This is the sixth installment in a series called Is It Still Good? Eater NY will be revisiting long-established restaurants that have acquired towering reputations and still generate plenty of traffic to find out if the food quality justifies our continued admiration. The last review was Katz’s Deli.
The waterways surrounding New York City were once blessed with some of the richest oyster beds on the East Coast. So rich, in fact, that by the mid-19th century, the oyster bar had become a predominant type of eating establishment. These oyster bars were often located in basements, off alleyways, or in other low-rent real estate. The bivalves were mainly served raw, and the cheapest places were located along Canal Street, where six cents got you an all-you-can-eat feast.
By the end of the century, the city’s oysters were largely depleted, and specimens harvested from Long Island beds and from as far away as Chesapeake Bay became the rule — at higher prices, of course. Local oyster fans complained that oysters from afar were inferior to our own New York City varieties.
So, when the Grand Central Terminal Restaurant — as it was then called — opened in 1913 in the new Grand Central Terminal, it had a vestigial oyster bar with just a few seats jammed into a corner, a reminder of the oyster bars of the previous century. The rest of the menu was aimed at travelers, with food that was commonplace for the time. You could order chicken hash, fried smelts, a club sandwich, or prime rib, all for less than a dollar.
The restaurant had its ups and downs over the years, as the importance of rail travel and the public’s desire to eat in a transportation hub waxed and waned. By the early 70s, the entire 440-seat place was down at the heels, and often largely empty. It still enjoyed a reputation among critics, causing Forbes Magazine’s Restaurant Guide (1971) to observe: “…back against the wall still stands the old Oyster Bar. It is here that the unassuming bivalve and his companions from the deep are served forth in dishes that are fit for kings.”
In 1972, the restaurant shuttered and did not reopen until 1974. At this point, under the directorship of Jerome Brody, whom Eater NY has called “the Danny Meyer of his day,” the premises were refurbished and the menu retooled into something like its present form. The place became a Yankee seafood haven, serving oysters and clams and a mind boggling list of fresh fish, some local, others flown in from around the world.
Recognizing the resurgent popularity of oysters, now cultivated up and down the East Coast as well as shipped from far away, the oyster list expanded and the counter lengthened to 42 seats. Yet even now, despite the unbroken excellence of the oyster service over the years, the restaurant itself is held in scorn by some as a place populated mostly by tourists searching for something more upscale than the food court next door.
I decided to see if today’s Grand Central Oyster Bar is still worth visiting.
As I went through the famous entrance arch, one aspect of architect Rafael Guastavino’s striking Beaux Arts design, I was impressed by the spectacle of it all. But even more interesting was the accretion of conflicting stylistic elements in the five eating areas: massive dining room on the left, fenced bar straight ahead, snaking lunch counter and elevated oyster bar to the right, and nautically themed saloon through a door at the end of the room. Where to sit?
I made my way straight to the oyster bar, sat on a raised stool, and ordered a half dozen. If you already have a favorite oyster, pick it, but it’s more fun to get different oysters and compare them. The counterman will keep careful track of what the shuckers shuck as you watch, and give you a printed list. Arbitrarily, I chose the first six among the 24 offered. They came on the half shell on a bed of ice, abetted by a lemon wedge, vinegary French mignonette, and the thick ketchup-and-horseradish cocktail sauce.
Three stood out: The signature Grand Central Oyster Bar blue points — named after a Long Island bed but now grown in Copps Island, Connecticut — were giant and juicy, a deal at $2.75 if you value volume. From New Zealand, the Clevedon Coves were reminiscent of a piece of freshly toasted bread. Best of all was a Jersey oyster called Cape May salts, which were briny as hell and as clean tasting as mint mouthwash. Chase the raw oysters with a glass of Prosecco ($11), or splurge on champagne ($22).
A couple of other oyster bar offerings merit mention, partly because both date to the founding of the establishment, and both reflect New York City contributions to the Yankee seafood aesthetic. Using a strange contraption that allows the preparer to steam a soup and then pour it into a bowl, stews and pan roasts can be made with oysters, clams, shrimp, lobsters, or scallops. Both ($14.25 to $24.95) contain butter, cream, clam juice, and Worcestershire, but the pan roast also features a piece of toast and cocktail sauce, turning it pink and ketchup-ey. Stick with the stews.
Next, I hopped over to the undulating lunch counter. Here is where you should get your bowl of New England ($8.50) or Manhattan ($8.25) clam chowder, which qualify as one of the city’s best seafood deals. The New England is thick with cream and potatoes, and if the broad bowl were less shallow, your spoon would probably stand up in it. The Manhattan is rife with bits of celery and green pepper in a tomato base, giving it a slightly spicy Creole or perhaps Sicilian flavor.
On another occasion, I sought out the dining room with a couple of friends. Here, the results were somewhat less satisfactory, so follow my advice if you want a great meal. As distinguished as the architecture is, the vast vaulted room sports tacky red checked tablecloths and strings of lights that give the room an annoying yellowish cast.
There are nearly 150 offerings on the menu in 14 divisions. Go directly to “Today’s Catch.” There, find 15 or so impeccably fresh filets and whole fish, either broiled or pan fried. Ask which fish are local, if you prefer. One unimpeachable choice, from any standpoint, is the whole broiled flounder ($29.95), a constant on the restaurant’s menu since the earliest days, and big enough for two. The flesh is fluffy and slightly sweet, the skin crisp on the downward-facing side. Arctic char and bluefish are other good choices.
Yes, you can’t beat great seafood simply prepared. Stay away from anything fussy or elaborate. A classic case is the Oyster Bar’s bouillabaisse ($31.45), which comes in a bowl too narrow to float the accompanying croutons and their flavorless rouille. The chowder clam that sits on top is too big and rubbery to eat, and salmon is one fish that doesn’t belong in a bouillabaisse. If you must have fried seafood, the fish and chips ($27.95) is a good choice, featuring several pollack filets and excellent french fries.
Find many good dishes among the appetizers. The house-pickled Dutch herring, drizzled with a sweet mustard dill sauce, is one of the menu’s bargains ($8.95), and reminds you that that the restaurant makes a big deal of the herring season when it arrives in early summer. And the oysters Rockefeller is the best version of that dish I’ve ever tried, either here or in New Orleans, where it was invented. The spinach stuffing is especially creamy, and the presence of a whole oyster, rather than minced ones, means that the true flavor and texture of the creature shines through the green mush.
The white wine list is better than it needs to be, with plenty of great bottles in the $40 to $50 range. A favorite of mine is a Sardinian vermentino from Sella & Mosca ($44). Crisp and citrusy, it doesn’t upstage the plain broiled seafood. The same price gets you a nice French muscadet or a fizzy Spanish cava, and for $4 more, there’s a French Macon Villages chardonnay.
Faults aside, the Grand Central Oyster Bar remains one of the city’s best and most venerable seafood restaurants, especially when you consider breadth of selection, price, and unfailing freshness. Keep your order simple, share a couple of apps and a whole fish or pair of filets, and you’ll have a great meal at a reasonable price. Or snack on a quick bowl of chowder, or half dozen raw oysters. But if what you really want is fried calamari and a beer, hit up a gastropub instead.