ATLANTIC CITY - There are worse places to be at dusk on a Wednesday than sitting at the bar at Souzai sucking down shiitake sushi and $4 happy-hour Asahis with a floor-to-ceiling view of the Atlantic Ocean out to forever.
Rank that up there with the unexpected - and, so far, underappreciated - pleasures newly available in good old Atlantic City, the city always on the lookout for a new angle.
This year's story line is luxury. Are we in, gamblers, or are we out?
At The Pier Shops at Caesars, open less than a year, the luxury-resort experience is being given a giant test run, and happy is the gambler who wanders over - and believe me, they will be happy to see you - though whether browsers are parting with enough of their dough remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away, The Walk, an outdoor shopping experiment of 55 outlet stores - Aeropostale, Converse, American Eagle, Coach, Eddie Bauer among them, with 40 more on the way - has transformed the previously desolate midsection of this city into a pleasant downtown city streetscape, complete with lots of people lugging shopping bags, a Starbucks on a plaza, and the joy or pain of the rare metered parking space.
In any case, we experienced both recently, after paying $5 to park at Caesars and also paying a uniquely Atlantic City surcharge of $45 - the result of stopping at the slot machines on the way in.
Surely, three double diamonds at the $5 machine would have made the visit to The Pier Shops a little more palatable - $840 Gucci mid-calf patent-leather boots, anyone? - but at least after leaving behind your cash at the pier, you get to take something home with you.
All in all, we felt rather pampered by the experience, and who wouldn't, with our bandannaed sushi man Dave putting together ridiculously tasty sushi at Souzai, on the third floor at the Pier, including the hot shiitake variety and some very smooth hamachi sashimi.
Between 4 and 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays at the bar, Souzai features half-price spicy tuna and other rolls and $2 specialty drinks, plus the $4 Asahi, a Japanese beer that did the trick quite nicely.
The restaurants are all on the third floor of the Pier, formerly the dreary Ocean One Mall, and most of them allow for a gorgeous view of the Boardwalk, Boardwalk Hall, the beach all the way to Ocean City, and the full expanse of that Atlantic City stalwart - the Atlantic Ocean.
There are some Philadelphia favorites, including Buddakan and the Continental, and a Boston bistro import, Sonsie. I recently took a half-dozen 12-year-old girls to Sonsie for a birthday lunch, and they were, somewhat comically, treated like royalty, put in a private dining area surrounded by walls of wine, with a fabulous chocolate cake baked by pastry chef Krista Emery. (The flash-fried calamari and the fettuccine with wild mushrooms, arugula and truffle cream made for a nice lunch, too; the girls did well with soup, burgers and pizza.)
Which just goes to show that in Atlantic City they'll treat anybody like a high roller - which is another reason we love Atlantic City.
There are an Irish pub, Trinity, and a sports bar, Game On, plus Phillips Seafood. If you just want to hang, there are white Adirondack chairs in sand overlooking the ocean.
On the second floor, the Starbucks alone is worth a visit. A Starbucks with a better view surely does not exist on this planet.
The Atlantic City-as-luxury-resort experiment is on display nowhere so much as in the Cos Bar, a cosmetics boutique that also has stores in places such as Scottsdale, Ariz.; Vail, Colo.; and Wailea, Hawaii. In fact, on the Cos Bar bags, "Atlantic City, New Jersey" is listed between Aspen, Colorado, and Carmel, California, which seems like a joke, but we're perfectly happy to try to get used to the idea. This is Cos Bar's first store on the East Coast.
And, indeed, on a typically slow Wednesday afternoon, we had the full attention of affable Barbara the makeup artist, who dipped and dabbed and came up with a very nice selection of pricey eye makeup and didn't seem to mind that we looked more Walk-ish than Pier-ish on this particular day. Makeup consultation, Lancome mascara, Laura Mercier eye color, and Kanebo concealer: $80.
The Pier, which also features a sort of thrilling water show on the hour - it's set to music and differently experienced from each of the three levels - seems to want desperately for you to buy a handbag. An expensive one. Coach, Gucci, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, Michael Kors - if you want a $1,750 handbag, this is your place.
But there are also Banana Republic and Ann Taylor, and even the pricey stores such as Juicy Couture have things within reach. Plus, you can surf the Web at the Apple store, and fill up a bag of candy at It's Sugar. But if you have the cash and like your fashion to come with a label, this is a great place to shop.
Mike McAvinue, acting general manager of The Pier, says business is gaining momentum, and everyone is looking for the summer to give it a boost. He says The Pier will end up in the top third of the properties managed by the Taubman Co., which runs 23 high-end malls across the country, including the Mall at Short Hills.
There is also the little fun of browsing in a store at The Pier, then escaping to its outlet twin at The Walk. That way, you can look at the $129 belted short trenchcoat at The Pier Banana Republic, and buy its thrifty cousin for $62 at The Walk Banana Republic. That's almost like winning at the slots. Then, newly fashioned, you can go back for happy hour at Souzai looking almost Pier-ish.
The outlet stores at The Walk - well-designed with dramatic and fun deco-era signage and sidewalks - are buzzing with the feel of a place that has found its niche. Eating options are somewhat limited to a Stewart's Root Beer and hot dog truck and a crepe place, with the new A.C. Diner on Atlantic Avenue and the old standby Los Amigos nearby.
The mall, developed by the Cordish Group of Baltimore and the brainchild of former Casino Reinvestment Development Authority director Jim Kennedy, is expecting 40 new shops to open. Recent additions include Big Dogs, Nike and a well-stocked Converse Store, whose address on your receipt for laceless brown Chuck Taylors - 22 N. Arkansas Ave. - seems almost miraculous, considering the neighborhood's transformation.
Over the years, this area was decimated by various big ideas, such as the Grand Boulevard with a fake lighthouse that has since been torn down. But the outlet idea seems like a winner. Kim Butler, head of marketing for The Walk, says the stores are "wildly successful" and are attracting locals, conventioneers and gamblers alike.
Parking is the great issue for The Walk - some lots charge $11, which kind of cuts into the deal you make by going to an outlet store for a pair of sneakers. But there are ways around that: The lot on Baltic Avenue, between Indiana and Ohio, accepts validation from Walk stores, there is some metered parking, and the lot on Fairmount Avenue near Angelo's is usually not more than $6, with a free shuttle to The Walk.
But, as Butler points out, The Walk is giving you a pretty good approximation of the downtown bustle of chic urban shopping, and try parking for free in any other city with as good a collection of stores.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is building a lot, and if you live near a train line that runs into Atlantic City, you can walk from the station.
Just like in a real city.
For full directories of shops and restaurants,