In any discussion of New York City landmark restaurants, the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant stands in a class by itself. From its unique position in the Terminal’s lower level, with the famous “Whispering Gallery” at its entrance, waiters have been serving up platters of the freshest seafood for a century.
Here are more than 100 of the restaurant’s classic recipessome dating back to its opening in 1913along with behind-the-scenes stories, historical anecdotes, and a wealth of expert information on buying, cooking, and serving fish. An ocean’s worth of delicious eating is provided: from raw bar and seafood buffet favorites, to stews and chowders, to fish dishes fried, broiled, and grilled. Featured throughout are vintage images and ephemera, along with sumptuous food photography. Part history, part souvenir, The Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant Cookbook is a must-have for visitors and New Yorkers alike.
Praise for The Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant Cookbook:
“A big, handsome book full of wonderful photographs, nostalgic tales and enticing recipessome dating back to the restaurant’s opening 100 years ago . . . you will appreciate the no nonsense instructions for buying, cooking and serving seafood.” Miami Herald
“Helps uncertain home cooks navigate the world of clams, crabs, shrimp, and more. Starting with a very simple yet comprehensive oyster list (including source, flavor, and size) and then delving into recipes for a Maryland Crab Cake Sandwich, a Manhattan Clam Chowder, and Dover Sole Meuniere, the cookbook tackles it all, and provides helpful tips and loving historic tidbits throughout.”Epicurious.com
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About the Author
Sandy Ingber is executive chef at the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant. Roy Finamore is a highly respected cookbook author, editor, and photography stylist. He is the author of Fish Without a Doubt (with Rick Moonen), among others.
Read an Excerpt
A SHORT HISTORY OF A LANDMARK RESTAURANT
THE YEAR WAS 1913, and a Beaux Arts masterpiece had just opened its doors in New York City. More than 150,000 people were said to have visited Grand Central Terminal that first day in February and marveled at its wonders.
Not all the wonders had to do with modern train travel, though. Down the ramp that led to the suburban concourse — an idea "borrowed from the sloping roads that led the way for the chariots into the old Roman camps of Julius Caesar's army," reported the New York Times — was a new restaurant with the "Whispering Gallery" as its entrance.
What was — and still is — most striking to the visitor walking into the restaurant is the shallow, five-vaulted tiled ceiling designed by Rafael Guastavino, which runs from the end of the dining room to the Saloon. The rectangular terra-cotta tiles, in various shades of blond and tan, were set in a herringbone pattern, and, at the time, a chandelier hung from the peak of each vault. The floor was covered in Persian carpets; potted palms sprung up among the tables.
The Union News Company won the bidding to manage the new restaurant, and they selected Viktor Yesensky — a Slovak who was then in charge of the oyster bar at the Knickerbocker Hotel — to take the helm.
It was the era of elegant train travel, and long-distance travelers on the Fast Mail or the 20th Century Limited stopped to dine at the Oyster Bar before boarding their trains. Commuters to Yonkers or New Rochelle, too, stopped for a plate of oysters or a quick bowl of oyster stew. But society came as well: Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell were among the many New Yorkers to dine in splendor under Guastavino's vaults.
Mark Helprin, in Winter's Tale, imagines the scene:
It was a fine coincidence that she was standing just outside the Oyster Bar, where rooms of happy diners deep underground ate frothy oyster stews or sizzling fish steaks while white-jacketed barmen served up clams and oysters on a production line worthy of its finer, more anarchic, deeper-underground predecessors.
"Let's get some food into you and the child," Praeger said. "The maitre d' has a very gentle fish porridge for babies; I've seen him prepare it, and I'd eat it myself. And, as for you, may I recommend that you have what we're having? ... We're having some oyster pan roast, grilled haddock fillets stuffed with lobster, roasted potatoes, green peas, and Dutch beer. It's coming all around, and in half a second I can order another place."
