A Hundred Years of the Oyster Bar, Grand Central Terminal Restaurant

As a Beaux Arts styled building, it is apparent that Grand Central Terminal was heavily influenced by the French. The style itself was taught at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and many of the most famous American architects in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s studied there – including Whitney Warren, who worked on Grand Central. But beyond the building itself, Warren selected three French artists to create works for the Terminal. Probably the most known, Jules Coutan designed the sculptural group on the front facade of Grand Central. Painter Paul Helleu was selected by Warren to design the starry zodiac that fills the ceiling of the main concourse. The often forgotten, and likely least known of the three, was sculptor Sylvain Salieres. Salieres created many of the decorations inside the Terminal, including all those acorns – the Vanderbilt family crest.


Acorns appear on the logo and menus of the Grand Central Terminal restaurant.

The acorns, however, were not restricted only to decorations within Grand Central – they also became part of the identity of one of the more famous tenants in the Terminal. We may know it today as the Oyster Bar, but when it first opened in 1913 it had just the bland name “Grand Central Terminal Restaurant.” The restaurant did, of course, have an Oyster Bar, and was definitely known for its oyster stew – but it served a wide variety of non-seafood delicacies (many did refer to the restaurant as simply the “Oyster Bar,” though). The French influence on the Terminal continued through some of the food – things like Bass Meunière and Capon Venitienne were on the restaurant’s first dinner menu.

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Sugar packet and matchbooks from the original Grand Central Terminal Restaurant and Oyster Bar.

Grand Central’s centennial celebration will be held this Friday, a little bit early – probably since it would be easier for the MTA to celebrate it on a weekday. I suppose the MTA isn’t too far off, though. While Grand Central only opened to the public on the 2nd of February, a special gathering was held on the evening of February 1st. Architect Whitney Warren, and around a hundred of his friends, got a special tour of the new Terminal, including the very first dinner service at the Grand Central Terminal Restaurant at 8 PM. And what did they dine upon? Bass, mutton and squab were all main dishes on the menu that night.


The menu for the first dinner at the Grand Central Terminal restaurant. Note that this is a recreation – a text only menu was published, and I placed it into the design of an actual 1917 restaurant menu.

The Railroad Reporter and Traveler’s News published an interesting look at what happened on that evening in the Terminal. Not only did it include the first menu served at the restaurant, it described other little tidbits – like the fact that a band was on the east balcony at opening, and the first song they played was the Star Spangled Banner. An opening ceremony of sorts was held right next to the information booth clock, where the keys to the Terminal were presented to the new manager, Miles Bronson. The second dinner at the restaurant, although quite late, was held shortly after for the employees of the John Peirce Company, who did construction work on Grand Central.


The February 22, 1941 edition of The New Yorker featured the GCT restaurant on the cover.

I’ve collected a bunch of artifacts from the Grand Central Terminal Restaurant, and the Oyster Bar’s 100 year history, all of which provide an interesting look into the Terminal’s longest operating and most established tenant. I must give tremendous thanks to the New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu?” project, as many of the menus featured here are from their collection.


Front covers of restaurant menus: 1955, 1917, and 1959.


Carte du jour menu, or daily specials. From 1917 and 1959.


A La Carte menu from 1917.

  
Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner menus from 1917.


Postcard from the Grand Central Terminal Restaurant and Oyster Bar


Every winter in the 1950’s seemed to bring out this fluff piece about Oyster Stew in various newspapers. After the closing of the Oyster Bar in 1974, head cook Nick Petter allowed the NYTimes to publish the recipe for Oyster Pan Roast.

The Oyster Bar, as we are familiar with it, came into being in 1974. The original restaurant had been owned and operated by the Union News Company, and they were looking into closing several of their restaurants around the country. Some said that the restaurant had not been profitable for quite a while, but it stayed open for nostalgia. On July 31st, 1974 at 4pm, the Grand Central Terminal Restaurant, including their oyster bar, was officially closed, with little notice.

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Historical photos from the Oyster Bar. The lower image appeared in the New York Times, and shows chef Tom Sato in 1974, shortly before the restaurant closed.

The MTA had already been looking around for another person to take the helm at the restaurant, and restauranteur Jerome Brody accepted the challenge. Several former employees returned to the new restaurant when it reopened several months later. (According to the Oyster Bar’s history, the restaurant had been shuttered for two years. This contradicts the NYTimes account that says the original restaurant closed in July, and reopened in November). The new restaurant was officially called the “Oyster Bar,” and served a seafood-focused menu.

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Some of the Oyster Bar’s quirky advertising. The ads are certainly interesting and unique, and I love the stylized illustrations of Grand Central that appear in several.

The restaurant was shuttered briefly one other time in its long history, in June 1997 due to fire. A blaze started after a refrigerator short-circuited around 2:30 in the morning. The inferno destroyed kitchen equipment and furnishings, and many of the Gustavino tiles on the ceiling. Although the Terminal was evacuated, most people had already left Grand Central by that time. By mid-July the Oyster Bar had reopened, or at least one part of it. The full restaurant reopened several weeks later. Eagle-eyed patrons may notice subtle color differences in the Gustavino tiles, the tiles replaced after the fire have a slightly different color.

