Eating nearly anything within New York City’s reviled transit system is far from a dazzling experience. The underground, century-old Grand Central Oyster Bar in the deep innards of the marvelous Grand Central Station, however, may be the one exception.
That the restaurant debuted nearly in tandem with the now-iconic transportation hub tells of how different New York City was in 1913. Oysters from the mouth of the Hudson were still edible at that point, and oyster shacks were a feature of lower Manhattan. The huge number of travelers on the long-distance trains of the era made a stylish oyster bar within a rail hub an ideal match.
Renowned architect Rafael Guastavino’s design of the subterranean space is timeless. Warm terracotta tiles hug the restaurant’s dramatic, vaulted ceilings, relieving some of the weight of the countless tons of cold concrete above. With red-checkered tablecloths, swiveling diner chairs, and paper-hatted servers, you may forget what year it is altogether.
The 440-seat restaurant is trisected into a large dining room to the left of the entrance, a snaking lunch counter and elevated oyster bar to the right, suited for solo dining, quick meals or both; and a New England-style saloon beyond that, complete with dark wood, model boats, and wall-mounted fish. A fun one for the kids, if not the kid in you: the front archway is a whispering galley, so that a word spoken on one end, however soft, can be heard 20 yards away at the other end.
For all its charm, the storied establishment has seen dark days. When the automobile pushed trains out of favor, plans to demolish the terminal for high-rise office buildings were only stopped by advocacy from former lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In 1976, the terminal was declared a National Historical Landmark. Then, a calamitous fire in 1997 might have terminated the business, were the economy not in an upswing and business booming otherwise. Luckily, the restaurant’s long legacy of impressive seafood at accessible prices lives on.
As ever, the menu features an array of bivalves, crustaceans, and fish from Maine to the Chesapeake and beyond. Standouts from the lengthy menu include the famous oyster stew, oysters Rockefeller, and the whole broiled flounder. For larger groups, shellfish platters feature, as does lobster on ice. An extensive wine list betrays whatever diner aesthetic the lunch counter might affect.
What it all adds up to is that one of the city’s oldest and most reliable seafood restaurants is beautifully situated in the last place you’d expect it. Here’s to another 100 years.
Know Before You Go
The restaurant is in the lower level of Grand Central Terminal. Follow signs to the food court and keep an eye out for the whispering gallery. It's closed Sundays.