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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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: New Hamburg


Postcard view of the original station at New Hamburg. [image credit]

Today our Tuesday Tour takes us to the northern portion of Metro-North’s Hudson Line, as we visit New Hamburg. The station is about 65 miles from Grand Central in the un-electrified territory north of Croton-Harmon, and sandwiched in between Beacon station and Metro-North’s terminus at Poughkeepsie. The railroad bisects the hamlet of New Hamburg, notable mostly for its marina on the Hudson.

Along the railroad, however, New Hamburg was likely notable for its tunnel. As I mentioned in my introduction to the Hudson Line, eight tunnels needed to be constructed to accommodate the tracks in the 1840′s, one of which was in New Hamburg. Although the tunnel is no longer used by the railroad, it still exists, though for the most part it is covered by brush. Railroad service both north and south had already been established before the tunnel was completed, so for a short time passengers heading through New Hamburg had to detour the unfinished tunnel by boat.

 
New Hamburg has seen its share of train crashes – one New York Times reporter, apparently fond of alliteration, described an 1871 crash as a “Human Holocaust on the Hudson”. The above image shows a crash in 1899.

Despite being around since the Hudson River Railroad days, the station at New Hamburg was closed sometime after 1962 (yes, the station had again made the newspaper that year for another crash – this time four children walking on the tracks were hit and killed by a New York Central Beeliner). Though most stations that are closed end up shuttered permanently, this one has a little bit happier of an ending. New Hamburg station reopened in 1981, and was serviced by new Seldom Self-Propelled Vehicles operated by Conrail. Thankfully, those cars are just a memory, and today Metro-North offers some more reliable service from New Hamburg.

  
 
  
  
 
  
 
   

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Weekly News Roundup, 1/8

A quick news roundup for the week…

Idiots park running SUV on railroad tracks

A stupid couple started off the new year right by leaving their SUV on the railroad tracks just west of Fairfield station. As expected, alcohol played a part in the driver’s complete lack of judgement.

Branchville’s Whistle Stop Bakery

The Connecticut Post had a nice little interview with Lolly Turner, the woman that converted the old, “beat-up” and “falling apart” Branchville station into a successful bakery.

“We’ve taken a piece of history and turned it into a viable business. I think it’s a wonderful thing we’ve done.”

Schumer seeks to restore commuter tax benefit

It is always good to know that Schumer actually fights for something worthwhile every now and again.

The MTA’s App Contest

Hopefully I am not the only one that finds a little bit of amusement in the fact that the MTA is holding an “app contest” for useful transit-related smartphone apps. You know, since back in the day the MTA claimed that train schedules were their own intellectual property, and sent their lawyers after app developers. But it is true – the MTA is holding a contest, and the New York Times had a nice article about it this week.

Commuters get discount at local grocery store

If you commute in the Brewster/Southeast area and need to pick up a few things on the way home, you should definitely check out DeCicco’s, as they offer a 5% discount for Metro-North riders with monthly passes. I believe it applies only to the store in Southeast, right up the road from the station.

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Counting down the 12 most popular posts of 2011, Part 1

2011 was certainly a whirlwind of a year. The site found itself featured in the New York Times, and I even had a radio interview. There were visits to lots of interesting places: train stations in Quebec, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, and non train related spots like an ice hotel, and the final space shuttle launch. In February we finished up our tour of the Harlem Line, and by May began our tour of the New Haven Line. As we head boldly into the new year, hoping for many new and wonderful adventures, I thought I’d take the time to check out the top 12 things you loved about 2011.

Although not eligible for a spot in our 2011 countdown, as it was posted in 2010, the Panorama Project page was hands-down the most popular page on the site this year. Likely the New York Times article had a lot to do with that. Although we post a new station every Tuesday, the Panorama Project page is still the best way to check out all the stations and lines that have been featured thus far.

Number 12 on our list is The Rebirth of a Train Station: Canaan. While so many towns are content to ignore their railroading history, Canaan is the complete opposite. They are fiercely proud of that history, and when their gorgeous station was the victim of arson several years ago, they vowed to rebuild. In the ensuing years, the old depot has made a huge transformation – no longer is it a fire-ravaged hulk – it is slowly returning to its former grandeur.

Later in the year, we revisited Canaan during their annual Railway Days.

Old postcards have always been a popular subject matter on the site, and over the years there have been six parts (and more to come!) in our Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line series. Part two was the eleventh most popular post on the blog in 2011. You can check out all the other postcard posts with the following links: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

Tenth most popular in 2011 was one of our Tuesday Tour stops on the New Haven Line, Pelham. Pelham is one of the old and attractive New Haven Line stations on the opposite side of the border, in New York. I found myself here on the very day that the article featuring the site was published in the New York Times. And the fact that this post was linked to by a few other railroad websites certainly helped with its popularity.

