Grand Central Oyster Bar Is an Oasis in the Middle of Midtown Commuter Hell
Some of the dishes have been on the menu since the restaurant opened ... in 1913
At Grand Central Oyster Bar on the evening before a long weekend, no one seems to be rushing home to their families. The prized seats — 20 bar stools at the oyster bar and nearly triple that many at the three U-shaped counters that curl out into the massive room — are all taken. Hopefuls crowd around as white-capped and aproned waiters march back and forth, laden with platters of bivalves or fried calamari piled around generously heaped bowls of garlicky marinara. There are tall glasses of cold, near-spilling beer and red-and-white checked tablecloths being swept up, crumpled and replaced. Plastic dish trays piled by the arched oyster bar are filled and never quite emptied. Rubber mats below waiters’ feet curl with wear. Necks crane to read the names Bluepoint, Moonstone, Wellfleet, Malpeque.
Despite the cavernous size of the restaurant, which unfolds in the belly of Grand Central Terminal, there seems to be a bottleneck by the door and each bar. I try to find a small space to tuck myself into. Asking again seems like I’ve missed the code. So I wait. I ignore the dining room to the left of the entrance; too far from the action. Ordering a glass of wine at the small bar in the center of the room, I reach around three retired cops, all working security jobs in the area now, on their weekly date. Moving to a bench near the rim of the bar, I find myself at the mercy of a kind English couple who despite visiting for the first time are gracious enough to let me join their New York moment.
Recently, a friend who runs a small restaurant downtown told me that he’s OK being bossed around by waiters and managers at restaurants in New York, should he ever get in the way. “It’s their scene, it’s their well-oiled machine,” he says. I’ve just been scolded for transferring my check from the bar proper to the table and bench zone surrounding it, which is being run by one fleet-footed waiter, so I repeat that to myself a few times for good measure, all the time, scanning the prized seats. Then the moment comes to swoop in on one lone swiveling diner stool at the main oyster bar.
It’s funny how a cup of near scalding creamy clam chowder, a plate of icy, briny, bright oysters and a glass of white wine can wipe away a cranky wait. A few slurps in and I’ve forgotten the earlier jostling. Maybe if the restaurant felt a bit less like a crowded thoroughfare it’d be easy to use the waiting time to dwell on the sometimes brusque service, or the length of the menu that feels unchanged from the ’90s but a bit more dated than classic (a filet of farmed salmon for $32). Then again, maybe it’s just me who minds: I’ve only lived here 10 years, nothing in the scope of this place’s 107-year history. True New Yorkers are good and comfortable with service that’s a little grating, with vying for the good seat. After all, haven’t we all just elbowed our way off the Metro North, the LIRR, the 4-5-6 train to get here?
Still, if what you want to find is some quiet respite from the terminal itself, it’s best to choose your arrival time wisely. On other days, I’ve walked by the whispering arches outside and found it half empty: each broad room filled with only a handful of patrons, despite the 750,000 daily travellers whirring through the station above. Regulars who work nearby have stopped in for lunch, along with tourists who have figured out there is nearly nowhere to eat a non-miserable, non-wallet-busting lunch in Midtown save for this place. On a quiet day, a thousand or so patrons stop in for lunch. On a busy day, twice that many.
No, it’s never empty. But if you ignore happy hour, or more precisely, since happy hour starts at 4:30 some days, if you never try to come at 6:00 or 7:00 for “quick drink” after work, you’ll be just fine.
If the bars and counters are all crowded, I’d still recommend skipping the vast seated dining room. Instead, weave towards the back to the swinging wooden tavern doors of the Saloon. You can find it by the rainbow, block-lettered sign over head, a more recent addition to the otherwise wood-paneled and chevron-tiled spot. In the dim saloon, which is usually unencumbered by piles of filmy shopping bags and selfie takers, you can order in relative quiet. If the rest of the restaurant feels like an extension of the terminal itself, the Saloon is more the casual cousin of a handful of other midtown favorites, from Smith & Wollensky to the bar at the Yale Club.
Despite the GIF on Grand Central Terminal’s website or the station’s two Instagram accounts, the restaurant inside feels totally untouched by us irritating millennials. There’s no natural wine, no hand-thrown ceramics, no waiters telling you about “the menu concept” or worse, asking you constantly how your meal is, making it your duty as a diner to provide positive feedback through a full mouth. Yes, there’s a merch shop sporting branding surprisingly similar to that of the slightly gritty Brooklyn Roasting Company — but that’s about it for modernization.
In fact, the best things about the place are indeed the classics. An ESOP since 2001, the restaurant is run by Sandy Ingber, who is also the executive chef and fish buyer. Ingber, who started in 1997 and was trained at the Culinary Institute of America prior to that, still starts his day with a 2 a.m. visit to the fish market in Hunts Point. Being maniacal about getting the freshest seafood out there is what keeps him excited after 30 years and many a cold and early morning. “We have either the world’s largest or one of the world’s largest raw bars,” he explains. “People come to us from around the world, and many of them are totally shellfish starved, especially the Europeans.”
Wondering what to order? Anything from the raw bar, the shrimp cocktail, the soups and the crackly calamari that leaves a little slick of oil on your fingertips after dipping are all great bets. For those after something a little more warming, try the pan roast. “An odd but wonderful dish — essentially a milky stew — that I’ve been eating at every visit since 1982,” my dad tells me. Turns out he was late to the house favorite: it’s been on the menu since the restaurant opened in 1913, and has remained unchanged since Ingber’s start.
“We do seafood stews that are mild and creamy, each handmade to order in the silver steam jacketed kettles alongside the oyster bar,” Ingber explains. “The Pan Roast is essentially the same, except for the addition of sweet chili sauce and celery salt, and then it’s all poured over toast. It’s my favorite,” he adds.
While you might very well vie to get a table, once you do, the choices expand — if you just ask nicely. “We offer all these different seafood choices— Ipswich clams, Cherrystone clams, lobster, oysters. You can have just one of them, or you can have them all. Or, actually, you can have two or three as well,” adds Ingber. “Really, we’ll give you anything you want.”