Robert Wiedmaier never imagined that he’d own a restaurant in a casino, let alone one in a casino in Atlantic City, the gritty New Jersey vice capital that seems to generate a Pavlovian gag reflex from the buttoned-down types who call the cool marble world of Washington home.
“I don’t like casinos,” Wiedmaier says flatly. “I’m not a gambler.”
Nor does Wiedmaier care much for those licensing deals in which a hotel casino runs a restaurant branded with a celebrity chef’s name and outfitted with a celebrity chef’s menu; Wiedmaier’s not the type to cede control of any eatery with his name on it and content himself with regular revenue-sharing checks.
All of which leads quite organically to the following statement: Robert Wiedmaier has opened a restaurant in Atlantic City’s shiniest new playground, the $2.4 billion Revel. Don’t dare call it a casino. It’s a resort. But in some ways, Revel is more like a generous, deep-pocketed landlord to the chefs, partners and investors who decided to open 11 (and counting) restaurants in the towering new project.
Case in point: According to Wiedmaier, Revel ponied up a good 75 percent of the $7 million it cost to build out his elaborate Mussel Bar, just off the 130,000-square-foot high-tech casino floor, with its built-in burlesque show. Revel had its reasons for the capital outlay: Its executives wanted to attract some of the finest kitchen talent found in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, in the hopes that those chefs would in turn attract their big-city regulars to that infamous boardwalk — the one so bleakly depicted in Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” (“Down on the boardwalk they’re getting ready for a fight . . . ”).
While Wiedmaier may not be a celebrity on the level of Jose Garces and Marc Forgione, a pair of media-savvy Iron Chefs who also have restaurants at Revel, he’s a bankable name in the Washington market, where he owns and operates five restaurants, including Marcel’s, his elegant, high-end exercise in French-Flemish cooking, which topped the local Zagat ratings for food in 2011. The guy has more than Old World cooking chops; he has the ability to translate those chops into an approachable, affordable experience like the Mussel Bar.
Those expecting a replica of Wiedmaier’s Mussel Bar in Bethesda will be in for a surprise. The Atlantic City version is a Mussel Bar on steroids. It’s essentially a mash-up of Mussel Bar and his Brasserie Beck, with a more expansive menu (including a 52-ounce porterhouse for $110!), a wine list that exceeds 250 bottles, a live music stage and a lengthy bar whose focal point may not be the wall of beers behind the counter but the Harley-Davidson chopper that hangs over it. The bike is Wiedmaier’s.
“He has a couple more Harleys, and this is the most uncomfortable,” says Ramon Narvaez, food and beverage director for the Mussel Bar.
If there’s any theme to the restaurants at Revel, it’s this: Like some philosophical exercise in how context changes an object, Revel seems to alter the nature of the eateries and the chefs invited to the oceanfront spot. The Mussel Bar is different, yes, but so is the still-unopened Central Michel Richard, the third in the Washington chef’s budding chain of casual American-influenced bistros. (The Revel version is scheduled to open around Wednesday.)
While many of the design elements remain the same at the Central in Atlantic City — the circular light fixtures, the decorative stack of dishes, the open kitchen — there’s something unmistakably different about the New Jersey spot. It has to do with Central’s location in Revel. It’s situated near the elevators in a hallway leading to the casino floor. The restaurant has been designed with low walls to allow diners to watch the passing foot traffic. It gives Central the feel of an airport eatery.
More disquieting to those who consider Richard a Washington (perhaps even a national) institution, the chef’s name appears to be AWOL on his two other concepts at Revel: O Bistro and Wine Bar and the O Bistro Dining Room (formerly the Breakfast Room, whose name was changed to give the space more flexibility). Richard was not available for comment, and his publicist didn’t have any insights on the lack of Richard branding onsite. But one manager at the O Bistro Dining Room told me that Revel wanted to cut down on signs in the resort.
Regardless of the branding, or lack thereof, the two O Bistro operations (the name is a clever pun on the French word “eau,” meaning water) still exude some of Richard’s characteristic playfulness, certainly in the design of the Dining Room. When open for breakfast, or some other service, the O Bistro Dining Room almost magically appears out of thin air; a Revel wall opens, like window blinds, to reveal the restaurant. The O Bistro and Wine Bar is essentially a poolside watering hole, catering to the guests lounging around the Revel’s heated indoor-outdoor swimming pool.
“For the first time in my life, I’m going to be able to serve food to a lady in a bikini,” Richard said in a promotional Revel video.
Like Richard, Garces has three concepts at Revel, but unlike with Richard, each is intimately linked to the Philadelphia chef in some form or another. Village Whiskey and Amada, for example, are Atlantic City outposts of restaurants that have developed loyal followings back in Philly. Similarly, Revel’s Distrito Cantina is a cozy food-truck-themed tequila bar that serves up a concise menu of guacamole, tamales and tacos, similar to items hawked on Garces’s Guapos, a real-life mobile taqueria in the City of Brotherly Love. For these reasons alone, Garces seems like the star of the culinary circus at Revel.
Garces does have some competition at Revel on the upscale dining front, whether from acclaimed French chef Alain Allegretti (whose Azure by Allegretti entices gamblers with a fish-heavy Riviera cuisine) or Forgione (whose American Cut steakhouse wasn’t open when I visited in April but is now channeling a sort of rock-and-roll vibe into its clubby ambiance). Incidentally, Azure by Allegretti and American Cut are owned by LDV Hospitality, which Crain’s New York Business just dubbed the “hottest hospitality group no one’s heard of,” despite operating Scarpetta and Veritas, two highly rated restaurants in the Big Apple. Revel may be LDV’s breakout moment.
Then again, maybe it won’t be. A recurring theme of conversations with chefs, restaurateurs and managers at Revel is the unusual amount of cooperation between these competitors. Some of the restaurants share kitchen staff, loading dock workers and even operational knowledge.
“We actually started meeting as a group months ago, like on Tuesday afternoons, just to share ideas,” says chef and New Jersey native Brian McBride, who oversees the kitchen operations at the Mussel Bar for Wiedmaier. “We know we need to drive business year-round, so we need to team up and do things together.”
It’s all enough to make even Wiedmaier a fan of Revel, which maybe isn’t hard to understand now that he has an investment to protect. Perhaps more telling is that the cluster of chef-driven restaurants at Revel has apparently excited an even harder-to-please audience: the weary locals who started to make tentative steps back to casinos when Wolfgang Puck and Bobby Flay opened restaurants at the Borgata.
“Honestly, a lot of locals aren’t big gamblers,” says longtime Atlantic City resident Laura L. Stevenson, now a manager at Central at Revel. “We grow up around here. We see the bad end of it. We look forward [to] the cool restaurants, the cool bars here. Everyone’s so excited to go and try something new.”