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The above ads fit well with the also quirky multicolored Oyster logo. Menus at the restaurant today look similar to this.

Besides running into those two short-term snags, the restaurant / Oyster Bar has been in operation all one hundred years the Terminal has been around. Many tenants have come and gone, like the theater and the barbershops and haberdashery. Countless new shops have populated the Terminal since its restoration, including the Apple Store. But none are really a New York institution like the Oyster Bar, the home of “New York’s Greatest Dish.” You may no longer be paying 35 cents for a dozen oysters, but you can still grab a good meal before catching a train or subway. So happy 100th not only to Grand Central, but to the Oyster Bar as well!

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The life of a Grand Central commuter – Photos from the Farm Security Administration

In the late 1930’s, when the United States was still in throes of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted various economic programs focusing on recovery called the New Deal. One of the new federal agencies established by the New Deal was called the Resettlement Administration, a group that focused on building relief camps for migrant workers and refugees from the droughts in the southwest. A photography project to document the work was established, and when the Resettlement Administration later became the Farm Security Administration, the documentary photography project was expanded. Under the leadership of Roy Stryker, the FSA photographers captured some very iconic images of American life during and after the Depression, or as he said “introducing America to Americans.”

 
Typical photos from the Farm Security Administration photo documentary project – Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange at left, and Sharecropper by Walker Evans on the right.

While the Farm Security Administration photographers captured many images of Americans struggling through tough times, you may be surprised to note that not all of the photos were of farmers and migrant workers, or even poverty. The FSA’s photo archives contain many images of just regular American life between the years 1935 and 1944 – including several shots in Grand Central Terminal. Two particular photos, captured by visual anthropologist and FSA photographer John Collier, are quite iconic, and have even used on video boards in Grand Central Terminal advertising its upcoming centennial.

Below you’ll find some of Collier’s photos from Grand Central, including the two more famous ones, all taken in October of 1941. It is pretty cool to compare the first and second photos in the set – the first is the fairly famous capture, while the second is of the same people in the Terminal, just from the other side. The angle – with the sun shining in from the windows, illuminating the people and casting long shadows – really made the shot.

 
  
 
  
 
  

Now when I said that the Farm Security Administration photographers endeavored to capture views of American life, I totally meant it. Undoubtedly, the photographers could have spent the entire day wandering around Grand Central, capturing the various people walking in and out of the Terminal and call it a day. But the FSA, they didn’t work that way. Collier went beyond Grand Central and followed some commuters home – snapping photos of them in the bar car, playing cards on the train, or just reading the newspaper. For one particular commuter, an unidentified advertising executive from Westport, Collier captured the man’s breakfast with family, photographed him running out the door to make the 7:40 train, and even snapped the moment he kissed his wife goodbye at the station. The following photos are truly a gem – illustrating not just an American life, but the life of a commuter to Grand Central in the early 1940’s.

  
  
 
   
  

Scant months after the above two sets of photos were taken, the large east windows of the Terminal were completely covered with a massive photo mural paid for by the Treasury and advertising war bonds and stamps. The mural not only used photos from the Farm Security Administration’s collection, but was documented from start to finish by the FSA photographers. Dedicated in December of 1941, the mural was claimed to be the largest photo mural in the world, measuring 96 by 118 feet.

Visible on the mural was the following text:

That government – by the people shall not perish from the Earth. That we may defend the land we love. That these may face a future unafraid. That we may build for a better world. Buy defense bonds and stamps now!


Artists in Washington DC plan the mural to be put up in Grand Central

 
Three of the main FSA photos used in the mural. A total of 22 different Farm Security Administration photos were used.


Scale model of what the mural would look like installed in the Terminal. Note that the text is slightly different than what was actually used.

  
   
  

The adjusted mural in Grand Central
When the mural was originally planned, the United States had not yet entered into World War II. Work for the mural had begun at least three months prior to its installation, though it was dedicated in December – just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. At some point, assumedly sometime after the US entered the war, the sign was changed to say “War Bonds” as opposed to “Defense Bonds,” which is visible in this photo (it was hard to read – “war” is written in black, covering over the “defense” written in white).

After the US entered the war, the FSA’s photography unit was reassigned to the Office of War Information, and then a year later, disbanded. Collier remained with the photography project when it was transferred to the OWI before leaving in 1943. His mentor, and fellow FSA photographer Dorothea Lange opted for a job with the War Relocation Authority. Lange captured hundreds of Japanese Americans as they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during the war, where her depictions of reality were at odds with her employers. In the government’s desire to gloss over the fact that we too operated concentration camps during the war, the photographs were confiscated and only recently uncovered.

