Go to Dock’s Oyster House’s website and the first thing you will see is: “You don’t survive for nearly 120 years without keeping up with the times.”
Perhaps a truer statement has never been said. That’s why the fourth generation of the Dougherty family decided that — even during a time of casino closings and a city on the brink of bankruptcy — they would close their restaurant for six months, invest millions of dollars and undergo the biggest renovation and expansion in the iconic restaurant’s history.
“The truth is, we just thought it was time,” says Frank Dougherty, who co-owns the historic restaurant with his wife Maureen Shay, along with his brother and sister-in-law, Joe and Bernadette Dougherty. “Business has been very strong for us, and we were in a situation where we were selling out many nights. And there were two things we were solely lacking: a bigger bar and a private dining space to allow us to take advantage of group business, which is really coming back in the city, so we wanted to capitalize on that.”
You’ve heard of farm-to-table. How ‘bout rooftop to table?
Dock’s has come a long way since the 60-seat original restaurant, when a fine dinner would set you back 75 cents.
With the new renovation, the only things that you might recognize are: the front door and the vestibule, which was added in 2001; the outside facade, which was renovated in 1982; some classic photos that line the walls, mostly of family, including the chain of owners starting with founder Harry “Dock” Dougherty, his son, Joseph, his grandson, Joseph Jr., and the great-grandchildren who currently own it; and a former outdoor sign from 1982 featuring King Neptune that is not only classic but an amazing piece of retro art.
“We actually sent that sign out to have it touched up, and she did a fantastic job, but when it came back, we decided we liked the weathered side better, so that’s what’s on the wall,” Dougherty says. “It looked so cool.”
Prepare to be wowed by the new decor. As soon as you walk in, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the size of the bar area, which features 35 seats and a separate eight-seat piano bar, where the piano is actually built into the bar and features great piano music nightly.
The visual centerpiece is a striking replica of a ship’s hull that serves as a ceiling and stretches from the bar into the new dining room, which now has seating for nearly twice as many people thanks to a second level that includes a private dining room and the original Dock’s bar.
Overall, the decor is a perfect mix of classic oyster-bar feel, maritime accents and a bit of contemporary with a gorgeous wine cabinet and flat-screen TVs at the bar.
“Everything we tried to do is to keep the whole feeling of Dock’s,” Dougherty says. “In the last renovation my parents did, they had a wood slat ceiling, so the new wooden hull is an homage to that. We tried to pick up old elements of Dock’s so that when people come in they say, ‘Oh, I remember that.’ Things look familiar, but they are different.”
Despite all of the changes, the menu remains relatively untouched. The new raw bar, which is located right behind the main bar, is more spacious and interactive. About a dozen oysters ($2 to $2.25 each) are shucked to order, of course, including everything from local favorites Cape May Salts to Malpeques from Prince Edward Island. There’s also amazing shrimp ceviche ($10.50) that has the perfect shot of jalapeno, tuna tartar ($13) nicely made with sesame and avocado, and the chilled shellfish towers ($34.50 to $66) with oysters, clams, shrimp, mussels, ceviche, crabmeat and lobster seem to endlessly appear from the kitchen.
“The raw bar has always been a centerpiece of our menu; people sometimes just come in for oysters, so that’s one reason we needed a bigger bar,” Dougherty says.
“I just like the atmosphere of breakfast,” says Melanie Ruggles, owner of Galloway Township’…
Dock’s starters are equally appetizing, particularly the fried oysters ($2.50 each) that are prepared differently than you probably ever had them. Aside from the traditional plain fried oyster, you can also get them with marinara sauce and cheese as well as buffalo style. The same approach is offered with their broiled oysters ($2.50) with a choice of Oysters Rockefeller, herb bread crumb, or our favorite, champagne leek. And don’t forget the grilled octopus ($12), a house favorite, with herbs and runner beans.
“The champagne leek oysters are my favorite, too,” Dougherty says. “We did it one year as a special and we thought it was time to add them to the menu, and people are loving them. The marinara fried oysters … I remember as a kid and we called them oysters parmigiana. And the buffalo ones we started doing at a festival, and people got a kick out of it, so we added those, too.”
