A few years ago, seafood restaurants - for some unexplained reason - were pretty uncommon in Atlantic City casinos, despite being at the shore.
Just like steakhouses seemed to open every week about five years ago, the seafood restaurant revolution is happening right now in Atlantic City. Three new seafood eateries opened this year: Atlantic Grill at Caesars Atlantic City, The Chart House at Golden Nugget, and now Harry's Oyster Bar & Seafood at Bally's Atlantic City.
But Harry's - owned by Atlantic City restaurateurs Frank Dougherty and Maureen Shay of Dock's Oyster House and Knife and Fork Inn fame - certainly stands out on its own for its simplicity, casual accessibility and impressively affordable price point.
The addition of a casual seafood restaurant among the more high-priced casino options is a welcome one. It's also something the Doughertys thought was a perfect fit for the Bally's space that is located right off the Boardwalk in the Dennis Courtyard.
"I think it's absolutely unlike anything else the casinos offer," Frank Dougherty says. "We have great outdoor dining, which is really surpassing our initial expectations because people are really loving the whole courtyard atmosphere. It's on the Boardwalk, yet we are removed from it. You are not in the fray but you still feel part of it."
When people think of Dock's and the Knife and Fork, they think upscale, dress-up, special-occasion establishments.
"But we wanted to show our more casual side," Dougherty says. "We love the other two restaurants, but I think this seafood concept fits the hotel and boardwalk perfectly. It's simple, good food in a casual atmosphere that people can afford. I have to tell you, it's kind of cool that I can come to work in shorts. But I have to bring a change of clothes for the other restaurants."
Harry's Oyster Bar, as its name implies, centers around the giant bar that takes up more space than the main dining room and encompasses a long wall with plenty of beer and liquor that stretches across the entire room to include the raw bar, where about eight different types of oysters, several types of clams, lobster, shrimp, crab and other seafood are displayed on ice.
"The raw bar is really our No. 1 thing right now," Dougherty says. "It sets us apart because of how much space and attention is devoted to it. This restaurant is all about the seafood."
The raw bar isn't the only thing traditional about Harry's, which is named after Dougherty's great-grandfather, who opened Dock's in 1897. Its dark-wood interior makes you feel like you are walking into a modern-day seafood shanty, with the multiple plasma TVs around the bar adding a modern touch.
"It's a traditional place," Dougherty says. "It's not really a chef-driven restaurant, but it's a food-driven restaurant. The focus is on simple, fresh seafood and about keeping things as local as possible. It's not about some fancy dish with this type of sauce or whatever. It's about the ingredients."
Aside from the raw bar, there are a slew of seafood options for starters, including four types of chowder, Cajun-fried shrimp ($8), clams casino ($7) and steamed mussels Fra Diavalo ($8). The crab cake sandwich ($12), oyster Po Boy ($10) and Mahi Mahi soft tacos ($16) with avocado, jalapeno and black bean corn salsa offer great, quick alternatives.
And entrees include about 10 different types of fish and seafood ranging from Cape May flounder ($17) to soft shell crabs ($12.50 each) prepared to your liking, either grilled, pan-seared, fried or blackened; linguini and clams ($16); and the seafood combo ($23) with flounder, shrimp, oysters and crab cake, fried or broiled, with cole slaw.
"There are things that people will notice are the same at Harry's as well as our other restaurants," Dougherty says "We are doing some of the chowders the same. We have soft shells at all three restaurants, but the preparation is a little different, but still familiar. But then there are things like the barbecue pulled pork sandwich ($9.50) that you won't find anywhere else."
Speaking of pork, Harry's is not a one-trick pony, offering much more than seafood. The appetizers menu offers choices like Buffalo wings ($8.50) and beef, crab or pork sliders ($9); sandwiches include a black angus burger ($8.50) and a grilled chicken wrap ($7); and entrees include a 12-ounce sirloin ($23) and braised short rib ($18).
"It's the type of menu where you can come and sit at the bar and have a few oysters and a sandwich or sit down in the dining room or outside on the patio and have a full meal," Dougherty says. "I think people are appreciating that flexibility. We are seeing a lot of locals and a crossover from people that we have never seen before. There's a lot of familiar faces, but a lot of people who are learning what we are about.
WHERE: Dennis Courtyard, Bally's Atlantic City
WHEN: Open 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
HOW MUCH: Raw bar prices range from $1 to $1.75 per piece and $8 to $55 for complete dishes; appetizers $8 to $16; chowders $5 to $8; salads $4 to $15; sandwiches $8 to $17.50; fresh fish $16 to $25; entrees $12 to $32.
SERVICES: Major credit cards accepted. Liquor license. Disabled access through front door via casino elevator or ramp from Boardwalk. Eat in. Takeout. Private parties. No smoking.
MORE INFO: Call 609-431-0092 or go to www.harrysoysterbar.com.
BETWEEN YOU AND ME: If you want to be entertained, belly up to the raw bar, order a cold one and watch the master shuckers risk their extremities for your culinary satisfaction. It's risky business. Those knives are sharp.