A bit more popular than the postcards are our collections of old photos from the Harlem Line. Like the postcards, there have been many different old photo posts, and for a brief stint I posted many of these photos on Mondays. Part 3 of Even More Monday Morning Old Photos was the ninth most popular post on the blog in 2011. It contained several photos of the line that used to be, when it passed by Millerton and extended all the way up to Chatham.

Everyone must admit that the concept of quiet cars is a great one – however, in practice, it may be a little bit more difficult. You know that although you may encounter some really nice people on the trains, there are also a whole bunch of assholes. They yap on their phones, take up rows of seats with their bags (one morning I saw a woman holding hostage several seats with her large carton of juice). There are many times that I am skeptical that good ideas can work with stupid people.

Before the quiet car program started, Metro North said that conductors would have “Shh Cards” to pass out to loud people to tell them to shut their traps in a nice, passive way. I thought the idea was amusing, and managed to get my hands on some of the cards before the program debuted. And they were a little bit too nice – I was unable to resist making modifications to them… and even printing out a few. The fake shh cards posted under the title of Quiet cars and Shh cards was the eighth most popular on the site in 2011, and the cliffhanger I’ll leave you with until later on this week.

Want to see the remainder of the top 12? Check back later this week to see them, and to find out which post will be crowned number one most popular of 2011.

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The curious story of the ghost horse in Grand Central

For some time I’ve wanted to write a post about a particular odd topic, and have waited until now to do so. I figured Halloween would be an appropriate time of the season to mention it, as not only does it have to do with Grand Central, but a ghost in Grand Central. An equine ghost.

I’m not exactly sure how I first came across the story of racehorse Maud S, but it was likely when randomly reading about some of the Vanderbilts’ extravagant and expensive possessions. Without a doubt, Cornelius Vanderbilt was a true master at making money, and his son William Henry was quite adept at adding to that fortune. Cornelius’s grandchildren on the other hand, William Kissam and Cornelius II, were quite the masters at spending money. Though that is not to say that their father William didn’t purchase some pretty crazy things. One such purchase was the racehorse, Maud S. At the time Maud S was one of the fastest racehorses in the world, and held the record for the fastest mile. Her sale to Vanderbilt infuriated some in the racing world – he was taking this amazing horse away from the races to instead be privately corralled outside of Grand Central so he could ride her whenever it struck his fancy. Of course, this is the 1880′s and much of the area around Grand Central Depot was rural, and in terms of the city of New York, considered well “uptown”. But the fact of the matter was, if one of the richest men in the world wanted one of the fastest horses in the world to pull him around in a carriage, it would be done, and William Henry Vanderbilt certainly had deep enough pockets to pay for it. Plus, he was probably never late to New York Central board meetings.


This entire post was merely an excuse to post a picture of William Vanderbilt’s amazing facial hair

I’m not exactly sure what fascinated me about the story of this horse… maybe the fact that even today, a bed and breakfast has a room named after her? Or maybe how a windmill manufacturing company was also named after her? Perhaps it was her big obituary in the New York Times and other papers across the country? (Several internet sites claim the obituary made the first page of the Times, though this is false – it made the 12th page on March 18, 1900) Nope, I think it was the article in City Scoops that said that she is currently roaming the halls of Grand Central near the Oyster Bar – as a ghost.

Of course, the story is most likely a joke. The author even describes herself as a “professional storyteller”. Whether a joke or not, there are actually tourists that believe this shit! I had no idea that there are actually New York City ghost tours, and ones that even visit Grand Central! Perhaps I am a Halloween party pooper to say it, but there is no ghost of a horse wandering the station. I’d be more likely to believe that ghosts of some commuters haunt the station. In fact maybe that should have been written as a warning in Mileposts – don’t run to your train as you might trip, fall, die, and become the next ghost to wander the halls of the station come next October! And way before Metro North, I’m sure plenty of people have died in the station. It was, after all, built in the early 1900′s, railroading was hardly the safest occupation, plus it was being constructed as the previous station was being dismantled, all while maintaining train service. People certainly have died there. But those deaths are hardly as glamorous, and frankly amusing, as a fancy racehorse.

For all of you that happen to be in Grand Central on Sunday, have a Happy Halloween… and do keep your ears open for suspicious neighing…
…coming from me standing in front of the Oyster Bar.

