When celebrity chef Guy Fieri said Atlantic City doesn’t get the reputation it deserves for having great food, it was no surprise to locals and visitors who consider the city a food destination.

Where else can you find Cuban, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Mexican, Korean, French, Mediterranean, American and Soul dining venues alongside traditional steak and seafood restaurants – all within about 4 square miles?

Under the shadows of skyscrapers, some of which have gone dark in recent months, small food businesses are offering a new draw for visitors to Atlantic City.

About 71 percent of people living in Philadelphia, New York City and Baltimore looking for a getaway now see Atlantic City as a destination to go to for dining, according to a recent survey by the Atlantic City Alliance.

Yet the food industry has never been marketed as an independent destination from the casinos, and marketing campaigns often highlight the casinos, Boardwalk and beaches.

“Some secrets are best when kept, and eight years ago it would have been ideal,” said Tony Baloney’s owner, Mike Hauke.

But now is the time to let the secret out, and promote the variety of dining options in Atlantic City independently, he said.

* * *

Fieri visited Atlantic City last month to see his new Chophouse in Bally’s and try some of the local eateries in southern New Jersey for his Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

At the end of his visit that day, he said, “I have said it a bunch. I don’t think the Atlantic City area and the South Jersey area really get the reputation it deserves for having great food. You have a really eclectic mix of people who live here. [The restaurants are] old school, new school, ethnic — a nice variety — and great seafood!”

Despite recent media on the casino closings, and the lack of visitors on the Boardwalk, food has increasingly become the reason why visitors are coming to Atlantic City.

Most recently is Cafe 2825, which was named in the top 100 eateries in the country by OpenTable, the online reservation site, based on customer reviews.

But outside of Restaurant Week, Borgata’s Savor event and a number of individual awards and recognitions, the overall market has not been marketed in a way that does justice to its overall strength.

“Historically, the (advertising) money has gone to casino restaurants,” Hauke said.

* * *

Back in the early 1980s, when casinos were sprouting up around the city, the consumers’ palate had not yet matured, said Chef Kelly McClay, dean of the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College.

Celebrating a special occasion was often the only reason to eat out, and special dietary needs could not be met at all venues.

The convenience of eating within the casinos then was a natural draw, causing institutions like the Knife and Fork Inn and Dock’s Oyster House to go through a rough patch, McClay said. But after about 10 years — likely because of the high prices in casinos — the patrons began venturing outside, allowing the industry to flourish.

After Borgata introduced the idea of bringing in restaurants under contracts, Tropicana soon followed with The Quarter. And within the past decade, other properties have brought in celebrity chefs or national chains under contract.

The changing economic landscape warrants a shift in marketing focus to ensure that the city has a chance to grow and compete with other regions as a foodie town.

“When you go into some of these places you think, ‘If this was in Philadelphia or if this was in New York, it would be packed,’” Hauke said.

Hauke said Atlantic City has the potential to rival Philadelphia and New York City as a food destination, but a little more “polishing” is required.

There are some newer or classier places, but also within the city are older or more traditional joints that offer a nostalgic atmosphere, such as Angeloni’s or Tony’s Baltimore Grill.

Some of the smaller mom-and-pop eateries should take the health standards seriously and operate differently than they would in their home kitchen, to increase their potential, Hauke said.

But the draw for food is an opportunity that the city should be poised to take advantage of, and it will also create an opportunity for smaller businesses to succeed, McClay said.

In addition to casino closings, she said Hurricane Sandy is partly to blame for the shift in focus.

“The storm had a much bigger effect than you realize. It opened our eyes to pay better attention to what is going on in our own backyard and be better stewards of what we have here,” she said.

“We are a food destination. But the niche market is still new to us, so we are not sure how to market it,” McClay said. “We really haven’t had a focus for the tourism business, beyond the casinos. With concerts on the beach and the focus shifting off of the Boardwalk, this is a great opportunity to start introducing (the idea of being a foodie town).”

* * *

But other relationships could foster growth in Atlantic City’s food market, Hauke said.

If casinos were to build relationships and cater from local eateries, or contract with them for spaces within — such as White House Subs in Trump Taj Mahal — it would create a stronger market. And advertising geared toward the food market in Atlantic City, maybe with the slogan “Eat AC,” could draw more attention to the underappreciated area.

But the Atlantic City Alliance insists that their TV commercials do focus on the variety of offerings, and the Visit AC website highlights casino and non-casino eateries in the dining listings.

“Dining is one of our pillars, in everything we do,” said ACA spokeswoman Melanie Sole.

Frank Dougherty, who owns three restaurants in the city, agrees, and said that prior to the ACA, there was no focus on non-gaming attractions in Atlantic City.

The alliance’s predecessor, Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority, was marketing to a different audience altogether.

Dougherty, who owns the Knife and Fork Inn as well as Dock’s Oyster House, said he has seen business surge in the past four years.

Dock’s used to be a March to November operation, but now is open seven days, some days for both lunch and dinner, Dougherty said.

ACA president Liza Cartmell said that the most success for advertising food in Atlantic City has been social media.

But the public relations team has also focused its efforts on bringing awareness to the food business through media tours.

When media representatives visited Atlantic City during the latest “fam,” as the tours are known, in September, they took a dining tour as well, Cartmell said.

Casino Reinvestment Development Authority spokeswoman Elaine Zamansky said articles have been published about local restaurants in the outer markets.

“We definitely talk to writers about them, it is an angle we try to push,” she said, but whether the articles are published is a decision that rests with the writers and their organizations.

Another initiative to help visitors find local food destinations is the revamp of wayfinding signs in the city, Cartmell said. It would list all the nearby eateries for foot traffic to stop in.

“As long as we keep moving at the current pace, despite the news of the casinos closing, the city will be fine, and it will flourish,” Hauke said.

Contact Anjalee Khemlani:

609-272-7247

@ACPressAnj on Twitter

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