Out of all the years I lived in New York City, I had never sat down at one of the finger-like counters at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. I'd walked in several times, but for some reason, it was always just to look. Not this time.
I'm on a quasi mission in life to try all the James Beard Foundation's restaurants listed as American's Classics, and the Grand Central Oyster Bar is one of them. But what makes it so classic? Why is it so special? What does "classic" really mean?
By their own definition, the JBF recognizes our nation's beloved regional restaurants, distinguished by their timeless appeal, serving quality food that reflects the character of their communities.
Let's go through these one by one.
Timelessness. Starting in 1913, the Oyster Bar opened its doors on the lower level of the infamous Grand Central Terminal, the one true portal to The City still in existence today. Year after year, decade after decade, it survived and inevitably thrived, serving a wide selection of oysters to a clientele ranging from commuting regulars to regulars on the cast of Saturday Night Live (You'll spot Colin Jost there in the opening credits).
Quality Food. The selection of oysters is as big as I've seen at any other restaurant I've been to, regardless of the part of the country. And every single oyster was fresh, tasting like it had come right out of the water. Other than shucking them right off the dock, I'm not sure how they could have been any better, any fresher.
Character of Their Communities. To me, this is the one that matters when it comes to the Oyster Bar. You see, our train got stuck a mere 300 yards for the platform at Grand Central, and my wife and I sat there for about an hour before finally making it back to the city. When we finally settled into our seats, there was no pretense, just a buffer between an annoying train delay and the excitement of a New York City Friday night. And this spot has served as that same sort of buffer to New Yorkers and visitors alike -- both coming and going -- for more than 100 years.
Character? Most certainly. After a few pints of Guinness and some fresh mollusks, we were ready to take on the world.