I can’t believe that in all my years living in and coming to New York City and in all my years as a lover of oysters, clams and assorted seafood, I had never before eaten at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, a venerable culinary institution if ever there was one in the United States, having been in operation since the Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913.
Situated in the lower level of the terminal, the Oyster Bar harkens back to another age, an age when oysters were still the kings of New York, an age when the bivalves were beloved and accessible to all, rich or poor, an age of massive building and an age of looming clouds with World War 1 on the horizon. The restaurant is massive, with several sections including a formal area with table service and reservations, a luncheonette type counter and then the oyster bar itself, where I sat. One commonality of each of the areas is the amazing series of tiled, archways – the legendary Guastavino ceiling, a fixture of Beaux Arts NYC. When the Oyster Bar suffered a fire that nearly destroyed it in 1997, the tile work had to be painstakingly redone. The job was well done and the place retains its bygone charm.
I didn’t do anything fancy there. In fact, I kept it about as basic as I could. I ordered the “Medley of Shellfish Platter” which came with 10 oysters, 2 clams, 2 jumbo shrimp and 3 New Zealand mussels and their attendant condiments. The mussels and the shrimp were cooked, while the oysters and clams were raw.
The mussels were plump and tasty. The shrimp were firm and flavorful. I was able to add as much fresh horseradish to the cocktail sauce as I wanted, which is nice because I love a LOT of horseradish in my cocktail sauce. Indeed my preference is to add a little sauce to the horseradish. Conversely, when it comes to the raw bar, I never add cocktail sauce to clams or oysters. To me, it just destroys their briny essences. No, a little acid is all that I like, either with just a squeeze of fresh lemon or a bit of mignonette.
I had two immaculately fresh clams, a littleneck and a cherrystone. With a squeeze of lemon I was in bivalve heaven.
There was a nice variety amongst the ten oysters, but my favorites were the wonderfully named “French Kiss.” Lighter in color, sweet, but still wonderfully briny, these morsels were oyster perfection whether with a mignonette or just lemon. They were so good that I ordered an additional half dozen of just them.
The Oyster Bar is not just a relic of the past. While it is a wonderful bit of history and a joyous reminder of the glories of New York City oyster culture, alas it is no longer within easy rich of both rich AND poor. At over $2 a pop per oyster when ordered individually and $32.55 + t&t for the platter I ordered, these lovely bivalves and shrimp are not budget food anymore. Nevertheless, it is warming to see the place continue with quality and charm if not with economy. It is not really the fault of the Oyster Bar though that economies for a meal like this have disappeared. Oysters used to be hugely plentiful and if you have read Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, you will know that New York City was actually the world’s biggest oyster producer and consumer in the 19th century before pollution and over-fishing ruined the local industry. I am, however, enough of a lover of these delights that I will spring for them when they are of this quality in a setting like this anytime. If you are too, you won’t go wrong at The Grand Central Oyster Bar.