A closer look at the aesthetic appeal of Grand Central Oyster Bar, cited as this year’s Design Icon Award recipient at the James Beard Awards next week.
For the uninitiated, a sense of New York City’s grandeur and scale first arrives with the trains at Grand Central Terminal, where a soaring ceiling in the main concourse — itself a map of the heavens — can draw gasps from even the steeliest of locals. It’s only fitting that peckish comers get the same treatment downstairs at Grand Central Oyster Bar. More than a century after well-heeled Edwardian diners first slurped oyster pan roasts under its tiled arches, the subterranean bivalve-ery is set to receive the Design Icon Award at this year’s James Beard Awards on May 1.
“That’s just extraordinary, to have that kind of continuity in a dynamic city like New York,” said John Ochsendorf, a professor of architecture at MIT and an expert on the unique style of tiling on display at Grand Central. The Grand Central Oyster Bar was always an oyster bar, he said, a key aspect of the terminal’s design conceived originally by its architects at the firm Warren and Wetmore. But more accurately, it’s a reflection of the mastery of Rafael Guastavino and his son, Rafael Guastavino Jr., whose gravity-defying vaulting technique thrilled builders of the City Beautiful movement, an era defined by the notion that train stations and bridges could be grand works of art with more than just utilitarian value.
The Guastavinos, who immigrated to the United States from Barcelona in 1881, brought with them a peculiar construction style inspired by vaulting first developed by Islamic architects and builders in North Africa and later introduced to Spain in the 12th or 13th century. Known then as “Catalan vaulting”—and, tellingly, today as “Guastavino vaulting”— the technique involves the construction of self-supporting arches with interlocking terracotta tiles and thin layers of mortar. It allows for soaring, impossibly curved ceilings thought unworkable before the elder Guastavino — a contemporary of Antoni Gaudí — introduced the method to gobsmacked American audiences at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. (For what it’s worth, Guastavino called the method “cohesive construction” and wrote a whole book about it.) In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, Guastavino’s tiles were fireproof, a particularly appealing feature in the era before modern sprinkler systems. In all, Guastavino’s laminated tiles adorn more than 1,000 structures across the country, hundreds of them in New York City.
Although the Guastavinos weren’t usually the architects of record on a given project, they were much more than contractors. “What would happen is that the main architects would draw the bigger drawings”—overall schematics, floor plans, and building elevations—“but they would leave the details for the Guastavinos,” explained Ochsendorf. They were “a bit of everything,” working as architects, structural engineers, building contractors, masons, and even at times interior decorators. “They were architects in the sense of a master architect from a thousand years ago,” Ochsendorf said. “I think of them almost like 12th-century Gothic master masons.”
The father-son team attracted the attention of Warren and Wetmore, who subcontracted their firm on several projects, including one at the former Vanderbilt Hotel at 34th Street and Park Avenue, where today patrons of Wolfgang’s Steakhouse dine under a sprawling polychromatic ceiling. (Erected just before Grand Central Oyster Bar, the two are unmistakably spiritual siblings.) When Rafael Guastavino Sr. died suddenly in 1908, his son took over the firm’s projects, including its work with Warren and Wetmore for Grand Central.
Years earlier, the Guastavinos’ commission had required convincing New York City building authorities that their tiles were indeed fireproof. A series of tests were conducted in 1901 “where they put a load over a vault and lit a fire [under it] for three days,” Ochsendorf said. Nothing happened, proving that the vaults were safe. Amazingly, that test came in handy nearly a century later when a fire ravaged the restaurant in 1997, melting kitchen equipment and scorching furniture to ash. As cold water from the firemen’s hoses hit the sizzling tiles, the outermost layer popped off, causing some to wonder if the whole structure might come tumbling down. The Oyster Bar’s fate was in serious question. But engineers pointed to the 1901 fire tests, Ochsendorf said. “They used that 100-year-old test as proof that the oyster bar could reopen.”
The magic of Grand Central Oyster Bar is in those layers of tile. There are four of them in total, built from the ground up without the safety net of additional supports from below. During construction, they might have looked like the arches at the Boston Public Library, which a top-hatted elder Guastavino poses atop in this 1889 photo. Altogether, the layers create a seal much like a brick oven, ensuring that the structure will stay intact even in the most devastating fire. It’s nearly indestructible. But the final layer of tile, laid in a herringbone pattern at once both modern and classic, is what continues to astonish restaurant goers.
