The $1.6 billion Moynihan Train Hall, a new, natural light-filled transit hub for commuters from Long Island, Boston, Washington D.C., and elsewhere, shares one crucial feature with the windowless, subterranean Penn Station next door: It serves a damn good slice.
Sauce, the official pizzeria of the sprawling West Side terminal’s three-month-old food hall, sells what are surely some of the city’s better thin crust pies. They sport cracker-like crusts with a gentle chew — arguably a nod to a certain Staten Island style. A regular slice exhibits that classic balance of milky mozzarella and faintly tart tomatoes, while the vodka slice deploys just enough cream to soften the blow of the red sauce. Brilliant, right?
Not so fast. For over two decades, I’d grab cheap midnight slices from the now-closed Rose’s at Penn Station and then hop on a train just steps away. Things are different in these new digs, alas. Slices are five bucks each — well above the city average — and they’re so airy that one can polish off two of them in three minutes flat. That’s an expensive snack at $11 after tax, a steep price for those who rely on pizza as a filling nightly meal. Sauce also dares to omit the classic New York cheese slice in favor of something closer to a margherita. And the vendor, like most others, sits more than the length of a football field away from most Long Island Rail Road tracks, and it closes well before 8 p.m.
In a city that’s increasingly inaccessible and unaffordable to commuters — roughly a third of the Long Islanders traveling in earn less than $50,000 annually — things are a bit more complicated than simply serving damn good food.
Moynihan Hall is the type of disaster that happens when developers build a train hall that doubles as a culinary destination rather than one that serves as a functional place for those who spend a big part of their lives on trains. It will surprise no one that the shiny new hub is located in the same building — the landmark Farley Post Office — where Facebook recently inked a deal for 750K-square-feet of office space.
Call it public transit gentrification, which perhaps explains the following: s’mores cookies prepared “a la minute,” piping hot bowls of ramen (have fun eating those on a moving train), a nighttime DJ who spins clubby remixes out of Fleetwood Mac, a mini-gourmet mart hawking vacuum sealed packages of goose ‘nduja, and a chic sandwich shop that sells most sandwiches for $15 — alongside bottles of gold foil-wrapped olive oil for $25.
Moynihan’s website says everything except the bar shutters at 10 p.m., but in reality most vendors closes by 8:30 p.m. In fact some of concessionaires, including Jacob’s Pickles, the Burger Joint, and E.A.K. Ramen, still haven’t opened three months after the food hall’s debut. And for those on a tight schedule, bad news: there’s not a single flatscreen showing train departures nearby. The countless televisions and digital billboards instead show Yankees games and advertisements for sports betting.
It’s actually enough to make one miss the fluorescent-lit and occasionally fetid corridors of Penn Station’s old LIRR concourse. I’ve long had a theory about that train hall: no one really liked it, but it was hard not to love. It was no Grand Central Terminal, with its stunning arches and famed oyster bar, but the underground station housed a special place called Tracks, where the bartenders would put beverages in a “to-go” cup if you needed something for the road. And who could forget the local outposts of Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s, two chains that made the walkways smell sweetly of sugar, spice, and, a very sensual kind of butter. Vendors, for the most part, focused on the type of affordable, delicious fare you could eat with one hand while riding the train back to Long Beach.
If the old Penn Station had a signature dish, it was a cheese slice and two tallboys in a bag filled with ice. The new Moynihan Hall, by contrast, is a fine place for individual quiche lorraines.
The expensive sandwiches are great too. Alidoro, a local Italian chain, layers meaty porchetta ($17) or funky sopressata ($16) onto crusty baguettes with warm mozzarella and spicy pepper spread.
H&H, in turn, serves the type of reasonably chewy (and occasionally stale) bagels you’d expect anywhere in New York. Feel like pastries? Vesuvio sent me off with a pain au chocolat that was simultaneously underbaked yet stale; it looked and tasted like it was created by a mustachioed Disney villain who hates things that taste good. That shop’s panzerotti, typically a crispy fried pocket of dough filled with cheese and tomatoes, flaunted the spongy texture of a microwaved zeppole. The Penn Station outpost of Naya, in turn, functions as a pricier and less delicious analogue to halal street vendors. This is where patrons will encounter bland chicken shawarma that tastes as if it were cooked in a large commercial oven instead of over a succulent spit or a blazing hot griddle.
As for the old McDonald’s, it has been effectively replaced, at least temporarily, by the Burger joint, an offshoot of the Midtown institution. A cheeseburger, fries, and soda will run over $20.
The Bar — owned by the folks behind the famed Dead Rabbit and open until midnight — occupies the center of the food hall. Its cocktail menu advertises, among other drinks, brunch-y Aperol spritzes ($15), though most folks order what you’d expect commuters to order: draft beers (mostly $9) or martinis. The Bar offers no composed dishes; you simply bring whatever food you pick up nearby. While this picnic approach to dining seems democratic, it smacks up against the reality that anyone swinging by in the late evening to dampen the inebriating effects of booze — there is no shortage of those folks after Rangers games — will only encounter more alcohol.
Regular commuters know, of course, that some of the best places to eat while traveling aren’t permanent concessionaires, but rather tamale stands below an elevated train or a churro cart on the subway platform. New York’s street vendors are often the most efficient and delicious conduits for nourishing folks in a short period of time, and part of me wonders whether the new Penn Station would be a more exciting place to eat if they were invited in to set up shop from the giant atrium — especially when there are thousands of folks passing through after the food stands shutter for the evening.
There’s something disheartening about seeing all the plywooded concessionaires in the new station, the closed vendors in the old one, and knowing that so many of the city’s independent food service workers would likely jump at the chance to temporarily sell their in-demand pupusas or yogurt-slathered kofta here — and maybe by doing so escape the fines and police harassment they frequently encounter. Instead, what the MTA has given us is another corporate mall under constant construction, a place where one of the only options for a post-rush hour meal is an egg bite from Starbucks.
Free market capitalism is supposed to solve for inefficiencies through competition and by responding to consumer demand. But here at Moynihan, the developers, like so many others around town, seem to believe that upscale branding and gastronomic curation trump feeding people who want a quick, inexpensive lunch or dinner. Until that mindset changes, commuters should know that the station’s aging NJ Transit wing — a circuitous five-minute walk from Moynihan — still has bodegas selling $5 tallboys. And a block away, one can pick up a slice for $3.49 after midnight.