Forget the fancy-schmancy entrees, fine wine and white-gloved waiters.
The next big attraction in Atlantic City's culinary scene is a collection of casual, Philly-flavored restaurants, including a Chickie's & Pete's sports bar that proudly touts its blue-collar crowd.
Scheduled for a July 11 grand opening, the expansion project at Tropicana Casino and Resort is also remarkable by what is missing: There are absolutely no slot machines or table games included.
Tropicana officials say the project underscores the importance of adding new nongambling attractions to broaden the city's appeal as a tourist destination. Atlantic City casinos have been building new restaurants, nightclubs, spas and shopping outlets in recent years to distinguish themselves from rival casinos in surrounding states.
"The addition of these exciting nongaming attractions is a reminder that Tropicana is more than just a casino, it is a must-see travel destination," said Tony Rodio, the casino's president and chief executive officer.
Similar comments were made about Resorts Casino Hotel when it celebrated the Memorial Day weekend grand opening of the sprawling, $35 million Margaritaville-themed bar and restaurant project - a partnership with singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett.
In Tropicana's case, it is taking some prime space overlooking the Boardwalk to tempt customers with some decidedly informal restaurants. Crab fries, cheesesteaks, burgers and tacos will top the fare at these places.
The featured attraction is a Chickie's & Pete's sports bar, one of Philadelphia's best-known, casual-restaurant franchises. Chickie's & Pete's has been voted by ESPN as the No. 1 sports bar in North America, said Joe Carpinella, the company's vice president of operations.
"I think at Tropicana, we'll have working-class customers who come in to relax and have a good time. They are down-to-earth customers," Carpinella said.
Carpinella stressed that Chickie's & Pete's menu will reflect the customer base by offering affordable prices. Crab fries are the restaurant's claim to fame, he noted.
Carpinella expects Bud Lite to be the best-selling beer at the Atlantic City location. Altogether, 24 different beers will be available on draft.
Despite its casual reputation, Chickie's & Pete's will be a cut above the typical flip-flops-and-shorts-style seashore eatery. Spread out over two levels, the restaurant includes 16,000 square feet of space and will seat 525 people.
A large swath of Tropicana's Boardwalk entryway has been transformed with the Chickie's & Pete's facade.
Packed into the restaurant's contemporary decor are 76 big-screen TVs, including 19 at the main bar. In addition to watching sports, customers will be able to gaze out on the ocean from the restaurant's waterfront location.
"This will be the first Chickie's & Pete's to have window seats overlooking the ocean," Carpinella said, smiling.
Carpinella declined to divulge the construction cost. However, Alan Rivin, Tropicana's vice president of hotel operations, said Chickie's & Pete's is demonstrating its faith in the Atlantic City market by building such a major project.
"The big thing to take away is, they're excited to be in this town," Rivin said. "There was a slump, and other people were reluctant to be here."
Rivin was alluding to a six-year downturn in the Atlantic City market caused by the sluggish economy and intense competition from casinos in Pennsylvania and other neighboring states.
Although Tropicana is emphasizing the nongambling element of the expansion project, Chickie's & Pete's will be counted on to generate extra business on the casino floor. The restaurant will open up to the casino floor next to the existing Rumba Bar.
"We think we're in the best spot in Atlantic City," Carpinella said. "The vibe you get in the casino, it exudes fun. You'll feel the vibe from Chickie's & Pete's when you're on the casino floor and you'll feel the vibe from the casino floor when you're in Chickie's & Pete's."
The economic benefits of the new restaurant include expanding the local jobs market. Chickie's & Pete's is hiring 185 workers, including food servers, bartenders and cooks.
Tropicana's restaurant expansion also includes four other Boardwalk eateries built in partnership with local developer George Siganos. They include Tony Luke's, Casa Taco & Tequila Bar, Marketplace Express and Perry's Pizza. Tony Luke's is a Philadelphia landmark specializing in cheesesteaks, billing itself as "The Real Taste of South Philly."
The four Siganos-developed restaurants will employ a total of 130 people, Tropicana said.
Another new restaurant has opened recently inside The Quarter, Tropicana's mall-like retail and entertainment complex. Called Broadway Burger Bar and Grill, it employs 105 people.
Broadway Burger seats 225 in a casual atmosphere. Donna McCarthy, the restaurant's director of operations in Atlantic City, said Broadway Burger hopes to capitalize on The Quarter's popularity.
"The attraction of The Quarter is obvious," she said. "It's a great location."
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