The Tropicana is the casino you stop off at, on your way to somewhere else. It's isolated on a particularly tacky stretch of the Boardwalk, where Asian foot-massage joints and gypsy fortune tellers stand cheek by jowl with greasy diners that look like they haven't changed, or washed their skillets, since the 1930s.
Ever since Donald Trump's Taj Mahal went up in the early 1990s, the south end of the Boardwalk has been a lonely place indeed, occupied only by the Trop and the Hilton (formerly Bally's), which is even further down that lonely strip of icy surf.
And yet I find myself stopping off in the Trop more and more often lately. Caesars has fancier suites. The Taj has gilded chandeliers and jet-setter discos. The Trop has the nostalgia factor -- that's where Atlantic City began, after all. But where else can you find $5 blackjack tables on a Saturday night? And more to the point, where else can you play tic-tac-toe against a chicken for a chance at winning $10,000? I rest my case.
I actually thought gambling on farm animals was outlawed in the '50s, when a bunch of sawdust joints on the Reno-to-Carson City highway were disciplined by the Nevada Gaming Commission for promoting wild pig races and proposition bets on which hole a turtle would choose to go into. But apparently New Jersey is looser about this sort of thing.
Anyway, I headed down to the Trop recently to take in "Torture Through the Ages," an exhibition of various implements of torture and death, including an authentic French guillotine, various medieval implements used during the Spanish Inquisition, an electric chair, and electrical devices used by the Nazis. It was so mesmerizing you wanted to read every museum-style description -- "They put WHICH end of that in his WHAT?" -- and the crowd was impressed enough to purchase torture baseball caps and other souvenirs on the way out.
Combine that with "Whisper," the all-Russian circus showroom revue I reviewed last week, and the Trop is obviously expanding the envelope in Atlantic City, which is known mostly for giving away slot-machine coupons to the bus business and booking the same old acts -- Paul Anka, Don Rickles, Regis Philbin -- as the ultimate in promotion.
To show you just how on the money the Trop is, their current show is the "Stars and Stripes Revue," featuring a big band fronted by Connie Haines, the original "girl singer" for Harry James and Tommy Dorsey. They do "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and, of course, "God Bless America" as a closer, and it's coupled with an exhibit of World War II memorabilia. But here's the shocking thing about it: it opened on August 30th.
But now the Trop is even showing signs of abandoning its low-roller roots and going after the Asian millionaires. They have one of the plushest Baccarat rooms in the city, and they have a high-roller room called the Jade Palace that offers Asian tile games and an Oriental noodle bar. The Crystal Room (slot machines for premium players) has chandeliers made of Swarovski crystal.
They've also gotten into the gourmet restaurant trend in a big way. Il Verdi, its high-end Northern Italian place, recently started offering a $100-per-person "chef's table," with seven courses chosen by the chef and unlimited wine. You need to reserve now, though, because they only do two seatings a night for eight people per seating, and it is very popular. They also have two other restaurants that are so-so -- Golden Dynasty and Pier 7 Seafood -- and one that's excellent:
Wellington & Chan's, which they describe as an "Asian fusion steakhouse." Their Beachfront Buffet -- all you can eat including seafood -- is a cut above the standard for the city.
And then again, they also have a Hooters. See why I love this place?
But the heart of the Trop is still the gaming areas. Walk through any of the mega-casinos in Vegas these days and the bored routine action at the tables can put you to sleep. Not so at the Trop.
First of all, people on the East Coast are just more passionate about their gambling in general than Westerners are. They tend to TALK almost constantly, and I find that buzz more exciting than a craps table full of solemn systems players. They have a very LOUD lounge, the Tiffany, just off the casino floor, and they have a nice jazz lounge at the Top of the Trop. They also have 3,700 slot machines here, which makes for a lot of racket in itself. The dealers are exceptionally well-trained.
They root for the player and try to make the games as lively as possible. The poker room is the best in the city and still allows smoking, unlike its chief competitor, the Taj.
And in the center of the slots area is something called the Fortune Dome, with several miles of neon swathed around 56 multi-coin machines and banks of plasma screens. If you're lucky, you'll hit a combination that will land you in the Dome itself. You'll be elevated 12 feet into the air and showered with cash. You can keep everything you can grab.
Yes it's hokey. Yes it's a scene out of a '60s game show. But that's the Trop. For my money, liveliest place on the Jersey shore.
TROPICANA CASINO & RESORT
Boardwalk at Brighton, Atlantic City
Theme: Traditional Vegas decor, circa 1960
Total investment: $675 million
Known for: Being huge.
Marketing niche: East Coast bus business, conventions.
Gambler's intensity: High.
Cocktail speed: Medium.
Dealers: Veterans, well trained.
Surrounding area: Isolated on the southern end of the Boardwalk between the Trump World's Fair (R.I.P.) and the Hilton.
Web site: tropicana.net.
Overall rating: 89.
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $12.50 after a rare foray into the keno lounge: Total to date: -$37.50.