Yesensky remained at the Oyster Bar for thirty-three years, and the restaurant continued in its vital role in the New York food scene. Anthony Gil, head waiter in the 1940s, collected autographs of notable diners, including two chief justices of the United States: Charles Evans Hughes and former president William Howard Taft. "There were some truly exceptional tastes to be tasted, too, especially in seafood," Jan Morris reported in Manhattan '45. "Incomparable oyster stews were prepared at the Grand Central Oyster Bar by Viktor Yesensky and his thirty-six oystermen."
After Yesensky's retirement in 1946, Nick Rossetos led the thirty-six oystermen. It's said that twenty-six of them had worked at the Oyster Bar for at least twenty-five years — a history of dedicated employment that continues today.
As years passed, though, 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 waiting for a savior. The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority approached Jerome Brody to take over the restaurant.
Brody had had a storied career in the restaurant business. From his leadership position at Restaurant Associates and later the United Brody Company, Jerome Brody had overseen the launching or restoration of a series of legendary New York restaurants: The Forum of the Twelve Caesars, The Four Seasons (like the Oyster Bar, a designated New York City landmark), The Brasserie, Mama Leone's, La Fonda del Sol, Gallagher's, The Rainbow Room, The Ground Floor in the CBS building (by Warren Platner, who later designed the World Trade Center's famed Windows on the World), and Raffles — a private club designed by Cecil Beaton in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. When Brody inspected the Oyster Bar, he found that the marble at the base of the arches had been covered with three layers of aqua contact paper. The walls between the arches were concrete hung with fishing nets decorated with plastic fish. The potted palms of the early days were gone. But perhaps most disturbing, the once-glorious tiles were thick with grime. "They were black," Brody's wife, Marlene, recalls, "literally black. Jerry had the steam cleaners in and they had to do the job twice!" Still, it was a grand space, and Brody determined he could restore the restaurant to its former glory.
Brody decided that the Oyster Bar needed to become a destination restaurant, not just a place where commuters could grab a bite on their way to a train. The name of the restaurant gave him an idea, so he and Mrs. Brody began visiting seafood restaurants. They went to every seafood restaurant they could find within a fifty-mile radius. The fish they found had been frozen; the preparations were basic. Nevertheless, wherever they went, they found the restaurants packed with eager diners. Brody knew he could do better. He would reinvent the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant as a seafood palace. But the fish would be fresh. And it would be a palace for the people, with a variety of seating options — each, as Mrs. Brody says, "a world of its own."
As you enter the Oyster Bar, you face what was once called the Canopy Bar. The fishing nets that hung from the arches and gave the bar its name are long gone, but the mid-century classic Eero Saarinen tulip tables and chairs that Mrs. Brody so loves are still there. To the left — beyond the maître d's podium and the tank filled with live lobsters — is the sprawling dining room. This is the place for more traditional dining, at tables covered with the Oyster Bar's signature red-and-white checked tablecloths, and wooden armchairs upholstered in brown leather. To the right is a labyrinth of counters, where regulars line up to wait for their favorite "counter girl" (who likely has been working there for twenty years or more). Opposite the counters is the oyster bar, where diners sit on high stools, watch cooks preparing the famed stews and pan roasts in steam-powered, swiveled kettles, and note the lightning speed with which the shuckers turn out plate after plate of fresh, briny oysters and clams. Farther on still is the Saloon, a warm, woody room — quieter, without the echoes of the vaulted ceilings, and the room of choice for a business lunch. Outside, to the right of the entrance, along the ramp that leads from the lower to the upper level of Grand Central Terminal, is the takeout window — bustling at lunch and in the evening rush hours.
Once the floor plan had been established, Brody set out to make the Oyster Bar & Restaurant the finest seafood restaurant possible. The fish and shellfish would be of the highest quality, fresh from the sea, and prepared with care and simplicity.
He and Mrs. Brody explored Maine for the best lobsters (the lobstermen they found there still supply the Oyster Bar) and the Chesapeake Bay for oysters and crabs. They consulted with A. J. McClane, author of The Encyclopedia of Fish, and learned of types of fish enjoyed by European gourmets but unknown in American restaurants. One such highly acclaimed fish was wolffish (loup atlantique), which American fishermen threw back when they caught it. That is, until they were told the Oyster Bar would buy it. Brody developed a wide network of sources, perhaps the most important being individual fishermen who would let the Oyster Bar know when they had something special.
