We really wanted to do something on the Boardwalk,” explains Atlantic City restaurateur Frank Dougherty, whose great-grandfather Harry (“Call me Dock”) Dougherty opened Dock’s Oyster House in A.C. in 1897. Under Frank’s leadership, Dock’s remains popular—and the venerable Knife and Fork Inn, which the family acquired and renovated a few years ago, got a shout-out on the first season of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Now comes Harry’s Oyster Bar at Bally’s casino.
Dougherty says he and his wife, Maureen Shay, were walking by Bally’s and saw its courtyard, set back from the Boardwalk, framed on three sides by the historic Dennis Hotel, an annex of Bally’s.
“It was such a unique property,” Shay says. “There was a green lawn! Where do you see that on the Boardwalk? You had outdoor dining, yes, but slightly set back from the Boardwalk. It had this resort-ish feel.”
Not long after, Dougherty and Shay inked a deal with Bally’s to install a 250-seat eatery. Last summer, they opened Harry’s Oyster Bar indoors and in the scenic courtyard.
“It was our goal to have a very casual restaurant with a heavy emphasis on the bar, a blend of sports bar and old-time pub,” says Dougherty. That was achieved with a massive, winding, wooden bar and an enviable collection of plasma TVs. “We wanted to focus on fresh, simply prepared seafood at a reasonable price.”
The giant raw bar extends from the main bar like a peninsula. Harry’s stocks 10 to 14 varieties of oyster on any given day, predominantly smaller, saltier East Coast specimens. On my first visit I ordered a mix; the server dropped them at the table with no explanation as to which was which. So I grabbed another waiter, who said he’d find out and scurried away, never to return.
This was during Harry’s first month, when the staff was greener than the lawn, and the kitchen, headed by Martha’s Vineyard transplant Ryan McDade, was still finding its sea legs, not to mention its seafood. The oysters had been clumsily opened, many of the pearly gray meats mangled and shells chipped. It was not what you expect from Dougherty, whose oysters at Dock’s and Knife and Fork are shucked with surgical precision.
The miscues didn’t end there. The clam bake was fully loaded (mussels, clams, flounder, scallops, shrimp, lobster, chorizo, corn and potatoes) but lessened by a bland tomato-fennel broth. A grilled, 8-ounce lobster tail came with a dull lemon beurre blanc, and a pair of grilled soft-shell crabs came with a mushy, vinegarless tomato vinaigrette.
On the other hand, plump and spicy Buffalo-style fried oysters were fine, and so were oysters Rockefeller. Corn-and-crab chowder was rich with roasted jalapeño cream and plenty of crabmeat.
When I returned two months later, I sat at the bar, and things ran much smoother in the care of a swift and able bartender. Raw oysters were just as sloppily shucked as the first visit, but almost everything else was much better. Steamed and chilled, a 1-pound lobster was sweet and reasonably priced at $17.50. Extra-hot wings had spunk. Soft-tortilla fish tacos made with mahi-mahi—grilled, rather than fried—were light and appealing, fleshed out with lettuce, avocado, pico de gallo, jalapeño and cilantro.
Even better was linguine with white clam sauce. Don’t tell my grandparents, but Harry’s was the finest rendition I’ve had, bright with fresh parsley to balance the garlicky sauce. Fifteen littlenecks come per order, and there’s enough al dente pasta to take home for lunch.
Only the heavy peach crisp disappointed that night. Better were soft chocolate-chip cookies, served as a sundae with vanilla ice cream and fudge or, cutely, with a glass of milk.
Harry’s could learn a thing or two from its suave elder brothers. With casino backing and one of Atlantic City’s most respected restaurateurs at the helm, it should be able to deliver more finesse to go with its casual vibe and moderate prices.