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Las Vaguely

The Borgata Brings a Glimmer of Vegas to Atlantic City

By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2003; Page C02

It's another smoky, crowded Saturday in Atlantic City, but at Borgata -- the town's new mega-resort -- the vibe in one patch of the casino is pure Las Vegas.

A cadre of beefy guys in black T-shirts and scowls are poised like pit bulls around a craps table, snarling at anyone pressing in for a closer look. Occasionally, one of them grunts into a headset.

Atlantic City's first new resort in 13 years, Borgata offers a coinless casino, above. (Borgata Hotel Photos)

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Who -- or what -- they're protecting is a mystery from close proximity, but about 15 feet away, next to a blackjack dealer flinging cards to a half-dozen bleary-eyed gamblers, the view is better. The attention-getter turns out to be a towering Muppet-coiffed dude with sunglasses who's rolling dice and cracking jokes.

It's "Weird Al" Yankovic! Oh, wait a minute.

"Is that Howard Stern?"

A twentyish guy watching his friend lose another hand of blackjack glances over at the chortling celeb and rolls his eyes. "Yeah, it is. Big. Freakin'. Deal."

Ouch. The shock jock may have had it coming, but it's still a surprise to catch some of that surly it's-all-about-the-gambling 'tude that's made A.C. such an unappealing destination for many. Borgata, the city's billion-dollar answer to Vegas, wants you to forget you're in Atlantic City, not revel in it.

Long a mecca for elderly day-trippers who descend en masse in buses, A.C. has grappled mightily with its bad rep: little nightlife save for second-tier headliners (Tonight Only! Norm Crosby!), few memorable meals, overpriced rooms in drab casino towers, a boardwalk that chills more than it charms, and toxic poverty in the streets. You arrive, you gamble, you leave.

Enter the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, which opened with a Vegasian splash this summer. Acres of marble floors, arty fountains and Dale Chihuly glasswork have lured a decades-younger (and seemingly more affluent) clientele, as have its 11 restaurants, 1,000-seat theater, too-cool-for-you bars and $100 "Borgata Glow" facials. An indoor pool in a 40-foot-high terrarium is ringed by palm trees and hot tubs, while 2,002 neutral-hued guest rooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows, oversize showers, plush bedding and CD players. You're supposed to eat, drink, sleep, soak and, sure, gamble like you're in the Nevada desert.

But on this balmy fall evening -- Miss America night, no less -- it's hard to ignore the fact that you're in the Garden State, in a scruffy, scrappy town once again piling its hopes on the Next Big Thing. Admittedly, the Next Big Thing is pretty big.

Plopped on an uncluttered tract near the marina (you won't find the neighborhood on your Monopoly board), Borgata doesn't just stick out like a sore thumb: It sort of looks like one. With a rounded gold facade that soars 43 stories, the place dwarfs Harrah's and the Trump Marina, its vapid neighbors. It's as if Hef and the bunnies have moved in next to Donny and Marie, and you just know where all the cool people are going to be.

Right now, they're in line.

At Mixx, more than 100 young'uns (read: anyone younger than this 40-year-old Jersey boy) are patiently waiting behind a velvet rope; at about 10 p.m., a Latin-Asian sushi bar becomes a Top 40 dance club. The passel is more stylishly attired than the typical Atlantic City night-crawler, but there's no shortage of Jersey-issue jeans and muscle shirts, halter tops and big hair.

Another queue has formed outside the B Bar, which features black-curtain walls and a bank of TVs suspended over a dark oval bar. Though there appears to be no danger of a fire code violation, the men in black are providing crowd control, unlatching a plastic strap every few minutes to let people in.

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