been a year since MGM Resorts International acquired Borgata, which will be celebrating its 15th anniversary next year. What the property lacks in beachside access (you'll need to grab a shuttle or Uber to get to AC's famous boardwalk) it makes up for in polished service, beautifully maintained facilities, on-trend dining options, and an LGBTQ-specific initiative, OUT at Borgata that aims to court queers and their partying posses.

To avoid the fray, I opt for accommodations at The Water Club, Borgata's adjacent property that opened in 2008 and offers a slightly calmer experience just a few steps away from the action. With a separate entrance, several pools, and food options by "culinary lifestyle consultant" Geoffrey Zakarian, it's a gentle respite from the hustle that comes with the abundance of guests flowing through the property.

The rooms are decorated in brown, beige and turquoise -- a palette that I imagine was out of date from the onset and reminds me of a sleepover at my aunt's house circa 1989. The view, though, is gorgeous, and a reminder of why Atlantic City flourished during its Steel Pier days as well as the 60s before gambling was legalized.

I wander from The Water Club past a spectacular Chihuly chandelier into Borgata's maze of gaming tables (184) and slot machines (3,026), but it's a different kind of entertainment I'm looking for, where drag queens are king.

And The Winner Is...

This year marked the 26th Annual Miss'd America Pageant. Co-founded by Gary Hill and John Schultz, and hosted by the effervescent and quick-witted Carson Kressley, the event originated at Studio Six nightclub and took place the day after the legendary Miss America pageant. The original crown came from Burger King. Since its founding, the event has raised more than $350,000 for regional LGBTQ organizations.

Reigning queen Mimi Imfurst returned to pass along the title to one of seven contestants from around the country, including Pattaya Hart, Tina Burner, Savannah Savonier, Jenna Tall, Adriana Trenta, Sapphira Cristal and Morgan Morgan Morgan. Held at Borgata's Event Center, the evening attracting hundreds of fans for swimsuit, talent, evening gown, and the dreaded "question and answer."

Kressley, known for his repartee on "RuPaul's Drag Race" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," was a terrific host, along with live music by Melanie Rice (musical director/producer) and her orchestra. Boy band followers and Jersey natives got a kick out of Frankie Z (former member of Wow), who, along with some obligatory crotch-grabbing, gave an amped up performance with great vocals and dance moves.

The crown went to Pattaya Hart of New York City, who delivered a knockout rendition of "All That Jazz" (Catherine Zeta-Jones film version for any "Chicago" geeks out there). Real-life Mathawee "Plu" Sayampol moved to the U.S. in 2009 to study Bob Fosse's dance style and the hard work paid off.

While Hart may have wowed the crowd and judges with shoulder rolls and splits, my personal favorite was Tina Burner, who spliced together "Anything Goes" with political rantings, offering a charged snapshot of the country's turmoil. I hope RuPaul is watching because Ms. Burner is the full package even though she didn't take the crown.

The after-party offered an opportunity to graze a buffet, dance to classic gay anthems, and socialize with Atlantic City's mayor, Donald Guardian. In office since January 2014, the gay Republican (yes, they do exist) has been fighting an uphill battle since taking office.

"I have spent the past three-and-a-half years rebuilding Atlantic City, whether it was rebuilding parks and playgrounds, restoring the Boardwalk, repaving city streets, streamlining city government or courting new businesses and development back into Atlantic City," Guardian told the Associated Press earlier this summer. That being said, he faces Democratic nominee Frank M. Gilliam, Jr. this November 7.

Bites Both Big and Small

Borgata offers 15 dining options, and while indulgence is the name of the game in Atlantic City, I'm strategic in my choices.

Upon arrival, our entourage settles into chef Michael Schulson's Izakaya, a Japanese-inspired menu of small dishes that draw inspiration from Schulson's time in Japan. Under the umbrella Schulson Collective, the entrepreneur has Philadelphia roots along with Monkitail in Hollywood, Florida.

I'm uneasy at the attentive but disparate welcoming by a server who suggests tequila shots as if were settling into Hooter's for a round of chicken wings and Sunday night football. But once we get into the groove of craft cocktails and free-flowing sake more in line with Schulson's concept, the food is exceptional.

Standout dishes are too many to recount, but on a return visit I would easily order the edamame dumplings with sweet sake, shallot and subtle touch of truffle; beef short rib robatayaki, glazed with barbecue sauce and a briny garnish of kim chi; succulent lobster robatayaki with lemon and crispy shallot; and delectable sides like brussels sprouts with fish sauces and chiles as well as Togarashi fries with wasabi aioli and Japanese steak sauce.

The following night I head to Angeline, the latest venture from James Beard Award-winning Michael Symon. As a native Clevelander who grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood, I'm eager to support my hometown culinary hero and Symon's team doesn't disappoint.

The beautifully designed venue, though soaring in typical casino fashion, has personal touches like a side dining room wallpapered in what you'd imagine his childhood home to look like. The restaurant is mostly free from celebrity swag often seen at big-name chef restaurants until you gaze above the bar, where Symon's cookbooks are on display. Communal tables, dark wood, and marble accents add a cozy touch, and sound-absorbing acoustic panels are tastefully integrated to create a buzzy but conversational atmosphere.

The nostalgic menu leans towards Symon's Sicilian roots. I nibble at whipped ricotta with grilled bread and chile flakes, then slather on caponata. Main courses range from homemade pasta to wood-fired fishes and meats. For a taste of home, I opt for his mother's meatballs. At $27, it's a steep price for a casually-inspired Sunday supper (pasta is additional), but you can't argue that there's love in the recipe (and a refrigerator in the room for a late-night snack.)

A smartly assembled craft cocktail list relies on Italian standbys with a modern flair and after two rounds of the Gronicello Negroni (Watershed Four Peel gin, Limoncello, Campari, Cinzano Rosso), I'm ready to sing "That's Amore."

High Stakes

Beyond the flourish of Borgata's highly polished fa├žade, I'm struck by an angle that's often missing from Atlantic City's polarizing past and future: the people. According to The Wall Street Journal, Trump's debacles (I mean business dealings) alone cost the city nearly 7,400 jobs over the course of 14 years.

Atlantic City's residential neighborhoods adjacent to the Boardwalk reveal the reality of a city struggling to find its footing. And yet among Borgata's hundreds of employees, one thing is clear. They're proud of where they work and customer service reigns supreme. I was greeted with graciousness at every encounter. All ages and ethnicities could be found, making a living one shift at a time and appreciative of those who choose to vacation in Atlantic City.

Queer Intel

For Borgata's latest LGBTQ offerings, visit OUT at Borgata.

Upcoming highlights include:

The Burlesque Show
A tribute to a 1940s era Burlesque production featuring a talented, sexy, hilarious cast of dancers, comedians, and performers, along with a multitude of sparkling rhinestone trimming and tassels from the stars of the show. Through October 26

Mariah Carey
With an exclusive Christmas Show, Grammy Award-winning Mariah Carey's infamous "All I Want for Christmas is You" is sure to put anyone in the holiday spirit. November 25

Christmas Queens
After you take part in this hilarious evening of holiday drag, featuring some of the country's hottest queens, you, too, will be on Santa's naughty list. December 2

Matthew Wexler is EDGE's National Style and Travel Editor. More of his writing can be found at Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @wexlerwrites.


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