The first time I saw Dockery’s was weeks before I set foot in the restaurant. Soon after the Daniel Island restaurant opened, The Post and Courier sent a photographer to capture images for the food section’s weekly Now Open column, which experienced diners have learned to scan for information that corporate websites don’t disclose. You can tell a lot about a restaurant by the number of communal tables it keeps.
Still, the photograph that made my jaw drop showed just a sliver of Dockery’s dining room. It was an action shot of the open kitchen, and it was such a remarkable depiction of plenty that I briefly bookmarked it so I could gape at it later. Counting people on both sides of the line, I found 17 employees. It appeared Dockery’s was both the cause of, and holder of a solution to, the staffing crisis that threatens to smother the Charleston-area restaurant industry.
Seventeen. To put that number in perspective, I’ve worked in restaurants where the entire staff couldn’t fill out a softball team. And I was only looking at cooks and servers, with maybe one manager type toward the back. If you added in all of the brewers, dishwashers, bartenders, folks outside of the frame and workers who had the night off, I assume Dockery’s employs somewhere around 796 people.
Bigness is Dockery’s defining characteristic. To use a few actual figures, it comprises 11,000 square feet of new construction, as well as a concrete-floored patio so spacious that nobody at the outdoor bar or on the cornhole court feels crowded by a shipping container that houses a kitchen garden. It took me three visits before I noticed an adjoining performance hall, equal in size to many standalone live music venues.
Restaurants generally don’t get better as they get bigger. And my sense is Dockery’s isn’t about to upend that conventional wisdom. But it also successfully challenges the related belief that big is always bad. Clearly, the restaurant's creators assumed every Daniel Islander would want to eat there, possibly all at the same time. Based on the rotisserie chicken alone, their forecast was justified.
Dockery’s houses more trendy kitchen implements than some restaurant supply stores, with a live-fire grill, wood-burning oven and smoker at its disposal. Overall, the restaurant is still in the Christmas morning stage of coming to terms with its new toys: A half-rack of heavily glazed spareribs, scattered with peanuts and sesame seeds in a vaguely East Asianish gesture, were all give and brown sugar. Yet its cooks already have shot off the learning curve chart for Dockery’s in-house skewered meat machine, operating the rotisserie with Costco-level mastery.
(As aficionados of spit-cooked chicken know, there is no shade associated with invoking the warehouse’s name here. And considering Dockery’s proportions, it seems doubly appropriate.)
The secret to Dockey’s chicken isn’t the chicken itself, although the menu takes pains to label it as a “Springer Mountain bird.” Springer Mountain, a subsidiary of Georgia’s massive Fieldale Farms, is the same line of poultry that fast-food chain Biscuitville puts on every chicken biscuit. So that’s not the specialness source. Instead, the splendor is located in the burnished skin and tender meat that its production technique ensures. Where the chicken’s juices commingle with garlicky sweet broth represents the peak of Dockey’s kitchen achievements.
I first encountered the chicken in quartered form, snuggled beneath fat roasted carrots in three different colors, a visual reminder of chef Jason Ulak’s time spent at Five Loaves Café. Again and again, saucy chromatic vegetables with burly dimensions show up on his plates, sometimes overshadowing whatever’s at their centers. Cauliflower, mushroom and potatoes, for instance, are more compelling than the roasted salmon they surround, or at least they respond better to the spiced carrot sauce.
But the rotisserie chicken also is sold as a salad topper on a menu that includes all of the classic American dishes that an eater would expect to find at a casual dining restaurant. Alongside relatively with-it ingredients such as puffed grain and pomegranate seeds, both of which sadly fade into nothingness aboard an overdressed beet salad, Dockery’s traffics in chicken lollipops, Caesar salad, lobster mac-and-cheese, and burgers and fries.
A number of these standards work just fine with Dockery’s many, many beers: I barely dented the made-on-site selection with a four-glass flight. A brown ale with strong chocolate notes outshone the pale ale and IPA, both of which had more jittery flavor profiles, but none of them could be considered an insult to crunchy, skin-on potato chips. Wide and ruddy as a leather strop, the chips are served with thick French onion dip. That’s pinnacle pub grub.
On another appetizer plank, four of the chips are carefully lined up and crowned with smoked salmon and a smidge of caviar. Those hoity-toity embellishments don’t become the food at Dockery’s, which is best at the basics. Short rib pappardelle looks like a mushroomy mess in its bowl, a situation that isn’t helped any by overcooked noodles. Scallops with gouda grits sounds like a promising riff on shrimp, but the dish is devastatingly salty. The cups of oven–roasted oysters are reduced to functioning as melted butter crocks.
Better to stick with straightforward dishes such as the excellent brisket chili, which is the best platform for smoke at Dockery’s. The meaty chili is distinguished by dense beans and crema with an acidic pulse of lime.
It’s not just the menu items that ring familiar at Dockery’s. The restaurant has taken all of its design cues from the kinds of places that pop up in the vicinity of higher-end malls: You sometimes get the feeling Dockery’s highest purpose is to spare Daniel Island residents the hassle of driving to Applebee’s. Even outside of the music arena, there is entertainment in every direction, mostly in the form of televisions, but also including a brewer in overalls climbing over tanks behind a glass wall.
In all likelihood, I wouldn’t travel back to Daniel Island just to eat at Dockery’s. But for people who live there, it’s a very big deal indeed.