The railroads were quite involved in the war effort - through advertising, and the movement of troops and supplies
The railroads were quite involved in the war effort – through advertising, and the movement of troops and supplies.

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Postcards of the Penn Central

I’m not exactly sure who the Penn Central had do their design work back in the late 60’s, but whoever it was, they were probably pretty free-spirited. None of the New York Central’s Harlem Division timetables were really out of the ordinary… but after the merger with the Pennsylvania Railroad to form the Penn Central, things took an interesting turn. In the first year of the merger – 1968 – several funky timetables were churned out… but by the new year, they were pretty much forgotten. Just a small blip in railroad history.


1968 was apparently a very good year… You can, of course, see more old Harlem timetables in SmartCat.

While the really old 1800’s timetables, complete with gorgeous etchings, will always be my favorite, these 1968 Penn Central timetables are my favorite from the modern-day. Thanks to eBay, I did discover that this funky art was not reserved solely for timetables. The Penn Central released a few postcards advertising the Metroliner, which I can only say are in a similar style. Who thought that purple tint would be a good idea? Is this what people did before Instagram?




The Fast One, baby!

Captions on the cards read as follows:

The Metroliners speed you midtown New York to midtown Washington in less than 3 hours. The Express gets you there even faster. And all the speed, comfort and luxury are yours in any kind of weather.

You enjoy a swift trip – in comfort and luxury. You leave and arrive midtown; even more time saved. Use the direct-dial telephones aboard to keep in touch with your home or office.

Delicious food and drinks are yours to enjoy on the Metroliners. In the coaches eat at the Snack Bar or take your selection to your seat. In the Metroclub Cars, an attendant unobtrusively serves you at your seat.

Okay, okay, I give in. The last postcard is pretty awesome. Despite the top two being pretty horrible, I figured the set was certainly share-worthy!

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Taking the train to the Bronx Zoo, Botanical Garden, 1904

Though Metro-North is primarily a commuter railroad, they do frequently offer deals and excursions to attract those that don’t normally commute. However, Metro-North is certainly not the first to advertise various attractions to get people to ride the rails. The New York Central promoted taking the train to the game (before that phrase was trademarked by the MTA!), and even taking the train to visit your institutionalized loved ones. The Bronx Zoo and the Botanical Gardens are two other attractions that you can visit by train, and over the years have been advertised by both Metro-North and the New York Central.

One of my most recent eBay acquisitions is a brochure printed by the New York Central in 1904, advertising the Bronx Park – or what we’d know today as the Bronx Zoo, and the New York Botanical Garden. Visiting both was, and still is, easy via the Harlem Line. Although I loved the cover of the brochure, it was also interesting to read about these parks and what they were like over a hundred years ago. Anyways, this was too good to not share… enjoy!




Random little factoids I found interesting:

  • Round trip tickets from Grand Central to Fordham was 25 cents for adults, and 15 cents for children.
  • Entrance to the Botanical Garden and Bronx Zoo was free, except for Mondays and Thursdays, where the zoo charged 25 cents admission.
  • You could rent a wheelchair – and someone to push you around in it – for 50 cents.
  • Cameras were not permitted at the zoo.
  • The lion house at the zoo was at that time the most expensive building, at a cost of $150,000.
  • If this brochure had been printed two years later, in 1906, it is possible that you might have seen a photo of Ota Benga – the Congolese pygmy that was on display in the monkey house for a short period of time. (this one boggles my mind)

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Vintage Holiday & Winter New York Central Ads

Hopefully all of my readers that celebrate Christmas are enjoying your Christmas Eve… Did I ever mention that I love looking at vintage ads?`Even better are vintage railroad ads. Here is a little collection of holiday and winter ads from the New York Central. Have a great holiday, everybody!

 
  
 

If you liked these ads, check out another set of New York Central vintage ads from World War II that I posted back in June.

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NY’s Decorated Train: A Bronx Zoo themed S Train

After coming back from Japan I posted a bunch of pictures of some of Japan’s decorated trains. Although they seem far more common there, we do get some decorated trains here in New York City every once and a while. One of my recent favorites is the adorably cute Bronx Zoo themed train. I caught up with the train several weeks ago in Grand Central, it was running as the shuttle between there and Times Square.








If you happen to take a ride on one of these trains, be sure to look up at the ceiling. It just might make you smile. I nearly missed it myself, guess I wasn’t too observant that night. But look up, a giraffe will be staring back at you. After seeing this train I totally want to go to the zoo!

In other news, I am totally getting my act together with the rest of my pictures from Japan, and the more recent ones from Toronto. I got in trouble taking pictures in Toronto’s Union Station, but also had the opportunity to visit the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre, which was great fun (well, not the part with the cops, or as my brother called them, Canadian Bacon). I liked the trains, my brother liked the beer. The old railway roundhouse now serves as a beer brewery, and of course they have samples for visitors. It helps if I tell you that my brother is only twenty – not quite drinking age in the US, but old enough to drink in Canada.

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