The Knife & Fork Inn, the special-occasion-celebration location for generations of people in and around Atlantic City, is about to celebrate a special occasion of its own.
The landmark restaurant is getting ready to host a 100th anniversary party Oct. 4 — for itself.
Since opening as a private club for wealthy local businessmen in 1912, the Knife & Fork has survived Prohibition, the Great Depression and many more business busts — including Atlantic City’s own long, slow slide into economic stagnation in the 1960s and ’70s, before the casinos opened and started another boom.
But the Knife & Fork has also managed to last through a series of building booms in a city that, when a local landmark gets in the way of the promise of progress, has historically knocked down the landmark first and missed it later.
“Atlantic City goes through so many changes, and this restaurant survives,” said Frank Dougherty, who has owned the restaurant since 2005, when he bought it from the previous owners of more than 75 years, the Latz family.
Dougherty knows a few things about old restaurants: He is a member of the fourth generation of his family to run Dock’s Oyster House, which his great-grandfather, Harry Dougherty, opened in 1897. But even though Dock’s has been in business longer, the Knife & Fork has the older building. Frank said the family moved Dock’s to its current Atlantic Avenue location in 1925.
So yes, the Knife & Fork undoubtedly has a special place in Atlantic City’s history.
“It was the hub of where the politicians ate, where celebrities came to dine,” said Vicki Gold-Levi, who grew up in the city and wrote a 1979 history of the town, a book called “Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness.”
In 1978, the now-late Jim Latz — who grew up above the restaurant and ran it for decades in a successful but combative partnership with his brother, Mack — told an interviewer some of the faces he saw in the dining rooms: “Bob Hope has been there on several occasions. ... Perry Como (and) his whole group. ... Harry James. Betty Grable. Duke Ellington only once (and) his son, Mercer.” The list went on.
In much of its promotion these days, the restaurant uses a tag line — “Nucky ate here. Shouldn’t you?” — emphasizing how the Knife & Fork’s bloodlines reach back to an era when Nucky Johnson, the basis of the main character on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” was the political boss of Atlantic City. But those roots run even farther back: A plaque listing the Knife & Fork’s 1912 founders includes the name of Louis Kuehnle, also known as “the Commodore,” who ran the town before Nucky.
On a recent tour of the restaurant, Dougherty showed visitors the old lockers, discreetly hidden below the banquette seats around the walls of the second-floor dining room, where the members of that private founders’ club secretly stashed their booze during Prohibition. Then, in a different spot on the same floor, he went to the Pageant Room, a spot for private parties and meetings, to mention some of its place in history.
“The story is that this is where the Resorts deal was signed,” Dougherty said — meaning the deal for Resorts International to come to Atlantic City in 1978 as the first legal casino in town.
And because they were in charge of this social and deal-making hub, the Latz brothers became local celebrities of sorts themselves. For years, they were known for having to take turns running the restaurant — Mack was in charge one week, Jim the next. Mack also has the Knife & Fork’s crest tatooed on the back of his hand.
The brothers took over from their parents, Milton and Evelyn Latz, who started operating the restaurant in 1927. And Mack’s son, Andrew Latz, was the third generation of the family to run the Knife & Fork when Mack sold it to Dougherty — over Andrew’s public objections, in court. A judge eventually approved the sale. (Andrew, who now owns Latz’s By The Bay, a Somers Point restaurant, couldn’t be reached for this story.)
Along with its place in local history, the Knife & Fork has an unusual place in Atlantic City’s geography.
It sits at the odd intersection where Albany Avenue — one of just two direct routes between the city and the mainland when the Knife & Fork was new — meets Atlantic and Pacific avenues. Those two main streets run parallel to each other through miles of Atlantic City but angle into each other for a few blocks to come together almost at the Knife & Fork’s front door.
And that strange-shaped property contributed to the architecture that also made the restaurant a landmark. A 1970s survey of historic buildings in Atlantic City noted that the Knife & Fork “combines Flemish, Tudor and Swiss chalet” features in its design. Dougherty points out that the building has a concave shape, too — as its walls run from the corners of the building into the center, they bow slightly inward, so the restaurants rooms are a bit narrower in the middle than they are at the outer edges.
The outer walls are also 2½ feet thick, Dougherty said — at least in the basement, now the restaurant’s prep and dessert kitchen.
Then there are those signature crests, which leave visitors no doubt about the identity of the restaurant they’re walking into. The owner counts 32 pairs of knives and forks on the outside walls — most of them crossed into X patterns, but one pair sitting side by side. The biggest pair of utensils is more than 2 feet long, Dougherty said.
But for all its status as a landmark, the Knife & Fork has survived for a century mostly because of its success as a restaurant.
“As long as I can remember, it was in the elite” among the city’s fine-dining spots, said Allen “Boo” Pergament, 80, who grew up in Atlantic City and keeps a museum of city history stuffed into a few rooms of his Margate home. “It was expensive, but you got what you paid for.”
Among Pergament’s collection, he has maps that show a Knife & Fork Inn at the current location as far back as 1908 — four years before plaques in and on the restaurant say it opened.
Dougherty plans to celebrate the 100th birthday of the legendary spot Oct. 4 with a party featuring “gourmet food, open bar and live music.” The restaurant is selling 300 tickets at $150 apiece and will donate the proceeds to the Joseph and Arleen Dougherty Scholarship Fund at Atlantic Cape Community College, which the family set up in honor of Frank’s parents. The Knife & Fork normally seats about 220 people but will add a tent outside to accomodate the party.
Frank said his late father and mother, who ran Dock’s, took him and his brother, Joe, to the Knife & Fork when they were kids to celebrate big family occasions.
Gold-Levi also has memories of the restaurant from her childhood in the city.
“And today, I still get a thrill when someone says, ‘Let’s go to the Knife & Fork,’” said the author, who now lives in New York. “That childhood thrill comes back — ‘Ooh, the Knife & Fork’ — that was special.”
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