By: Nicole Pensiero
Battling the mid-winter doldrums, we debated for weeks where to escape to for a weekend. We wanted some place fun and easy to get to, that would provide a nice mix of excitement and relaxation – with an emphasis on relaxation.
Bingo! – The Ocean Casino Resort, which has become Atlantic City’s biggest rise-from-the-ashes success story. Without rehashing too much history, many will recall that when it originally opened in April 2012, it was the Revel: hugely hyped and hugely expensive, it ended up being a huge flop, closing less than two-and-a-half years later, in September 2014.
Well, forget all that: the now-Ocean Casino Resort is the third biggest money-maker in town and what many describe as the most lavish property of all the city’s gaming resorts. For fans of Atlantic City, it has been especially gratifying to see this much-deserved turnaround. It is a resort that has become a shining star.
I couldn’t wait to spend a few nights there, and find out in person what all the buzz is about. Despite decades of living in South Jersey – and countless trips to do a little gambling in AC, or to see a show there – I had surprisingly never spent a night in a casino hotel. A very overdue experience, it was one that far exceeded our expectations.
While it was little more than an hour’s drive away, that sense of being transported to someplace fabulous and new was in high gear during our two-night stay at Ocean. We began our getaway with a quick lunch stop at one of Atlantic City’s oldest and most popular pizza joints, Tony’s Baltimore Grill, where we savored fantastic meatball sandwiches.
From there, it was across town to The Ocean, the tallest and northernmost casino on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Housed on 20 acres of land, this casino resort is highly dramatic in appearance, both inside and out. Built at a cost of more than $2.4 billion, the Ocean is a dazzling structure, from its massive lobby to its glittering casino and diverse array of dining options, from casual to high-end.
We checked into our room on the 42nd floor and immediately were drawn to the floor-to-ceiling windows. The view our room offered of Atlantic City’s north inlet, over to Brigantine – as well as the ocean, of course – was nothing less than stunning. There are 1,399 hotel rooms at The Ocean; construction is currently underway to add another 460-plus guest rooms and suites in six floors of unoccupied space in the tower. Spending a night mid-week is a money-saver, as was going down off-season.
After settling in, we wanted to explore the resort a bit. And there is a lot to see – plenty of restaurants, shops, bars, swimming pools, and a top-notch spa, called Exhale.
After playing a few slots, we relaxed until our first night’s dinner, a true highlight of the weekend. The Ocean’s steakhouse, American Cut, was voted Best Steakhouse for 2021 in Casino Player Magazine. We soon discovered why: beyond the stellar service, our meal was nothing less than fantastic, start to finish. We have to give credit to Executive Chef Romeo DiBona, who had been top chef at Borgata’s Old Homestead Steak House – then briefly ran his own restaurant – before joining the Ocean in 2021. The Philadephia native has brought his culinary magic to American Cut with amazing flair. Joined by a third person for dinner, we enjoyed entrees that included a mouth-watering petit filet with reyes bleu cheese, Chilean Sea Bass and, for me, a killer pork chop with roasted sweet and hot peppers in an herbed, white wine butter sauce.
The side dishes at American Cut were beyond delectable, too: Potato Puree (whipped potatoes with garlic and butter); five-cheese macaroni (with fontina, mozzarella, parmesan, Gruyere, and cheddar); and roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon, pine nuts, piquillo peppers and balsamic. We savored every bite. For dessert, we tried a sampling of luscious treats to share: a 13-layer carrot cake, a chocolate cake and a specialty cheesecake – all of which were “off the scale.” It was a meal we won’t forget – I am already thinking of when I can next return and bring new friends to experience this fantastic restaurant.
We returned to the casino for a little fun before turning in for the night. The next morning, we started our day at the upscale Harper’s Restaurant – which we liked so much, we went to again on our second morning. (Open only for breakfast and lunch, it’s perfect for brunch). Both breakfasts were different as we wanted to mix it up a bit, but both were delicious. We enjoyed the sample of Harper’s mango smoothie, and the French press coffee was especially smooth. I particularly loved the Eggs Benedict (best Hollandaise sauce ever!) and The Classic Omelet (with smoked ham and Gruyere cheese) was a hit with my friend. The kicker on both mornings, however, was the bourbon sticky bun, a ridiculously large and fantastic treat topped with orange cream cheese, bourbon caramel and candied pecans.
My friends decided to relax and explore the resort while I headed down to the Exhale Spa for the 50-minute signature Flow Massage. A deep tissue massage (but without any pain), it was the perfect anecdote to months of COVID and work-induced stress. I had been tipped off by a friend to bring a swimsuit so I could enjoy the various amenities in this 40,000-square foot oasis after my treatment. There is a jetted pool, Jacuzzi, Himalayan Salt Grotto and lounge area – no shortage of pampering here! Voted the “#1 Spa in New Jersey” by Spas of America, Exhale is a beautiful facility with an utterly relaxing vibe. Talk about bliss!
Meeting back up with my friends, we enjoyed a drink at the popular Lobby Bar – I couldn’t resist trying out one of the three Girl Scout Cookie Cocktails available through the end of March. I went for the Tall & Minty, a luscious mix of Kahlua, crème de menthe, half & half, and a touch of chocolate. There are two other fantastic flavors, too, all of which cost $12 each, with $3 of every sale going to support the Girl Scouts of Southern and Central New Jersey.
From there, it was onto lunch at the popular Wahlburgers, founded by actor-singer brothers Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, and known for – you guessed it – great burgers. No one was disappointed; the chocolate milkshakes were an added delight. Speaking of ice cream …coming this spring to The Ocean, is the legendary New York-based Serendipity3, home of the world famous Frrrozen Hot Chocolate. This will be another one-of-a-kind dining experience for the resort, an 8,000-square foot restaurant transporting guests into a fantasy world filled with great food and dream-sized desserts.
On the afternoon of our last day, we checked out the spacious indoor pool and did more exploring in this amazing resort. Dinner that night had a European flair: Jose Garces’ Amada, known for its upscale, gourmet tapas. As a big fan of Spain and its cuisine, this was a true delight: we shared small plates of a variety of things, including beef short rib flatbread, (“Costilla de Ternara”), sweet stem cauliflower with parsley and lemon, and diver scallops. For dessert, we savored the Basque-style cheesecake with passion fruit and pine nuts, along with Spanish-style crème brulee (“Crema Catalana”). Oh, and let’s not forget the fabulous sangria, offered in both red and white varieties. It was heavenly!
Back to the casino for a bit more slot playing, as the night wound down, but let me assure you – you do not have to be a gambler to enjoy this casino. Its fantastic amenities –even more plentiful in the warm weather – were more than enough to keep us entertained for a weekend.
In fact, next time we return, we’ll plan it so we can catch a show in the popular, 5,000-seat Ovation Hall, which, this summer, will host everyone from Boz Scaggs, to Tracy Morgan to the latest incarnation of famed southern rockers, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The Ocean frequently runs room offers and other specials, too, so if you need an easy, fun and often-elegant getaway, here’s your place.
Nicole Pensiero is a South Jersey-based writer and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA). Follow her on twitter @NicoleWrytr
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