When people outside of New Jersey think of Atlantic City (AC), they tend to picture three, maybe four images: gambling, crime, the boardwalk, and, if they know a bit about Prohibition, mobsters peddling illegal booze to local politicos. It’s true that the history of this beachside resort is a bit of a sordid one, and its reputation hasn’t been helped by recent troubles with casino closures, unscrupulous real estate magnates, a failing airport, a desperate economic situation, and, well, crime.
But New Jersey’s biggest tourist town is truly showing signs of recovery from the disinvestment, recession and neglect it’s suffered over the past decade. While much of that hoped-for success comes from new and reinvented casino hotels (including the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino), the addition of some large-scale eds-and-meds facilities and far-reaching quasi-public programs, some community-minded private investors have seized on fire-sale prices to bring amenities like restaurants, bars, and a popular craft distillery to parts of the city. One significant highlight is located on the beach block of Tennessee Avenue, a mostly abandoned strip of road whose emerging cluster of service-oriented businesses looks poised to create the city’s first upmarket “Main Street,” which is already serving as an anchor for surrounding development.
“The mission on Tennessee Avenue is to have one concentration of food and beverage experiences all in one place that makes people want to spend their time there,” says Mark Callazzo, the chief developer behind the project. “If you look at all the major cities, you can go and walk from place to place.”
Callazzo, a 48-year-old real estate investor and part-time AC resident, opened Made Atlantic City Chocolate “bean-to-bar” mini-factory, lounge and boutique in April 2018 and Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall last November — both with partners who’ll oversee daily operations at the respective shops. They joined The Leadership Studio, a non-profit yoga and healthy community space opened by two women who were the first to lease from Callazzo, who’s amassed eight buildings on the block.
Fitting the vision for the avenue’s redevelopment, owners told Atlantic City Weekly in February 2018, “We empower residents of Atlantic City to forge healthy relationships, to nurture both physical and emotional healing of communities, and to create the future they wish to live into.”
By July 1, Callazzo expects to open Rhythm & Spirits, a music hall, pizzeria and cocktail bar, plus Iron Room Coffee, Food and Wine to replace the short-lived Hayday coffee shop, which Callazzo, an investor, says didn’t work because the operators refused to add more food to their coffee/gelato concept. The closure could very well work in his favor. He’s closing the uber-popular Iron Room restaurant/cocktail bar and former wine shop across town and moving it into the space. He’ll also convert it to an all-day and night concept, serving coffee and breakfast in the morning, paninis and salads and lunch and small plates at dinner.
“Once I get them all open, in a row we’ll have four amazing chefs operating businesses alongside of each other,” he says. “I call it ‘Four Chefs, One Block.’”
Chocolatier and pastry chef Deb Pellegrino, of Made, has competed on The Food Network, and her drink concoctions have won city-wide competitions. She comes from the casino-kitchen world, as does her husband, partner and fellow-chef, Mark, both of whom were included in the ‘5 Things Rachel Ray is Loving Right Now’ list this week. The Iron Room’s chef, Kevin Cronin, crosses town to oversee culinary operations at the new Iron Room, as well as Rhythm & Spirits, and Chef Charles Soreth puts out modern pub plates at the beer hall.
At least one unaffiliated chef passionately promotes the projects, despite coming from inside the world of casinos, which have historically tried to keep patrons inside their own walls. Subscribing to the theory that a rising tide raises all ships, Chef Demetrios Haronis, Executive Director of Culinary Operations for local Eldorado Resorts properties and a long-time cheerleader for local food purveyors, says before and “after the economy took a dump,” both he and his employers at Tropicana Atlantic City have actively supported local food establishments by encouraging guests to go out and explore the area.
“There are a lot of cool places to eat and drink in town,” he says, noting a proliferation of high-quality Vietnamese and Hispanic eateries, including a few favored by celebrity chefs David Chang of New York and Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia. “And it’s cool to see people walking around Tennessee Avenue at night. It’s bringing excitement and waking up that part of town, while also encouraging more development .”
Around the corner from the Tennessee Avenue business and entertainment district is the new Cajun BBQ dining room Bourre. Potentially opening as soon as this year is a boutique hotel on New York Avenue comprised of shipping containers. Plans call for a stage, a seasonal bar and concession stands, and more.
“When I bought the building where Made is on March 25, 2015, I paid $24,000 for 2000 square feet,” says Callazzo. “Fortunately and unfortunately as I try to buy more property the prices have gone up dramatically.”
Fortunately, the project hasn’t displaced any residents or businesses, and the owner of the dive bar on the corner — where Callazzo has brought friends, including myself, for wings and beers after having drinks at Made with the mayor – tells the press that he’s happy about his new neighbors.
“It’s like night and day,” Picket “Kip” Russell, formerly of Pic-A-lilli Pub, told WHYY, noting he’s noticed far less drugs and prostitution and far more police presence since rehabilitation began on the empty properties. “It’s still a depressed area, but the shenanigans that were going on have dropped off.”
According to Callazzo, the block has only experienced one incidence of crime in the four years since he came into the neighborhood: a break-in at the beer hall while it remained under construction.
“There’s safety in numbers. In Atlantic City there are homeless people and drug addicts and yet you feel 100% safe here because there are 50 people with you,” he says. “I don’t think people are as concerned about safety as they thought they would be.”
(Ed. Note: I’ve been to the block several times, including at night, and have never spotted any activity that appeared more threatening than a disheveled, boisterous man being kept out of the beer hall by a cheerful employee who spoke to him by name. Another time, three different locals advised me to stick to the boardwalk for a solo late-morning walk from Hayday to a breakfast nook 20 minutes away. I ignored their advice and meandered along city streets. I passed myriad ragtag stores and people but no one spoke to me and I never felt unsafe in any way.)
“The challenge, I feel, is that people love to talk about the negative,” says Haronis, lamenting that false perceptions can derail the best-laid plans. “People hear negative things and there’s no follow-up positive story.”
So here’s the positive story. Callazzo says traffic at Made and Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall is already beating expectations, with the hall serving 300 patrons on busy out-of-season nights.
“The numbers we did off-season were better than the numbers we thought we were going to do in-season,” he says.
He hopes to see at least 10,000 more Atlantic City-based employees move into the city’s rising residential developments to encourage the northern part of the peninsula to support two indie coffee shops instead of one and three hipster barbershops instead of none. Those who’ve bought condos and homes so far range from casino bartenders to doctors, and with Callazzo’s prices ranging from a $5 happy hour burger at the beer hall to a $15 chocolate martini at Made, there’s a price point and a dish for everyone. (Ed. Note. If you drink one thing, ever, in Atlantic City, let it be Made’s Old Fashioned.)
Callazzo concludes, “I can’t think of a better dining experience than a lobster tater tots app at Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall, beet lasagna and an Oregon Pinot Noir at the Iron Room, a trip two