Grand Central Station Oyster Bar
Posted by Remo Giuffré on
Oysters, Clams, History and a Secret “Whispering Gallery”
The Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station in New York is as old as the terminal itself. It opened as a 440 seater in February 1913, barely three weeks after the opening of the station.
Back then, and for decades prior, oyster bars, stands, shacks, and cellars were an obsession in New York. Also, the opening of the terminal came during the heyday of long-distance train travel; so the Oyster Bar (in those days run by the Union News Company) both supplied meals to the long-distance trains leaving the station, and offered commuters and locals a place to slurp oysters and pan roasts at lunch and before heading home.
It was a hit, quickly becoming one of the most crowded lunch counters in New York, serving all manner of raw clams and oysters (up to 30 types) and a range of instantly-famous pan roasts and stews that were cooked somewhat theatrically in steam-powered swivelling pans installed along the main counter. What magic!
The space was designed by prolific Spanish American architect Raphael Gustavino, accented with arched and vaulted ceilings covered in terracotta tiles. The large vault at the entrance of the Oyster Bar has long been known as the “Whispering Gallery” and is considered to be one of the “secrets” of Grand Central Terminal. Stand facing into one corner with a friend in the opposite corner, speak in a normal tone, and your voice “follows the curvature of the ceiling”, says urban historian Justin Ferate in a 2015 piece from New York On My Mind. “It’s called telegraphing.” Your friend will hear you as clearly as if you were if you were whispering into each other’s ears. (Ed: It really works. we’ve tried it.)
As years passed, long-distance train travel fell out of fashion. Money was short, and Grand Central Terminal fell into disrepair, and with it, the Oyster Bar. By the early 1970s, it was derelict, bankrupt, and awaiting a saviour. The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority approached renowned New York restaurateur Jerome Brody (Rainbow Room/Grill, Mama Leone’s, Gallagher’s Steakhouse) to take over the concession. Several former employees returned to the new restaurant when it reopened some months later. It was officially called the “Oyster Bar”, and served a seafood-focused menu using only the freshest not-frozen fish, lobsters, oysters and crabs (curiously unusual at the time for seafood restaurants).
109 years after it opened, the Grand Central Oyster Bar remains a New York City landmark devoted to serving the finest quality seafood supported by its many long time employees.
In 2019 former restaurant critic for The New York Times Ruth Reichl wrote this nice tribute:
“I’m a New Yorker, so some of my favorite places are pure nostalgia. I love the counter at the Oyster Bar, where the same men have been making incredible oyster stew for most of my lifetime. Just the warm, round smell of that stew reminds me of my childhood. Afterward, I go outside and whisper into the echoing walls.”
There’s another unique and wonderful thing about the Oyster Bar. Heavily invested, long time employees have always been key to its success, and a few years after the death of Jerome Brody in 2001, Marlene his widow transferred the ownership of the restaurant to those employees who now own 100% of the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant. Cool, right?
And finally, we’ll leave you with a visual treat. In this REMOVISION video from 2008, Remo (the person) unexpectedly finds himself playing a role in his own impromptu Oyster Bar documentary. Intrigued? Watch the three minute video to appreciate what we mean. As you will see, it all ended well. The cherrystone clam pan roast made it all worthwhile.
Wikipedia Reference: Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant
1. Oyster Bar & Restaurant at Grand Central Terminal, 1974. Credit: Don Hogan Charles, The New York Times.
2. Grand Central Station, New York City
3. Grand Central Station. Photo: Victor Fraile Rodriguez / Getty Images.
4. Grand Central Terminal Opening, 1913. Courtesy: Frank English/MTA Metro-North Railroad.
5. The Oyster Bar in 1913
6. Counters at Oyster Bar
7. Ad for the Oyster Bar
8. Jerome Brody in the Oyster Bar
9 & 10. Oyster Bar, 2012. Photo: Matthew Kassel / Business Insider.
11. 30 Oyster Varieties Offered Daily. Photo: Matthew Kassel / Business Insider.
13. Oyster Pan Roast
14. Remo Visits the Oyster Bar, 2008. REMOVISION: RV_03, 30 April 2008
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The Video! Priceless!!!