ATLANTIC CITY — As an owner of Dock's Oyster House and the Knife & Fork Inn, Frank Dougherty is part restaurateur, part caretaker of history.
Dock's, located in the Ducktown section, was opened in 1897 by Dougherty's great-grandfather, Harry, and is the oldest restaurant in the city.
Not far behind, the Knife & Fork Inn started in 1912 as a men's club and operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition until federal agents raided the bar to confiscate alcohol.
The landmark building became a restaurant in 1927 when it was purchased by the Latz family, who managed the Knife & Fork for decades until finalizing a deal in 2005 to sell it to Dougherty.
The dual role of business owner and curator comes with little difficulty for Dougherty. He grew up in the restaurant business, washing dishes and cooking food at Dock's. On nights when he worked late, he and others slept in the upstairs office.
"It was in my blood at that point," Dougherty said.
He attended Cornell University in New York and received a degree in hotel and restaurant management before spending about a dozen years in the hotel-appraisal business.
Dougherty, 45, said it was always his intention to return home to join his parents, Joe and Arleen, and older brother, Joe, in the family business. With his parents having since passed away — Arleen most recently in February — and his brother Joe, 46, practicing law, Dougherty oversees the day-to-day operations of the two restaurants with help from relatives, a steady staff and his wife, Maureen Shay.
Joe's wife, Bernadette, works several nights a week at Dock's, and Dougherty estimates that more than half the employees at Dock's have worked there for at least 10 years. About 10 people have remained at the Knife & Fork since its revival began five years ago.
"By all means, it's not only me," Dougherty said. "I rely on everyone."
He helped oversee a renovation of Dock's dining room when he returned to the area in 1999 and began to consider opening a steakhouse. He found his solution in the Knife & Fork, which closed for a six-month overhaul prior to reopening in July 2005.
Many features of the old Knife & Fork remain, however, such as a plaque that hangs on a large 1912 fireplace that honors the founders of the men's club, one-time city boss Louis Kuehnle among them, and the painted ceiling above the second-floor dining room.
"This is such a landmark and a beautiful building," Dougherty said, adding that purchasing the restaurant was "an easy choice."
He does not have a favorite between the two restaurants, despite their differences. Dock's has an outgoing atmosphere, Dougherty said, while the Knife & Fork is more elegant, although there is no dress code and he and Shay refute that it is a formal restaurant just for "special occasions."
"No one wants to wear a jacket and tie to go out on a Friday night," Shay said.
And Dougherty's restaurant empire is about to grow once more. He said the family is planning a third eatery, to be named Harry's Oyster Bar, that will be a casual restaurant and sports bar when it opens in May 2011 in Bally's Dennis Hotel, which dates to the 1860s.
"We're maintaining Atlantic City," Shay said.
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