In almost every city, there are restaurants that rise above the level of eateries and become institutions. The Grand Central Oyster Bar is one of those. Originally opened in 1913, it is located on the lower level of one of the world’s most beautiful railroad terminals.
By the early 1970s, rail travel in America was almost extinct, and the Oyster Bar had died along with it. It was brought back to life by a veteran restaurateur named Jerome Brody, who redefined the concept and sourced the freshest possible seafood from a network of suppliers around the country. It is thriving today, and has spawned an elaborate, upscale food court on Grand Central Station’s lower level.
In its current incarnation, as before, the Oyster Bar is a huge place, with seating for nearly 450 in an assortment of different venues. There is a formal dining room, a pub, a more elegant lounge area with table service, and a real oyster bar with guys shucking shellfish to order. The heart of the place, though, is a series of five counters facing the open kitchen, each holding 14 diners and offering a quintessential American experience.
You sit at one of those counters and confront the impossibility of choosing something from the encyclopedic menu. Can’t decide between New England and Manhattan clam chowder? They’ll give you half and half in the same bowl, and both are better than anything you may have tried previously. Want a piece of fish? Select from more than 20 pristine species. There are cold platters, fried platters and shellfish assortments. And of course there are oysters, well over a dozen different varieties on any given day, available by the piece.
Service is precise and intuitive. You will not necessarily leave knowing your server’s name or life story. They are friendly if you want to be and will converse on demand, but that’s not their primary mission. They specialize in the old-fashioned technique of serving you without fanfare and without calling attention to themselves.
In Michelin parlance, the Grand Central Oyster Bar is worth a detour. If you come to New York, don’t miss it.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com