On Tuesday night, SJT and I find ourselves in the tunnels of Grand Central Station, below the walkways leading to the street, for a trip to an iconic New York landmark, perhaps as iconic as the building that houses it. The Grand Central Oyster Bar has been just below street level for over 100 years, its curved archways, countertops, and dark wooden bars delightfully from an era not our own. Though in 1974 it had become simply a rundown coffee shop, it was taken over that year by Jerome Brody, a restaurateur who transformed the space back to its former glory. It's now owned by an Employee Stock Ownership Program, and continues to be one of the city's most beloved spots--even if you'd never been there, you knew about it. You may even recognize it from previous years' cast introductions to Saturday Night Live, and it recently won the Design Icon James Beard Award.
And yet, SJT and I were among the group who knew about the legendary restaurant but had never gone. We resolved to remedy this with their new(ish) happy hour, which is held Monday-Wednesday from 4:30-7pm, and Saturdays from 1-5pm in their Lounge and Saloon spaces. The Lounge, with its modern white tables and chairs and banquette seating, gave us a view of the entire restaurant, so we waited patiently for one to open (they're first-come, first-serve). It felt vulture-like to prey upon the tables of people slowly putting on their jackets and leaving their empty wine glasses behind, but we knew it had to be done. He watched over one entrance and I the other and with a combined magic of occasional nods and eyebrow arches we wound up with a table vacated by four older, athleisure-clad women.
We sat, observing the three curved lunch counters to our left, with another one in the back, resolving to sit at one of them next time for the sandwiches that are only served there. I love sitting at lunch counters, with their spinning stools and handwritten menus overhead, for that feeling of being in another time.
From the happy hour menu, we chose Bluepoint Oysters and wine, a rose for SJT and a chardonnay for me. Normally, the Oyster List at the Oyster Bar is about five pages long, including not just the oyster name, but the geographic origin, size, and flavor profile. I have since learned that Bluepoints are regular sized, of mild flavor, and hail from New York's Long Island and Connecticut's Copps Island.
More older women in athleisure commandeered spaces around us, as did men in suits and women in neutral work attire. Grand Central Station is smack in the middle of midtown, of course, so it draws both tourists and businesspeople in great abundance. And yet here we were, two freelancers awaiting their giant plate of oysters.
I did not eat oysters until after I moved to New York, fearful from a young age of what might happen if one eats a bad one based on a story my mother had told me of her own experiences many moons ago. But after I ate one oyster and didn't die or end up in the hospital, I figured for a while I would continue trying them. I find them less fishy, less slimy than clams, with a meat that's just the right amount of slippery and chewy. I notice that I don't order them of my own volition (I wonder if this is a side effect of that original deep-seated fear), but if someone wants to eat oysters, I am happy to tag along. And since SJT has been on an oyster kick for the last few months, I have been happy to tag along. The Oyster Bar was his latest selection, and what would not be fun about testing out a New York icon?
I realized after coming back from L.A. that what most interested me about the city was what was left over from what I'm going to call its golden age, the '40s, '50s, and '60s. Restaurants like Musso & Frank with their famous steaks and Dal Rae with Cherries Jubilee prepared tableside are legendary spots I would have been excited to check out had there been time. But what about in my own city? There were so many incredible, historic places I had yet to visit and perhaps it was time to start digging in, to not take them for granted and try them while I was able.
It is a delight that the Oyster Bar was one of the first places I visited in this new view of the city I'm trying to have. Cracked open and laid on ice, the oysters arrived with tangy cocktail sauce, mignonette (a tangy, almost mauve sauce made of vinegar and shallots), lemons, and a big container of horseradish. We squeezed lemons and dipped sauces, but the oysters were perfectly lovely on their own, too--mild indeed, almost pillowy, and chilly. It was like being in another era for a while, so much that I imagined fixing my imaginary pillbox hat and rushing out to catch a train in my kitten heels. But alas, I was wearing cowboy boots which, I think, part of me still ultimately prefers.