The menu would include significant recipes from the restaurant's original incarnation, like the oyster stew, but Brody also worked with his chef to create a panoply of simple, perfectly cooked dishes. When fish was broiled, it was broiled to perfection. When fried, the coating was crisp and the fish was flaky and moist. The chowders were rich and tasted of the sea, and they are prepared today as they were when Jerome Brody reinvented the Oyster Bar.
Two employees were key in the new restaurant. George Morfogen, the fish buyer, was a major force — visiting the wholesale fish market early every morning and personally selecting the thousands of pounds of fish to be served that day. "He had tremendous knowledge and really knew fish," Mrs. Brody remembers. "And he was an incredible human being. Pleasant. Always in a good mood."
Mario Staub was general manager and his influence was wide ranging. Trained in Europe, Staub had an acute knowledge of food and wine and a reputation for being very good with customers. "But he was very demanding, you know. A bit of a Napoleon," says Mrs. Brody. Diana Kennedy, the Mexican food authority, was a frequent customer and liked Staub very much. "He ran a tight ship, though," she remembers, "and perhaps as a result he was known as a tartar."
Brody wanted to showcase American wines, so he and Mrs. Brody toured the California vineyards and then sent Mario Staub to California to meet the vintners and purchase wines for the restaurant. In the years that followed, the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant garnered award after award for its wine list, including the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Vine's Gold Vine Award and the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator.
Jean Hewitt gave the Oyster Bar three stars in her December 20, 1974, New York Times review. "Mink coats brush shoulders with workmen's shirts at the white Formica counters; the atmosphere is casual and congenial, and there's enough clatter and chatter bouncing off the freshly scrubbed, vaulted ceiling to preserve the unique character of this underground institution. ... And, most important of all, the fish is fresh, carefully prepared and served piping hot." In 1975, the penultimate entry in John Canaday's roundup of "The Best and Worst, the Most and Least/In 20 Star-Filled Months of Dining" read: "Most welcome return from the dead: Grand Central Oyster Bar."
Revisiting the restaurant for the Times in 1980, Mimi Sheraton wrote, "The Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant ... remains the classic setting for clams and oysters on the half shell and the justly famous oyster stew and oyster pan roast." She praised the broiling, "with the fish cooked to the point of moist and snowy perfection," and mentioned several recipes that remain on the menu today (and that are included in these pages). Among "the excellent first courses are the cool mussels in half shells in a sheer Dijon mustard sauce," she noted. "Try the marinated squid salad with slivers of red onion." As for the desserts: "Among them the best [is] ... rice pudding that seems to be based on clouds of whipped cream."
Three significant employees joined the Oyster Bar in 1990. Janet Poccia — the current comptroller — came on as an assistant bookkeeper. Mohammed Lawal — now manager of the back of house — was hired as a dishwasher. And executive chef Sandy Ingber was hired as seafood buyer. George Morfogen came out of retirement to train Sandy. "The job was so involved that even though I considered myself a seafood chef, it still took me almost three months to feel really comfortable in my duties as buyer." These three were to play a major role when Jerome Brody started to think about retirement.
Early one June morning in 1997, Brody received a phone call. There had been a fire in the Oyster Bar. A restaurant fire is always disastrous, but with the Oyster Bar, it was disaster compounded. Fire officials reported to the New York Times that "[t]he heat in the windowless underground vault was so intense that furnishings and fixtures melted." The Times went on to say that "[t]he heat, combined with the pressure of water driving into the flames, brought down hundreds of the gracefully curved ceiling tiles, part of a distinctive architecture that made the glazed, arched canopies seem like parachutes billowing in a breeze."
