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The AC

Around town, night owls are finding similar scenes, though to a smaller degree. One exception is Studio Six and Club Tru, an entertainment Goliath a few blocks from the boardwalk. With 1,000-plus square feet of dance floor, the two connected clubs feature more than a half-dozen bars, including the Perfect 10 Martini Lounge; a sports pub; the 4C's VIP room; and the Tru Energy Bar, where Red Bull cocktails get the blood moving.

Borgata -- which combines the sophistication of Las Vegas's glitzy Bellagio resort with the smug snootiness of, uh, Las Vegas's glitzy Bellagio resort -- has for 20 months been the It casino. But the pulse rate has quickened in other corners.

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

At the Trump Marina, an otherwise dreary tableau of drunken gamblers and dog-tired decor is brightened considerably by the Wave, a high-charged club with high-volume dance music. Nearby, about 100 people stand in line with programs in hand to get an autograph from Patti Smyth, who appeared earlier in the evening with her band, Scandal. In true Jersey fashion, one white-leather-clad fortysomething, when asked why she wasn't waiting in line, snaps, "Why the hell should I do that when I can just stand here and stare at her?"

The boardwalk, bless its grubby little heart, is nowhere you want to spend a lot of time, particularly on a blustery winter's night -- though it does seem tidier than before. Later this year, work begins on a $100 million, two-year project to restore the surfside strip to its former glory, including the renovation of historic buildings and facades.

For now, there's Flames.

From a distance, it looks like every other pizza-and-sausage-sandwich nook sharing a wall with a taffy shop or dollar store. A swarthy guy in a T-shirt is attacking a mound of dough in the window, and a cheesy statue of an Italian chef announces "We're Open" on a handwritten sign. Step inside, however, and you're greeted with tech music and a sleek bar with recessed blue lighting, plasma TVs and a martini menu that includes the Creamsicle (Absolut Mandarin, Cointreau, Liquor 43, orange juice). The ceiling has crumbled edges as if it just caved in, and fake sunlight pours in from the edges.

Flames is very cool, and new, and unexpected -- much like this energized Atlantic City. The pizza? Not so hot. But the place makes a mean Creamsicle.

Details: Atlantic City

GETTING THERE: Atlantic City is a little more than three hours by car from the D.C. Beltway; take I-95 north to Exit 3 of the New Jersey Turnpike and follow the signs. By train, take Amtrak to Philadelphia (fares from $96 round trip), then hop on a New Jersey Transit train for the 90-minute ride to AC (round trip from $13.20). Round-trip fares on Greyhound start at about $50 for departures from the D.C. depot.

Gray Line (800-862-1400) offers bus service Thursday through Saturday with pickup in various D.C. and Maryland locales. Betsy Tour and Travel (703-704-5300) offers service from several spots in Northern Virginia. Call for fares, schedules and casino coin bonuses.

GETTING AROUND: Large distances separate some of the casinos on the boardwalk, and many visitors opt to hop in one of the city's famous people-powered rolling chairs trolling the boards (starting at $5 for the first five blocks). Another option are jitneys, 13-passenger buses that operate 24/7 and whisk late-night party animals among the casinos; fare is $1.50. Details: 609-344-8642, www.jitneys.net.

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