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Photos & Bar Car News: NY Times Reporter “Ignored the facts in favor of a sexier story”

The other day the New York Times had an article about the supposed demise of the Bar Car on the New Haven Line. It has been widely reported in the blogosphere, even on Gothamist and the Huffington Post. Interestingly, Jim Cameron, the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council Chairman, sent out an email alert saying it isn’t so. In fact he goes so far as to say that the New York Times’ reporter “ignored the facts in favor of a sexier story” when writing the original story. Below is the transcript of the email:

Fellow commuters…
“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story”.
This old newsroom mantra apparently was the rule when the NY Times yesterday ignored the facts and presented the headline… One for the Road? Bar Cars May Face a Last Call

Though three members of the CT Rail Commuter Council worked with reporter Michael Grynbaum to get the story right, he ignored the facts in favor of a sexier story. The reporter implied that when the new M8 cars arrive, the 8 existing bar cars would be replaced. Not so! The 8 bar cars we have all have undergone recent rehab’s and can run for 10 – 15 more years. He also implied that “the recession” might force a rethinking of plans to order new bar cars.

The Commuter Council, meeting last night, was reassured by both Metro-North and CT DOT that there are no plans to eliminate bar cars on Connecticut trains. CDOT also told the Council they would share design concepts with us for new M8 bar cars, currently under bid from Kawasaki. The issue of continued if not improved bar car service has been a priority of the Commuter Council for the 25 years of its existence. We will continue that advocacy… and seek a correction from the NY Times for its sloppy reporting.

“Cheers”!

Jim Cameron, Chairman
CT Metro-North Rail Commuter Council

Some time ago my friend Despina took a ride in the Bar Car and sent me some photos she said I should post. I figured now would be a good time to do so. Unfortunately, she rode in the Bar Car in the morning, so it wasn’t open. This led to a discussion as to whether we thought people would purchase things from the Bar Car in the morning, if it were open. And we weren’t directly referring to alcohol, though I am sure a few people out there would certainly consume it on the way to work. They could serve coffee and croissants and other breakfast type things.


Riding in the Bar Car is on my list of things to do before I die. But since the Bar Car will still be around for a while longer, I guess I don’t have to worry too much.

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1877 Newspaper Articles, The Death of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Articles from various newspapers, published on the 4th and 5th of January, 1877, after the death of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

From the Evening Gazette, in Port Jervis, NY:

From the Titusville Morning Herald:

From the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern:

An article describing the life and death of the Commodore took up several pages of the New York Times the day after his death is available for download here. (35MB File)

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“Who cares about the facts, as long as I report it first” & Thursday’s Subway Fatality

There is this sentiment in the news today, with the internet and all “competing” with the “real” news. That sentiment is “who cares about the facts, as long as I report it first”. And this sentiment sickens me. Seriously.

I have been having issues with my laptop charger, so I haven’t been on my computer quite as much this week. So I totally missed the other day’s story about the person getting killed by the 6 train at 77th Street. Maybe it was good I missed it. Maybe because the story was complete and utter bullshit. Check out the story on The New York Times‘ website, and read the comments. You will see something drastically different than what the story reports. Why? Because the story was changed as the “real” information came in.

Apparently the original story reported that a young girl was struck by the train. Not only that, witnesses report that the girl was possibly pushed off the platform, as students were horsing around. That is pretty fucked up. A person getting pushed? That is murder on the subway! But hey, guess what, that story was completely false. It is now reported that the person that was struck was not a child, but a forty-eight-year-old woman named Rose M. Mankos. And not only was she NOT pushed, the story now reports that she dropped her bag on the tracks, and JUMPED DOWN TO RETRIEVE IT. That on the other hand is NOT murder. That is complete and utter stupidity. I am so sorry, but that woman got what she deserved. You may call me heartless, but if you jump down on the tracks, you are an idiot.

People, never, never, NEVER go down on those damn tracks. Just don’t do it. Losing something on the tracks does happen. New York City Transit estimates that it happens perhaps twelve to fifteen times per day. If you do lose an item, you need to report it to a police officer or employee. There is an Emergency Response and Track Lubrication Division, and they respond to these events. Once the call is made, a track specialist responds and will retrieve the item. It may not happen instantaneously, and you may have to return later to pick up the item, but at least you will be safe. Life is worth more than whatever stupid possessions you may have dropped. You can buy a new iPod. But your poor family members (whom I am truly sorry for… having to identify that mangled mess of your daughter / sister in the morgue) can’t buy another you.

Note: This post has been edited, because I am a moron and wrote that this happened Friday, when in reality it occurred on Thursday. Talk about criticizing the “media,” hah! It has also been updated to reflect the response I got from NYCTSubwayScoop on Twitter regarding the procedure for retrieving a lost item.

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