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Water Dog steps up its game with a fresh new location at Bally’s
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Water Dog steps up its game with a fresh new location at Bally’s

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When Water Dog opened in Ventnor two years ago, it filled a major void and took the town by storm thanks to its creative, quality food and awesome service.

Now, Owner Steve Marchel hopes Water Dog can have the same impact on Atlantic City.

Water Dog opened its second location at Bally’s Atlantic City, removing the words “Smoke House” from its name and reinventing itself to be less about smoked and BBQ items and more of a full-scale breakfast, lunch and dinner destination, complete with late-night offerings, live music and a fantastic bar … without losing its identity. That’s the tricky part.

“We still have many of the staples established in Ventnor at our new location, but from a brand expansion standpoint — even beyond Bally’s — we just want to be called Water Dog, mostly because we don’t want to be identified as a smoke house first,” Marchel says. “The biggest selling items in Ventnor are actually not the smoked items. So we learned from Ventnor that from a branding standpoint, it’s just better to leave the ‘Smoke House’ off of it.”

With good reason.

Water Dog’s Atlantic City menu is chock full of awesome culinary temptations, but the only smoked items you will find are their famous smoked salmon and white fish ($16) on a bagel with all the trimmings for breakfast.

That doesn’t mean Water Dog fans won’t find the food they fell in love with in Ventnor that will certainly appeal to the casino crowd, too, including their famous New England-style, butter-poached lobster roll ($31) with tarragon aioli; potato latkes ($16) served with choice of warm pastrami or corned beef and topped with a fried egg and served with sour cream and apple sauce; poke bowls ($24 to $28) in a variety of styles ranging from crab and avocado with ginger coconut sauce to Unagi eel with eel sauce to ahi tuna and salmon with ponzu; hot classic sandwiches ($17) such as beef brisket, a Reuben, corned beef and pastrami; Betty’s scallop roll ($23) on the New England-style bun with tarragon aioli and mixed greens; and their famous crab cakes ($18).

They are all there, but there is so much more. But, first, how did a small, 12-seat Ventnor smokehouse evolve into an 8,000-square-foot, 220-plus-seat, all-day-and-night restaurant with a bar?

Why Water Dog?In a town full of big-name restaurants from celebrity chefs including Iron Chef Jose Garces, Gordon Ramsay and Guy Fieri — whose Chophouse sits right across the hallway from Water Dog — why choose a relatively small brand to be your casino café?

It’s all about relationships and trust.

Bally’s Executive Vice President of Casino Operations and Chief Marketing Officer Phil Juliano not only knew Marchel well, but he loved the Ventnor location.

“He asked if I would consider it even though it was a big departure from what our business plan was,” Marchel says. “He was my baseball coach in high school, and my dad was his coach … that’s how far we go back. He brought other executives in to eat in Ventnor, and they just liked the concept. I was immediately interested because of the relationship I had with Phil, but also because it would expose us to a market we wouldn’t otherwise get in front of. We always thought about expanding, but never taking as big of a bite as this.”

After meeting and realizing their philosophies aligned and then figuring out it could work financially, Water Dog was on board, taking the former location of Buca di Beppo.

By the beginning of 2021, construction began to overhaul Buca into Marchel’s vision, melding the orange, black and white color scheme of the original with a modern café design that includes a gorgeous bar that stretches across the front of the entrance, inviting passers-by in for a drink and a bite, just like Fieri’s Chophouse. It’s one of the nicest cafes in Atlantic City.

“There is a big learning curve,” Marchel admits. “This is a union shop, and we had to learn what that entails. And the size of it is considerable. It’s a brand-new world we are diving in, but Bally’s has held our hand and has been unbelievable.”

The customers seem equally happy.

“The response has been fantastic,” Marchel says. “I didn’t know what to expect. We are not exactly a household name outside of Atlantic County, but people like our creativity and the price point. Many of our patrons have asked us to open in their hometown, so there’s no better feedback than that.”

Food is the main focusWhile the bar and live music (see sidebar) are certainly the icing, breakfast, lunch and dinner are the cake. And Marchel, General Manager John Connor and the culinary team have done an amazing job rolling out fun, creative menus while still offering standard fare that won’t alienate the average Bally’s gamer.

“We kept a lot of the staples from the Ventnor menu, which really helped us establish who we are with the famous sandwiches and poke bowls and smoked nova and things like that,” Connor says. “So then we needed to add to that so we fit all of the needs of the customers here. And that’s where the late-night bar menu comes in, entrees like salmon and steak frites and filets to give customers Atlantic City classics … so you have the best of both worlds where we pay homage to what we do in Ventnor but also please regular Bally’s customers.”

