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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Celebrating Grand Central Terminal’s Centennial: The 100 for 100 Project

Provided you haven’t been living under a rock recently, you may have heard that Grand Central Terminal’s Centennial is fast approaching. While Metro-North will be kicking off celebrations in February, I thought it would be more fun to get the party started now. That’s why I Ride the Harlem Line will be counting down the next 100 days to Grand Central’s Centennial with a historical photo of the Terminal. That’s right – 100 historical photos, posted one per day, for the next 100 days. I like to call it the Grand Central 100 for 100 Project. While there will, of course, be a few iconic photos in the mix that you’ve certainly seen before, I’m hoping that the majority of them you haven’t seen. It is a great way to visually explore the history of the Terminal, and to see Grand Central in a new light.

Grand Central is truly a monument of New York City. Not only is it functionally important – a great example of what a train station should be – it is architecturally significant, and paramount, an important precedent for historical preservation in the United States. Besides all that, Grand Central means a lot to me – and this is one of the few ways a lowly commuter interested in history such as myself can celebrate it. Grand Central, and its Centennial Committee, plan to hold their festivities on the first of February – which seems entirely appropriate – for the committee contains the rich, and the famous. Grand Central unofficially opened on the First of February in 1913 – not to the public, but to the rich and the famous. It was not until the gorgeous Information Booth clock’s hands moved to midnight, commencing the new day of February 2nd, that the Terminal opened to the public. Thus, February 2nd is the day that our project will be counting down to, one photo at a time.


A poster advertising Grand Central Terminal’s opening on February 2nd, 1913.

Our photographic countdown will be comprised of nine different topics, with the photos in each moving in a roughly chronological order. Posting a new photo on the blog every day doesn’t seem to be the best format in which to present these images – thus I’ve decided that the better place to post them all will be on social media. Facebook and Twitter are conducive to sharing – and I want you to share these photos. I want everyone to celebrate Grand Central and its 100th birthday – for it is our monument, not just a pretty building for the privileged.

Part 1: Construction of Grand Central Terminal
Thursday, October 25th

Part 2: Outside views, and the Changing Urban Landscape
Sunday, November 4th

Part 3: Waiting for the Train
Saturday, November 10th

Part 4: Trains in the Terminal
Sunday, November 18th

Part 5: Famous Faces
Friday, November 30th

Part 6: Around Grand Central
Sunday, December 9th

Part 7: The Main Concourse
Saturday, December 29th

Part 8: Noteworthy Events in the Terminal
Wednesday, January 9th

Part 9: Grand Central Terminal, Restored
Thursday, January 24th

So today, we begin. The first photo, and all subsequent photos, will be posted daily at 11 AM. Make sure to like or subscribe over on Facebook, or follow @mtaHarlemLine or the hashtag #100for100GCT on Twitter to see all the photos. There is also an unofficial countdown clock on the top of this site, which will link to the project photos, and count down to the centennial. We’ll also be celebrating with other Grand Central-themed posts over the span of the next hundred days, and will have something special on Grand Central’s birthday, February 2nd. Let the festivities begin!

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Ossining


Artifacts from Ossining: Postcard, a 1984 ticket stamped at Ossining, and an 1851 Hudson River Railroad timetable that lists the station as “Sing Sing.”

Welcome to Ossining – probably one of the most widely known locales on the Hudson Line. Unfortunately, it is one of the most well known for a particular landmark located here:


Everybody knows Sing Sing – Late 1800’s stereoview of the railroad tracks running through the prison.

Yes, Ossining is the home of Sing Sing prison, or as it is known now, the Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Dating back to the early 1800’s, the prison has been a longtime feature on the Hudson River, as well as along the railroad. The Hudson River Railroad tracks bisected the prison, and the tracks still pass through there today.


Photo of the railroad tracks going through Sing Sing Prison, circa 1920.

Even those that are not entirely familiar with Sing Sing have probably heard the phrase “sent up the river,” meaning sending someone to prison. Sing Sing is the origin of that phrase – as it is located right up the river from New York City. Interestingly enough, some prisoners weren’t quite sent up the river – they were sent up the railroad tracks. Since the prison was conveniently located right on the railroad, some prisoners were actually transported from the city via train.


Their nice attire belies their destination – the four seated men on the right are being “sent up the river” by train, circa 1932. Those four were set to die in Sing Sing’s electric chair for killing a police officer. In 1933 the men were granted a new trial, and I can’t find any record of them actually being executed. Assumedly prisoners were not carried on the same train/in the same car as normal passengers.

Ossining’s railroad station is located just north of the prison complex, and is about 30 miles from Grand Central. The station currently on site was built in 1914 in the Renaissance Revival style, replacing the original that was built in 1851. While the original station was at grade, the new station was built above the tracks. Main Street was also modified so it too would cross above the tracks, eliminating the grade crossing.

Just east of the station is the Hudson River, from which a ferry to Haverstraw operates.


The original station at Ossining, circa 1912. Photo from the Ossining Historical Society.

   

Various views of Ossining. Photos from the Ossining Historical Society.

Like many stations along the Hudson Line, Ossining has recently been fixed up by Metro-North. Some of the work at the station included seven brand new staircases, and four new elevators. Unfortunately during my visit (Ossining was actually the first station I photographed on the Hudson Line!) the station building was closed. The ticket windows are no longer manned, and Metro-North is looking for a tenant to occupy the space in the old station.


More postcards from Sing Sing, and Ossining station.

Before I wrap this up, one last detail to note about Ossining is that it also has some art. In 2010 a faceted-glass piece by abstract expressionist artist Robert Goodnough was installed through the Arts for Transit program. The piece, titled K—M—G, was originally created as a paper collage, and then translated into the finished glass. The work is comprised of 16 windows, all located in the station’s north overpass. All in all, it makes an attractive addition to a nice Hudson Line station.

  
  
   
  
 
  
 
  
   
  
 
 
 

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