“When you sit under it and look up, the pattern is just perfect,” Ochsendorf said, still incredulous after years of study. The geometry of the oyster bar’s interlocking tiles is astounding in its complexity, he continued, something all the more impressive considering that Rafael Jr. had no formal training and somewhat lived in the shadow of his father. (That said, Ochsendorf is quick to point out, the younger Guastavino had four U.S. patents to his name before age 19. Not too shabby.) Designing the oyster bar’s tile pattern “might be enough to get you admitted to Harvard these days,” he marveled. “My graduate students at MIT would have a hard time doing that with computers.”
It’s impossible to know for sure precisely how the pattern was laid — the Guastavinos were famously secretive about their construction methods, and few production photos remain today—but Ochsendorf thinks he’s figured it out. “If you started at the edges and vaulted inward, you would never get the patterns to come out perfectly in the middle,” he theorized. “They started in the middle with a perfect pattern, and then they cut the tiles at the bottom. After many years of staring at the vaults, you realize that it’s the only way to get a perfect pattern.”
Not that everyone thinks it’s perfect. The Oyster Bar’s dining room is noisy — those laminated tiles tend to amplify sound—and the issue prompted Rafael Jr. to develop more ear-friendly tiles after hearing the cacophony firsthand at Grand Central. The restaurant is also virtually windowless save for a large interior window, which makes for a moody atmosphere even on a cloudless day.
“Bottom line, it’s a dungeon,” said Sandy Ingber, the oyster bar’s executive chef since 1996. “In the dead of winter, I can leave home in dark and go home in dark, and I never see the sunlight. That’s a difficult thing.” But he’s gotten used to it, he said, and has even come to appreciate the little things. “On a real sunny day around 1 o’clock, a ray of light comes from outside through the station, though our window, and covers the guy making the pan roast in sun,” Ingber said dreamily. “It’s a really unique feeling.”
Speaking of those pan roasts, the restaurant’s design may be partly responsible. Even in its earliest days, when the menu was dominated by continental fare like "prime ribs of beef au jus" and "cream of lettuce aux croutons," the famous dish was prepared in stainless steel kettles using hot steam piped in from the main terminal.
Not that steam was used to power locomotives; Grand Central Terminal was originally built to accommodate electric trains, replacing an earlier steam-centric station. Rather, the building of Grand Central Terminal coincided with the Midtown expansion of New York City’s steam system — today the largest in the world — and during construction, an extensive network of steam tunnels was laid under the structure.
“This steam that we have here is produced by Grand Central,” explained Ingber. “I think the style of the stew and pan roast was built around the steam,” he continued, likely “because it was available.”
As far as decor goes, the oyster bar has undergone but few transformations over the years. In 1913, the dining room was densely packed with round tables draped in white tablecloths and the walls lined with potted palm trees. Today, the vibe is more approachable, with management favoring red-and-white checkered cloth. The long marble bar is original, its swiveling stools the only thing updated through the decades. The U-shaped stainless steel and formica counters became central to the design scheme in the 70s and remain today — no one can imagine the space without them anymore — surviving periodic refurbishments over the years.
Admittedly, the restaurant went through a questionable design period in middle age: After a 1974 tour of the property, then-owner Jerome Brody recounted with disdain that its marble columns were “painted aquamarine over wallpaper,” the walls were covered in “yellow Cello-tex,” and the furniture was “upholstered yellow, in unsettling contrast with the red table cloths.”
It reemerged shiny and not-so-new after a renovation and remains largely unchanged today, mostly thanks to its designation as a landmark property in 1980 by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. After the 1997 fire, new tiles were painstakingly matched to the remaining originals; all that’s different today are the nautically-themed chandeliers, which replaced originals that couldn’t be replicated.
In large part, that’s what keeps people coming back — starting with white-hair grandfathers who sidle up to the bar alongside bright-eyed grandchildren recalling their first oyster stews decades earlier. If that image seems trite, consider that both Ochsendorf and Ingber independently conjured the same picture without prompting. In a city that evolves by the minute, continuity is no small achievement.
“When you’re there, you can be in almost any decade of the last century,” Ochsendorf said, his voice trailing off as though spoken from a train leaving a platform. “It’s kind of like time travel.”