Mohammed Lawal remembers standing next to Brody, surveying the damage and thinking that it was time to start looking for a new job. But Brody put his hand on Lawal's shoulder and said, "Mohammed, get your plumbers, get your electricians, and get to work." The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) police department offered to share their space in Grand Central, providing a base of operations — and an all-important phone — and Lawal set a staff of dishwashers onto the job of cleaning up. Two weeks later, the Oyster Bar reopened, with crustaceans, salads, and a cold menu being served in the Saloon.
The Oyster Bar is a designated New York City landmark, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission was determined that it be restored exactly. The MTA (which holds the lease to the site) was obstructionist and insisted on a master plan, rather than piecemeal restoration, and they wanted the restaurant closed until the job was complete. They took Brody to court to stop work — and lost. Brody continued to work with the contractor from the 1974 restoration, his union electricians and plumbers, and the carpenter who had restored the paneling. "Construction was going on," Lawal remembers, "but still, the customers came." By September 9 — less than three months after the fire — the entire restaurant except the lounge was open for business.
"These days it takes courage just to go to the Oyster Bar. ... Inside the restaurant you are still in a construction zone; the blueprints are posted by the lobster tank," wrote Ruth Reichl, in the New York Times. "But for all that, it is still the Oyster Bar. The rich aroma of shellfish, Worcestershire sauce and cream still greet you the minute you walk through the door." And, "Significantly, the regulars have returned. They sit at the counter with their platters of bluepoints and cherrystones and their schooners of beer."
A small factory outside Buffalo, New York, was able to recreate the terra-cotta Guastavino tiles, and the Landmarks Commission sent representatives to the Oyster Bar to supervise the installation. The chandeliers presented a different problem. The originals had not been very successful at lighting the space (the strings of tiny bulbs outlining the edges of the vaults were hung for the first Christmas at Brody's Oyster Bar, and Mrs. Brody wisely insisted they stay), and Brody wanted a change. He asked lighting consultant Howard Brandston to design something new. Brandston's design was brilliant. It was based on a ship's steering wheel encircled by scale models of fishing ships that plied the waters of the East Coast when Commodore Vanderbilt was building Grand Central Terminal. Brody and Brandston won their battle with Landmarks, and the new chandeliers were installed. When the restaurant was again fully back in business, the Landmarks Commission hosted a cocktail party at the Oyster Bar, under the chandeliers the Metropolitan Transit Authority said would never be approved.
The years had taken a toll on Jerome Brody. His health had become a problem, and he was concerned about his legacy. Marlene Brody remembers a dinner with her husband, at their usual table in the Oyster Bar dining room, when acquaintances of theirs offered to buy the restaurant. The money was impressive, but the potential buyers talked of a new concept, of redecorating the restaurant. Brody knew this meant sending the loyal employees he had worked with for so long out to look for new jobs. That was not the legacy he imagined. On their walk home from that dinner, Brody turned to his wife and said, "No, there has to be another way."
Perhaps remembering his father — who in the 1950s had sold his hat business to its managers — Brody decided to offer the restaurant to the employees. Janet Poccia recalls Brody calling her into a meeting with Sandy Ingber, Mohammed Lawal, and the general manager at the time and saying, "I'm going to sell this place to you, and it won't cost you a dime. But don't go out buying a new wardrobe just yet."
Congress had passed legislation for something called an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), a retirement plan. An ESOP is a tool for employers who want to leave a business to the employees and get a tax break as part of the deal. An appraiser would put a value on the restaurant, and when the IRS approved the plan and the appraisal, key employees would gain ownership of the restaurant, to be paid for out of the profits.
Excerpted from "The Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant Cookbook"
Copyright © 2013 Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant Franchising Co., Inc.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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Table of Contents
A SHORT HISTORY OF A LANDMARK RESTAURANT,
OUR RAW BAR,
OUR FRIED SEAFOOD,
OUR COLD BUFFET,
OUR SOUPS, STEWS, AND PAN ROASTS,
MAIN DISH SPECIALS,
OUR HOMEMADE DESSERTS,
SIDES, BUTTERS, AND SAUCES,
INDEX OF SEARCHABLE TERMS,