Fifty-six screens, all with the same constantly changing images, sweep along the side of Mixx, a techno-rap-and-writhe club with great professional dancers and a $20 cover. The poker room could easily be a production center at some cyber-strung TV studio, so many 50-inch plasma screens dominate its walls. Ditto for B-Bar, in mid-casino, where eight oversize TVs look down on the small oval bar, itself oozing electric blue from countertop video-poker machines.
Walk into the hotel elevators - ensconced in an overnight-guest lobby that comes to life with luscious abstract nudes, walls of big-button lights, and a drop-dead post-mod chandelier - and the first thing you see is a rear elevator wall with a TV set buried in it, looping a flick like Some Like It Hot. Once guests are settled in their comfy rooms, they are permitted to ignore the Nintendo game station, the TV, and the keyboard that calls up the Internet, and engage in consensual boredom. But in the public spaces, neurons must jump.
The Borgata has replaced the mirrors generally found in casinos, which make you feel insulated, with cyber signs and screens, which make you feel connected. Set in the Marina, the $1.1 billion effort even looks like the computer tower you have at your desk-top terminal. By the time you step onto the casino floor and realize that no everyday coins are acceptable in the slots - nothing, please, short of a five spot - you half-expect to cash out not with the exciting clatter of coins, but a silent cyber-coupon whose bar code encrypts the amount you've won. And that, in fact, is what pops from the machine.
The bars, loud and happy, also have an electronic bent. The Gypsy Bar - the best of them and a great drinking spot anywhere - announces itself with its logo swirling in lights on the hallway floor. Outside, 56 brands of tequila sit in bottles arranged like museum antiques. Inside, 181 bottles of liquor are backlit in exploding sunlight-gold, and people sit in plush chairs or along black-granite counters, and move their bods to live music from around the world. One of the house-specialty drinks, the large Gypsy Mojito, is an $8 lime-mint-sugarcane-rum-soda blend that tastes as fresh as spring water and kicks you only after it's down.
Borgata in Italian means village, and to loosely paraphrase Hillary (the senator, not the mountain climber), it takes a borgata of 5,000 employees to make sure you boogie with abandon, shop upscale and wine/dine in any of the 10 restaurants, all the while handing over your cash at games not in your favor. Gambling, which has become the real American pastime, usually happens in garish surroundings or places that feel like modified airplane hangars. But here, the tone is sand-colored and the seats at tables and slots are roomy and tasteful. Lean your arm on the sides of the craps table and it sinks into cushy upholstery.
If the electronic screens don't get your blood pumping, the squiggles will. Very little about Borgata is angular. Curves and spirals, wavy lines and whip tails make the carpets and floors pulse; the Borgata may be the first building ever dressed in Spermatozoan Chic. Soft, lighted cornucopias squiggle down the walls of Susanna Foo's restaurant, Suilan. Hundreds of colored glass shafts snake from Dale Chihuly's ceiling hangings that surround the casino floor. (Was he Medusa's hairdresser in a former life?) The bedroom pillows are overstuffed - yes, it's spiral polyester.
It took a while for me to feel I knew the place. It's obviously different from the standard Atlantic City model, and landlocked, too. (Marina waters never actually touch it.) The Borgata is also not quite Las Vegas, where its owners, Boyd Gaming and MGM Mirage, mostly operate, although it borrows many elements. The walkways feel like the Bellagio (only nicer) and the restaurant area like the Mandalay Bay. Something about it doesn't seem like Philly, even with Susanna Foo and Center City's Pierre & Carlo, who will run the women's salon. If anything, the Borgata has a New York sensibility.
You see it in the art, often a mix of Italian and Asian, and sometimes presented on a museum scale. (Two places are already popular for guest photo-ops: the entrance, where two Chihuly glass-blown "water spouts" rise like exploded plumes, and a rest-room hall where 12 twisted bronze pieces claim a high wall.) At main-floor display windows at valet parking, you see the New York influence. In one, a woman mannequin stands midair, wires from her head swirling into power sources. "Exhilarate," the window sign proclaims, an avant suggestion that you need a transfusion, and you'll get one.
Edgy and sexy are words Borgata staffers use to portray the place. The windows at valet parking "are really edgy," says one employee. The menus at the bars, "they're edgy," says another. "Did you see the edgy statues?" asks another, referring to humans in flowing white, head to toe, who assume positions and suddenly change them, astonishing visitors.
