A shell 'find' is a sign Dock's expansion the right thing to do

With renovations and expansion continuing in background, restaurant owners Joe Dougherty, left, and Frank Dougherty walk back inside the Dock's Oyster House in Atlantic City

ATLANTIC CITY - When a renovation began months ago at Dock's Oyster House - a landmark restaurant that has been in business here since 1897 - and contractors found oyster shells in the original foundation of the old structure, the fourth-generation owners took it as a sign that their endeavor to triple the size of the place was the right thing to do.

Even in the face of the fiscal crisis occurring here - where business closures and downsizing are de rigueur and openings and expansions are rare - the brothers Dougherty - Joseph and Frank - insist that their multimillion-dollar investment will ultimately pay off.

"Atlantic City has certainly had some turbulent times over the years. But despite what's happening with the casinos, visitors are still coming to Atlantic City, people are still going out for dinner, people still want to come to the Shore," said Joseph Dougherty, 52.

Frank agrees.

"We kind of feel like Dock's has weathered a lot of things before . . . storms, floods, economic downturns, the Great Depression. . . . It's been part of the fabric of Atlantic City for a long time. We think it'll be here for a long time to come," said Frank Dougherty, 50.

Standing in the midst of the ambitious project, which has added a three-story addition to the existing Atlantic Avenue restaurant and quadrupled the size of the bar, the Doughertys surveyed the progress of construction crews on a recent weekday. The site was abuzz with dozens of construction crew members sawing, painting, installing fixtures, and performing other tasks to get the place open for a targeted early June reopening.

But this isn't the Doughertys' first redo rodeo - or their only restaurant. The family also owns the fabled Knife & Fork Inn and Harry's Oyster Bar at Bally's.

The brothers' great-grandfather, Harry "call me Dock" Dougherty started the restaurant and moved it from a smaller spot six blocks down the street to its current location in the early 1900s to expand the enterprise.

The Doughertys say it has always been the habit of the family to keep up with the times: In 1945, the second generation of restaurateurs doubled the size of the restaurant to 80 seats. By 1960, the third generation of Doughertys purchased a liquor license and for the first time offered customers spirits to go with their seafood dinners, modernized the kitchen, and again doubled the seating capacity. Ten years later, they added a small cocktail lounge, and by 2001, the family again revamped the dining room and added a raw bar.

"You always have to keep up with the times to stay vital," Joseph Dougherty said.

But both brothers said they always keep an eye turned to the past.

"This building had other uses when it was built and before it became a restaurant, so it was interesting to us that we found that oyster shells had been used in the original construction in the late 1800s," Joseph said. "They must have scooped up the sand on the island to make the foundation and the oyster shells got scooped up with it. When they took down a wall to expand the building out, they found them in the foundation."

The last renovation added a small cocktail lounge and raw bar in 2001, but the family decided it was time for the latest redo so it could update the kitchen and add a private dining room. The result is a large bar area with a big-city feel that will greet patrons when they come into the establishment, two spacious dining salons on the first floor, a loft dining area on the second floor, and an adjacent private dining room and piano bar. There is also room to eventually add a dining room and an outdoor dining patio on the third floor, Frank Dougherty said.

The exterior of the revamped restaurant was designed by SOSH, a local architectural firm, with the interior spaces designed by Brooklyn-based architect Lynn Gaffney. They marry an Old World, turn-of-the-20th century sentiment with a modern beach feel.

"I think what we want customers to feel is that they are at the beach, but retain the old-school charm of the place," Joseph Dougherty said. "It's a fine line to walk. We wanted to combine the old and the new, but not be so new that people no longer feel comfortable in a place where there has always been a lot of tradition and history."

Despite the casino closures over the last two years, the Doughertys insist they never hesitated on moving ahead with the project, which had been in the planning stages for several years.

"We've always been full steam ahead on it," Joseph said.

And unlike many local businesses, they are actually hiring.

"We're tripling our space, so we are in the process of hiring additional employees," Frank Dougherty said.

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com or @JacquelineUrgo