Few restaurants have the historical gravitas of Dock’s Oyster House, the Dougherty family’s 120-year-old seafood mecca in Atlantic City. Only the Dougherty’s 105-year-old Knife & Fork Inn comes close. The famous Chef Vola’s, owned by another family, is a newbie at 96.
Brothers Joe and Frank Dougherty—great-grandsons of founder Harry “Call Me Dock” Dougherty—who own Dock’s with their wives, closed the restaurant in late 2015 for a massive, multimillion dollar renovation and expansion. Dock’s reopened last Memorial Day weekend with a gigantic 40-seat bar, 180 seats in dining rooms on two levels, and private room for up to 60. “Frankly, we were out of space,” says Frank Dougherty. “In peak season, we were at capacity most nights.”
I was impressed by the scale of the renovation, yet dismayed by the loss of some old charm, like the snug little wood bar, which was moved to the private dining room. But the public has voted with its feet. In my two visits, every seat, and every stool appeared full. I had to wait past my reservation time both times.
What has changed little is chef Stephan Johnson’s menu. The most modern thing was probably the crispy wasabi tuna with stir-fried Asian vegetables, jasmine rice and ponzu sauce. It was perfectly cooked and delicious. Johnson has been with Dock’s 15 years and his comfort and confidence show.
Other traditions that still delight include plump shrimp cocktail; clams Casino with bell peppers; creamy crab au gratin featuring near-boulders of meat; oysters broiled with delicate leek-and-champagne sauce; and the Maine-style clam chowder, not too thick and loaded with clams. Red snapper came perfectly cooked and glossed in lemony beurre blanc. Salmon with crushed-pecan crust and horseradish was equally good.
There are few better experiences in Atlantic City than feasting on a whole lobster here. I ordered a three-pounder, which tipped the scales at 3 1/2 and was still a terrific value at about $65. Broiled and neatly cracked for minimal mess, it packed enough meat for two. There was plenty left over, and my friendly server even packed up the shells so I could brew a batch of lobster stock at home.
Though the new place is so loud the staff has to shout, they focus despite the din and anticipate needs. One night I ordered a Clove Club, a classic gin cocktail that should be frothy and voluptuous with egg white, raspberry syrup and lime juice. Dock’s horrid attempt at the drink tasted like it was made with gin and nothing else. I took two sips and stopped. My server noticed and insisted on bringing a replacement. I asked for a Negroni. Unfortunately, that also was way too heavy on gin.
Some basics need fine-tuning. A platter of briny Cape May salt oysters were inexpertly shucked, marred by grit and shell fragments. A halibut crudo showed atrocious knife work, the fish hacked into long, irregular strips instead of precise dominoes. The octopus appetizer, despite its hearty ragoût of runner beans, failed owing to flabby tentacles with no surface char.
The tower of meringue on the lemon meringue pie was impressive, but the rest had a mealy, overworked texture that ruined the dessert. Stick with the fantastic apple crisp, a celebration of cinnamon, or the classic crème brûlée.
Despite Dock’s shortcomings, it seems in no danger of ending its historic run anytime soon.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:American - Seafood - Steaks
- Price Range:Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $2-$19.50; entrées, $27.50-$54; desserts, $6-$8
- Ambience:Larger and less charming after renovation, still loud and lively
- Service:Impressively efficient considering noise and crowds.
- Wine list:Cocktails you can't trust; stick to deep wine list.