By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
An enlightened vandal is on the loose in Atlantic City.
The oceanside billboard was vast and white, stripped by the elements of its previous ad, and featured three lone phrases of black graffiti:
ON THE ROAD.
THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA.
A summer reading list for fanny-packed boardwalkers. Existential, beatniky, absurd. Like Atlantic City. Which is why I love it.
On my first trip there two years ago, I remained ensconced in the womb of Donald Trump, simpering as my fortunes rose and fell, adoring every minute of it. This time, though, I returned with two friends to experience the world off the casino floors, to gamble not just with my money but with my mojo, to dive into the night life and test the city's promotional boast: Always Turned On.
Always turned on? We would see.
If the buzz is to be believed, then the cluster of buildings at Atlantic and Mount Vernon avenues is the manifestation of the motto. It's the site of the Surfside Resort Hotel -- which includes a sun deck with a pool and outdoor bar -- and a pair of contiguous dance clubs called Studio Six and Club Tru. In theory, it's one square block of everything a guy could want: places to swim, eat, drink, dance and collapse, all within walking distance of casinos and the boardwalk.
When we arrived on a recent Friday night, the pool was tarped. Club Tru was closed for renovations. Maybe a mid- to late-summer reopening, said a receptionist. Okay, fine. Parking was free and easy, our room at the Surfside wasn't as horrendous as some Internet reviews had warned, and Studio Six was still open.
We popped in there around 11:30 that night. A DJ pumped a Jackson 5 remix onto an empty dance floor. Empty except for the barfly.
"You want me to take a picture?" the barfly asked, sidling up. Sure, we said, handing her a camera and posing. She held her arms up, took a picture of herself and cackled. We decided to leave Studio Six.
Always turned on . . . but where? Ask the locals where to go, and they rave about the Quarter. The Quarter, the Quarter, the Quarter. Get yourself to the Quarter.
So we did. First things first: The Quarter, part of the Tropicana Casino and Resort, is a mall. It has the escalators, the shopping, the Imax theater. We stopped at Red Square (no cover!), a vodka bar with faux-Commie decor. A portrait of Lenin hangs over the hostess station, and the light fixtures are shaped like the turrets of St. Basil's. For $12.75, I enjoyed the best vodka tonic I've ever had. My friend Tommy's Mandarin and soda: also superlative. The brand? Silk, said the bartender. Goes down that way, I said.
By 1 a.m., we moved next door to Cuba Libre (no cover!), and the $8.50 mojito also took us aback (it's made with guarapo, the juice that Cuba Libre squeezes weekly from sugar cane).
While we were searching for something a little less theme-parky, a couple of guys on the street pointed us to Tony's Baltimore Grill on Atlantic Avenue. It was dingy. It glowed red. It felt real. Liisa ("Yep, two I's") took our order and almost immediately brought out a heap of food soaked in marinara.
Around 3:30 a.m., we headed back to Studio Six. Surely the club would be hopping by then. It wasn't. "Always Turned On" seemed to refer solely to the city's electrical grid.
I woke the next morning, squinted out the window at the retro facade of the Sands Casino Hotel, and didn't know who I was for about 15 strange seconds. We merged onto the boardwalk in the early afternoon and passed the day with funnel cakes, buskers and outrageous sunglasses, goofing around and delighting in one another's company.
Thirsty for a thrill, my friend Stephen and I dropped $60 each on roulette at Caesars. That old Trumpy feeling came back. I wanted to stay and sacrifice my money to chance, but as night fell, we vowed to take another stab at pinpointing the city's pulse.
We retreated as soon as we looked inside Blue Martini, a bar in Bally's where a middle-aged band sang "Superstition" to a bunch of sedate patrons. In hip-hoppy Deja Vu on New York Avenue, young folks were dressed to impress and swarmed tightly around the bar like ants on a dropped lollipop.
Well after midnight, we hopped a cab to the Borgata, the flashy East Coast cousin of Vegas's Bellagio (complete with Dale Chihuly glasswork). Had a scotch at the Bar at SeaBlue, a way station between the casino floor and the Borgata's two clubs, Mixx and Mur.mur, both of which had long lines and $25 covers. Each.
We loitered a bit. A sliver in the curtains outside of Mixx hinted at swirling lights and white-clad dancers and maybe a good time, but we couldn't reconcile spending $150 to find out. Besides, we were making our own fun with a running commentary on the extremes in dress and behavior of the clientele.
We returned to Studio Six to close the weekend. Around 3:30 a.m., there were 30 people, about twice as many as the previous night. One of the bartenders flipped bottles of liquor, dropping at least two during his routine. He kept it together long enough to pour shots of Everclear and light them on fire for us. We toasted ourselves, picked up errant hula hoops and started to dance.
With dawn approaching, we walked the 50 feet to the Surfside and struck up a conversation with Lori, a kindly cross-dresser in a gold miniskirt passing through the hall. We chatted about soaring rents, her law school prospects and the gentle indifference of the world. It doesn't matter where you are or what you're doing or how bad things get, Lori told us, as long as you're with good people.
At which point everything kind of clicked.