"Are we ready to sex things up tonight?!?" edgy singer Michael Bubl asks his audience in the Music Box, where 1,000 seats line up in stadium formation and you can find all the brash casino-red you want. Cocktail waitresses in black velvet look like naughty French maids. Images of hunky chef Luke Palladino, who runs two Borgata restaurants, Specchio and Ombra, peer at you from all over. "Come to your happy place" is the casino's double-entendre slogan. Don't order miso soup in Mixx, order it by its real menu name: Miso-Horny.
The Borgata opened before it was really ready, and not everything is in A-One shape. Suilan served a classically Foo appetizer of tuna, scallop ceviche and ginger-smoked salmon - little tastes, each exceptional - then brought out a fully overcooked rack of lamb. The restaurant at Mixx wasn't open all week. The clubby Metropolitan, a deli/coffee-shop open "24 hours, in a row," mistakenly offered french fries for free with its late-night sandwich menu, now corrected.
At the Old Homestead, an outpost of the celebrated New York steak house, I ordered the $19 kobe hot dog, featured days before on a press tour. Ninety minutes later, I was told, with great apologies, that the kobe weiner was not intended to be currently eaten at the Borgata, but had been trotted out to satisfy the media. Even so, the kitchen got one and cooked it (delicious!), all the while heavily overcooking my wife's filet mignon. On Monday, the valet staff lost my car for 25 minutes. The Borgata has invested a lot in the details; I'd lay money that the place will smooth opening-week gaffes.
I am unable to tell you about the spa, pool and exercise hall. I glimpsed them on a press tour, but Sunday night, when my wife and I registered incognito, they were not yet open. (They may open today.) No one cautioned us at check-in, and guests staying at the hotel have been complaining. (I got a $25 Gypsy Bar comp after kvetching.)
The Borgata promotes four experiences: gambling; eating, drinking and shopping; staying there; and using the spa and pool as overnight guests. If one of the four is missing, the Borgata should automatically slash 25 percent off hotel bills. Class, though, has its limits.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or email@example.com.
The Lowdown on All Things Borgata
Rooms start at $179 for the classic, 460 square feet with a polished marble sink, great minty shower soaps, and herb shampoos. I predict that the larger rooms, 700-square-foot suites starting at $249, will be popular. The furnishings are beautiful (check out the tall-legged jewelry box and the Jetsons' slant-legged night table); the beds are high, all white, Italian-linen cocoons, and the bathrooms look like light gray marble mines.
The fine dining
Take money, or win it before dinner. Make reservations. We're giving you only entree ranges; entire meals are a la carte.
* Suilan. Susanna Foo's urbane, swanky restaurant mixes her signature French and Asian styles. $20-$40 per entree.
* Old Homestead. The New York steak house will give you anything from a kobe burger to steaks that no one can eat in one sitting. It's a cosmo, comfortable setting, at about $20-$95 per entree.
* Specchio. Luke Palladino's power restaurant is a two-story knockout with mod Italian cuisine at $20-$39 per entree.
* Ombra. Palladino's sweet basement trattoria is all light-woods classic Italian. About $17-$29 per entree.
The casual dining
If you're just in for part of an evening and get hungry, these are your oases.
* N.O.W. (Noodles of the World) is inside the casino, a beautiful noodle bar with black-glass tables inlaid with pebbles. The best deal in the Borgata may be its $10 Vietnamese raw-beef noodle soup, and the inexpensive beef entrees are skillfully handled.
* Borgata Buffet. Well-lit and huge, and open for all three major meals - breakfast ($12.95), lunch ($16.95), dinner ($24.95). I sampled dinner, which was fresh and featured many cuisines.
* Gypsy Bar. Probably the best place to nurse a drink, with burgers and soups and great music. It's intimate without being cloying.
* The Metropolitan. It's a coffee-shop deli with yummy desserts and gelati, an oyster bar, good omelettes, and sandwiches. The all-night steak and eggs ($10) will become a drawing card.
* Risi Bisi. A bistro in the shopping area, it translates from the Italian as rice and beans. Neither is on the menu, but the $7.50 wraps look fine.
* Mixx. Wanna writhe? The kitchen, set to open this weekend, will serve wok dishes, sushi and curiosities like fried hearts of palm until 10 p.m. After that, the place, with a great dance floor and pillow-strewn balcony, becomes an all-night boogie bar, at $20 a cover.
Borgata may be landlocked, but you are not stranded. You can leave your car and take a jitney to the other two Marina hotels or into the Boardwalk area. Ask the concierge for directions. ... Peer into Suilan's rear wall, and you'll see Susanna Foo's teapot collection in silhouette. ... If you're staying the night, keep your tongue to yourself when you pass by the trio of Mondrian-style sconces in the halls. Lit up, they look like the best hard candies ever, and you may want to walk up and lick them.
- Howard Shapiro