Last month, when my friend Frances invited us to spend a weekend with her and her husband Todd in Atlantic City, I was understandably a little apprehensive. First of all, Atlantic City is in New Jersey, a state where calling someone pale is an insult so grave that it might result in your body being stuffed into the trunk of their Camaro. Second, for many years, Atlantic City's reputation was that of a city where the real gambling involved walking down the wrong street after dark. And third, did I mention that we'd be making the 2.5 hour journey by boat? I mean, who isn't dying to star in their very own remake of Gilligan's Island?
Our plan was to drive down to Frances and Todd's house in Brick, NJ, on Friday night, then depart for Atlantic City on Saturday morning. Unfortunately I wasn't feeling well on the drive down, and so after a tour of every rest stop bathroom in New Jersey, I slept in on Saturday and missed the omelets that Todd had kindly prepared for breakfast. Instead, I had this.
That is a butter cake with orange filling and buttercream frosting that Frances made herself. It was supposed to be my dessert on Friday night, but it made a perfect breakfast instead . . . particularly when paired with bellinis.
I know this looks like a lot of luggage for just one night, but Frances and I really wanted to blend in in Atlantic City, so two of those bags were filled with bronzer, hair extensions, fake nails, and lip liner, and a third was stuffed full of padded bras.
Our journey was thankfully uneventful, and after a few hours Atlantic City came into view.
Soon we arrived at the state marina where we'd be docking the boat for the night.
We then made our way over to the Borgata, where the glass-fronted lobby has those triple-width revolving doors that move automatically as soon as you step in. Some idiot kept touching the glass, though, which causes the doors to stop dead and everyone inside to pile up . . . but I just couldn't help myself.
Although AC has dozens of hotels to choose from, Frances said she picked the Borgata because of the gorgeous Chihuly glass chandeliers and sculptures in the lobby and other public areas.
Despite the beauty of the Chihuly sculptures, Frances has lived in Jersey for quite a while now, so I wouldn't be surprised if she really wanted to stay at the Borgata because the building is plated in fake gold.
Our first stop was at Buddakan for lunch, where this gigantic golden Buddha would turn out to be the most tasteful thing we saw all weekend.
Since we'd arrived in AC later than anticipated, three of us were famished by the time we sat down for lunch, and Todd was downright delirious.
However, since our dinner reservations were just 4 hours away by the time we arrived at Buddakan, we decided that we'd better eat light. So we had some spare ribs, and one or two other things.
After lunch we spent a few minutes exploring the Pier Shops and the boardwalk.
I'm as lazy as the next guy, but cruising the boardwalk in one of these carts instead of on foot is really pushing it.
After lunch we walked over to Caesar's, the legendary Atlantic City hotel that began life as a Howard Johnson's. You might think that Caesar's is much classier than a HoJo, but that's like arguing about whether Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan is the better behaved inmate.
If you ever find yourself staring at a bunch of cement Caesars and a garish sign for Trump Plaza, do as this photo suggests and hire a moving van to get the hell out of there.
The highlight of our visit to Caesar's was this multi-piece sculpture outside the hotel.
Frances and Todd jokingly discussed getting a red-caped Caesar for their own front yard, but let's be realistic: One of their neighbors would steal it in a heartbeat.
Angel and Todd decided to return to the Borgata to catch the Yankees game on TV, which left me and Frances free to do a little shopping.
Oh my Gaudy.
One of the highlights of the Pier Shops is a fountain that changes colors.
Every so often the fountain is set to music, and since this is New Jersey, that music is either Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, or someone hollering, "Yo!"
Our plans for that evening included dinner, drinks, and a comedy show, so, this being AC, I of course dressed up like a streetwalker.
For her part, Frances wore a black dress covered in 3-foot-long fringe, which she inadvertently peed on every time she went to the ladies room. I'm kidding! That only happened once.
The four of us met up outside Frances' room at precisely 7:30, but Todd, who was fully dressed and ready to go, never even made it to the elevator before deciding that he was too exhausted to carry on . . . leaving Angel with a faux hooker on each arm and a dinner reservation at a place called Fornelletto, which sounds like something a real hooker might do for the right price.
We started off with the burrata . . .
then moved on to the spaghetti with lobster for Angel . . .
and the basil-crusted halibut with peas, favas, and asparagus for Frances . . .
and a veal parm, ironically shaped like a chicken, for me.
After dinner we headed over to the comedy club, but between the group of drunken hecklers near the stage, and the pack of drunken hyenas behind us, the only person laughing was probably Todd, who'd had the good sense to stay home.
