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The AC

There's a lot to gawk at. Fountains burble throughout the Quarter, which is replete with stained glass, mosaics, Caribbean-style hanging lights, marble archways and wrought-iron railings. On this Saturday, more than one person staring up at the daydreamy blue sky painted on the ceiling stumbles into the mime holding court under a palm.

Stores on the cobbled streetscape include familiar names like Brooks Brothers and Chico's, but guests clutching ceramic chickens and jams are packing the Old Farmer's Almanac General Store. Bread-machine mixes share shelf space with candles and Christmas ornaments, and everything is selling.

Atlantic City is cleaning up its act, and resorts are drawing younger crowds with new public spaces, such as the Tropicana's Fiesta Plaza in the Quarter. (Tropicana)

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Report Card: Grading Atlantic City Casinos

A few doors down, patrons paw through pet toys and pricey canine gewgaws at Jake's Dog House, while a trio of fanny-packed women ogle the crimson toppers in the window of the Hat Emporium. A level up and a few hundred yards away, a line is forming at the Imax theater for a 3-D version of "Polar Express." It's one of the few spots, besides the restaurants and Houdini's Magic Shop, where children seem to have been worked into the Quarter blueprints. Considering the casino is within earshot, that's not such a bad thing.

By 7 p.m., Carmine's, a family-style Italian eatery imported from New York, is full, its patrons overflowing onto the "street." Several couples are seated at open-window tables that afford them a knee's-eye view of the masses lumbering toward the slots. P.F. Chang's China Bistro already has a wait list, while Adam Good Crab Shack & Sports Bar, one of the Quarter's more affordable new restaurants, is nearly empty. The few diners there are downing beers and peel-yourself shrimp while watching college basketball.

It's not until the music starts that the Trop truly lurches to life.

"Are you ready to party?!" The answer is a resounding si at Cuba Libre, a restaurant/lounge whose resident deejay causes the crowd -- a swirling pastiche of black cotton, silk scarves and big smiles -- to go from zero to sweat-soaked in two minutes. Wisely, neither Cuba Libre nor the nearby Sound of Philadelphia -- featuring live soul, jazz, R&B and Latin -- is enclosed, so passersby within the Quarter can join in the fun without dressing the part (no sneakers or jeans, please).

A little after midnight, a conga line spills out of Cuba Libre and makes its way around a fountain. It's a smart move, as it ramps down the action for a few precious moments and lures about a dozen new hangers-on into the club.

In Planet Rose, a boisterous gaggle of trendoids make small talk and drink heavily. The karaoke screen is momentarily blank, but as soon as those cocktails kick in. . . . An identical crush has overtaken Ri Ra, constructed of remnants from an actual Irish pub. It's so smoke-enshrouded, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Golden Gate Bridge pop into view.

At Tango's, a new lounge at the casino's edge, chanteuse Beth Tinnon is sprawled on top of a piano, purring torch songs. There's more gray hair than exposed navels in the audience when she starts her gig at 10, and the libation of choice is beer.

Six hours later, Trish Rodio has replaced her on that baby grand, her voice a tad hoarse as the clock ticks toward 4 a.m. Her admirers, several decades younger than the earlier brood, are tippling Cosmos and showing few signs of wear.

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