Grand Central Terminal at 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue in Manhattan is an icon of New York City Its vast public spaces are truly grand, inspiring, and unforgettable. The Oyster Bar & Restaurant, located on the lower level of Grand Central Terminal, is an icon within an icon. It is perhaps the most recognizable and beloved seafood eatery in the country. Starting in the 1960s when I was in high school, I happily dined there more times than I can remember, most recently this past summer.
A little history: What became the Oyster Bar was first opened as the Grand Central Terminal Restaurant. Although Grand Central Terminal officially opened on February 2, 1913, its opening was celebrated one day prior, February 1, with a dinner at the restaurant, arranged for more than 100 dignitaries and guests. Thus, the Oyster Bar has been part of GCT since the beginning. For more than a century it has been a convenient and popular restaurant option for folks passing through Grand Central via train, for visitors to the station, and for people working in the Midtown East area.
According to Wikipedia, Rafael Guastavino designed the Oyster Bar “[b]ased on the Catalan vault, he created the Guastavino tile, a ‘Tile Arch System’, patented in the United States in 1885, which was used for constructing robust, self-supporting arches and architectural vaults using interlocking terracotta tiles and layers of mortar. His work appears in numerous prominent projects designed by major architectural firms in New York and other cities of the Northeast. Guastavino tile is found in some of New York’s most prominent Beaux-Arts landmarks and in major buildings across the United States. It is also used in numerous architecturally important and famous buildings with vaulted spaces.”
His arched and vaulted ceilings covered in terracotta tiles became emblematic of the Oyster Bar experience.
In fact, the restaurant is famed as much for its unique architecture and location as for its food. Its prime location in the heart of a busy train terminal allowed the restaurant to flourish because of a constant customer stream, heavily patronized as it was and is by both locals and transients. The archway in front of the restaurant is also famous for an acoustical quirk making it a whispering gallery by which someone standing in one corner can hear someone standing in the opposite corner perfectly no matter how softly they speak.
This December 10, 2019 article extols the Oyster Bar’s endurance.
I’m a shameless collector of rail and airline menus as a memory of dining experiences, good and terrible when traveling, and so this summer I asked the Oyster Bar’s management if I could keep one of that day’s menu. The Oyster Bar prints new menus daily and dates them, as you can see from this photo:
Back home in Raleigh, I recently ran across a 1977 Oyster Bar menu which I kept during a period when I used to dine there often, the early days of the Carter administration. I lived in Munich and managed the European operations for a large NYC-based student charter flight company 1975-76. My job took me back periodically to New York for meetings, and I always dined at least once each visit at the wonderful Oyster Bar. On this occasion in 1977, I was in Manhattan to negotiate terms of an overdue bonus.
The very next year, in 1978, under Alfred Kahn’s leadership, Congress passed the airline deregulation act, enacted partly due to fear of an industry debacle like the Penn Central Railroad collapse. The thriving student charter flight industry that I had so deeply been part of vanished quickly thereafter, but it sure was fun and like the wild, wild West in 1975-77.
Forgive me, for I digress. Take a gander at the May, 1977 Oyster Bar menu and compare the prices between then and July, 2019, 42 years later. Note the basic menu style and format have changed very little in four decades. Still the big OYSTER MENU herald with three main columns announcing Appetizers, Raw Bar (oysters), and Today’s Catch. The same layout, but a vast difference in prices.
Wow, raw oysters then were 38, 42, 50, and 65 cents each (“Per Piece” on both menus), but now are $2.75 to $3.95 each. From cheapest then to most expensive now, that’s a difference of more than ten times. Even from most expensive then to least cost now, a difference of 5.5 times.
Raw clams have never been as popular as raw oysters, although I love clams almost as much. In 1977 Littlenecks went for 34 cents each and Cherrystones for 39 cents. Today both are priced at $2.15 apiece, 60 cents less than the cheapest 2019 oyster, or about 5.5 times more expensive than 1977.
Other items haven’t become that much more expensive. In 1977 lobsters were $8.65/pound, but have risen to $30.95 in 2019, only 3.4 times as costly. Lobsters have always been dear, even in season, as both these menus are.
Clam chowder—Manhattan or New England—has always been a mainstay. In 1977 a bowl was $1.25. Nowadays, the New England chowder will set you back $8.50, nearly seven times what it was then.
Maryland soft-shell crabs were $9.95 in 1977, compared to just $32.95 today, merely 3.3 times more.
Another menu staple, broiled Bluefish filet, has risen from $5.95 to $26.95, four and a half times as much. Bluefish still holds a top spot on the “Today’s Catch” list, too.
Broiled whole flounder went up more than bluefish at $29.95 today versus $4.95 then, a six-fold increase.
Like soft-shelled crabs and lobster, wild salmon was always expensive, with Columbia River King Salmon going for $9.50 in 1977 compared to Alaska Red King Salmon $34.95 in 2019, a price jump of 3.7 times.
In 1977 restaurateurs had not yet adopted the oxymoron “jumbo shrimp” cocktail, and thus the menu lists “shrimp cocktail” for $3.95. The “jumbo” shrimp cocktail on the contemporary menu goes for $22.05, making it 5.6 time most costly. Gotta wonder if that extra nickel on the peculiar price is a royalty payment to the marketing genius who came up with (and probably trademarked) the “jumbo” shrimp moniker.
On the back of the older menu the Oyster Bar impressively lists “American White Wines” in mostly single digit prices, though the David Bruce Chardonnay was $28.60. Apparently in 1977 management supposed Americans would drink only whites with seafood. No vintages at all, but note the stars for awards at various California wine fairs. A few champagnes appear, too.
The 2019 Oyster Bar wine menu is a separate book with expensive reds, whites, and Champagnes. The backside of the menu lists only beer and cocktails, with the usual mixed drink and spirits suspects. Personally, I liked the 1977 white wine list, and I would not have trouble finding a modern David Bruce Chard for $28-35, though I can’t comment on the quality compared to what the label was offering 42 years ago.
My wife and I enjoyed a bottle of a modest Cava with our feast at the Oyster Bar on July 18 of this year, yet even with a generous tip for the outstanding service, the bill came to just $188.14. That isn’t peanuts, but for fresh shellfish for two in a gorgeous bastion of Midtown Manhattan restaurants, including wine and service, not bad, not bad! Especially in such a beautiful setting. We can hardly wait for the next time.