Undeterred, the three of us wound up at one of the Borgata's many bars, this one called Long Bar, where we had a few cocktails and Frances unleashed her inner Tracey by ordering a plate full of soft pretzels less than an hour after we finished dinner.
Although I'd like to say that we stayed up and partied all night, Angel and I collapsed into bed by midnight.
The next morning Frances and Todd headed back to the marina to ready the boat for our trip back, while Angel checked us out of the hotel and I took some photos of the casino.
We ran out of time to grab breakfast, but luckily Frances had it covered: A danish for Angel, and for me . . . a tuna melt. That she knows that's my favorite breakfast and still hangs out with me just goes to show what a good friend she is.
We were maybe only 15 minutes outside of AC when we saw this.
Yup, that's the Coast Guard, who pulled up alongside us and boarded our boat for what was supposed to be a routine check of the boat's emergency equipment. I'm pretty sure, however, that this particular inspection was anything but routine, considering that the ensuing conversation went something like this:
Coast Guard: When is the last time you were boarded, ma'am?
Frances: Um, never? And who are you calling "ma'am"?
Tracey: Hey, would you guys like a tuna melt?!
Coast Guard [sternly]: No, thank you, ma'am. It's 10:00 in the morning.
Tracey: Well, how about some photos, then? You wanna be on a blog?
Angel buries his face in his hands.
Frances: Our friend Tracey here has this tapeworm, and lots of people like to read about it. You could be famous!
Todd [changing the subject]: Here, let me show you officers the life jackets and flares.
Tracey: Smile pretty, now!
Coast Guard [sternly]: Ma'am, please don't make us confiscate that camera.
Tracey: What did my friend just tell you about calling us "ma'am"?
Inspection completed, the Coast Guard departed and we continued on our merry way, bound for Baker's Water Street Bar & Grille in Tom's River. Tom's River is notable for having a completely normal name, which really means something in a state full of towns with names like Ho-Ho-Kus, Bivalve, Cheesequake, and Buttzville.
At Baker's, we ordered such a disgusting assortment of foods that you'd have thought we'd staggered into a 7-11 at 2 a.m. I went with a pina colada paired with the Asian salmon, which I don't really like but ordered for the basmati rice that came with it; Frances ordered a four-course lunch that included red pepper hummus, teriyaki steak, wasabi-crusted tuna, and a molten chocolate lava cake a la mode; Angel had the cashew-crusted tilapia with coconut rum sauce, which he ate with French fries and a side of BBQ sauce; and Todd nursed a coffee and ordered a lobster to go.
Amazingly, nobody threw up. Maybe because we had coated our stomachs with Baker's addictive corn fritters dusted with powdered sugar beforehand?
Exhausted from taking in more tacky in one weekend than most folks do in a lifetime, Angel and I departed Brick around 5pm and headed for home. We were almost at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel when it occurred to us that there was only one possible way to finish a weekend in Jersey, and that was with dinner at Leo's Grandevous in Hoboken.
I make it a policy to never use photos on this blog that I didn't take myself, but Leo's warrants a one-time exception. This is the photo that appears on their web site's home page, and it sums up Leo's better than any words I might write ever could.
Opened by Leo and Tessie DiTerlizzi in 1939, Leo's became a hangout for Frank Sinatra in his early days in Jersey, and today, all of the available space on Leo's walls, and a fair amount of the selections on the jukebox, are dedicated to Hoboken's favorite son.
In 2000, Men's Journal named Leo's one of the "50 Greatest Bars in the United States," probably because it's the perfect place for a "grandevous," which is a clever play on the restaurant's location on 2nd Street and Grand.
As "Don't Stop Believin'" blared from the jukebox, Angel and I settled in at a high-top near the bar and ordered two glasses of bad Chianti, which arrived filled to the brim old-school style. (White wines at Leo's are served with ice.)
Soon our spaghetti and meatballs arrived, along with a side of meatballs to share. This is Leo's: Leave the Chianti; take the meatballs.
Sure, Leo's is delightfully tacky and staunchly old-school, but it's also a helluva lot of fun.
Much like New Jersey itself.
Want more Jersey? Check out our adventures in beautiful Cape May here.
Want to swap fake tans and big hair for tiny dogs and huge egos? Then follow us to the Hamptons this summer! Click here to subscribe, and you'll be the first to know how many lobster rolls a person can really eat in three short months.