Gone are the tropical juicers, the cones of french fries. A walk on Atlantic City's Boardwalk screams its snacks at you, but it is as resistable a conglomeration of food as you will find on any highway in America. A Truth in Menus campaign could wipe out the whole Boardwalk. "Fresh Fruit Drinks" can mean canned Hawaiian Punch.
A sign says, "Fresh Grape Juice," so I ask if they have any fresh grape juice. "How could I have fresh grape juice?" challenges the counterman. That's what I thought I was asking him.
As for the freshly popped popcorn at Hi-Hat Joe's, the man explained that the machine had broken down. "Ten years ago?" I suggested. "About that," he answered.
But there is some hope for the hungry on the Boardwalk, most of it at Nathan's, the hot dog stand with a lingering Brooklyn flavor. Not everything it sells is worth trying, but the hot dogs that made Nathan's Famous famous still have their bite and their spicy kosher flair. The french fries, thick and crinkle-cut, are the only decent ones I found for miles.
For Atlantic City flavor, follow the smell of the Planters Peanuts - the aroma wafts for blocks. The silvery machinery still churns in the window, and five Mr. Peanuts guard the store. A bag of plain roasted peanuts in the shell is the big draw; don't stray into any other culinary byways.
After a day of drooping pizza slices, flabby hot dogs, and steamers that are like clam-flavored chewing gum, the Boardwalker craves something fresh and plain. Only one stand will do - an unnamed one next to Steak & Brew near Ocean Avenue. It has dripping fresh pineapple slices, watermelon wedges and tiny glasses of freshly sqeezed orange juice over-priced at 75 cents, "because of the casino," the counterman admitted.
Reese Palley now sells snacks for the rich, as well as more durable baubles. Bonnie's Brownies, wrapped in lavender moire paper, are triple-chocolate butter-drenched and $6.50 a pound; that's only 26 turns at the slot machines.
If you like your chocolate in lesser does at lesser prices, find the Chocolate Chip Factory in Boardwalk Mall. The cookies are baked there, chewy and buttery, with nuts, oatmeal or peanut butter and nothing you wouldn't put in them at home.
The sweetest way to drown your sorrows is in a Break the Bank sundae at C.W. Sweets Chocolate Factory. Eleven scoops, seven toppings at $10.95 ought to break something. Or just get a plain old - very good - hot fudge sundae with Bassett's real vanilla ice cream, fudge of quality, and honest whipped cream.
Most Atlantic City traditions will never be missed. But a Ranch House breakfast deserves a long future. Three-egg omelets with about a half pounf of cheese are cooked over a charcoal grill in the window and delivered with wake-you-up cheeriness. Coffee appears as if automatically dispensed by the opening of the door. It all starts at $1.79.
Atlantic City is also sandwich city, and anything ethnic that can fit between two slices of bread is a good bet there. Convincing evidence reveals that the corned beef-coleslaw-russian dressing-on-rye developed from a sun-struck Atlantic City imagination, and it is still a great sandwich at Kornblau's on Pacific Avenue. As for submarines, also rumored to have Atlantic City origins, the famed source is the White House, on Arctic Avenue at Mississippi. Its Famous Regular Sub (the first word more apt than the second), at $2.70 for about a day's worth of eating, is not only deliciously concocted, it is a structural wonder, with all the salad stuff in the middle so the bread doesn't get soggy.
Atlantic City's crabs come from Maryland, but the cooking method is all their own. At Abe's Seafood House, a dark-walled '30s place with a paternal air, the hard crabs are split and broiled, as peppery as the Maryland steamed version but tidy-looking creatures that are twice as easy to eat.
Not all the innovation is in the food. Renault Winery, 16 miles from Atlantic City, is packaging its wines under the labels Casino Red, Casino White and Casino Vin Rose. Losers.