A seafood place wouldn’t be worth its salt without amazing chowders. And Dock’s exceeds expectations — and they’re different than most. All are made to order, so if you expect a thick, rue-heavy New England, you won’t get that. In fact, their Maine ($8.50) is loose in texture and more like a soup, but it’s super flavorful thanks to its bacon, leeks, potatoes, butter and a bit of heavy cream. The Manhattan ($8.50) is also made to order, and like the Maine, fresh clams are cooked with tomatoes, celery potatoes and other spices until they pop and then served. And although Dougherty isn’t a personal fan, there are legions who swear that the oyster stew ($10) — simply made to order, as well, with whole oysters, milk, cream and seasonings — is the best on the planet.
Popular entrees include pecan-crusted salmon ($27.50) over sauteed spinach, mushrooms and apples drizzled with horseradish sauce; potato-crusted flounder ($28) with asparagus and a beurre blanc sauce; and the crispy wasabi tuna ($29) with Asian stir fry, jasmine rice and ponzu sauce.
But about 50 percent of the entrees served every night are “Dock’s Classics,” a half-dozen items that have been on the menu since the doors opened in 1897, including a colossal, 16-ounce lobster tail ($54) that is typically paired with a 6-ounce filet for an extra $10; the simple but scrumptious crab meat au gratin ($28) made with three cheeses and cream; the legendary sauteed crab cakes ($26) with a roasted red pepper puree; and the seafood fry ($25.50) with shrimp, flounder and crab cake served with fries.
“There would be a revolt if we took any of those dishes off the menu,” Dougherty says. “The crab au gratin and seafood fry aren’t what you think of when it comes to healthy fare, but they are classic, seafood house fare and are hugely popular.”
For landlubbers, there are two steaks — a $32, 12-ounce filet and $34, 16-ounce N.Y. sirloin — and an herb-crusted rack of lamb ($33) served with chive mashed potatoes and a particularly tasty red wine demiglace.
There are new bar items you should certainly check out, including lobster mac and cheese that features half of a lobster that’s placed back into the lobster shell and served; lobster roll with hand-cut french fries; and expanded raw bar items such as halibut and salmon crudo, both $11.
And while there are your typical sides ($4.50 to $6), you cannot go to Dock’s without trying the pommes souffle, Dock’s clever and labor-intensive take on a french fry that is as unique as it is delicious.
“We shave the potatoes thin, cook them in 250-degree oil until they are agitated and they start to pop,” Dougherty explains. “We take them out and let them rest and then cook them again in hotter oil until they explode. (Executive Chef) Stephan (Johnson) brought them here 17 years ago, and people just love them.”
Speaking of Johnson, he was a help in making Dock’s expansion go as smoothly as it has. Along with General Manager Michael Crean, they are a big part of why the new Dock’s offers the same great service and food despite being twice as big.
“They collectively have done a fantastic job maintaining standards and increasing volume significantly,” Dougherty says.
Despite the significant changes, Dock’s is not done.
“We are always working on the menu, and in the fall we will have the time to start offering some great new items. But we also have a third floor that we are thinking of offering an entire new concept on,” Dougherty says. “There’s a rooftop patio there that we want to finish, and we are playing with some new ideas of adding a pizza oven and maybe even an outdoor grill so we can have a truly unique outdoor summer space with an entirely different menu.”
All of this — dating to 1897 — wouldn’t be possible without family.
“My family was always very much about family,” Dougherty says. “My brother and I are very close, and that allows us to work together. It’s something my parents instilled in us. It’s who we are.”
DOCK’S OYSTER HOUSE
Where: 2405 Atlantic Ave., Atlantic City
When: Bar opens 4 p.m. daily with happy hour 4 to 6 p.m.; dinner served from 4:30 p.m. daily.
How much: Raw bar ranges from $2 to $66; appetizers $2.50 to $12; soups and salads $7 to $10; entrees $27.50 to $34; Dock’s Classics $25.50 to $54; steaks $32 to $34; lobsters $19 per pound; sides $4.50 to $6
Services: Major credit cards accepted. Liquor license. Disabled access through front door. Eat in. No takeout. Private parties. No catering. Kids menu. No smoking.
More info: Call 609-345-0092 or go to DocksOysterHouse.com
Between you and me: Frank and Maureen Dougherty own another legendary Atlantic City restaurant, the Knife & Fork Inn, as well as Harry’s Oyster Bar, a more casual spinoff of Dock’s inside Bally’s Atlantic City.