If you’re like most people, you believe that restaurants live or die on the merits. You believe that if a restaurant has great service and makes great food, it will succeed. And that if its service is poor and its food is mediocre, it will fail. After all, that’s how the marketplace is supposed to work, right?
But every once in a while a restaurant defies this model. Much like the creatures that lumber over the rocks of the Galápagos Islands, sometimes a restaurant is isolated from the process of natural selection that otherwise would (or should?) cause it to become extinct.
Dock Street Brewery is one of those restaurants.
Rosemarie Certo and her husband founded Dock Street Brewery in 1985. Five years later, they opened a brewpub and rode the crest of the microwbrew trend to nationwide popularity. After selling the business in 1998, they repurchased the bottling division and the brand in 2002. The brewpub, operated by other owners, closed in 2002. Last fall, Certo decided to give the brewpub another go in a former firehouse in West Philly.
The décor of the reborn brewpub aims for a hip minimalism, one that’s characteristic of the mostly post-grad crowd it tends to draw. However, the result—raw concrete floors, dim lighting, and lawn furniture mismatched with chairs from Target—is less than welcoming.
But Dock Street’s issues are more fundamental than décor. First, the service is inconsistent. On one visit the service was well-paced and efficient. On another, though, it was an obscene train wreck. Inexcusably, it took over an hour and a half for the food to arrive after ordering. Often you can tell whether blame lies with the servers or the kitchen. Here it was both. The food was hot when it finally came out, indicating that the kitchen was at fault for the delay. And we’re not talking complicated entrées here—it’s pizza. At the same time, the servers were mysteriously absent for long periods of time while dirty plates were stacked high on several adjacent tables—a makeshift SOS by stranded diners.
Second, contrary to the early hype, the pizza is nothing to crow about. The pizzas may sound compelling on the menu, but most fall short of expectations. The sweetness you expect from the layer of fig jam on the Fig Jam Pizza, for example, is virtually undetectable, overshadowed by bacon. The pizza isn't the only letdown. The signature Dock Street Beer Battered Fish & Chips also misses the mark—the batter was thin and the fish itself was bland. Not everything is disappointing. The Flammenkuche Pizza is worth repeating; its sweet caramelized onions and bacon balance nicely with its crème fraîche and gruyère. And although the leeks were overcooked, the French Fry Trio makes a half decent bar snack.
Most of last fall’s drafts tasted like beer with training wheels. Light on hops and heavy on malt, they were ideal for people who normally don’t like beer. The Imperial Stoudt, for example, made with organic fair trade espresso beans, was a fun pour. But it belonged on a breakfast table not a bar. However, Dock Street’s first brewmaster recently left, and Eric Savage, Dock Street’s original brewmaster, is now consulting. This change should be a good thing.
Despite its shortcomings, Dock Street may survive. Poor service and mediocre food would doom a restaurant in Center City. But, as they say, it’s all about location. And a built in market. West Philly needs Dock Street. The restaurant brings energy to a struggling neighborhood, and the locals show their appreciation by returning night after night. Dock Street also has a menu that caters to vegetarians and vegans, segments of the dining population that are often ignored by restaurants.
For now, Dock Street looks like a creature that isn’t supposed to exist. But given enough time, who knows, maybe it will evolve.
Dock Street Brewery
701 South 50th Street
For more pics, check out my Dock Street Set on Flickr.