Breakfast is servedIt starts with breakfast, Water Dog’s busiest time that is highlighted by a $25 buffet Fridays to Sundays in the offseason and every day in season to offer guests the chance to get in and out as fast as they want with breakfast staples including eggs, breakfast meats, sides and breads.

“They can be in and out in 20 minutes if they really want to be,” Connor says. “Or they can take their time and brunch here for a couple of hours. At 8 a.m. we sometimes have people walk in here who haven’t been to bed yet, so they want to fill their bellies and get back on the floor or head to bed. We want to make everyone happy.”

If you have time, order a bottomless mimosa — available all day for $23 – and skip the buffet and peruse the breakfast menu.

Highlights include an array of Benedicts ($14) served traditionally or with add-ons ranging from pork belly to crab cakes to smoked salmon to lobster; made-to-order omelets ($15) any way you want it; a breakfast burrito ($14) with scrambled eggs, pulled pork, chimichurri, onion, avocado and cheddar cheese in a flour tortilla with breakfast potatoes; and awesome cinnamon swirl french toast ($12) made with fresh Formica Bros. Bakery bread with macerated berries and a barrel-aged bourbon maple syrup from Gnome Valley Farms.

The aforementioned smoked salmon and white fish bagels are big hits along with the potato latke, as are the avocado toast ($13) and short rib sandwich ($22) with a fried egg.

Lunch and dinner, tooThe lunch and dinner menus are pretty similar, with the exception of the dinner menu adding entrees.

But all-day, must-try starters include the wings ($11 for six, $21 for 12) served in a killer buffalo sauce or doggy style — rosemary-lemon-garlic-red pepper wings; ahi tuna tacos ($16) wrapped in jicama shells; Mexican street corn ($9); and the addictive loaded truffle fries ($13) with truffle hot sauce, truffle cheese sauce, mushroom, bacon and parmesan.

There are a plethora of salads, but the Water Dog Caprese ($14) with sliced mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, balsamic, basil, crispy shallots and sea salt, as well as the Eight Days a Week ($23) with grilled Atlantic salmon brushed with sweet Thai chili sauce served over arugula with avocado, tomato and grilled scallops really stand out.

Burgers and sandwiches rule the menu, including a Wagyu burger ($24); Connor’s Patty Melt ($19) with short rib, brisket, chuck, melted Swiss, caramelized onion, Russian dressing on grilled rye; a half-pound cheesesteak made with grilled ribeye, sautéed onions and green peppers, provolone cheese on an Atlantic City roll; a pulled pork sandwich ($16) with Water Dog BBQ sauce, coleslaw, horseradish pickles on a brioche roll; and the previously mentioned lobster and scallop rolls, along with the signature poke bowls.

At dinner, Water Dog gets a bit fancy with some nice entrees like the truffle grilled filet mignon ($42) with boursin-chive potato, asparagus, charred onion and truffle cabernet demi; grilled Atlantic salmon ($26) with sweet Thai chili sauce, whipped potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts; pork rosemary braised short rib ($29) with chimichurri butter, parmesan polenta, Brussels sprouts and a caramelized shallots demi; and more.

“Between the filet and the half-roasted herb chicken and salmon, people are loving our dinner entrees,” Connor says. “But if someone wants to come during dinner hours and grab a pastrami Reuben corned beef special, that’s cool by us. Our poke bowls sell like crazy because they are a healthy, hearty option. When people see them come out, their eyes double in size because they are huge. And our lobster roll is simply awesome. It’s all lobster meat, no filler. You are just eating buttered lobster on a brioche roll. If you want to put that tarragon aioli on it, it’s there on the side for you to do that. We give people a diverse menu with something for everyone … I think that’s what we do best.”

The future Marchel & Co. have certainly had their growing paints, learning about the union and dealing with crazy, rising labor and food costs. It also didn’t help that Water Dog didn’t open until late summer.

“But you navigate those speed bumps and get through it,” Marchel says. “And it makes us look at our future differently. We think conventions and private events will play a big role in what we do here. And we passively looked for other one-offs like Ventnor in the Delaware Valley, but we just haven’t found the right one yet. But we are also in preliminary talks with Bally’s to be in some of their other locations. It’s about evolving and expanding the brand meaningfully. Water Dog has just begun.”

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